MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Ash Is Purest White, Fast Color, Dogman, High Life, Space 1999, Big Bad Fox, Fassbinder’s BRD, Klute, Baker’s Wife, Noir Archive, Master Z, Keaton 2, Hellboy 4K … More

Ash Is Purest White: Blu-ray
It’s unusual to find a contemporary Chinese drama as rooted in the present and near-present as Jia Zhangke’s compelling Ash Is Purest White. Bookended by mahjong games in a no-frill social club, the story spans the 18 years of the 21st century, starting in 2001 and coming full circle at the historic northern city of Datong. In a nation whose economy, population and prestige is booming, Datong is dependent on China’s dwindling reliance on coal and other mid-20th Century essentials. Zhangke’s co-protagonist, Qiao, is brilliantly played by his wife, Tao Zhao (Mountains May Depart). She runs the gambling den that is largely populated by elderly “brothers,” who have been laid off from the mines. Some have been offered jobs in the country’s oil and natural gas patches, but, needless to say, have little desire to start anew in a foreign province. The gambling den could have been modeled from social clubs and triads that existed even before Mao’s revolution. The setting rapidly shifts, as Qiao enters a disco with her lover, Bin, a local mobster who runs the city’s rackets and building trades, which isn’t as lucrative as it sounds. In an incongruous juxtaposition of modern and traditional pop sensibilities, they’re met there by Bin’s boss, who’s accompanied by a pair of award-winning ballroom dancers. The boss asks his protégé to allow the dancers a song or two to prove to the young crowd how hip traditional dancers can be. Within weeks, the boss will die an untimely death and Qiao will find himself outnumbered by rival gangs. The dancers perform at the outdoor funeral.

At one crucial moment, Bin’s limousine is surrounded by a mob of potential assassins, whose intentions are thwarted by Qiao firing off a few warning shots into the air. Then, he’s blindsided by a young assailant wielding a lead pipe to his legs. While Bin survives the attack, Qiao is sentenced to a women’s prison for five years for discharging an illegal firearm.  After being released, the noticeably older and more sedate Qiao is determined to reconnect with Bin, whose own loss of stature and imprisonment have humbled him to the core. Her pursuit takes her on a ferryboat ride down a scenic stretch of the Yangtze River, to a teeming city that in a few years will be swallowed by the rising waters behind the Three Gorges Dam. Millions of people will be displaced to feed the country’s insatiable appetite for electrical power. Bin hasn’t made it easy for her to find him. Qiao may not be fully prepared to deal with the city’s impersonal bureaucracy and cold-hearted businesses, but she’s quick learner. She finds free meals in places that welcome drifters and poor people, and some that emphatically don’t appreciate her subterfuge. While in prison, she met with a friend who was impregnated by a local businessman and deserted. He’s so humiliated by her presence that he willingly forks over money for both women. Before she locates Bin holed up in a shabby motel, still crippled from the earlier assault, Qiao also is required to use her cunning to recover stolen money and documents. As disillusioned as the onetime lovers have become, they remain committed to Jianghu, a set of wuxia-based principles that, for centuries, have governed triads, secret societies and people living on the fringes of their communities. Qiao will return to Datong, where things haven’t changed much in the interim.

When she runs into Bin again, she’s back at the social club looking over the gamblers and tending the kitchen. Although he’s too ashamed of his downfall to reveal himself to his “brothers,” it takes no effort on Qiao’s part for them to welcome him home. She also finds an acupuncturist who claims he can cure him. Can their love be restored, as well? Stay tuned. Ash Is Purest White contains so many amazing moments like that, it’s easy to mistake the UFO for a passing plane. Viewers should leave time for the Q&A’s and interview sessions in the bonus package.

