MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Slaughterhouse Rulez, Silver Lake, Dark Sense, Swing Kids, Cherry Grove, Karloff/Lugosi, Running Man, Between the Lines, Crypto … More

Slaughterhouse Rulez
Any time a movie starring such fine British actors as Michael Sheen (The Queen), Margot Robbie (I, Tanya), Asa Butterfield (Hugo), Simon Pegg (Star Trek), Nick Frost (Into the Badlands), Finn Cole (“Animal Kingdom”), Hermione Corfield (Rust Creek) and Isabella Laughland (Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince), you’d think someone on this side of the pond would sit up and pay attention to it. The presence of Pegg and Frost, alone, should have alerted fans of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Paul and The End to the possibility, at least, that it might be a sleeper of indeterminant genre. It was done in, methinks, by a title so vague as to confuse potential viewers of its intentions. Was it just another splatter fest, this time set at a spelling bee or an abattoir owned by a guy with a funny last name? Anyone who’s ever played on a Little League or junior soccer team might foresee a movie, Slaughterhouse Rulez, in which barely literate kids compete against each other – think, “Bad News Bearz,” “Ladybugz,” “The Mighty Duckz” – and the “slaughter rule” (a.k.a., “mercy rule”) is frequently applied. Tellingly, Crispian Mills’ nifty merger of horror, coming-of-age comedy and sci-fi is the first offering from Pegg and Frost’s production company, Stolen Picture. What begins as a darkish teen comedy, set in an  elite British boarding school, makes an abrupt midcourse correction by adding monsters, a corrupt dean and fracking, of all things. When the students return to school after summer holiday, its smarmy dean – the Bat, played with his nose in the air, by Sheen —  cautions against swimming in the estate’s serene pond and wandering through the surrounding forest. No one is told why, exactly, but the students quickly detect frequent temblors, noxious fumes and a flammable swimming hole. An unauthorized stroll through the woods reveals a giant sinkhole protected by armed guards.

As one of the new kids in school, Don Wallace (Cole) becomes the whipping boy for the privileged upperclassmen who despise his middle-class background and unwillingness to play along with “rulez,” forbidding them from assuming they’re human beings. All hell breaks out when Don dares to strike up a conversation with the school’s resident goddess, Clemsie Lawrence (Hermione Corfield), who’s been deemed the property of the crypto-fascist senior-class president. No sooner does the class struggle erupt in earnest than monsters emerge from the hole. Buckinghamshire’s historic Stowe School stands in for Slaughterhouse, as inelegant a name as any school in the movies, so Slaughterhouse Rulez doesn’t lack for ruling-class credentials and immaculately tailored grounds. It should appeal most to high school- and college-age audiences, as well as fans Sean of the Dead and St. Trinian’s, from which emerged Lily Cole, Tamsin Egerton, Talulah Riley, Jodie Whittaker, Kathryn Drysdale, Juno Temple, Antonia Bernath, Emily Bevan, Tereza Srbova and Russell Brand. Like them, the young actors here shouldn’t have any problem finding work at the next level.

Under the Silver Lake: Blu-ray
When David Robert Mitchell’s extremely ambitious neo-noir dramedy, Under the Silver Lake, arrived at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, it was floating on a cloud that began forming at the 2010 fest, with The Myth of the American Sleepover, and gathered momentum, in 2014, with the festival debut of It Follows. Because the former depicted an endless night of teenage revelry and self-discovery, critics compared it to Sixteen Candles, Dazed and Confused, Superbad, American Graffiti, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Go. Peering deeper into “Sleepover,” the assembled mass of critics and industry geeks identified enough individual talent to mark Mitchell as a multi-hyphenate to watch. Because it managed to add something new and different to the resurgent stalker/slasher subgenre, It Follows didn’t feel nearly as derivative or predictable. In it, an unrelenting supernatural force tails recently de-flowered teens, as if it were a STD among friends with benefits. As a Palme d’Or nominee, Under the Silver Lake, debuted to a mixed response at last year’s Cannes festival. It would take almost a full year to reach a handful of American theaters and, another two months, before arriving in DVD/Blu-ray, where it might finally find its ideal demographic grouping.

