MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Shoplifters, Front Runner, Nobody’s Fool, Peppermint Soda, Haunted Hospital, Valentine, Possum, Mermaid, Guilty, Antonio Lopez, 4 Weddings … More

No one makes movies about families any better than Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, whose Shoplifters was awarded the 2018 Palme d’Or at Cannes and subsequently was nominated in the Best Foreign Language category at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and BAFTA. If Roma had been released a year earlier or later, Shoplifters might have hit the cinematic equivalent of a grand-slam homerun. It’s every bit that good. To characterize it as a story about a family of small-type crooks – shoplifters, mostly – wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it misses what makes the made great. What made Earl Hamner  Jr.’s  “The Waltons” one of television’s most celebrated shows wasn’t its basic setup: “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, during the Great Depression, the Walton family makes its small income from its sawmill on Walton’s Mountain.” It doesn’t explain, for example, how Hamner found enough stories within that rather limited framework to be a household favorite for nine seasons. Each week, there would be a new and different point of entry for viewers in search of the show’s heart and soul. Likewise, Shoplifters’ appeal isn’t limited to a single character’s ability to survive on the fringes of Tokyo in an era when the skyrocketing economy has begun to fizzle and traditional ethics are being adjusted to fit the demands of Japan’s corporate juggernaut. Shoplifters feels very much like a modern-day retelling of “Oliver Twist,” if Fagin were on a daily regimen of sedatives, marijuana and and noodles.

As Shoplifters opens, we watch as Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son, Shota (Jyo Kairi) are in a busy grocery store, exchanging hand signals to coordinate a heist of everyday items. On the way home, they find a 5-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who appears to be locked out, lost or abandoned. Taking into account the frigid temperatures, Osamu decides to take the shivering and clearly famished girl home with them. Because the family of five is sharing – squatting, perhaps – a small two-room apartment, Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), reacts like most would do if their son or daughter brought home a stray puppy or kitten, and they wanted to incorporate it into the family. She tells them to return the girl to where she belongs. When it becomes clear that Yuri’s parents don’t have her best interests in mind – the marks on her arm are another dead giveaway – Nobuyo agrees to open their door to her. This inevitably leads to a beginner’s course in crime and how to escape arrest, with the other kids acting as teaching assistants. Yuri also learns not to take shoplifting as anything more than a means to an end. ( “The stuff in stores doesn’t belong to anyone, so we’re not stealing it,” Shota explains, before becoming the first family member to develop a conscience.) Towards the end of the movie, after Shota is injured attempting to divert a shopkeeper’s attention from Yuri, something happens to kindly Grandma Shibata that makes us look at her in a completely different way than we had previously. Shoplifters is of a piece with Koreeda’s previous gems, Like Father, Like Son (2013), Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016), all of which attempt to define “family” in the 21st Century.

The Front Runner
Just before Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart was outed as an adulterer in some of the same publications that ignored the misdeeds of JFK and LBJ, reporters were forced to take off their kid gloves. Political troglodytes U.S. Reps. Wilbur D. Mills and Wayne Hays forced their hand by reports of bartering jobs for sex (Hays) and carousing with a stripper (Mills) … at the time, Congress could have sponsored its own Alcoholics Anonymous  chapter. Hart might have gotten away with his tryst with Donna Rice, if he hadn’t challenged New York Times reporter E.J. Dionne (strangely absent in the film), “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” Even if Bill Clinton escaped impeachment and Donald Trump has been forgiven for justifying sexual assault on women and paying adult-film stars and models for sex, the rules for covering politicians changed with that single quote. As much as the public appears not to care about such shenanigans, the media can’t help itself from acting like America’s conscience. Jason Reitman’s political drama, The Front Runner does a nice job describing how reporters turned into pack animals in pursuit wounded prey. Hart (Hugh Jackman) had already been caught cheating on wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), and probably thought she was the only person whose punishment he deserved. By 1988, however, reporters influenced less by H.L. Mencken and Ralph McGill, than Woodward and Bernstein, coveted the fame and money that came with bringing down a corrupt president.

