MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Spider’s Web, Maquia, Cloverfield, No Date, Free Lunch, Possessed, Road House 2, Dolphins, Poetic Justice, Human 3.0 … More  

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: Blu-ray
If ever a literary franchise looked as if it could equal its success at the international box office, it was Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, from which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest were created. The Swedish-language series began OK, but it petered out in the second and third installments. David Fincher and Steven Zaillian’s English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might have made a few dollars, as well, but not enough to get Columbia/Sony/MGM to commit another nearly $100 million, each, on sequels that already have failed in the marketplace. Why Larsson’s dark and edgy protagonist, Lisbeth Salander – portrayed equally well by Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara – couldn’t sell as many tickets as books is one of those questions without answers that vex box-office prognosticators. Most of them chalked it up to the audience’s unwillingness to embrace a female hero, in general, and a character who didn’t resemble Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson, specifically. In an article for Queen’s Quarterly, Jennie Punter characterized Salander as a “diminutive, flat-chested, chain-smoking, tattoo-adorned, anti-social, bisexual, genius computer hacker,” albeit “one of the most compelling characters in recent popular fiction.” A Bond girl, she’s not. In the only interview he ever gave about the series, Larsson said he based the character on how Pippi Longstocking might have turned out, as an adult. He also credited his rebellious teenage niece, Therese, for Salander’s goth look. She often wore black clothing and dark makeup, and told Larsson several times that she wanted to get a tattoo of a dragon. Apparently, he often e-mailed Therese to ask her about her life and how she would react in certain situations. From small seeds, big things sometimes grow.

After Larsson’s untimely death, in 2004, Swedish author/journalist David Lagercrantz was handed the reins to the Millennium series by the writer’s estate. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” was published in 2015, with “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye” following two years later. Although both books did well, I doubt that any studio will ever take a stab at “Millennium 5.” That’s because the fourth installment, The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story only recovered $35 million of its production budget of a reported $43 million. In an interview included in the bonus package, producer Elizabeth Cantillon says that the protagonist in her predecessors had targeted the wrong audiences. While readers of crime thrillers had no problem with a female protagonist who was as complex, devious and hard-boiled as any of her male peers. Cantillon believes that audiences wanted Salander to be a female James Bond. The problem here, of course, is that Salander must cross-circuit plans for a global paramilitary conspiracy, based on activating stolen computer software at nuclear bases around the globe, while also escaping several life-threatening situations, based solely on good luck. Salander is hired by computer programmer Frans Balder to retrieve Firefall, the program he developed for the National Security Agency.

After she accomplishes the task, Salander becomes the target for an array of mercenaries, hoping to profit from stealing it back from her. One manages to kidnap the inventor’s super-smart son, who has stored the information on how to open the software in his head. After about 90 minutes of this back-and-forth, one of Salander’s computer-geek pals rides to the rescue, using his security devices to turn the tables on her captors. Add the inclusion of an origin story for Salander and some viewers will require a scorecard to keep track of the players. Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did pretty much what the producers wanted of him, but the action frequently overwhelms the story. Otherwise, “Spider’s Web” makes for some entertaining viewing. Claire Foy (First Man) is as convincing as Salander as Rapace and Mara, and the Swedish and German settings maintain the books’ frosty atmosphere. The supporting characters aren’t given much to do, however. One of the fascinating things I learned from a featurette on choreographing the action was that the stunt coordinators used driverless cars to jack up the pace and impact of the chases. Other bonus items include commentaries on the feature and deleted scenes, with Álvarez and screenwriter Jay Basu; and four featurettes: “Claire Foy: Becoming Lisbeth,” “All About the Stunts,” “Secrets of the Salander Sisters” and “Creating the World: The Making Of.”

