MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Michelin Stars, Captain Marvel, Sower, Cielo, Frank in Palm Springs, Swing Time, Can’t Stop the Music, Entity, Blood … More

Michelin Stars: Tales From the Kitchen
Constructing Albert
This week, trophies were awarded to the world’s best basketball and hockey teams. The triumphant players caressed, hugged and held the sparkling awards up for their fans to worship. The NHL not only allows for the champions to drink champagne from the Stanley Cup, but also enjoy a day in the off-season to show it off to friends, family, fans and sponsors. The Vince Lombardi Trophy goes to winner of the Super Bowl, while baseball’s best team gets the Commissioner’s Trophy and the World Cup – perhaps, the most coveted of them all – is awarded every four years to men’s soccer champions. As much as they are passed around, it was inevitable that someday, somewhere, shit would happen. The World Cup has been stolen several times in the past, but a true catastrophe occurred when the Super Bowl LII champion New England Patriots crashed this year’s home opener of the Boston Red Sox, at Fenway Park, which also served as the team’s World Series victory celebration. As is his wont, the now-retired Patriots’ tight end, Rob Gronkowski, volunteered to help fellow receiver Julian Edelman prepare for throwing out the first pitch. Outside of the view of fans, the clown prince of professional football picked up the silver football and used it to bunt a thrown pitch from Edelman. It left a baseball-shaped crater in the shiny surface that, today, is worn like a badge of honor by New England sports faithful. After all, boys will be boys.

Although professional sports may have next to nothing to do with haute cuisine and fine dining experiences, the awarding of a Michelin Star to a world-class restaurant may be as significant as any trophy … OK, there’s the Oscars. I was reminded of this by two new documentaries about the years-long pursuit of perfection by chefs and restaurants around the planet: Rasmus Dinesen’s Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen (2017) and Laura Collado and Jim Loomis’ Constructing Albert (2017). Just as pipsqueak hockey players in Moose Jaw dream of playing on a Stanley Cup-winning team and young ballers imagine kissing the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, like MJ and LeBron, so, too, do sous chefs, back-of-the-house workers, servers, maître d’s, receptionists and bartenders anticipate basking in the reflected glory of a head chef and restaurant owner. Phone calls and press releases reveal the individual winners and no trophies are exchanged. A chef’s worst nightmare is losing a star, or two, in subsequent editions of the Michelin Guide, which is like a Negro Motorist Green Book for obscenely rich, mostly white and Asian, passionately fashionable and unbearably opinionated gourmands. Just as serious birders pursue rarely seen species in the wild, so, too, do foodies plan their vacations and business trips around visits to Michelin-rated dining rooms. The Michelin Guide to Chicago 2014, for example, includes almost 500 restaurants. Only one restaurant received three stars (Alinea); four were awarded two stars (Grace, L2O, Graham Elliot, Sixteen); and 20 restaurants got one star. That doesn’t mean the other 475 establishments served food that was inedible or that they weren’t sufficiently elitist. It means that the 25 winners were the crème de la crème. The 2019 guide for the Windy City lists one three-star restaurant (Alinea); three two-star establishments (Smyth, Oriole, Acadia); 15 one-stars; 58 Bib Gourmands; and 123 Plate Michelins. By comparison, New York City is home to 76 starred restaurants; Hong Kong, 63; and Rio de Janeiro, 6.  For the record, one star denotes, a “good place to stop on your journey, indicating a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard; two stars, “a restaurant worth a detour, indicating excellent cuisine and skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality”; three stars for a restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.”

Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen and Constructing Albert differ from documentaries about sports in that they aren’t about competition. Because the restaurants are judged by anonymous individuals, with specific guidelines and tastes, the awarding of stars isn’t based on such objective standards as wins and losses. Things can get sticky if a judge arrives on a day when a kitchen is under-staffed or key ingredients are unavailable. Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen goes behind the scenes to see how the stars are awarded, interview chefs and determine the impact of the Michelin Guide on the world of haute cuisine. It comes at a moment in time, when consumers consider themselves capable of passing judgment on a restaurant’s worth – based on their own standards – and photographing every dish for consumption by their followers on Yelp, where opinions can be bought and sold, and restaurants pander to yahoos with iPhones. Dinesen’s film digs under the surface by allowing chefs, writers, diners and purveyors to present their sides of the story, offering them an opportunity to tell viewers why the guide is so important to them, as a boon to business and maintaining excellence. Chefs have been known to commit suicide and close their dining rooms after losing a star. Among those featured are Alain Ducasse, Daniel Humm, René Redzepi, Andoni Aduriz, Yoshihiro Narisawa, Victor Arquinzoniz and Guy Savoy, and other chefs from around the world. Preparations is also showcased.