To understand Under the Silver Lake enough to recommend it to fellow hipsters, a walking knowledge of Los Angeles’ trendy Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz neighborhoods is essential. Also helpful is a familiarity with such landmarks as the Hollywood Forever cemetery, downtown’s Last Bookstore and such previously used locations as the Canfield-Moreno Estate (The Neon Demon), the Standard Hotel’s rooftop bar (Collateral), Bronson Caves (“Batman”), the statuary surrounding the Griffith Observatory (Rebel Without a Cause), the shimmering 2nd Street Tunnel, between Hill and Figueroa (Blade Runner), and Echo Park Lake (Chinatown). “Silver Lake” also appears to have been informed, stylistically, by Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and The Long Goodbye (1973), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2015), Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2015). Did I mention the dog park at the Silver Lake Reservoir? It’s there, too. I don’t know how many other homages, references and bows are scattered throughout the 139-minute Under the Silver Lake, but, I’m sure, there were plenty I missed. The film takes place in 2011, which I can’t remember being terribly eventful, and opens with the unemployed protagonist, Sam (Andrew Garfield), surveying the courtyard of his apartment building, with binoculars, not unlike Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954). The multi-floor complex is nearly identical to thousands of other domiciles in L.A., except for the presence of Topless Bird Woman (Wendy Vaden Hueval); mysterious blond swimmer, Sarah (Riley Keough), who mimics Marilyn Monroe in Something’s Got to Give (1962); a tall, thin blond (Riki Lindhome), who, while making love, stares at his signed Kurt Cobain poster; a resident skunk, which leaves its mark on Sam, like an ill-advised tattoo; and a coyote, imbued with the spirit of a Native American god. If Under the Silver Like appears to have been front-loaded with more extraneous baggage than any quirky indie should be required movie to carry, that’s only because it has.

Even at an accommodating length of 139 minutes, I can understand how audiences at Cannes – and those West Siders who never venture further east than the Paramount lot – might have felt intimidated by Mitchell’s indulgences. Those so inclined, however, shouldn’t have any problem adjusting to Mitchell’s survey of L.A. exotica or the unhinged mystery that propels the story. It begins with the blond swimmer (Keogh), who disappears from the complex after promising Sam a roll in the hay the next afternoon. While checking out her empty apartment, he witnesses another young woman (Zosia Mamet) breaking into it and stealing a box that he already knows contains photos and other memorabilia. She’s picked up outside the complex by a convertible carrying several other beauties, who head for the Echo Park Lake, where a weirdo in pirate costume is waiting to take the box. Sam will continue to run into the women in various places around town, where they could be recognized as aspiring ingenues or expensive escorts. He gets nowhere, though, until he connects with the mad conspiracy theorist, Comic Man (Patrick Fischler), who publishes the titular underground ’zine, which is full of clues to the swimmer’s disappearance and the whereabouts of Dog Killer, Owl Girl and Homeless King. The latter leads him to the rabbit hole that drops Sam into a subterranean Wonderland. Other clues are provided by the lyrics to songs by the emo band, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula; a visit to the mansion of the most prolific songwriter in history; a 30-year-old map for the Legend of Zelda game; and a guide to the signage used by hobos. Also contributing to the overall sense of tension and dread is the Disasterpeace score. The cinematography, set design, costumes and acting are excellent, with Garfield doing most of the heavy lifting. (Twenty years ago, Jeremy Davies might have made for an even better lead.) The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “What Lies Under the Silver Lake” and “Beautiful Specter.”

Swing Kids: Blu-ray
The first thing to know about Well Go USA’s latest Korean import, Swing Kids, is that it bears only a titular similarity to Thomas Carter’s 1993 story about a group of German teenagers who rebel against the Nazi regime through a mutual affection for forbidden American swing music, British fashions and Harlem slang. Here, swing music provides the impetus for self-expression by a group of pro-communist POWs, who love tap dancing and are coached by a disaffected African American sergeant, Jackson (Jared Grimes). A professional dancer on Broadway before the Korean civil war – alternately known as a “police action,” “6.25 Upheaval” “Fatherland Liberation War,” “War to Resist America and Aid Korea,” “The Forgotten War”  — Jackson was assigned the task of organizing a Christmas show, designed to impress the brass and relieve the tension inside the camp’s barb-wire boundaries. Because Brigadier General Roberts (Ross Kettle) considers this to be an impossible mission, its failure would reflect badly on the camp’s sole black NCO. For his part, Jackson has nothing better to do than arrange for the music at camp socials and attempt to meet his commander’s impossibly high expectations. In that regard, he also feels a tentative kinship with the prisoners from South and North Korea, and the “volunteers” from the Peoples Republic of China.

Typically, the only thing the communists agree upon is their hatred of the UN forces that back the pro-capitalist, anti-communist leadership of Syngman Rhee. I mention this because much of the backstory on the Geoje Island prison camp – including a historically accurate insurrection – probably is already known to South Korean audiences, but will draw a complete blank with Americans, whose only awareness of the three-year conflict derives from “M*A*S*H” reruns. The 4.6-square-mile settlement housed as many as 170,000 POWs and experienced extreme climatic shifts. As is shown at the very end of Swing Kids – and should not be considered a spoiler – the facility would later be converted into a tourist attraction. There will be times when American viewers will be confused as to what prompted high-profile writer/director Kang Hyeong-cheol (Scandal Makers, Sunny) to take the liberties he does with what could have been a cut-and-dried war drama. For example, in addition to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the group taps to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” the Isley Brothers’ “Shake,” the Beatles’ “Free as a Bird” and “Hava Nagila.” Not only does Jackson have thousands of prisoners from which to choose a handful of finalists, he also finds volunteers among the female “camp followers,” who prostitute themselves for food.