Reitman’s greatest success in The Front Runner comes in his Robert Altman/ensemble approach to depicting the press, which, then, was dominated by newspapers. He’s recruited some of Hollywood’s best and brightest character actors: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”), Josh Brener (“Silicon Valley”), Alfred Molina (Frida), John Bedford Lloyd (“Ozark”), Kevin Pollak (“Billions”), Ari Graynor (“I’m Dying Up Here”), Toby Huss (“Halt and Catch Fire”), Spencer Garrett (“Survivor’s Remorse”), Courtney Ford (“Dexter”) and Bill Burr (“Kroll Show”). His biggest mistake is not showing the self-incriminating front-page National Enquirer photo – or a replication of it – of Rice (Sara Paxton) sitting on Hart’s lap, because it demonstrated to every supermarket shopper a lapse in the candidate’s judgment that bordered on hubris. It’s unforgettable. The only thing that Jackman lacks in his portrayal of Hart is the dopey joy that can be seen in the smile that comes when 50-plus guy is hooking up with a blond model/actress/pill-pusher 20 years his junior. (Worse, he was wearing a “Monkey Business Crew” shirt.) As Lee Hart, Farmiga is the emotional center of The Front Runner, as she was in the post-tryst coverage. In effect, she became the archetype for every wife who would stand by their celebrity husband after he’s caught with his pants down. (At least once, again, during their two separations.) The Front Runner might also have enjoyed a jolt of electricity, if its writers had figured out a way to inject the conspiracy theory begun by the late Republican prankster Lee Atwater before he died. He said he arranged the whole “affair,” using Hart’s reputation as a womanizer as bait for a ravenous press. Hart and Rice both have denied having sex, so, as unlikely as it sounds, it might have happened that way. (Reporters on a stakeout of Hart’s Washington townhouse were unaware of the back entrance she could have used as an early escape route.) The Blu-ray includes a commentary track, three deleted scenes and the featurette, “The Unmaking of a Candidate.”

Nobody’s Fool: Blu-ray
No filmmaker knows what his audience wants better than Tyler Perry or gets criticized as much for giving it to them. And, not just by white and black critics, either. He’s taken heat from Spike Lee, who, in 2009, described his “stuff” as “coonery buffoonery.” Also, in 2009, journalist and radio executive Jamilah Lemieux thanked Perry for “giving black folks jobs in front of and behind the camera,” while criticizing his sitcoms, “Meet the Browns” and “House of Payne,” which, she said, “are marked by old stereotypes of buffoonish, emasculated black men and crass, sassy black women.” That might not have put Perry in the same league as Jerry Lewis, who was roasted for advancing the same sorts of stereotypes. It wasn’t until French critics reminded American critics of Lewis’ ability to make comedies that audiences loved that they started reassessing . Perry’s career began on the stages of the “chitlin’ circuit,” where his self-financed plays combined extremely broad humor, with Christian themes and moralistic narratives. Perry’s earliest movies were little more than plays and musicals captured  on film. They made him very wealthy, as well as a force with which to be reckoned in Hollywood, as well as his home base, Atlanta, whose citizens benefited mightily from his productions. He’s never forgotten the characters – Madea, the Browns, the Paynes — that got his ball rolling, either. In Adam McKay’s multi-nominated political dramedy, Vice, he plays Colin Powell; in Star, he voiced one of the camels belonging to the Maji; a newspaper editor, in Brain on Fire; a mad scientist, TMNT: Out of the Shadows; the titular police detective, in Alex Cross; and an attorney, in Gone Girl. In the same seven-year period, Perry portrayed his bread-and-butter character, Madea, 10 times.

By all the usual standards, Nobody’s Fool isn’t a film that ever was going to compete for top industry awards or impress critics … and, it didn’t. It plays to Perry’s base, even without forcing Madea into places she doesn’t belongs. And, as his third R-rated movie, viewers probably didn’t expect to find much in the way of Christian witnessing or moralizing. Instead, Nobody’s Fool is a romantic urban dramedy about opposites failing to attract and not recognizing the right mate when he’s standing right in front of the protagonist. The biggest laughs derive from the forced reunion between Danica (Tika Sumpter) and Tanya  (Tiffany Haddish), who have nothing in common, besides their mother, Lola (Whoopi Goldberg). Lola still hasn’t reconciled with Tanya, after she stole her toaster and used the money to purchase drugs. She isn’t about to welcome her back home, after she’s released from prison on parole. Danica does very well for herself as a marketing executive. It doesn’t take long for her to figure out that Tanya has spent her time in stir, learning out to be a better gangsta’. She has no more business moving into her sister’s luxurious high-rise apartment than any other ex-con who thinks that the world owes her a living. Perry allows Tanya to overwhelm Danica in every scene they share. And, it’s at this point that Perry decided to throw the kitchen sink into the mix. When Danica describes her love life to Tanya, she immediately raises the possibility that she’s being catfished by an Internet troll, who she’s never met in person. The next morning, Tanya meets the other man in her sister’s life, Frank (Omari Hardwick), a coffee-shop owner who offers her a job based on her ability to fix the cappuccino machine. Frank want Danica to fall in love with him – so do we – but the invisible Charlie always gets in the way. If that weren’t enough, Danica runs into her ex-fiancé, accompanied by new bride-to-be, at the coffee shop, and Tanya has to be restrained from beating the crap out of them. Hadish and Amber Riley, as Danica’s best friend, deliver the laughs to the mess, as does Chris Rock in a delicious cameo. The Blu-ray adds an introduction by Perry and Haddish; 20 minutes of deleted, extended and alternate scenes; a gag reel; nine making-of featurettes; and two faux commercials.