When it closed in 2011, the much-honored Spanish restaurant elBulli was still considered the best in the world. The intriguing foodie documentary Constructing Albert reveals how head chef Ferran Adrià’s sterling reputation prompted his younger brother, Albert, to meet the challenge of matching it. Over a four-year period, filmmakers Collado and Loomis followed the story of Ferran’s former partner and co-chef, as he stepped out from the long shadow of elBulli and staked his own claim to fame. Creating another perennial Michelin contender would be difficult for any top chef. Albert chose to open five restaurants in Barcelona’s theater district, each featuring a different cuisine. This would be Albert’s proclamation of self-assurance and calling card to the Pantheon of great chefs. All the pressure, stress and tension that went into his pursuit are palpable in Constructing Albert, which sometimes resembles a heart attack waiting to happen. (He even closed a one-star startup when it failed to meet his standards.) Barcelona has emerged as one of the world’s prominent dining destinations. If this doc doesn’t wet your whistle, nothing will.

Captain Marvel: Cinematic Universe Edition: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Being cast to play a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is like being a handed an annuity or pension from the late, great Stan Lee, himself. As long as the franchise is going strong, superheroes and supervillains will appear and re-appear in lead roles and cameos, alike, in succeeding adaptations. Obscure characters will resurrected from the Marvel library and given an opportunity to share in the bounty. Take Nick Fury, for example. The character made his first appearance in the early 1960s and was given his inaugural cover story in May 1963 (“Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, #1”), as the leader of Marvel’s super-spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D. Today, a physically transformed Fury has never been more active. In the Ultimate Marvel Universe, now-General Nick Fury is an African American born in Huntsville, Alabama, with his look and personality tailored after actor Samuel L. Jackson. The immensely popular actor first embodied the character on film in an uncredited appearance in Iron Man (2008). Since then, Fury has appeared for various amounts of time in more than a dozen feature films and voiced the character in four video games. Spider-Man: Far from Home arrives next month. Likewise, Scarlett Johansson joined the MCU/Avengers team in Iron Man 2 (2010), as Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow, which just began production in Norway, represents her character’s first personal vehicle.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel was released theatrically on March 8, 2019 — International Women’s Day — in IMAX and 3D. Since then, it has grossed over $1.1 billion worldwide, making it the first female-led superhero film to pass the billion-dollar mark. It is currently the No. 2 grossing film of 2019, and the No. 9 grossing superhero film of all time. Not doing nearly as well at the international box office this spring was David F. Sandberg’s critically lauded Shazam!, also based on the original Captain Marvel, created for DC Comics in 1939 by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker. The male iteration of Captain Marvel (a.k.a., William Joseph “Billy” Batson, Wizard Shazam, Captain Thunder, Captain Sparklefingers) has represented the company on radio, in serials, features, direct-to-video animated films, comic strips and video games. Through a miracle of legal legerdemain, the MCU/Disney version of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) has transitioned into a female superhero, who commutes between outer space and an endangered Earth, also known as C-53. (Djimon Hounsou appears in both films as different characters, both male, and separate entities in the MCU’s Guardians of the Galaxy and the DCUE’s Aquaman.) After crashing an experimental U.S. Air Force fighter on the Kree Empire’s capital planet of Hala, pilot Carol Danvers (a.k.a., Vers, Captain Marvel, Captain Sparklefists) is rescued and treated for amnesia and recurring nightmares. She is then trained as a member of the elite Starforce Military, under the command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Six years later, after a failed mission to recover a prisoner of the shape shifting Skrulls, Danvers/Vers is led back to Earth by subliminal instincts. Meanwhile, the Skrulls tap into her memory cache and send a guerrilla team to pursue her. With help from Fury, Danvers sets out to unravel the truth.

If that brief summary sounds needlessly complicated, that’s only because it is. And, it only gets more confusing from there. Even with an early passion for comic books, I could barely keep track of what was happening to whom in the 123-minute movie and where the action was taking place at any given time. The shape-shifting element kept me off-balance, as well. Finally, I gave up trying, focusing my attention, instead, on the brilliantly conceived action scenes. My favorite character is a weaponized tabby cat named Goose. I also welcomed the occasional interludes when Annette Bening appears out of nowhere, as the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree people and ruler of the Kree Empire. She, too, is a shape shifter. Beyond that, the mind boggles. I have since come to the conclusion that the film’s six-person writing team based several of the characters and settings on The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy reincarnated as Danvers and Bening as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. The HDR color enhancements make a big difference from the Blu-ray, where the  images sometimes are overwhelmed by the overall dark look. The bonus features, contained on the Blu-ray disc, offer alternate versions of Captain Marvel, with an introduction by directors/screenwriters Boden and Fleck, and with commentary by the same duo; a half-dozen EPK-style featurettes; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and several behind-the-scenes digital exclusives.

The Sower
The inspiration for the short story that was adapted as The Sower, is as interesting as anything in Marine Francen’s sumptuous historical rom-dram, And, that’s saying a lot about both works of art. In 1919, when Violette Ailhaud was in her 80s, the former village schoolteacher wrote the autobiographical short story “L’homme semence,” upon which The Sower is based. She passed the manuscript on to her attorney with clear instructions that it be given to her eldest female descendant in 1952, a full century after the events it depicts occurred. It remained in the family for a half-century before being published, in 2006, to steadily building acclaim. Some manner of film adaptation was inevitable. Today, The Sower can be enjoyed as a historically based romance or a bittersweet feminist fable that links lost innocence to a code of honor among women in a male-deprived community. Beyond modernizing the language and aesthetics, Francen stuck to the story, as written, which doesn’t always happen. The winner of the prestigious New Director competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival, The Sower opens in 1851, after France’s autocratic President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte rejected the constitutional ban against being re-elected and chose, instead, to become Emperor of the French (1852-70). It’s worth noting, perhaps, that, at about the same time, in Paris, Victor Hugo was beginning work on “Les Miserables.” As Francen’s film opens, the emperor has just ordered the arrest of all the men of a remote farming village in the Lower Alps. They were believed to have taken part in a Republican uprising and sent to prisons and work camps throughout the far-flung empire. The women left behind will spend years in total isolation, forced to tend the crops and animals themselves. While some of the older women have lost their husbands to the order, possibly forever, the younger ones — including the shy, but inwardly strong Violette (Pauline Burlet) – have come to the realization that they may have no chance of experiencing physical love or motherhood.