For much of the first half of the unnecessarily long Swing Kids, the emphasis is on the wonderfully choreographed tryouts and rehearsals. Only a few incidents expose the tensions and racism inherent in camp life. The finalists include Ro Ki-soo (K-pop star Do Kyung-soo), a mercurial North Korean prisoner; Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se), who dances as a prayer to finding his wife among the incoming POWs; Xiao Pang (Kim Min-Ho), a Chinese soldier who was born with natural talent for dance and a lack of endurance due to angina; and the lovely Yang Pan-rae (Park Hye-su), who attends camp dances to steal food. Politics are left on the sidelines, until the second half, when newly arrived North Korean regulars clash with their less dogmatic allies. When forced to choose between dance, complacency and communist ideals, however, most of the longtimers know not to rock the boat steered by spies, infiltrators and battle-hardened soldiers. Because one of newcomers is the hero brother of the gotta-dance protagonist, he’s forced to act as the trigger the rebellion. While that does constitute a spoiler, it’s necessary to alert unsuspecting viewers as to what they’re about to experience. As shocks to the system go, it’s like switching from flutes of light and bubbly champagne at a wedding reception, to shots of Jameson’s at a wake. Symbolically, though, it perfectly sums up the effect of an imperfect peace treaty that’s been stalemated for nearly 70 years and has always been in danger of exploding into World War III. If that sounds like a guarded recommendation for an intermittently exhilarating and horrific dramedy … it is.

Dark Sense
Based on Peter Flannery’s best-seller, “First and Only,” as well as the subsequent film short, “Simon, First and Only” (2016), the psycho/supernatural thriller, Dark Sense, takes place in a dark corner of one of the UK’s most industrialized cities, Glasgow. The locations exploited in the historic port city, alone, are enough to recommend it to tentative Anglophiles as an antidote to flighty entertainments set in the Lake District, Cornwall and London. It opens rather abruptly, in an underlit church, when a boy witnesses the murder of a friendly priest by a man dressed as an avenging angel … or Darth Vader, one. The killer spares Simon but leaves him with deep physical and mental scars. Among the assets derived by such trauma are an ability to foretell terrible events and an ability to transform static objects. The problem is that Simon never knows when to expect an attack, which typically trips something inside him that resembles an epileptic seizure and frightening premonitions. As a young adult, Simon (Shane O’Meara) foresees his own death at the hands of a serial killer that we assume to be the same one who attacked the priest. With only five days to track down the murderer and save himself, Simon hires Steve (Jim Sturgeon), an ex-SAS operative with personal problems. Somehow, his abilities have also caught the attention of MI5, which sends agents Stokes (Graeme McKnight) and Chatham (Margaret Ann Bain) after him. The agency believes that the virtually harmless Simon is a threat to national security and needs to be caged or killed. Between the MI5 and the hooded fiend, it’s difficult to tell who’s the greater threat to Simon and Steve. The chase scenes take full advantage of Glasgow’s gritty inner city and grubby wastelands along the River Clyde. The climax is a classic battle between the forces of good and evil and, as such, sometimes pushes the envelope of reasonable credibility. Apparently, Dark Sense broke the record for the most money raised for a Scottish film via crowdfunding. It wasn’t much, by U.S. standards, anyway, but, in his debut feature, director Magnus Wake was able to stretch the $67,000 in contributions to the breaking point.

Docs on DVD
Cherry Grove Stories
Game Girls
The Brink
Long before Stonewall, gay men and lesbians found temporary refuge on Fire Island, where their dollars dominated the summer economy and Suffolk County police only infrequently interrupted the fun with seaborne raids. At that point in LGBTQ history, however, an arrest for such inconsequential offenses as hand holding, cross-dressing and wandering too close to a homophobic undercover cop resulted in stories in the local press and gossip rags, naming names and alerting employers to the presence of deviant hand-holder in their midst. If the charges wouldn’t amount to much beyond a misdemeanor, fine or dismissal, the damage had already been done. Still, the pleasures of Fire Island in the summer kept rentals fully occupied and the bars and nightclubs jumping. Native islanders resumed normal activities for the next eight or nine months.Michael Fisher’s compelling oral history, Cherry Grove Stories, presents an intergenerational cross-section of gay men and a handful of lesbians, who look back fondly – mostly — on the titular Fire Island resort town, which has long been referred to as the Gay Shangri-La. The subjects range from longtime visitors, who first glimpsed Cherry Grove when it was a spartan post-World War II beachfront enclave, to those who bought houses after it had evolved into a thriving, queer-friendly destination. Fisher, who has been going to Cherry Grove for 32 years, was inspired to make the film by long-time resident Michael Delisio, who was one one of the first men to commute to Cherry Grove, in the 1950s. Fisher supplements the interviews with a fascinating array of photographs and home movies, many showing men in full or partial drag and simply enjoying the beach, pier and patio parties that were so much a part of the fair-weather activities. The men and women interviewed also recall the musicals and stage shows that became summer rituals. Younger Fire Island residents and visitors, including those who came of age during the AIDS panic, see things from an almost war-weary perspective. Sadly, a disproportionate number of the people shown here in the movies and photos fell victim to the epidemic. Fisher hopes that Cherry Grove Stories will provide a meaningful and accurate history that isn’t clouded with homophobic attacks, daily police harassment, street protests and waiting for Supreme Court rulings with bated breath. The DVD adds bonus footage, an intro and podcast interview with the director.