Peppermint Soda: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s seen Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933) and Francois Truffaut’s debut, The 400 Blows (1959 ), both classics, will recognize a lot of what happens in them in Diane Kurys and Cohen Media’s disarming Peppermint Soda (1977). I wouldn’t be averse to throwing in Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) or Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle (1955), either, although they might be a stretch. Like these pictures, Peppermint Soda captures particular moments in  the development of young people anxious to enter the world of adults, but reluctant to abandon the absence of responsibility and self-denial that comes with turning 18. In it, Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and Frederique (Odile Michel) are sisters entering a new school year at their strict all-girls high school. They’ve just been put on a train to Paris, after spending the summer on the Normandy coast with their father. The older sibling, Frederique, has used the time learning all the secrets of being a young woman, capable of enjoying sex, cigarettes, boys and adult fashions. She thinks she knows what’s wrong in the world and is willing to be swayed by slightly older kids who are convinced they know how to change it. That usually means being able to shout over anyone whose religion and political views differ from their own. France is still dealing with repercussions from its withdrawal from Algeria and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the ban-the-bomb movement is spreading from its British roots. At 13, Anne knows that this is the year she’ll enter puberty, begin standing up to her mother and that mischievous behavior won’t be tolerated by parents and teachers.

Kurys invested a lot of personal memories into Peppermint Soda (a.k.a., “Diabolo Menthe”), including her difficult relationship with her parents, who divorced when she was a child, and uneasy feelings toward her sister. She returned to the same school she attended in her teens. It’s in these classrooms that we watch sweet young girls behave in the same disorderly way as the boys in The 400 Blows and Zero for Conduct. From Day One, they make life miserable – and teaching impossible – for educators who’ve already dismissed them as incorrigible ingrates. In a hurry to grow up fast, Anne cribs a paper prepared by her sister when she was in the same grade. She also endures the wrath of her mother and sister for the sin of putting pantyhose over her skinny legs after school. Neither does Frederique approve when Anne begins to hang out in her favorite café and drink her trademark beverage, a carbonated “non-potent potable” made using seltzer and peppermint. Kurys doesn’t forget the parents, who are going through changes of their own, while attempting to demonstrate their devotion to the girls in their own ways. By assuming that they’re going to get through high school and college alright – despite Anne’s grades, which have taken a nosedive – Peppermint Soda can be enjoyed as the kind of coming-of-age movie that moms and daughters might want to share. The Cohen Film Collection presentation takes advantage of a new 2K restoration, adding lengthy interviews with Kurys, Eleonore Klairwen and composer Yves Simon, who contributed the movie’s irresistibly poppy theme song, and a scrapbook.

Audition: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Purgatory Road: Blu-ray
Ever since coming across Sean Harris’ peculiarly spastic portrayal of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, in 24 Hour Party People (2002), I’ve begun thinking of him as the second coming of Anthony Perkins. Although he was best known for his disturbing take on Norman Bates, in Psycho (1960), he continued to give audiences shivers for the next 32 years of his life. And, he didn’t have to rely on much in the way of makeup or other special effects. On screen, at least, Perkins was creepy from the word, “go.” After 24 Hour Party People, Harris was assigned a series of genre flicks, with single-word titles: Trauma, Creep, Asylum, Outlaw, Isolation and Saxon. Beginning in 2009, however, Harris would begin to land such meaty roles as Detective Superintendent Bob Craven, in the “Red Riding Trilogy”; Micheletto Corella, Cesare Borgia’s henchmen in “The Borgia”; and, most prominent of all, Solomon Lane in Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation/Fallout. To each character, Harris has added a sharp, perceptible edge. In Matthew Holness’ debut feature, Possum –the title derives from a sinister children’s rhyme – he plays a seriously damaged young man, Philip, who, before trying his luck as puppeteer, lost his parents in a mysterious fire at their isolated rural property. He was handed over to his cruel “uncle,” Maurice (Alun Armstrong), who’s either a retired or active pervert. The old sot enjoys taunting Philip about his failed career and loss of his parents, What’s really scary here, though, is the puppet he carries in a leather satchel and appears to have a mind of its own. The nightmarish creature resembles a long-legged spider, wearing a white death-head mask. As hard as Philip tries to eliminate the puppet from his life, the more difficult it becomes, sometimes returning to his bedroom before he does. Is it a manifestation of a too vivid imagination or something that emerged from one of his dreams and never returned? At the same time, police are searching for a missing boy, last seen in Philip’s vicinity. The puppet may not present a threat to viewers, like some movie monsters, but its relationship to Philip is guaranteed to trigger the heebie-jeebies. At 85 minutes, Possum could have benefitted from another 5-10 minutes of background information. The Blu-ray adds several good interviews with Holness, Harris, Armstrong and the puppeteer.