The women take an oath: if a man comes to the village, they will convince him to stay and share him as a lover. It takes a couple of years before a mysterious and handsome blacksmith, Jean (Alban Lenoir), offers to help with the harvest, in return for room and board. Conveniently, Violette is assigned the task of acclimating Jean to the village. That both can read sets them apart from the rest of the woman and establishes a bond between them. Naturally, this provides an easy transition to sex and love. Figuring that their turns are long overdue, the other women demand of Violette that she curtail their relationship and reveal the conditions of the oath to Jean, which she does only begrudgingly. By the time she’s become noticeably pregnant, some of the male villagers begin to stagger home, with woeful tales of torture and deprivation. When Jean senses that his continued presence could be misconstrued and punished, he gives Violette a choice between traveling with him to another town or staying behind to raise their daughter, alone. Some critics have compared the film’s plot to Xavier Beauvois’ wartime drama, The Guardians (2017), and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017), and it’s apt. Cinematographer Alain Duplantier expertly captures the hardships and scant rewards of the women’s daily grind, at home and in the golden fields of wheat. Unlike Jean-Francois Millet’s famous 1850 painting “The Sower,” which it resembles, Francen’s film hasn’t been criticized for ennobling the poverty-stricken peasants. It does, however, humanize the women, by showing the severity of their challenge and personalizing their longings, pain and determination. The Sower was shot in and around the lovely medieval village of La Garde-Guérin. And, yes, tourism is welcomed.

Minute Bodies: Blu-ray
Nature documentaries have improved exponentially since the introduction of digital technology to the filmmakers’ bag of tricks and Blu-ray and 4K UHD exhibition. While the subjects haven’t much – even taking global warming into consideration – everything else has evolved. Digital and handheld cameras have given documentarians greater access to their prey and drones offer perspectives unavailable only 10 years ago. Neither does going to the ends of the Earth to capture an image constitute an impossible mission. These two films literally shuttle viewers between the imperceptible and infinite, with no stops in between for gratuitous gasping and wondering if CGI was involved. Alison McAlpine’s documentary, Cielo, takes viewers to Chile’s ultra-remote Atacama Desert, where the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory investigates heavenly bodies outside the purview of  stargazers in the North Hemisphere. Located at an altitude of over 15,700 feet and 31 miles from the nearest town, Llano de Chajnantor, the site is home to nine separate telescopes and observatories, each designed to focus on different parts of the humidity-, pollution- and transmission- free sky. Extend the Atacama a few hundred miles north and east, into Argentina and  Bolivia and you’ll find 7 of the 10 highest such facilities in the world. But, let’s cut to the chase. The images captured for our amazement are “crazy beautiful,” thanks, in part, to some time-lapse photography. Beyond that, I won’t bother trying to describe the nightly display of stars and light, which make the Aurora Borealis look anemic. Occasionally, the phantasmagoria is interrupted by interviews with native Chileans, who live at these altitudes, and the astronomers who spend so much of their scientific lives here. Or, you could turn off the audio track and subtitles and, simply, watch the skies. Cielo makes a perfect double-feature with Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010), which combines the scientists’ search for answers in the cosmos and concurrent hunt for the remains of “disappeared” loved ones, killed by the U.S.-backed regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Political activists, students and Chileans considered to be left of Henry Kissinger were imprisoned in a salt-miners’ barracks abandoned in the 19th Century. Some of the victims were buried anonymously there or put on an airplane or helicopter and dropped into the ocean.

Minute Bodies leads viewers in an altogether different direction. The effect is essentially the same, however. Stuart A. Staples’ meditative, immersive and description-free documentary pays homage to the astonishing work and achievements of naturalist, inventor and pioneering filmmaker F. Percy Smith. An early pioneer in time-lapse and microcinematography, Smith began to photograph the natural world around his house and inside his laboratory, while working as a clerk for the British Board of Education. He was on his own, until his close-up photograph of a bluebottle fly’s tongue caught the attention of producer Charles Urban. He subsequently made “Urban Science: To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly” (1909) and “The Acrobatic Fly” (1910), before joining the Charles Urban Trading Company full-time. He directed more than 50 nature films for the Urban Sciences series, including the pioneering stop-motion film, “The Birth of a Flower” (1910), prior to the outbreak of the First World War, during which he served as a naval photographer. Minute Bodies is a 50-minute merger of botanical poetry and the ambient music of Staples’ band, Tindersticks. Without a word of dialogue or narration, the film depicts the growth of plants – and a handful of frogs – from the cellular to their blossoming as flowers, ferns and a variety of other plant life. The overall effect is hypnotic. The Blu-ray adds several bonus shorts, which contain narration, but no music.