Judging solely from the cover photograph, I had only the vaguest clue as to what to expect from Polish filmmaker Alina Skrzeszewska’s insightful and informative Game Girls. The cover and poster art is accompanied by the tagline, “A Skid Row Love Story” and a sign that reads “Skid Row City Limits/Pop. Too Many.” One of the women standing in front of the sign is wearing a puffy white dress that would be appropriate for a prom, wedding or amateur production of “Swan Lake.” Her partner is decked out in a splashy black tuxedo, with white trim, blue sneakers, shades and tightly woven cornrows. It would be easy to assume that the person in the tux is the woman in white’s lesbian lover or fiancé. She’s showing more of her chest, shoulders and thighs than would be appropriate for a normal church wedding – straight or gay – so, who knows? Because I’ve made mistakes before, when judging gender identity by photographs, I went into Game Girls unhampered by needless assumptions. Teri Rogers and Tiahna Vince remind us that Los Angeles’ Skid Row – unlike those in other cities – has long been considered a painfully depressed neighborhood in a city obsessed with glamour, celebrity and ostentatious wealth. It wasn’t until L.A.’s resurgent downtown, Arts District, loft developments and Little Tokyo encircled the 54-block entity that politicians and community organizers became convinced that homelessness had reached epidemic proportions. By then, however, a tent-based mini-neighborhood had transformed Skid Row’s sidewalks and empty lots into something resembling Colorado Avenue, in nearby Pasadena, on the eve of the Rose Bowl parade. Until then, as well, Skid Row wasn’t a place that yuppies, foodies and tourists visited on foot, unless they were looking for drugs or down-on-their-luck relatives.

The number of people living on the streets of Skid Row, in tents, cardboard shelters. vehicles and in shelters has risen to 36,000 semi-permanent residents. This comes, even as the neighborhood’s available space has been reduced through gentrification, hot new restaurants, galleries, boutique hotels, brewpubs and expensive apartment buildings. When Skrzeszewska’s debut doc, Songs from the Nickel, was released in 2010, Skid Row was still a place where displaced people could find cheap and decent lodging in SRO hotels, affordable food in greasy spoons, occasional jobs as day laborers and no-frills booze at the landmark King Edward bar. In the ensuing 10 years, Skrzeszewska returned to America’s “homeless capital” numerous times to see what was changing and how it impacted its residents. We’re introduced to Teri and her girlfriend, Tiahna, just after the latter is released from prison for selling drugs. She returns to the neighborhood to find the belligerent and almost certainly mentally disturbed Teri desperate to get off the streets. In intimate and sometimes unsettling scenes that include group therapy and bureaucratic snafus, viewers witness snatches of the Skid Row that’s given way to tent encampments, crystal meth and panhandling, and is inspiring rancorous debate ahead of the coming civic elections, here and in San Francisco and San Diego. It’s also possible to recognize a community of residents, who make the best out of a bad situation and find numerous ways to engage with each other … at least until the sun goes down and the night creatures emerge. Together with other women from the neighborhood, they attend a weekly Expressive Arts workshop, where they are able to reflect, dream and heal. Can their love survive the violence of their past and their current environment? As becomes obvious, the journey won’t be easy. Game Girls premiered at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, where it received several award nominations. It had to settle for an Internet debut here last month, which, of course, is part of the problem.

Alison Klayman (Al Weiwei: Never Sorry) adopts the fly-on-the-wall approach to chronicling embattled former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s global mission to spread “economic and populist nationalism.” When the President bristled at having to share the spotlight with a man who wears two winter coats at all times and only shaves when the mood hits, he decided the White House wasn’t big enough to contain two gigantic egos. (Bannon probably was the source of unauthorized leaks to the “fake media,” as well.) Since becoming persona non grata, the Abominable Snowman of American politics has taken full credit for being the architect who molded Donald Trump’s only partially sublimated sexism, racism and xenophobia into a cohesive whole, palatable to Hillary- and Obama-haters, bigots and anti-tax fanatics. In the runup to the 2018 midterm contests and last month’s European Parliamentary Elections, extreme right-wing Republicans here and Neanderthals around the world willingly coughed up exorbitant per-plate donations to listen to his cliché-ridden diatribes and pay for selfies with a Yeti. European conservatives wanted to hear Bannon explain how he saved America from the threat of criminals, gangbangers and rapists pushing northward from Mexico and Central America – what, he didn’t? – and how his theories emboldened pro-Brexit activists. As was the case in the 2018 mid-term elections in the U.S., Bannon’s whale-out-of-water presence didn’t work out too well in Europe. This isn’t to say that the former Goldman Sachs banker and media investor folded up his tent and sulked home, only that he now has plenty of time to sow the seeds of hate among die-hard Republicans and reap millions of dollars for himself – not that he needs it — before November 2020. The Brink will frighten liberals in the same way that the Universal monsters scared their parents and grandparents. Otherwise, the film qualifies as a document that preaches to the choir.

Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre: Blu-ray
Wonder Park: Blu-ray
This newly available anime arrives with a short backstory. When Studio Ghibli temporarily closed in 2014, some proteges of the master, Hayao Miyazaki, followed former lead film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi to the upstart, Studio Ponoc. Its first feature film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, based on Mary Stewart’s “The Little Broomstick,” was released on July 8, 2017, and reached sixth place on that year’s box-office charts. A monkey wrench was thrown into plans for a second animated feature, when Miyazaki proposed a new feature-length film, “How Do You Live?,” with a completion date of anywhere between 2019 and 2021. Several of Ghibli’s former employers elected to take the plunge with him. Hoping not to break the momentum, the studio sent out “Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre.” The 53-minute anthology is comprised of three 15-minute featurettes in one program. While Mary and the Witch’s Flower could easily have been mistaken for a Ghibli product, Modest Heroes has a look of its own. Each featurette is handled by different directors and animators. A fourth was planned, but its director, Isao Takahata, died in mid-production.

“Kanini & Kanino” takes place in a mid-stream fairyland the humanoid siblings call home. Their fully evolved father is taking care of saplings Kanini and Kanino while their pregnant mother has gone away to give birth. When a heavy current carries their father off, the siblings embark on a dangerous journey to find and rescue him. In “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose,” Shun is born with a lethal allergy to eggs. Since then, his family has focused its attention on protecting Shun from contact. At school, Shun has to eat specially prepared meals and his classmates are careful not to spit on him and get saliva with egg bits all over him. Field trips present hazards he’s never considered. Meanwhile, his mother tries to maintain her career as a professional dancer. When Shun unknowingly eats something that endangers him, he has to come to his own rescue. “Invisible” features a “salaryman” – someone who’s so involved in his work, he never makes time to smell the roses – that’s not only invisible, but also needs to hold on to a heavy weight to stay on the ground. One day, he nearly floats away, when he loses the fire extinguisher that he uses to hold himself down. When a blind man recognizes a kindred spirit, the invisible man suddenly has an opportunity to be a modest hero.

If ever a movie was born under a bad sign, it’s Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Movies’ kids-friendly fantasy Wonder Park. Among other things, the film has no credited director. The Director’s Guild almost always refuses to allow a film to be released without a credited director – hence, Allen Smithee, also uncredited — due to various contractual obligations. Dylan Brown, who, as they say, may never work in this town again, had completed most of the work when he was accused of and fired over #MeToo-related accusations. Jeffrey Tambor, originally slated to voice Boomer the Bear, was later removed from the project for similar reasons and replaced by Ken Hudson Campbell. Originally titled “Amusement Park” and scheduled for August 10, 2018, it was moved to March 15, 2019, to avoid competing with Disney’s Christopher Robin (2018). It also was retitled, Wonder Park, which might remind some viewers of Toronto’s massive theme park, Canada’s Wonderland, which, between 1993 and 2006, was known as Paramount’s Canada’s Wonderland. It looked as if Wonder Park had “straight-to-DVD” stamped all over it. Even with all this baggage and decidedly mixed reviews, it managed to eke out a cumulative worldwide gross of nearly $120 million, against a production budget estimated to be around $100 million. Not great, but Wonder Park is the kind of movie that performs well in DVD/Blu-ray/VOD platforms. In a nutshell, the film follows an imaginative young girl, June (Sofia Mali), who suddenly discovers that the amusement park of her dreams has come to life. It is filled with the world’s wildest rides, operated by fun-loving animals, and the excitement almost never ends. When the park faces extinction, however, June and her misfit team of furry friends begin an unforgettable journey to save it. The Blu-ray adds a handful of short kid-centric featurettes, a sing-along and a deleted scene. Typically, kids don’t tend to care much about the problems of adults, so they shouldn’t be punished by depriving them of an entertaining, if troubled movie.