I’ll admit to being totally creeped out by Audition, Takashi Miike’s calling card to the world outside Japan. I had no idea what to expect, when I discovered a VHS copy of the film in a pile of cassettes in the judges’ room at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, which limited entries to 40 minutes, credits included. At 113 minutes, it couldn’t be shown in competition, so, perhaps, it was left there as a challenge to critics and filmmakers to find their individual breaking points. It wouldn’t be the first time that Audition would be used as a test of courage among horror buffs who thought they’d seen everything. At least, they’d found a point of reference by the time Audition opened in New York, nearly two years after its debut at the Vancouver International Film Festival. (Its DVD release came six months later.) American audiences had already embraced such J-horror hits as Ringu (“Ring”), Ringu 2, Tetsuo (“Tetsuo: The Iron Man”) and Sôseiji (“Gemini”). There simply are too many things going on in Audition to craft a spoiler-free encapsulation. Let’s see how this works: recent widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a television producer, who is urged by his son to find happiness with a new wife. Having been out of the dating scene for many years, Aoyama seeks the advice of a colleague, who works at the same production studio. They decide to stage an audition, at which the female candidates will be led to believe that they’re being given a screen test. Instead, Shigeharu is only interested in finding a mate or companion. The woman he selects, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiinahe), isn’t who she appears to be, either. After a satisfying weekend “date” at a seaside hotel, the former ballerina mysteriously disappears into one of her many lies, this one involving a large sack in her apartment that contains … let’s stop there. Audition has been lauded by Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie. Eli Roth was so influenced by it that he invited Miike to make a cameo appearance in Hostel, as a satisfied customer of the kidnappers, who let customers torture their victims. Although Audition has been lumped together with such progenitors of “torture porn” as Saw, The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, Baise-moi and Miike’s own, Ichi the Killer, it makes its points by manipulating the audience’s intellectual curiosity and their deepest fears. I won’t say that the violence isn’t off-putting, but viewers already familiar with the film probably can leave their barf bags at home, this time around. Arrow’s “Special Edition” is enhanced by a fresh 2K restoration of original vault elements; commentary with Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan; new commentary by Miike biographer Tom Mes, examining the film and its source novel; an introduction by the director and new interview, “Ties That Bind”; interviews with Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Renji Ishibashi and Ren Osugi; “Damaged Romance,” an appreciation by Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Anton Bitel.

Our February creep-a-thon continues with Mark Savage’s low-budget splatter/thriller, Purgatory Road, whose protagonist is a defrocked Catholic priest. Father Vincent (Gary Cairns) ministers to his backwoods Mississippi flock from a restored food van, equipped with a mobile confessional. (I doubt that many rural Mississippians would allow their taxpayer-funded roads to be used to advance papist propaganda.) As a boy, Vincent stood by helpless as a female burglar stole his father’s life savings from his desk. Neither was he able to prevent his dad from committing suicide, immediately thereafter. Two decades later, he and his brother are still wracked with guilt. Vincent wants everyone to go to heaven with an untarnished soul, and the easiest way for that to happen is to hear the confessions of the lost sheep he lures into the van and kill them, especially if he sensed they were thieves. After killing them, Vincent and his brother would find an out-of-the-way place to slaughter them. Before long, they’re joined by a footloose avenging angel, Mary Francis (Trista Robinson), who’s thirsty for blood and wants to drive a wedge between the brothers. Anyone whose stomach churns at the sight of blood and viscera – however faux it may be – may want to take a pass on Purgatory Road. They certainly won’t see the dark humor hidden in the shadows. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and Savage’s commentary.

Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten: Blu-ray
Stop me if you’ve heard this one, before. A group of vloggers illegally accesses a condemned TB sanitarium for a “Will You Survive the Night” social-media challenge. Equipped with night vision and thermal cameras, the adolescent adrenaline junkies chase rumors of paranormal activity and leftover horrors from the Third Reich, when patients were known to have been tortured. (There’s speculation that Adolph Hitler convalesced at Heilstätten after the end of the first world war.) Naturally, the interlopers will quickly learn that they’re not alone and not at all welcome. There’s only two ways these found-footage thrillers tend to end, one with a surprise and the other with buckets full of blood and gore. Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten splits the difference between them. While the climax isn’t bad, a lot of viewers probably will have been driven away by the clichéd chase through the hospital’s caverns, tunnels and operating rooms, where the ghosts of former patients still linger. Anyone who likes jump scares, accompanied by shockingly loud bursts of noise, probably will enjoy the whole thing. There’s an English-language dub track, but stick to the German.