Sinatra in Palm Springs: The Place He Called Home: Blu-Ray
Although the focus of Leo Zahn’s documentary is Frank Sinatra, the people in his orbit and his love affair with Palm Springs, it falls well short of being sycophantic. Any biography of Sinatra is going to face close scrutiny and nit-picking by pop historians and detractors, alike. If it skims over Ol’ Blue Eye’s legendary temper tantrums, feuds, mob ties and reputation as a notorious horndog, Sinatra in Palm Springs: The Place He Called Home lives up to its site-specific mission. Up to immediately after the singer’s death in 1998, Zahn couldn’t have expected cooperation from local businessmen, neighbors, family members and friends. They protected Sinatra from the media glare, paparazzi and overly aggressive fans every bit as ferociously as he did. And, he repaid them by performing in countless benefit concerts and encouraging his Hollywood cronies to do likewise. In fact, his generosity to everyone with whom he crossed paths is noted by everyone interviewed here. That includes the wait staffs, bartenders and valets at his favorite restaurants and watering holes. After being repeatedly reminded of his proclivity for handing out hundred-dollar tips, as if they were singles, the glorification of Frank’s largess gets tiresome, however. We get it. According to Zahn, Sinatra made the Coachella Valley his primary home for almost 50 years. The film community had long considered Palm Springs to be a convenient escape from the madness of Hollywood. When Frank moved about 10 miles east, to Rancho Mirage, it re-awakened the sleepy desert outpost. Interviews with Barbara Sinatra, Tom Dreesen, Trini Lopez and local civic leaders provide a fuller picture than usual of his willingness to host late-night gatherings and let his toupee down in public. Finally, though, Zahn uses Sinatra to paint a comprehensive portrait of his adopted hometown. He describes how Frank decided to bypass the lure of “restricted” country clubs and help launch one open to Jews and other non-WASPs. The doc then describes how the concept of fairway-side housing first blossomed and how a new definition of exclusivity had to be written. Zahn glosses over the embarrassment Sinatra felt when President Kennedy was dissuaded by his brother, the attorney general, not to stay at his house, even after he built a helicopter pad to accommodate Marine One. He doesn’t get into the reasons behind Bobby Kennedy’s recommendation, however. The film makes it clear that Palm Springs was always a winter home for gangsters, without digging deeply into the coincidence. Zahn does acknowledge former wives and other family members, but it’s limited to photographs and one or two anecdotes. It would have been interesting to know if Sinatra’s children spent much time in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. Clips from From Here to Eternity and 50 other movies and television shows – some that only used the home as locations – keep Sinatra in Palm Springs from growing monotonous and overly reverential. The bonus package adds nine deleted scenes. Maybe Zahn will tackle fellow Palm Springs resident, Elvis Presley, next.

Swing Time: Criterion Collection: Blu-Ray
Unlike the many screwball comedies made during the Depression, Swing Time uses music and dance – instead of physical gags and satire – to tell a story that barely makes any sense, otherwise. Most of the characters favor tuxedoes and gowns, and some occupy posh apartments that 95 percent of all Americans then could afford. Like the gangsters portrayed in movies of the time, their playgrounds are supper clubs, with chorus lines and featured dancers … the better to provide added entertainment value and glamour to the movie. Adaptations of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” wouldn’t reveal the other side of the Depression for another year, or so. Today, of course, it’s easy to buy the studio line that these sorts of pictures helped everyday audiences to forget their troubles for a few hours and, maybe, win a dinner setting while they were at it. It’s more likely that the moguls didn’t want to be reminded of the Hard Times – and the people considered to be below their station – anymore than the other members of their country clubs and income brackets. The profits spoke for themselves. But, as usual, I digress. No matter how one slices it, Swing Time was and remains a delight. It provided a perfect showcase for the heavenly dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Bernard Newman’s formal wear, Hermes Pan’s dance direction and Van Nest Polglase’s art direction. At first glance, George Stevens (Shane) probably wasn’t the most likely candidate to direct this perfect storm of talent, class and glamour – he’d just finished Annie Oakley (1935), his first Western – but his experience as a lighting cameraman gave him a leg up on helming the sixth Astaire/Rogers musical. Even though Oscar pretty much ignored his work on Swing Time – Kern and Field took home a statuette, while Pan was nominated for “Bojangles of Harlem” – the filmfecl’s since been recognized as one of the true classics of the American cinema. In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named Swing Time one of the top 100 films and, in 2004, it was included in the United States National Film Registry, for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Three years later, in 2007, the American Film Institute ranked the movie No. 90 on its 10th-anniversary list, “100 Years …100 Movies.”