Crypto: Blu-ray
I doubt that enough people in the U.S. sufficiently understand Bitcoin and other so-called cryptocurrencies to make John Stalberg Jr.’s sophomore feature, Crypto, a hit. I own a small,  invisible stack of Bitcoins and never have been able to figure out how much they’re worth and how to get rid of them. (I’m still trying to figure out S&H Green Stamps.) The film’s protagonist, Martin Jr. (Beau Knapp), doesn’t understand cryptocurrency any more than I do, and he’s been assigned by his employers to figure out why one of its affiliate banks – located on a speck of dust in far Upstate New York — is relying on it to boost revenues. Incredibly, one of his high school buddies, Earl (Jeremie Harris), has just installed a converter machine in his liquor store – yeah, right – and agrees to tutor the financial auditor, at great risk to himself. In the first of Cyrpto’s many illogical narrative missteps, Martin is sent back to the hometown he abandoned when he decided he didn’t want to join his PTSD-suffering brother (Luke Hemsworth) and hard-ass father Martin Sr. (Kurt Russell), growing and digging up potatoes. In their calloused opinion, Junior will have to prove his loyalty to them, before he’s allowed to step foot on the hallowed, if depleted dirt of the family farm. Caleb would prefer cutting to the chase and shooting him with one of his military-grade weapons. Elba is the kind of small town in which everyone knows everybody else’s business. That’s bad news for Junior and Earl, who’ve sussed out a scheme on the Darknet, involving the Russian mafia; a highly suspicious local art gallery, whose heroin- and sex-addicted curator is a dead-ringer for Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Russian nemesis, Natasha Fatale; illegal loans from Martin’s employer’s Manhattan bank, to the gallery owners; and a tiny, non-descript bait shop on the Canadian side of the Saint Lawrence River, through which all of the illegal money is laundered. Alexis Bledel, who doesn’t look a day older than she did in the final episode of “Gilmore Girls,” plays a lounge singer, gallery employee and Martin Jr,’s love interest. If no one in Elba appears to be in any particular hurry to help Martin do his job, it quickly becomes clear that nobody at the parent bank wants him to succeed, either. (“Law & Order” alumnus Jill Hennessy makes a welcome cameo as Martin’s immediate supervisor.) Based on that summary, alone, it’s remarkable that Stalberg (High School) was able to keep all his balloons in the air. Russell may not steal any of the scenes in which he appears, but neither does he waste anyone’s time by phoning in his performance. The same can’t be said for other over-the-hill superstars working the straight-to-video circuit, these days.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic
Watching Colin Bemis’ intriguingly titled debut feature, Strawberry Flavored Plastic, I was reminded of Denis Mueller’ 2014 confessional, I Killed JFK, which provided a first-person account of the assassination from the self-described “grassy knoll shooter.” At the time of the doc’s release, James E. Files (a.k.a., James Sutton) was still serving time at an Illinois correctional institution, either Stateville or Danville, for a 1990 shootout with police. He was paroled in 2016. At the time, I couldn’t think of a single Hollywood actor who could have provided a more credible performance in the same role. I was surprised by how little attention I Killed JFK received in both the mainstream and alternative media. A little more research would reveal that Files had been making the same claims since  he entered prison and he’s already been interviewed by the FBI and journalists. As convincing as Files appeared to me, his accusations of mob and CIA complicity had long been discounted. This doesn’t mean that Files was lying, only that no one in Washington wanted to re-open a can of worms that had already been buried and forgotten, as had Files’ 1993 interview with the late investigator Joe West. Other films with Files include, the shelved Frame 313: The JFK Assassination Theories (2008) and the as-yet-unreleased mini-series “JFK Assassination: Declassified Theories.” Oliver Stone’s JFK was released before Files began ratting himself out. Files has said that he met with Stone three times afterwards but refrained from signing a release.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic has nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates elements of several different cinematic subgenres: mockumentary, found footage, neo-noir, horror and true crime. Bemis describes the “crimes of still-at-large Noel, a repentant, classy and charming serial killer loose in the suburbs of New York.” A critic at Dread Central said the film is “basically a found footage version of American Psycho,” while also referencing Mark Duplass and Partick Brice’s Creep and Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog. The suburb is Peekskill, which, we’re told, has several unsolved murders on its books from 2016. Noel Rose (Aidan Bristow), who sort of resembles a better-groomed version of Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas, is a recovering junkie and sociopath, who just spent nine years in prison for an unrelated crime. He claims the murders as his handiwork. Budding documentarians Errol Morgan (Nicholas Urda) and Ellis Archer (Andres Montejo) sense an opportunity to make names for themselves by giving Noel a cheap digital camera and all the memory cards he can handle to chronicle the life and times of a “working” maniac. At first, we’re perfectly willing to play along with the gag. A bit later, it becomes clear to us that Noel isn’t what the filmmakers thought he was. This isn’t to say, however, that his homicidal urges aren’t real or that he isn’t a menace to society. It’s at this point that Noel forces Morgan and Archer to choose between becoming complicit in his very real crimes and dropping out of the program. It’s a dilemma that journalists and photographers face when given the choice of remaining objective bystanders and buying a starving child a sandwich or preventing a junkie from taking the shot that might kill them.