Valentine: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
After Scream (1996), Scream 2 (1997), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legend (1998) effectively resurrected the slasher/horror genre, which wore out its welcome in the late 1980s,  several movies went back to the template created for Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). They  did so, even knowing that Scream had revealed the secret formula that made them popular. Watch Scream Factory’s “Collector’s Edition” of Valentine (2001) today and you might think someone was trying to re-invent the wheel, without knowing what to do with it. Jamie Blanks, who’d already scored with Urban Legend, embedded in Valentine a credible origin story and recognizable antagonist; several beautiful young actresses for a masked killer to pursue; a few interesting ways to kill them; and a “final girl” we don’t want to see die. What his movie lacked, however, was anything new and different. At a Valentine’s Day hop, junior-high dweeb Jeremy (Joel Palmer) asks several girls to dance and is rudely shot down each time, even by the one girl, Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw), who agrees to join him. Like an angel of mercy, she even encourages him to sneak around the gym’s bleachers and engage in some light necking. In doing so, she becomes a target for the bullies taunting Jeremy. Instead of ignoring the boys or giving them the finger, Dorothy accuses the outcast of forcing himself on her. That’s all the excuse they need to spill the contents of a punch bowl on him and pummel him with their fists and feet. Flash forward a few years and the “popular” clique no longer has a hold on all the eligible girls, even though they’re still appealing physically. With another Valentine’s Day dance just around the corner, no one in the audience should be surprised when a ninja-like creeper, wearing a doll’s mask, shows up to exact his revenge. Or, does he? When the bodies begin to fall, the no-longer-girls are told by a police detective not to expect the villain to resemble anyone from the pictures in their yearbook. In other words, everyone’s a suspect, even one of the women. This includes characters played by Capshaw, Denise Richards, Jessica Cauffiel, Katherine Heigl, Marley Shelton and Hedy Burress, as well as Daniel Cosgrove, David Boreanaz, Johnny Whitworth and Adam J. Harrington. There’s a trick ending that some viewers will consider worth the wait. As is sometimes the case with Scream and Arrow upgrades, the bonus package is worth the price of an admission. Along with a nice, clean 2K scan of the original film elements — supervised by Blanks and DP Rick Bota – there’s fresh  commentary with Blanks and filmmaker Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), moderated by author Peter Bracke; new interviews with Richards, Shelton, Cauffiel, co-writers Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts, editor Steve Mirkovich, composer Don Davis; almost two hours of unseen footage from Blanks’ personal archive; Blanks’ commentary; a vintage making-of featurette, with cast and crew; extended interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from the EPK; deleted scenes, including extended death scenes; music video; stills gallery; and hidden Easter egg.

Horror Express: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In poker terms, the pairings of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas represents a set to draw to … three of a kind that could be converted into a difficult-to-beat full house or four of a kind. Cushing and Lee had already made their bones as staples of Hammer Horror releases, while Savalas was cooling his heels in Europe, with other American character actors, turning spaghetti into gold. A year after he paired with Cushing and Lee on Horror Express, in Madrid, Savalas would become an instant pop-culture icon, with “Kojak.” So, in hindsight, Savalas’ presence as the Cossack officer in Horror Express is even more of a draw today than when it was released. He had worked with director Eugenio Martín on the Spanish spaghetti Western, Pancho Villa, whose train cars were repurposed for Horror Express. (Savalas also sang the title song.) Otherwise, the plot leaves little to the imagination. Renowned anthropologist Saxton (Lee) boards the Trans-Siberian Express with a crate containing the frozen remains of a primitive humanoid, which, he discovered in a Manchurian cave. All around the crate, people begin to die in heinous ways. Sci-fi merges with horror when scientists figure out the creature’s alien origins and ability to shift shapes and resurrect the dead, as zombies. If Horror Express sounds confusing, that’s only because it is … in a good way. The claustrophobic setting clearly helps. The Arrow Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K restoration from original film elements; fresh commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman; an introduction to the film by film journalist and Horror Express superfan Chris Alexander; an interview with director Eugenio Martin; notes from blacklisted producer Bernard Gordon, on working in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era; “Telly and Me,” an interview with composer John Cacavas (“Kojak”); reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and, first printing only, a fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by Adam Scovell.

American Nightmares
Co-writers/producers/directors Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott have previously collaborated on such movies, TV shows and anthologies as Tales from the Hood 2 (1995), Fear of a Black Hat (1993) and Sprung (1997). Before they decided to stick with the title, American Nightmares, it was known as “Mr. Malevolent” and “Tales of the Crib.”  Once again, Danny Trejo lends his name and probably a day’s worth of his time to a project that wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of breaking through the DVD clutter without them. Along with Nichelle Nichols (“Star Trek”), Trejo’s job here is to introduce seven uneven parables of interest to computer-savvy viewers, who don’t mind a bit of progressive posturing with their horror. Essentially, he plays the Crypt-Keeper role here, as Mr. Malevolent, who torments a pair of webcam hackers by taking over their monitors and forcing them to watch several stories of criminal and supernatural design. Among the other recognizable faces are Clarence Williams III (“Mod Squad”), Eddie Steeples (“My Name Is Earl”), Kate Butler (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Vivica A. Fox (“Empire”), Noel Gugliemi (“Fresh Off the Boat”), Tamala Jones (“Castle”), Jay Mohr (“Suburgatory”) and Chris Kattan (“SNL”). The sketches may not represent the actors’ best work, but the cast’s overall diversity is worth the price of a rental, anyway.