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms: Blu-ray
Anyone who wants to check how much anime has evolved, as a storytelling medium, anyway, needs only to pick up Mari Okada’s Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. On its surface, or through the eyes of a child, Maquia may look like just another medieval fantasy that mimics The Hobbit and “Game of Thrones. Just below that surface, however, lies a story that demands to be viewed as a parable about motherhood, aging, loss and coming of age in a cruel world … grown-up stuff. And, coming in at just short of two hours, Maquia easily fits the description of epic fairy tale. Though only 15, the title character knows she will live for centuries without outwardly aging past adolescence. She belongs to the Iorph, a clan of ageless beings whose primary task on Earth is to weave colorful tapestries whose threads anticipate future events. Maquia has been warned against falling in love with anyone outside their realm, which would inevitably lead to the twin tragedies of loss and loneliness, emotions rarely felt by immortals. The Iorph’s realm is turned upside by an attack from the mortal territory of Mesate, whose prince wants to attain immortality for his heir by kidnapping and marrying Leilia, the clan’s eternally radiant elder. As they’re whisked away atop a gigantic dragon – Mesate’s weapons of mass destruction – the prince’s troops ransack the Iorphs’ homes and kill as many of them as possible. Maquia is carried away by a benign, if dying dragon that leads her to a cave in a forest, where she discovers a young warrior and an abandoned baby, who’s handed off to the newcomer to raise. We follow their progress through Ariel’s teenage years, as he grows taller than Maquia and itchy to find his own place in life. It strains their relationship to the point where he wants to serve the prince, effectively siding with the enemy of his adoptive mother’s people. By this time, though, Maquia’s re-connected with fellow survivors, who hope to free their queen – who, by now, is pregnant –and move back to their kingdom. There’s more, but why spoil the drama? The emphasis on  issues pertinent to women is easily traced to writer/director Okada, who has 58 writing credits and four directing nods, three of them shorts. Because women are so rarely chosen to direct anime features, it made headlines when Maquia took first prize for an animation film at the Shanghai International Film Festival. (It also was submitted for Oscar consideration.) The special features add the 25-minute “Making of Maquia.”

The Cloverfield Paradox: Blu-ray
J.J. Abrams is a multihyphenate’s multihyphenate. If he needed a nickname, it could be “Abracadabra,” for his ability to pull rabbits out of his hat wherever he goes. As a writer, producer, director, actor and composer, Abrams has won or been nominated for almost every award  available to multihyphenates, including a Razzie (Armageddon). The exception is any recognition from AMPAS – an Academy Award being the only honor that really counts in Hollywood — and that’s only because of Oscar voters’ prejudice against sci-fi, action and other genre pictures, outside of the technical categories. He’s extended more franchises – Mission:Impossible, Star Trek, Star Wars, Cloverfield – than anyone not named McDonald. Without question, it’s the latter series that has raised the most eyebrows among sci-fi and horror nerds. With three installments already completed – Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Cloverfield Paradox – and another sequel on the way, it’s difficult to explain, with any certainty, what they all have in common, apart from Godzilla-like monsters, apocalyptic scenarios, everyday characters, extreme secrecy from the get-go and references to something called  Slusho and Abrams’ grandfather, Henry Kelvin. In Cloverfield (2008), a farewell party held by a group of New York yuppies is interrupted by the appearance of a rampaging sea monster. All the action is captured by a hand-held camera, operated by an unseen friend. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) describes what happens to a young woman, when, after a car accident, she finds herself in a bomb shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is infected by a widespread chemical attack. The Cloverfield Paradox takes places almost entirely on a space vehicle, which is orbiting Earth while scientists test a machine – a giant particle accelerator – that could solve a global energy crisis. For a while, the only unusual thing that happens is the crew’s inability to get the damn thing to kick into gear. When it does, however, really strange things begin to happen in the control room. On the down side, the accelerator is capable of interfering with the time-space continuum and creating alternate realities. There’s no reason to spoil any mysteries here, except to suggest that an alien force has taken control of the orbiter and is messing with the astronauts’ heads. It even finds a way to make our world “disappear.” Critics weren’t particularly impressed with The Cloverfield Paradox, which launched on Netflix almost immediately after a preview ad aired during the 2018 Super Bowl broadcast. It’s interesting enough, however, to recommend to sci-fi buffs and completists. The international crew is portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang, Elizabeth Debicki and Chris O’Dowd. The Blu-ray boasts excellent technical credentials, as well as “Things Are Not as They Appear: The Making of The Cloverfield Paradox” and “Shepard Team: The Cast.”