The plot is simplicity, itself. The feckless hoofer/gambler Lucky Garnett (Astaire) is tricked into missing his wedding to socialite Margaret Watson (Betty Furness) by the other members of Pop Cardetti’s magic and dance act, and he has to make $25,000 to be allowed to marry her. Lucky and Pop (Victor Moore) go to New York, where they run into Penny Carroll (Rogers), a dancing instructor. After some playful missteps, they form a successful dance partnership. Their romance is nipped in the bud by his attachment to Margaret and her feelings for the slick band leader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), who won’t play for them to dance together. It’s only a matter of time before those entanglements are untangled and everyone can live happily ever after, well above the poverty level and Americans who don’t wear top hats and tails to work. It does allow for the marvelously choreographed and sung, “Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Waltz in Swing Time,” “A Fine Romance,” “Bojangles of Harlem,” “Never Gonna Dance” and a final duet, in which Astaire and Rogers sing shortened versions of “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” If all anyone under 40 knows about formal dance is what they see on “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” these numbers will be revelatory. Just watching Rogers’ gown shimmer and sway to Astaire’s lead is the dance equivalent of poetry. The Criterion Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; commentary from 1986, featuring John Mueller, author of “Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films”; archival interviews with Astaire, Rogers, Pan; a fresh one with George Stevens Jr.; a new program on the film’s choreography and soundtrack, featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert and Dorothy Fields’ biographer Deborah Grace Winer; and an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

The 800-pound gorilla in the movie is the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, with Astaire performing in blackface. Apart from being a wonderfully orchestrated, brilliantly lit and innovatively choreographed number, it begs several questions that remain especially pertinent today. If the piece was meant as a homage to the reigning king of tap — Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – why was his presence and/or tap style not also deemed essential? If, as some have speculated, the innovatively conceived production number was intended as a parody of The Green Pastures (1936), what was the point? If it was merely intended as a sop to white audiences, who knew next to nothing about Robinson, but didn’t mind a bit of blackface, again, why bother? And, how might Robinson, John W. Bubbles, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson or Louis Armstrong have reacted to seeing their art and music represented on the big screen, with nary a naturally black face to be seen. A new interview with film scholar Mia Mask addresses the subject, without providing any definitive answers.

Frankenstein Created Woman: Blu-Ray
The Entity: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
The 27 Club
This week’s releases from Scream Factory may be more entertaining today than they were upon their original release. In part, that’s because the horror market has become so diffuse and segmented since Frankenstein Created Woman and The Entity were released in 1967 and 1982, respectively, that such pictures have been allotted comparatively meager budgets and almost no marketing support, as is the case with such non-theatrical fare as The 27 Club. The straight-to-cassette phenomenon was still gestating in 1982 and drive-ins were drying up, like L.A. in July. Only a handful of contemporary genre flicks are accorded the same publicity boost, star support and production values as vintage titles from the Hammer stable and 20th Century Fox.

Frankenstein Created Woman was originally intended as a follow-up to Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), piggy-backing on the notoriety of Roger Vadim and Brigette Bardot’s And God Created Woman (1956). Eight years later, it would lose the “And …” and any residual impact of a clever title. It did, however, represent a departure from the Frankenstein legend. In it, a young boy, Hans, witnesses the beheading of his father for a crime he neither committed, not could deny, without incriminating his lover. A decade later, Hans (Robert Morris) works as a lab assistant for Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), who, with the aid of Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), is attempting to perfect a process that re-animates the body and soul of his creatures. Hans is in love with a local barmaid, Christina (recent Playboy model Susan Denberg), a disfigured girl, who’s ashamed of her looks and openly taunted by a trio of good-for-nothing swells. When the troublemakers team up to harass Christina’s father, restaurateur Kleve (Alan McNaughton), the men end up committing a murder, for which Hans takes the blame and is sent to the guillotine. The despondent Christine responds by killing herself. Employing a Nobel Prize-worthy technique, Doctor Frankenstein captures Hans’s soul and places it inside Christina’s new and improved body. The result is a  blond, beautiful and no longer crippled Christina, who takes orders from the separated head of Hans’ revenge-minded soul. Neither the remorseless dandies, nor the scientists are capable of curtailing the resultant bloodbath. The Scream Factory upgrade features a 2K remaster of the film; new commentary with author/film historian Steve Haberman and filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr; new interviews with Morris, camera assistant Eddie Collins and assistant director Joe Marks, as well as nine ported-over supplements.

The Entity (1983), we’re assured, is based on the reported haunting of Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey), her two kids and their new house. Not only does the spirit behave, at first, like an angry poltergeist, but it also rapes Carla for no more reason than that’s she there. It takes a while before the kids witness the spirits’ wrath. By then, however, Mom is approaching basket-case status. A bevy of psychiatrists, led by Ron Silver, dismiss her bruising and fright as something other than self-inflicted byproducts of an overly stressed mind. It isn’t until a team of parapsychologists and amateur ghost hunters enters the picture that we get a concrete idea of Carla really is up against. And, it’s formidable.  Finally, Silver agrees to join his disrespected peers in their scheme to isolate and reveal the demon, who doesn’t want to be isolated or revealed. The destruction wrought is impressive, even by post-Exorcist standards.  If the postscript is to be believed, the  continued haunting of Carla is one for the books.