The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead: Blu-ray
Just two weeks ahead of the 30th-anniversary release of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, on 4K UHD, comes Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy’s The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead. The only thing connecting the two, however, are the words “The” and “Mermaid.” You guessed that already, however. Moreover, because she doesn’t have a tail or fins – and inhabits a freshwater lake — the titular figure is no more a mermaid than Nemo, even if they both live in water. For the sake of this summary, though, let’s agree that Sofia Shidlovskaya’s character is a mermaid, also known as Lisa Grigorieva, who’s more of a shape-shifting water nymph or succubus. The film’s plot derives from a Russian legend, which stipulates that drowned unwed girls are transformed into evil mermaids lurking in rivers and lakes. At night, they seduce men with their singing, and lure them to the bottom of the lake, where they become guards, protecting the mermaids. As the picture opens, a young couple sits on a pier at their lakeside cottage. When a mermaid summons the husband to her underwater lair, his wife sacrifices her life to save him. Skip forward another 20 years and the man’s son, Roma, has been given the keys to the cottage by his demented father. He agrees to invite a group of friends to the lake for a bachelor party and housewarming. Before the strippers can take off their bras, however, Roma is drawn to the siren’s song and walks toward the lake, where he begins to understand what happened to his mother. I’ll end the encapsulation here, because, 1) the plot is too convoluted to explain, and 2) spoilers await at every turn in the plot. Roma’s fiancé, Marina (Viktoriya Agalakova), puts herself in harm’s way, as well, when she returns to cabin and battles the mermaid for Roma’s heart and soul. The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead is a lot more intense and captivating than most summaries I’ve read make it seem. The underwater scenes are enthralling, and the special makeup effects are genuinely scary. The dubbing didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t think of listening to the Russian track, but maybe I’ll go back to the lake and do so.

The Guilty: Blu-ray
In 1958, while working as an advertising copywriter in Chicago, Bob Newhart and a co-worker entertained each other with long telephone chats about absurd scenarios, which they later recorded and sent to radio stations as audition tapes. When his co-worker ended his participation, Newhart continued to record one-sided conversations with unseen characters, ranging from Abraham Lincoln and the Wright Brothers, to a nervous driving instructor. His 1960 comedy album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” was the first to make No. 1 on the Billboard charts. (My dad brought home a copy and I wore it out.) On “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” aspiring standup Joel Maisel, steals Newhart’s classic “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” and Lenny Bruce’s delivery, in his comedy debut at the Gaslight. The only similarity between Newhart and the emergency dispatcher in Gustav Möller’s intense debut feature, The Guilty, is the headset worn by the Danish protagonist and cellphones used by a killer’s captives. Near the end of his shift, Jakob Cedergren’s troubled cop, Asger Holm, catches the kind of call that could redeem or destroy him. The ordeal begins with a call from a woman afraid of being kidnapped and slain for reasons unknown. She hangs up just as something significant is about to happen. Soon, Asger will begin playing phone tag with children who’ve either witnessed the brutal murder of a sibling or imagined it. He sticks with the callers well into the next shift, hoping to control the situation from afar, before he faces his own day of reckoning in a Copenhagen courtroom. Part of what makes The Guilty so effective is Möller’s decision to restrict the drama to two rooms in police headquarters, with the thermostat ratcheted to high. The Guilty, which debuted at last year’s Sundance festival, reminded me of such claustrophobic thrillers as Amariah and Obin Olson’s Operator (2015), Steven Knight’s Locke (2013), Halle Berry’s 911 operator in The Call , Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Booth (2005) and Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2002).

Among Wolves
As one of the bikers and former paramilitary fighters we meet in Among Wolves reminds viewers, the Bosnian War may have ended nearly 25 years ago, but its horrors continue to reverberate throughout the country’s mountains, canyons, pastures and tiny villages. He could have  been reciting lyrics from “Turn, Turn, Turn”: “To every thing there is a season … A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up/A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. …” In other words, if everyone involved in the terrible conflict did terrible things, in defense of their country and homes, when can these men expect to be reimbursed with jobs and gratitude? These veterans continue to serve their communities by doing good deeds and having some fun while they’re at it. This uncommon motorcycle gang, the Wolves, which wouldn’t look out of place cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway in Hell’s Angels colors, is committed to non-violence, promoting charities and defending the threatened herd of wild horses they first met on the front lines. It’s only when one of the men reminisces about training his cannon fire on Serbian soldiers, playing soccer, from high atop a craggy peak, that viewers are reminded of the savagery that masqueraded for war. Shawn Convey and Martin Lagner’s cinematography argues against the notion that God was on the side of anyone who would desecrate His splendor with religion-based tyranny.