No Date, No Signature
There are so many things that Iranian filmmakers are forbidden from exploring in their own country, it’s amazing how good the ones that are approved turn out to be. In No Date, No Signature, co-writer/director Vahid Jalilvand (Wednesday, May 9), winner of Best Director prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, takes on a gripping psychological drama about morality and class dynamics in contemporary Iran. It was the official submission of Iran in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony. Facing stiff competition, however, it failed to make the list of finalists. In it, forensic pathologist Dr. Kaveh Nariman’s car accidentally injures a motorcyclist’s 8-year-old son. And, yes, it was a clearly an accident. He offers to take the child to a clinic, but the father refuses his help. A few days later, in the hospital where he works, Nariman (Amir Aghaee) learns that the boy has died under suspicious circumstances, which caused him to be infected with botulism. The father, Moosa, had purchased the chicken from a worker at the slaughter house. Too embarrassed to share his encounter with Moosa with colleagues handling the autopsy, he merely acknowledges knowing the father. Even so, the doctor becomes obsessed with the possibility that the boy’s spine might have been damaged in the accident and a sudden awkward movement might have caused his death. Meanwhile, the father (Navid Mohammadzadeh), himself wracked with guilt, goes to the plant to confront the man who sold him the diseased bird. Finding no relief, Moosa gets into a fight that leaves the worker in a coma and him in jail. This pushes the doctor to call for an exhumation of the boy’s body, based on his own belated admission of possible guilt. Anyone expecting a clear-cut Hollywood ending might be disappointed. It’s enough to know that Nariman’s sense of morality and integrity faces the kind of challenge that others would have bypassed when the cause of death, botulism, was rendered. Several critics have remarked on the similarities between No Date, No Signature and the work of Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, Fireworks Wednesday, The Past), who tackles sticky contemporary issues with clarity and dramatic appeal. Zakieh Behbahani and Hediyeh Tehrani deliver compelling portrayals of Iranian women from opposite sides of the country’s economic and cultural divide.

Free Lunch Society: Komm Komm Grundeinkommen
The more attention paid to Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Corte in the runup to the 2020 elections, the more scrutiny will be given the concept of an unconditional basic wage. If it isn’t the most popular issue to be debated – no one wants to be accused of advocating extreme economic politics or, worse, socialism – it’s certainly the most misunderstood. For one thing, its leading proponents didn’t wake up one morning, thinking they might give UBI a spin. The idea of a state-run Basic Income dates to the early 16th Century, when Sir Thomas More argued in “Utopia” that every person should receive a guaranteed income, and to the late 18th century when English radical Thomas Spence and American revolutionary Thomas Paine both declared their support for a welfare system in which all citizens were guaranteed a certain income. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States and Canada conducted several experiments with negative income taxation, a related welfare system. Neither is it true that UBI is an idea that sprung from the brow of hippies looking for a handout. Richard Nixon proposed a negative income tax in a bill to the U.S. Congress, which only approved a guaranteed minimum income for the elderly and the disabled. Warren Buffet is a UBI advocate, so was Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, the Permanent Fund of Alaska already provides a kind of basic income to longtime residents – all of them, regardless of other sources of income — based on the oil and gas revenues generated by the oil pipeline. So, there. Christian Tod’s well-reasoned documentary Free Lunch Society: Komm Komm Grundeinkommen lays out the whys and wherefores of UBI, in addition to responding to criticisms. It does so in ways that go beyond laymen’s terms, without resorting to economics jargon and academics. It explains why America’s middle class has become an endangered species – trickle-down economics got that ball rolling – and how the low unemployment rate is maintained by people who work two or three low-paying jobs. Neither does Tod demand of viewers that they buy into his pitch. It would be enough for the citizenry to be in position to yell, “B.S.,” whenever a politician tries to sell a truckload of snake oil, based solely on such faulty premises that UBI is socialism and recirculating new money through the system won’t raise all boats equally. If citizens had the opportunity to benefit from the Alaska model – or, not – my guess is that they’d take the free money and spend some of it, at least, on American-made products.