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy: Blu-ray
The Fate of Lee Khan: Blu-ray
Legendary action director Yuen Woo-Ping draws on a stellar cast in Master Z: Ip Man Legacy — some of whom have appeared in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man series — to create a hard-hitting martial arts extravaganza that rates among the best I’ve ever seen. It also is enhanced by a reasonably credible screenplay by Edmond Wong and frequent partner Chan Tai Lee (Ip Man). Too often, kung fu flicks have been allowed to overlook the basics of storytelling, in favor of wall-to-wall action. Following his defeat by Master Ip, Cheung Tin Chi (Jin Zhang) attempts to make a peaceful life with his young son in Hong Kong. He waits tables at a bar that caters to expats and westerners, and waves off the compliments of people who’ve seen him fight or collect newspaper clippings. The bar’s mix of foreign sailors, ex-pats, drug money, prostitutes and gangsters ultimately draws Cheung into the larger fray, spurred, as well, by an attack on his son. It’s terrifically entertaining and wonderfully mounted by Kay Brown, Niina Topp and Kenneth Mak. The fighting scenes, especially those featuring Zhang (The Grandmaster), Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior), Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) and Dave Bautista (Avengers: Endgame) could hardly be more exciting. There’s also cleverly realized romance and sentimentality. The bonus features include an English-language track and subtitles, and a behind-the-scenes piece. BTW: Yip’s Ip Man 4: The Finale is scheduled for a December opening in December.

King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) followed hot on the heels of his three-hour wuxia masterpiece, A Touch of Zen (1971), which became the first Chinese-language film to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival and the first wuxia film to win a prize at any international event. (Wuxia, which translates to “martial heroes,” is a genre of Chinese fiction that focuses on the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. By contrast, Bruce Lee’s contemporary martial-arts picture fell outside the definition.) Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Inn (1967) also were big hits in Pacific Rim nations that set the stage for the great leaps forward in A Touch of Zen and The Fate of Lee Kahn. These remarkable films merged Japanese samurai traditions with western editing techniques and an aesthetic informed by Chinese music and opera. Along the way, Hu’s preference for spare western Chinese settings drew comparisons to John Ford and Sergio Leone. What really set Hu apart from the crowd, though, was his predilection for featuring female protagonists, sometimes more than one. The Fate of Lee Kahn takes place during the waning years of the Yuan Dynasty — 1366, to be precise — when the Mongol general Lee Khan (Tien Fong) and his sister Lee Wan’er (Feng Hsu) travel to the desolate Spring Inn, in Shaanxi province, to obtain the plans of rebel forces. Aided by innkeeper Wan Jen-Mi (Li Li-Hua), a group of undercover resistance fighters seeks to recover the map to maintain their edge. Disguised as waitresses, they are, in fact, a bandit, a pickpocket, a street performer and a con artist. They’re kept busy at the inn distinguishing between the good and bad spies in residence there. Things get even wilder when the action moves to the desert. It’s worth noting that the stunts were choreographed by Sammo Hung. Bonus features include: a barely audible NYAFF chat and new essay by Chinese-language film expert and author Stephen Teo.

Fast Color: Blu-ray
If it takes a while for Julia Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz’ terrifically eclectic supernatural thriller, Fast Color, to get to the magical heart of its story, viewers’ patience will be rewarded in several different ways. Tragically underscreened in its post-festival– 25 theaters, at its widest – it should still be playing in specialty houses, building buzz for a larger rollout and anticipation for its release in DVD/Blu-ray. Instead, here it is, forced to fend for itself in a cruel and crowded marketplace without much marketing support. Rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights) would have already made the rounds of the talk shows, where someone invariably would remark, “I hope they remember Fast Color at awards time.” Of mixed South African/ British background, Mbatha-Raw’s ascendency has been duly noted for memorable turns in such higher-profile entertainments as Belle (2013), Concussion (2015), Free State of Jones (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018). At least, Fast Color hasn’t been ghettoized by publicists hoping to gain some traction from a core supporting cast that includes Lorraine Toussaint (“Orange Is the New Black”), Saniyya Sidney (Hidden Figures), newcomer Aliza Halm and Jermaine Washington (Urban Justice). In any case, the integral presence of Oscar-nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Christopher Denham (“Billions”) would preclude such a strategy. That’s the other thing about Fast Color, though. The cast’s diversity never calls attention to itself, even if the film’s supernatural throughline can be traced to the protagonist’s roots in Africa.