Narcissister: Organ Player
Against the backdrop of her provocative and inventive performance art, Narcissister reflects on the personal impact of her mother’s illness and death. If she hadn’t appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” it would be difficult to describe how the Brooklyn-based feminist — born of Moroccan Jewish and African-American descent – expresses her opinions on gender, racial identity and sexuality. In Narcissister: Organ Player, the ever-masked, topless and frequently merkined artist uses a gigantic, interactive mannequin to interpret the pain, sloppiness and grandeur of insemination, birth and growing up different in a society that rewards conformity and punishes originality. That said, Narcissister is completely different than anything most viewers have ever seen. Bonus features include two deleted scenes.

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco
As wonderfully influential as fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez’ work proved to be, at a pivotal point in the transition from haute couture to prêt-à-porter, James Crump’s Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco frequently wallows in the divine decadence that characterized the demi-monde in the heady days before AIDS began to take its toll. The documentary is a veritable time capsule of Paris and New York, between 1969 and 1973. A native of Puerto Rico, raised in the Bronx, Lopez was a seductive arbiter of style and glamour, who was hailed for bridging elements of funky urban street wear and a postwar fashion world desperate for change and diversity. Counted among Antonio’s discoveries were such iconic beauties as Grace Jones, Jessica Lange, Jerry Hall and Warhol superstars Donna Jordan, Jane Forth and Patti D’Arbanville. Antonio’s inner circle was also comprised of his romantic and creative partner, Juan Ramos, makeup artist Corey Tippin, photographer Bill Cunningham and rival designers Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint-Laurent. What some fans of such things might take from the film is the by-now fatuous exaltation of the beautiful people who lived to party and leech off people more wealthy and successful than they were. On the downside, if I see one more fawning film that worships at the altar of Andy Warhol’s Factory, without pointing out the casualties, I think I’ll puke. And, Jerry Hall as a blond angel from Texas … puhleeze. Bonus features include archival footage; excerpts from the Bill Cunningham interview; and the short film, “You Can’t Do Everything at Once, But You Can Leave Everything at Once.”

Four Weddings and a Funeral: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If Richard Curtis was only famous outside the UK for writing The Black Adder, Love Actually, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, his fame would be well-earned. That he’s created so many other wonderful entertainments is icing on his cake. Like “I Love Lucy,” “Gilligan’s Island” and “Bonanza,” Love Actually plays on an endless rotation on cable stations around globe. On its silver anniversary, Four Weddings and a Funeral is only slightly less visible. Let’s cut to the chase. This edition’s special features include a 4K remaster struck from the original camera negative; a new interview with DP Michael Coulter, “The Wedding Photographer”; commentary with director Mike Newell, producer Duncan Kenworthy and Curtis; “The Wedding Planners” documentary; featurettes “Four Weddings and a funeral … In the Making” and “Two Actors and a Director”; deleted scenes; and promotional material.

The Poison Ivy Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when the #MeToo movement continues to add notches to its pistol, the release of  “The Poison Ivy Collection” reminds us of a series of R-rated films that found something titillating in the seduction of older men by teenage girls. When the four films were released, hardly anyone saw anything wrong with movies whose life spans would include endless airings on Cinemax. The first three entries in the series — Poison Ivy (1992), Poison Ivy 2: Lily (1996), Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (1997) — deal with the implications of an emotionally neglected, sexually assertive young woman’s fascination with her best friend’s father, and how her desire for him affects multiple individuals who fall under her influence. The fourth made-for-TV film, Poison Ivy:The Secret Society (2008), is only thematically linked to the first three, dealing with a secret society of young women dedicated to obtaining control over powerful men through seduction. Katt Shea’s Poison Ivy received critical acclaim at the Sundance Festival and developed a cult status through word-of-mouth marketing. At 17, Drew Barrymore’s incendiary performance didn’t hurt, either. The next two films were released direct-to-video and received a generally negative reception.