Barbara Hershey is terrific in what might have been a career-saving performance. The promising co-star of Last Summer (1969), The Baby Maker (1970) and Martin Scorsese’s Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha (1972) spent much of the 1970s demonstrating her hippie credentials and alienating anyone who would put up with her antics. They included breast-feeding her 2-year-old while being interviewed by Dick Cavett. By 1980, she’d dropped the adopted surname of Seagull, which she adopted after a seagull was accidentally killed during the filming of Last Summer (1969). (Barbara said she felt as if she had absorbed the bird’s spirit.) She began the new decade with a stellar performance in Richard Rush’s little-seen masterpiece, The Stunt Man (1980). After The Entity, she appeared in The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Hoosiers (1986), Tin Men (1987), Shy People (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), A World Apart (1988) and Beaches (1988). That’s a hell of a run. In 1990, Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special for her role as accused ax-murderer Candy Morrison in “A Killing in a Small Town.” Afterward, she would commit to a series of television and cable dramas, including “Paris Trout,” “Return to Lonesome Dove” and “Chicago Hope.” Although she hasn’t completely forsaken acting, such highlights as the Australia-set Lantana (2001), balletic psycho-thriller Black Swan and A&E’s “Damien” (2016) have been few and far between.

To qualify for membership in the mythical 27 Club, an artist of some substance merely has to die – preferably by substance abuse – during their 27th year on Earth. Among the noteworthy performers who’ve qualified for induction in the select club are Robert Johnson, Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (Canned Heat), Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (Grateful Dead), Dave Alexander (The Stooges), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kurt Kobain, Amy Winehouse, actor Anton Yelchin and Korean boy-band superstar Kim Jong-hyun. That abridged list might be more persuasive, if it didn’t cover a period, ranging from 1938 to 2017, the lack of statistical anomalies discovered by several dedicated computer jockeys. That didn’t prevent co-writer/director Patrick Fogarty (“Average”) from basing The 27 Club on the urban legend. If only it had. (It’s dedicated to sax master Big Jay McNeely, who died last September, at 81, before his scenes were edited out of the picture.) In it, an unpleasant punk rocker named Quinn Scott (Travis Grant) wastes no screen time before OD’ing and becoming eligible for the 27 Club. It doesn’t matter that he’s surrounded by friends when he buys the farm, because they’re too stoned to pay attention to his high or the demonic presence in the room. It inspires a student filmmaker, Jason (Derrick Denicola), to investigate the phenomenon. His mentor is played by Todd Rundgren, who also made it past the 27 barrier and helps here on the musical score. Jason hooks up with Lily (Maddisyn Carter), another punk-rocker who makes Courtney Love sound like Maria Callas. Her reason for being in the movie is the fact that her next birthday cake will have 27 candles. Together, they’ll find themselves trapped in an evil underworld that takes artists’ souls as payment for eternal fame. (While that’s the legend behind Johnson’s amazing blues output, most of the other club members committed suicide, OD’d or drank themselves to an early grave.) Jason steals Quinn’s copy of the “Necronomicon,” which adds to the story’s horror aspect. It’s seriously undernourished, though. The Blu-ray adds short interviews with Carter and Denicola, and a slideshow.

Can’t Stop the Music: Blu-Ray
Jeffrey: Blu-Ray
Shout Factory is celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month with the simultaneous re-release of Can’t Stop the Music (1980) and Jeffrey (1995). The company previously sent out an upgraded edition of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995). The only thing new to be said about the musical retelling of the Village People’s rise to the top of the charts — during America’s post-Saturday Night Fever period –is that the production numbers look and sound great in Blu-ray. Otherwise, the critically lambasted box-office bomb remains a chore to watch from start to finish. It remains curious that EMI Films attempted to take the gay out of a movie about a clearly gay cultural phenomenon, which began in gay nightclubs and whose members affected the look of iconic gay fantasy figures. Here, if the implications are unavoidable, viewers are led to believe that the Village People’s early appeal was gender-neutral and only a little bit ironic. The VP’s secondary audience would be sports fans, who may or may not have recognized the spell-along hit, “Y-M-C-A,” from the album, “Crusing’,” as a gay anthem. (One group member has said that it can interpreted as a “double entendre,” because the YMCA is a place where gay culture and working-class workouts coexist in a single communal space.”) Either way you slice it, though, it’s one of the great dance songs of all time. By effectively neutering the protagonists of Can’t Stop the Music, producers kept most of its intended audience at arm’s length and opened themselves to criticism by activists, reviewers and anyone already aware of the VP’s story. Even so, Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard’s love child might have avoided most of the slings and arrows hurled at it, if it were even remotely entertaining and overtly campy. In it, a retired supermodel Samantha “Sam” Simpson (Valerie Perrine) and songwriter/deejay Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg) hope to convince her devious ex-boyfriend, a record-company executive (Paul Sand), to promote one of his songs. When Jack’s vocal skills are deemed inadequate, Sam recruits neighbor and Saddle Tramps waiter/go-go boy Felipe Rose (Indian); fellow model David “Scar” Hodo (Construction Worker); “G.I.” Alex Briley; Ray Simpson (Policeman); “Cowboy” Randy Jones; and “Leatherman” Glenn Hughes. In return for their participation, she offers them … dinner. As things progress, the band is given rehearsal space at the local YMCA and a flashy musical commercial for milk. (The movie was rated PG, but amateur pervs can run the “Y-M-C-A” segment in slo-mo and catch a glimpse of an unpixellated penis and Perrine’s nipples in a whirlpool with the band.) With few exceptions, the acting is wooden and Nancy Walker’s direction is haphazard, at best.