Between the Lines: Blu-ray
It’s likely that the same Baby Boomers who identified with the characters in The Big Chill (1983), and have since added it to their permanent playlists, will find something to enjoy in Joan Micklin Silver’s similarly transitional Between the Lines (1977). In the former, a group of friends from college gather for the funeral of a close friend, who, when he stopped trying to fix the world’s problems, committed suicide. They graduated from the University of Michigan together 10 years earlier, with hopes of their own to change society. Instead, they elected to embrace the emerging yuppie revolution, which allowed them to keep their ideals and make a ton of guilt-free money, too. If they taught their children well, the kids would save the world in their place. Set half-a-decade earlier in Boston, where radical politics had yet to go out of style, Between the Lines depicts what happens when a disparate collection of anti-establishment types are forced to accept the fact the 1960s are over and their underground weekly is about to be swallowed up by a mogul who specializes in turning bankrupt papers into profitable “alternative” rags. He does so by tempering the extreme left-wing proselytizing, broadening the approach to investigations, pumping up coverage of popular music, movies and local theater, and selling ads to anyone with the money to pay for them in cash. This included full pages devoted to strip clubs, escort services and massage parlors.

Although the Back Bay Mainline is modeled after the Boston Phoenix, it’s the same formula that kept the Village Voice and other weeklies alive for 30 more years. Between the Lines opens just as rumors of a purchase by a “hip capitalist” are beginning to circulate. As much as the journalists want to take to the barricades and withhold the assault by the establishment, most of them assume that their time has passed, and they will have to compromise or accept the consequences of leaving. Some of them have already begun writing the next chapters in their story … in secret. Silver and co-writer Fred Barron, himself a veteran of the Phoenix, decided correctly, I think, to focus less on the battle to save the Mainline and concentrate more on the interpersonal relationships, which have begun to change, as well. The women in the movie are beginning to wake up to the fact that they don’t have accept the male-chauvinist behavior of their boyfriends and bosses, while the rock critic, Max Arloft (Jeff Goldblum) is the only one able to let his freak flag fly, without feeling self-conscious. The other nice thing about Between the Lines is a cast that’s the equal of the higher paid actors assigned to The Big Chill. (The soundtrack’s pretty good, as well, but not nearly as nostalgic as the soundtrack afforded by Columbia Pictures.) Besides Goldblum, in a similar role to the one he would go on to play in Lawrence Kasdan’s dramedy, it includes John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Stephen Collins, Bruno Kirby, Michael J. Pollard, Marilu Henner, Jill Eikenberry, Gwen Welles and, as themselves rocker Southside Johnny Lyon and National Lampoon co-founder, Douglas Kenney. The restored Cohen Media Blu-ray adds a new interview with Silver.

Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1: Blu-ray
It must be frustrating for collectors of classic genre fare to know when it’s the right time invest in the ultimate volumes, enhanced by the latest technology; new bonus features, as opposed to EPKs; individual releases on uncompressed discs of their own; and protective packaging. We’ve also been asked to choose between boxed sets, containing numerous titles, and smaller collections, containing the work of individual artists. Since the advent of home video, Universal and Disney have continued to lead the parade when it comes to finding new ways to exploit their inventories. By my count, the movies included in the Universal Horror Collection — The Invisible Ray (1936), The Raven (1935), Black Friday (1940) and The Black Cat (1934) – have been packaged together three times under different titles and technologies. Slightly more than a year ago, UPHE sent out the same titles on DVD. It fell to the good folks at Scream Factory to deliver these “second-line horrors” on Blu-ray, with featurettes that fans haven’t already seen a dozen times. Besides Son of Frankenstein (1939), where Karloff played the Monster to Lugosi’s Ygor, these four films are the only Universal films in which they appeared together. They were both in RKO’s The Body Snatcher (1945) – under director Robert Wise and producer Val Lewton — but Karloff’s role was substantially greater than Lugosi’s participation, which mostly constituted lending his name to posters. (It was released by Scream Factory, three months ago, on Blu-ray.) Just as Roger Corman would adapt the works of Edgar Allan Poe for the benefit of Vincent Price and his many fans, so, too, did Universal take liberties with Poe’s thrillers for fans of Karloff and Lugosi, with The Raven and The Black Cat. In Arthur Lubin’s ridiculously enjoyable Black Friday, elements of horror, gangster and mad-scientist flicks congealed into a fairly cohesive whole. The borderline racist Invisible Ray finds Our Heroes in Africa, where they track down a radioactive meteorite so powerful, it brings eyesight to the blind. There are some drawbacks, of course, to playing with such dangerous stuff. The new bonus material adds commentaries with author/film historians Gary D. Rhodes, Steve Haberman, Tom Weaver and Randall Larson, Constantine Nasr and Gregory William Mank; the four-part, nearly feature-length featurette, “The Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal”; the featurette, “Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe,” narrated by Doug Bradley; and some other archival material.  Karloff shifts wigs in every movie.