Band vs Brand
I doubt that anyone born after the breakup of the Beatles would be surprised to learn that band logos have a much longer shelf life than the musicians in the groups they represent. Fleetwood Mac is more popular today than when its first album was released in 1968, but only two of its original members remain with the band today. Christine McVie has been on all of Mac’s albums, except the first one. Like the Rolling Stones, the group’s original focus shifted long ago from classic American blues to original material. On its last album, “Blue & Lonesome” (2016), only Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts are still around to participate in the band’s return to the Chicago Blues. After the Beatles dissolved, the members carried on separately in differently named ensembles. Jefferson Airplane decided that its fans would get behind Jefferson Starship, no matter the names and lineup changes. This sort of chicanery didn’t begin with the birth of rock ’n’ roll, either. Even if the last original member of the Platters, Herb Reed, died in 2012, you can catch the most recent incarnation this week on its tour through the South. The Glenn Miller Orchestra has outlived its namesake by more than 70 years, after his plane crash landed in the English Channel in WWII. As is frequently pointed out in Bob Nalbandian’s thoroughly researched Band vs Brand, no matter who owns a band name, logo and library, the songs belong to those who love them. The doc explains how these things work, from the point of view of “classic rock” stars of yore — David Ellefson (Megadeth), Jack Russell (Jack Russell’s Great White), Nik Turner (Hawkwind), Nicky Garrett (UK Subs), Dave Lombardo (Slayer/Suicidal Tendencies), Marc Ferrari, Adam Parsons, Frank DiMino (Angel) – and in the digital/streaming era. No one who aspires to rock stardom should miss it.

Norm of the North: Keys to the Kingdom
If the sequel to Norm of the North (2016) looks to parents as if it’s two short animated films stitched together at the middle, they’d be right. Although the entire film is credited as Keys to the Kingdom, it tells two separate stories, both commissioned by Splash Entertainment for distribution by Lionsgate. The second half would have been called “The Arctic All-Stars.” Lionsgate decided to give it a limited theatrical release at the last minute. Norm, the newly crowned king of the North, travels to New York to accept the keys to the city. But Norm goes from hero to villain when he’s framed for a crime he didn’t commit. While he is trying to clear his good name, back in the Arctic a vicious bottled-water company has moved in and is starting to steal the ice. Norm must rely on his friends, both old and new, to clear his good name and help save his kingdom in a winner-take-all hockey match. Co-directors Richard Finn and Tim Maltby, with writer Dean Stefan, are already commissioned to produce the animated feature “Norm of the North: King Sized Adventure.” Anthony Bell (The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania!) is working on “Norm of the North: Family Vacation.” Someone is making money somewhere from the Dove-approved franchise.

PBS: American Experience: The Swamp
PBS: Frontline: Documenting Hate
PBS: Sesame Street: Celebrate Family
If any further proof were needed to confirm Florida’s status as the greediest and least environmentally concerned state in the union isn’t paying attention. It began when venture capitalists began draining the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee to make room for new farmland and housing, and it continues today as legislators ignore warnings about global warming. PBS’ “American Experience: The Swamp” chronicles how what passes for humanity in Florida has worked feverishly to turn God’s gift to mankind into profit centers. “The Swamp,” told through the lives of a handful of colorful and resolute characters, explores the repeated efforts to reclaim, control and transform what was seen as a vast wasteland into an agricultural and urban paradise, and, ultimately, drive the Seminoles from their homelands. Each time, the native alligators, snakes and occasional hurricane have conspired to reclaim Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ “River of Grass.” At the same time, the film introduces us to several generations of native ecologists, who’ve forced pinhead politicians to create parks and refuges, instead of golf courses.

Far more than vampires and zombies, the rise of extreme right-wing hate groups may turn out to be America’s greatest threat. Thanks, in part, to President Trump’s not-so-tacit endorsement of attacks on Jews, Arabs, blacks and protesters – and the Internet’s coconut telegraph — white supremacists and neo-Nazis have never felt as emboldened as they do today. PBS’ two-pronged “Frontline: Documenting Hate” – “Charlottesville,” “American Nazis” – digs deeper into the subject than most police departments and federal crimefighting agencies. Richard Rowley’s investigations, with ProPublica, expose a neo-Nazi group that has actively recruited inside the U.S. military, as well as how the group’s terrorist objectives helped them gain strength after the 2017 Charlottesville rally.

PBS’ “Sesame Street: Celebrate Family” is comprised of five stories suitable family engagements and party planning. From “Sesame Street! First,” Abby’s family has dinner at Elmo’s house, where she learns that different families can have fun working together to make a meal; then, “Cookie Monster” realizes he’s forgotten a gift for his mommy for Mother’s Day; for “Father’s Day,” Rosita wants to make a video for her dad, but she needs some help from her friends. Next, we meet Rudy, Abby’s new stepbrother, and finally, Hooper’s Store is throwing a special party for kids and their grandparents.

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2 Responses to “The DVD Wrapup: Shoplifters, Front Runner, Nobody’s Fool, Peppermint Soda, Haunted Hospital, Valentine, Possum, Mermaid, Guilty, Antonio Lopez, 4 Weddings … More”

  1. gwehan says:

    I don’t agree.


  2. Gary Dretzka says:

    with what?


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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