Trivia buffs may recall that John Wilson was inspired to create the Golden Raspberry Awards after paying 99 cents to endure a double-bill featuring Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu (1980). “Music” was nominated for seven inaugural Razzie awards, with Carr winning Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay trophies. Caitlyn Jenner, then known primarily as the 1976 Olympics decathlon champion, was a finalist for Worst Actor. In 2005, the movie was a nominee for the Worst Musical of Our First 25 Years prize. Neither was Carr’s timing very sound. By the time Can’t Stop the Music was released, the Village People popularity had peaked and the Disco Sucks movement had made headlines by ransacking Chicago’s Comiskey Park, on Disco Demolition Night. The Blu-ray package is highlighted by a delightful 65-minute interview with Cowboy Randy Jones, in which he discusses the disco era, the creation of “Music” and life after disco. Commentary is provided by comedy writer Bruce Vilanch and Jeffrey Schwarz, director of The Fabulous Allan Carr. There’s also vintage publicity material and a photo gallery. Co-stars included Tammy Grimes, June Havoc, Barbara Rush, Altovise Davis, Jack Weston and Leigh Taylor-Young.

Jeffrey, the movie, arrived in theaters about 2½ years after “Jeffrey,” the play, was mounted off-Broadway. If Can’t Stop the Music can be characterized as a pre-AIDS musical comedy, “Jeffrey,” the play and movie, takes place at what might be considered the height of the epidemic. It wasn’t until 1992 that the first combination drug therapies for HIV were introduced. In 1995, a new type of protease inhibitor drug, Saquinavir, became available to treat HIV. Within two years, death rates due to AIDS would begin to plummet in the developed world. It took no small amount of courage to use humor to treat the parallel plagues of sexual anxiety and fear of intimacy and loss. Even considering the unexpected success of the play, studios weren’t anxious to become the first to distribute what they mistakenly saw as an “AIDS comedy.” Produced independently for what might have been a song, Jeffrey might have made a tiny bit of money in its limited release by Orion Classics. Christopher Ashley (Lucky Stiff) and Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values) returned to direct and write Jeffrey, the movie, which benefitted greater star power and a wider canvass. Steven Weber (“Wings”) plays the title character, a transplanted gay New Yorker whose attitude toward sex shifts from extremely positive to outright fearful, when he decides that AIDS has made it too unromantic and difficult. Celibacy becomes the only viable option, until he meets his dream man, Steve (Michael T. Weiss), who turns out to be HIV positive. With the help of his friends Sterling (Patrick Stewart) and Darius (Bryan Batt), Jeffrey decides to give love a second shot. Most critics preferred the intimacy and directness of the play, while relishing the well-timed cameos by Nathan Lane, Olympia Dukakis, Christine Baranski, Victor Garber, Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimy and Sigourney Weaver. The Blu-ray adds new commentary with Weber and film critic/author Alonso Duralde; fresh interviews with Weber and producer Mark Balsam; and a stills gallery.

My Nights With Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie: Blu-ray
In the last 12 months, Cult Epics has released several soft-core pictures from Pim de la Parra, Wim Verstappen and Scorpio Films’ “Dutch Sex Wave” series, spanning 1967 and 1976. Some, like Blue Movie (1971), pushed the boundaries on relaxed censorship laws, by combing natural sexual encounters, attractive actors and stories that support the nudity, humor and hanky-panky. My Nights With Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie (1976) falls short in these departments, without adding anything to compensate for the loss for their absence. In it, Susan (Willeke Van Ammelrooy) lives in an idyllic farmhouse, along with the sex-loving youngsters, Sandra, Olga and Julie, and the unstable voyeur, Albert. Two of the women are spree killers, who target men who try to take advantage of their youth, beauty and deceptively frisky personalities. A witness to one of the killings  is Piet (Nelly Frijda), a female neighbor whose manly appearance and creepy behavior stands in stark contrast to the younger girls. Piet also commits an unconscionable murder that spoils any fun left in the story. De la Parra, who co-wrote Obsessions (1969) with Verstappen and Martin Scorsese, clearly knows how to make sex pictures with mainstream production values. “My Night” begins to fall apart as soon as Piet makes her appearance known. What I’m probably missing is the popularity of Frijda in Holland, where she’s long been a cultural fixture. It is interesting to note that, somewhere between the Netherlands and the U.S.,  Piet’s name was dropped from the title. The Blu-ray features the last score by composer Elisabeth Lutyens — known for Hammer films and Amicus Productions – a screenplay co-credited to Harry Kumel (Daughters of Darkness); a fresh HD restoration and transfer from original 35mm print; a lengthy introduction by Pim de la Parra; the short Scorpio films, “Heart Beat Fresco” (1966), “Joop” (1969) and “Joop Strikes Again” (1970); a poster and photo gallery; original Scorpio Films theatrical trailers; and an optional English-language track.