When we meet Ruth, she’s on the run from an unspecified federal agency, somewhere in the middle of the Great Plains, which is suffering from an eight-year drought. A recovering addict, Ruth’s sudden seizures ignite earthquakes in Tornado Alley. Terrified of her own superpower, she tries mightily to alert innocent bystanders to the possibility of impending doom. When news of Ruth’s telekinesis spreads to Washington, a dogged government scientist, Bill (Denham), takes the next plane out of town to capture Ruth for study. He manages to track her down in a Dust Bowl diner, where, without tipping his hand, he offers her a ride to wherever she’s going. It doesn’t take long for Ruth to sniff out Bill’s ruse and wound him with the handgun she finds in the glovebox. Broke and desperate, she finds a temporary port in the storm at a roadhouse where locals come to wet their parched whistles. The kindness allows her time to think and enough loose change to make it to her mother’s home, which sits in the middle of a vast cornfield, all but invisible from the road. Then, two things happen at once: 1) Bill demands the help of a local sheriff, Ellis (Strathairn), who, we’ll soon discover, knows enough about Ruth’s family, to temporarily delay the investigation; and 2) she seeks the forgiveness of her mother, Bo (Toussaint), to whom she has caused great mental and emotional anguish.

Viewers won’t be surprised to learn that Lila (Halm), the wee curly-haired girl who shares the house with Bo, is the daughter Ruth barely recalls delivering and abandoning, years earlier. Call it sci-fi or magical realism, but all three women are blessed – cursed, perhaps – with the ability to manipulate objects and colors in ways that surprise Ruth and Lila, frighten outsiders and amaze viewers. Now comes the “with great power comes great responsibility” moment, when Bo explains how the women in their family are linked. It’s complicated, but the revelation leads to a meteorological event that beats anything you’ll find on the Weather Channel or “Tornado Hunters.” All that is required of viewers is a fundamental ability to suspend disbelief and a mistrust of government agencies triggered by “The X-Files” and the “trust no one” copycats it inspired. If Fast Color isn’t a perfect movie, blame it on all the usual things that impact low-budget indies. That, and any inferences potential viewers could draw about it being a chick flick – it’s not — or an attempt to tap into the same multiracial audiences successfully cultivated by Jordan Peele for Get Out and Us, which hardly constitutes a crime. It’s almost too obvious to see how Lila, at least, would be a perfect candidate for enrollment at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, in the X-Men universe. Fast Color adds interviews with the filmmakers and the making-of featurette, “A Mother’s Power.”

I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’ve begun to sound like a broken record on the subject of how difficult it is for foreign and indie movies to succeed when they leave the festival circuit. Even the best of them wind up being viewed on home-theater system that can’t help but diminish the experience to some degree. It’s the only  way, however, that I’ve been able to watch the movies I review here and a far better alternative to not seeing them at all. While it’s still possible for me to attend screenings of important films before their theatrical runs, it’s not the same thing as being able to explain to consumers what’s been lost or gained in the transfer to the small screen or the quality of the bonus material. There simply aren’t enough arthouse theaters to accommodate the hundreds of films currently being shown on the festival circuit. Without DVD/Blu-ray/PPV, they’d get no exposure whatsoever. Enough said. Matteo Garrone’s Dogman is only the latest example of a festival favorite – Palme d’Or nominee, Best Actor winner and recipient of the Palm Dog – that would have benefitted from greater exposure and publicity. According to Box Office Mojo, in the 14 weeks it was in release here, Dogman never played on more than a dozen screens at the same time, grossing $148,225 in the process. That may sound like a paltry sum, but, on a per-screen basis, it did OK. Another hurdle these movies face, of course, is the diminished amount of space allotted reviews, even in non-mainstream publications. The number of critics has decreased, as well, except in the blogosphere, which, while valuable, represents a relative drop in the bucket.

Dogman is a terrifically acted story about a dog washer, groomer and trainer, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a slight, mild-mannered man who divides his day between caring for canines at his modest business; caring for his daughter, Alida, at home; and chillin’ with his buddies at the local outdoor café or poolroom. Even if Fonte looks as if he were born to play the part, first-choice Roberto Benigni would have sold more tickets, while giving a different spin to the character and narrative. It’s hard to say how Benigni’s fans would have reacted to being so ruthlessly bullied by Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), an ex-boxer who terrorizes the neighborhood with his sudden outbursts of rage and ravenous appetite for beer and drugs, some of which are reluctantly supplied by the hapless dog washer. Marcello serves as Simoncino’s involuntary sidekick, helping him home after his frequent benders and performing criminal tasks for the hoodlum that are better suited to a smaller man. As difficult as it may be, Marcello struggles to remain true to his principles. After one of the Simoncino’s burglaries, for example, an accomplice admits to kicking a barking dog and throwing it into a freezer. It’s a measure of Marcello’s humanity that he returns to the apartment where the break-in occurred and risks arrest by attempting to breathe new life into the scrawny pup.