All the Devil’s Men: Blu-ray
Movies about mercenaries and former Special Forces fighters have reached dime-a-dozen status, especially those destined for an early reincarnation in DVD/Blu-ray/PPV. If action pictures, such as Matthew Hope’s All the Devil’s Men, enjoy a theatrical run, it’s only to salvage a few quotes from otherwise negative reviews for their release in foreign markets. It may not be a particularly new strategy, but the appetite for product in the streaming marketplace has become voracious. Here, it takes a while before clues emerge, explaining what all the shooting is about. After nearly losing his life in Morocco, on a covert operation financed by the CIA, former Navy SEAL Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is sent by his American handler, Leigh (Sylvia Hoeks), to London, where a disavowed CIA operative, McKnight (Elliot Cowan), is about to procure a WMD from Russian gangsters. Where the device’s final destination might be is anyone’s guess. Because Leigh has a personal grudge against McKnight, she teams Collins with two other bounty hunters, Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). When they’re ambushed by ninja-looking thugs, viewers wonder how it could have occurred with such accuracy. The leader of this pack is a former colleague, Deighton (Joseph Millson), who was hired by McKnight as protection, but was willing to make a deal with Leigh, against Collins and McKnight. Because so much of the fighting takes place at night, between men wearing balaclavas and carrying similar weaponry, it’s difficult to tell who’s assaulting whom. Fortunately, Collins doesn’t always wear a mask, and his partner is black, so that much is clear, at least. The other thing at play here is Collins’ disintegrating emotional strength, for which he takes “go pills” to keep him, yes, going. The other interesting thing is the presence of Milo Gibson in the lead role, playing the kind of character his dad, Mel, might have been assigned before he left Australia. All the Devil’s Men’s might have been a better picture if it had focused on our government’s recent practice of outsourcing its dirty work to contractors, with private armies that are only held accountable when they go too far and begin slaughtering civilians. In doing so, the government buys itself “plausible deniability,” when shit happens, and the mercenaries aren’t questioned by congressional committees, the media and representatives of their victims’ families. As long as filmmakers bypass the obvious conflicts in their pictures, for the sake of promoting pure action, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be anything except mediocre genre specimens. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Large-format specialist Stephen Low has been making movies about airplanes for as long as he’s been in the business, almost 40 years. For nearly 35 of those years, the Ottawa-born filmmaker has given managers of IMAX venues reasons to go to work each day, whether they’re located in modern megaplexes or in museums. In addition to creating edutainment products about all manner of aircraft, from biplanes to fighter jets, he’s made several stops along the way to promote advances in corporate aeronautics. He’s also used bulky 65mm cameras to explore oceanic wonders, aboveground transportation and natural splendor. Because the 3DTV format has yet to be embraced by consumers, the full impact of his films must be enjoyed in theaters that cater to large groups of students, seniors and pot smokers. This isn’t to say that very much is lost on large-screen television monitors, especially those set up for 4K UHD playback. Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas not only promotes the capabilities of the modern navy in times of war and peace – remember peace? – but it also marks advances in naval aviation, which is largely dependent on the readiness of crews assigned to such magnificent ships. One of the greatest engineering feats in the history of warfare, the Nimitz-class carrier USS Ronald Reagan is a masterpiece of technology, and the flagship of the American fleet. The ship also provides a focal point for Low’s coverage of RIMPAC exercises, which take place far from view of curious citizens and prying media. Audiences, however, are whistled aboard the carrier and its 6,000 highly skilled sea and air personnel, amid war games comprised of 22 allied nations and more than 50 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft and 25,000 military personnel. From the air, especially, the fleet is impressive. (I think some of the same aerial footage might have been repurposed in Hunter Killer.) From the viewpoint of an engineer, mechanic or aspiring naval recruit, the dissection of duties and responsibilities, via live-action coverage and engineering visualizations – including a cross-section of the nuclear reactor and power train – should be nothing short of awe-inspiring. It takes viewers from the ship’s bridge to its rudders, with up-close peeks at the F-35C Lightning, the F35A, F-18 Super Hornet and Osprey. And, while a certain amount of patriotic posturing is inevitable, the emphasis is clearly on deterrence. Bonus features include some audience testimonials; speed comparisons between an F-35, Bugatti and human cannonball, and Usain Bolt, giraffe and nuclear carrier; and a F-35 Navy “selects reel.” Someone at the studio should have tried harder on them.

The Possessed: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Fifth Cord: Special Edition: Blu-ray