Acorn Original: Blood: Blu-ray
Acorn Original: London Kills: Series 1: Blu-ray
Acorn: Delicious: Series 3
If rural doctor Jim Hogan hadn’t lied to his black-sheep daughter, Cat, about the death of her invalid mother, the six-chapter mini-series could have been reduced to one. Thank goodness, that wasn’t an option in Sophie Petzal’s terrifically complex and entirely engrossing “Blood,” made for Ireland’s Virgin Media One and Acorn. In one way or another, all of the characters here are damaged by things they choose not to reveal to close friends and relatives. Jim and Cat take their insecurities to levels not often seen in series television, however. While successful in his small-town practice, Jim (Adrian Dunbar) has constructed a wall of lies to prevent his inordinately fragile family from being hurt by his self-destructive actions. The hyper-neurotic Cat (Carolina Main) is haunted by her decision to blow off a planned return home, hours before her mother’s seemingly accidental death. Instead of blaming herself for canceling the reunion, Cat immediately suspects her estranged father of murdering her. She bases her suspicions on the sketchiest of circumstantial evidence. When weighed against Jim’s flimsy defense, Cat’s case builds a parallel wall of infectious paranoia. I wouldn’t be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the mini-series by revealing that Jim has been cheating on his saintly wife (Ingrid Craigie), squandering money he couldn’t afford to lose, concealing a coroner’s report from the son of a suicide victim, taking advantage of a dotty patient and fudging his appointment book. On the plus side, however, viewers can see that he’s sincere about his determination to protect his family from the lies and their impact on the community, at large. Cat’s sublimated memory of an event in her childhood prevents her from trusting anything said by Jim. Viewers will find it difficult to fully embrace either character, even when they’re at their most vulnerable. Just when it seems as if we’ve discovered the truth, however, Petzal pulls the rug out from under us in the climactic final hour. Beyond the plotting and acting, “Blood” benefits from the beautifully photographed countryside and depictions of Irish manners and customs. It’s also interesting to learn that, at a time when American women are chafing at the bit for inclusion in the filmmaking process, “Blood” is represented by women at every level: writer, both directors, 4 of 11 producers, cinematographer, co-editor, casting director, costume design and production management, among other positions. Bonus material include cast and crew interviews, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Another Acorn Original mini-series, “London Kills,” takes full advantage of its widespread urban setting, from the banks of the Thames, to its junkie-infested tenements, leafy parks and architecturally significant inner city. While the homicide-squad setup would be recognizable to any fan of television procedurals, anywhere, each character here is allowed a full range of emotions and complexities. The diversity of the city’s demographic makeup is also represented, and women fill positions of authority inside the police department. They also are among the key suspects in the somewhat messy murder investigations. It opens when DC Rob Brady (Bailey Patrick) and Trainee DC Billie Fitzgerald (Tori Allen-Martin) respond to a gruesome scene in a hilly park, where a man is found stabbed multiple times and left hanging from a tree. When the victim is identified as the son of a prominent politician, the squad is not only pressured to find the killer, but also keep the details quiet from the press. That always works, right? The bodies keep piling up during the course of the five-part series, until a single common denominator surfaces in the form of a dreadlocked drifter, who attempts a sapphic hookup with Fitzgerald. An antagonistic relationship between DI David Bradford (Hugo Speer) and DS Vivienne Cole (Sharon Small) causes problems that are caused more by her rebellious nature, than any sexist inclinations on his part. The pressure on Bradford to solve the case is compounded by the recent disappearance of his social worker wife and their daughter’s insurrection, both of which, of course, could figure in the murder spree. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

The soapy BSkyB mini-series, “Delicious,” appears to have been engineered specifically to appeal to what, in the U.S., highbrows frequently describe derisively as the Lifetime audience. That would be its natural home, I think, but Food Channel fanatics should love it, too. It also plays to fans of “Downton Abbey,” who were drawn to the series for its spectacular architecture, plush interiors and elitist aura. Shot at Cornwall’s Pentille Castle, Port Eliot House, Boconnoc House and other splendid locations, it also appeals to Anglophiles everywhere. In the show’s first four-part season, we were introduced to celebrity chef Leo Vincent (Iain Glen), a serial philanderer, who, before his untimely death, was married to the beautiful blond hotelier, Sam (Emilia Fox), and having an affair with his first wife, Gina (Dawn French), from whom he stole recipes that made him successful. Instead of bashing each other, Sam and Gina combine their talents to preserve the Penrose estate’s legacy as a superb place to stay, dine and get married. Things get complicated when Gina and Sam’s children – possibly step-siblings – fall in love and split for parts unknown. The third season is highlighted by the return of Gina’s emaciated daughter, Teresa (Tanya Reynolds); a medical emergency for Leo’s live-in mother (Sheila Hancock); the arrival of rich investor and restaurateur Mason Elliott (Vincent Regan), with whom Gina also has a history; Elliott’s undisguised moves to steal Penrose’s top talent, including Sam and promising chef, Adam Hesketh (Aaron Anthony), who is Gina’s protege and Leo’s biological son. Like Ivory, “Delicious” is 99 and 44⁄100-percent pure soap. Although there’s plenty of room left for a Season Four – the return of Sam’s son, Vincent, perhaps? – no decision has yet been made.

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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