The Running Man: Blu-ray
Once again, I caution readers not to confuse a new archival release with a similarly titled movie of more recent vintage. Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray edition of Carol Reed’s The Running Man (1963) could easily be mistaken for yet another version of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Running Man (1987), Dead Man Running (2009), Night of the Running Man (1995) or, for that matter, The Swimmer (1968). It wasn’t until I actually put the blank disc on the platter – as radio deejays once said – that I discovered, to my pleasure, not only that this Running Man had been directed by one of the world’s great directors, but it starred Laurence Harvey, Lee Remick and Alan Bates, as well. If I hadn’t heard of The Running Man until now, it probably had something to do with the unfortunate coincidence of it being released within a month of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Not that the movie had anything remotely to do with the tragic event. Somehow, the Warren Commission felt it necessary to shine a light into Columbia Pictures’ viral marketing campaign, which placed personal ads in the Dallas Morning News, asking “Running Man” to please call “Lee.” Investigators thought that the ads might contain coded messages placed by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, instead of references to Lee Remick and Laurence Harvey, as Columbia intended. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, an urban legend arose claiming that the film was a flop because it starred actors named Lee and Harvey. Any port in a storm for a sinking ship.

The Running Man is interesting today for a couple of good reasons. The first, obviously, is that it’s probably the one picture that Reed completists haven’t seen. Easier to find hard are Night Train to Munich (1940), The Young Mr. Pitt  (1942), Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949), Our Man in Havana (1959) and Oliver! (1968), for which Reed won the Academy Award for Best Director. The second reason is its similarity to some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best heist and caper pictures. The capper is cinematographer Robert Krasker’s ability to make Gibraltar, Cádiz, Málaga and  County Wicklow, Ireland, look so appealing. In it, daredevil pilot Rex Black (Harvey) has it out for the insurance company that denied him a payout, when his plane took a mysterious header into a forest and he’d forgotten to meet the deadline on his policy. He’s so irate at the insurance broker’s refusal to grant him a day’s grace that he almost immediately plans another crash landing, this time into the sea. Although the plan works like a charm, the man who sold him the accidental death policy remains suspicious. Nonetheless, the company pays a hefty sum to his beneficiary, Stella (Remick), who plans to reunite with her lover in Malaga. Not so coincidentally, Bates’ Stephen also makes the trek to the south of Spain, where Rex has dyed his hair an extreme shade of yellow and grown a rather silly mustache. It’s only a matter of time before Rex’s crude behavior alienates Stella and she allows Stephen to seduce her, Desperate to avoid being arrested, Rex turns the movie’s remaining minutes into an exciting chase from Cadiz to Gibraltar. The Arrow special edition is enhanced by a 2K restoration of the film by Sony Pictures and Blu-Ray presentation. Commentary is provided by Peter William Evans, author of “British Film-Makers: Carol Reed”; a new featurette, “On the Trail of the Running Man,” with script supervisor Angela Allen and assistant director Kits Browning; “Lee Remick at the National Film Theatre,” an audio-only recording of the actor’s appearance at the NFT in 1970; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve featuring original artwork; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forsha.

One More Shot
I apologize in advance to anyone whose interest I’ve piqued in the Apartheid-era movies produced in South Africa for the amusement of segregated audiences in the townships. Hundreds were made in the decade before Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and the country was forced to make the difficult transition into the second half of the 20th Century. Most of the movies, which blacks in other parts of the world would find appalling, disappeared when the races began mixing and theaters were integrated. Far from being even mildly entertaining, the latest offerings from Indiepix’s Retro Afrika  collection, could have been used as instruments of torture. One More Shot follows the pattern of taking Hollywood  genre fare, dumbing down the scripts and adding native African actors in roles typically reserved for whites. Here, though, it’s the martial-arts genre being corrupted. In it, a criminal known as Ten-Ten is released from prison, fixed on revenge. Immediately teaming with sleazy human-traffickers, he sets a trap for former boxer Johnny Tough, imploring him to save a beautiful girl from the sex-trade. Johnny’s tough, but the fight scenes are risible. Not that it matters, but One More Shot is the first I’ve seen that’s fully integrated.

Lola takes on sexism in South African sports, by having its female protagonist challenge a volleyball team comprised of guys who delight in harassing the young men and women who study for college exams, while they kill time doing less than nothing. It’s not a bad idea, really. The problem comes in the production values, which are way more pathetic than usual. The net droops dramatically in the middle, the costumes are hideous, and the players’ techniques aren’t intended for anyone over 12. The director kills time by pointing his camera at informal practice sessions and letting film roll until there’s no more left to unspool. Lola couldn’t be any more boring if the balls were exchanged for marbles and the actors were limited to 4th Grade and lower. These two pictures should have remained lost. Like I said … sorry.

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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