Obviously, the same Marcello who washes and walks dogs nearly his own size – and temperaments as threatening as the bully– isn’t about to stand up to Simoncino, whether it comes to abetting crimes or challenging his gang member’s treatment of barking dogs. Neither does anyone else in the neighborhood, though. The only option they have is to perform their civic duty by murdering Simoncino and pretend he left town. That will have to wait, however. Desperate to find money to buy drugs, the hoodlum tells Marcello to leave his shop’s door open one night, so that he can break into the neighbor’s business through the wood-paneled wall that separates the units. Not only does this make Marcello the logical suspect in the robbery, but by providing Simoncino access to the shop, he’s automatically an accomplice to the crime. If Marcello keeps his mouth shut, though, his nemesis has promised him a cut of the stolen money. After Marcello finishes his sentence, he expects Simoncino to honor his half of the agreement. When he refuses to do so, Marcello has two choices: 1) ignore the slight and go back to washing dogs, or 2) risk his life, by demanding his rightful share. As prison hardened as Marcello might think he is, he’s still no threat to Simoncini, who flaunts his ill-gotten earnings in Marcello’s face. Without going into detail, let’s just say that the dog washer pulls up his big-boy pants and devises a scheme that involves luring Simoncini into the kennel and using the basic principles of judo to gain an edge on him. If Marcello can slay Goliath or, at least, teach him a lesson he won’t soon forget, it’s possible that the dog washer can redeem himself in front his friends.

Anyone who’s seen Garrone’s Gomorra (2008) and The Embalmer (2002) already knows not to expect a leisurely examination of live on the seacoast between Naples and Rome. Gray, wet and dirty, Villaggio Coppola resembles the kind of resort city that summer forgot. As such, it’s an appropriate setting for such an unforgiving tale of revenge. It also provides Marcello and his daughter a safe outlet in their passion for scuba diving. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that Dogman was inspired by one of the most infamous crime stories in post-war Italy. Likewise, The Embalmer was loosely based on the murder of a taxidermist, a middle-age dwarf, by his protégé, which took place in Villaggio Coppola in 1990. Gomorrah, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, was based on a work of non-fiction by Roberto Saviano. The drama is set in a housing complex in Naples, which has been taken over by feuding factions of the Camorra syndicate, and it intertwines five separate stories of residents whose lives are touched by organized crime. If Dogman isn’t nearly as dark as those films, it concludes on sadly ironic note. Its spurts of violent behavior definitely would upset anyone expecting Lassie or talking chihuahuas. BTW: while the excellent television spinoff of “Gomorah” has just wrapped up its fourth season on Sky Italia, there’s no telling when it will arrive here. Garrone’s upcoming live-action adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s novel “The Adventures of Pinocchio” is expected to open overseas in time for Christmas 2019.

Don’t Look at Me That Way
Uisenma Borchu’s  debut feature, Don’t Look at Me That Way (2015), is a LGBTQ rom/dram, with the emphasis on the “B.” That’s pretty much the only thing that’s emphatically clear in the film, which has taken three years to make the leap from the international festival circuit to DVD. That’s probably because potential distributors felt the freshman effort left too many questions unanswered, including where the characters are standing at any given moment and why they’re in such a hurry to screw up their lives. Don’t Look at Me That Way splits its time between Germany and Mongolia, although the Munich locations are so generically urban that they could be anywhere.  We know we’re in Mongolia because co-protagonist Hedi (Borchu) occasionally visits her grandmother there. She lives in a yurt on the outskirts of one of the country’s few cities and is old school all the way. It begs the unanswered question as to why, on one these visits – flash-ahead? flash-back? – Hedi is accompanied by Sophia, the precocious daughter of her German lover/neighbor, Iva (Catrina Stemmer). Hedi and Iva hooked up almost immediately after the blond single mother moved into their apartment building and Sophie gravitated to the more stable woman. The strangely maternal bond that develops between Hedi and Sophie affords Iva the time to develop a sexual relationship, at least, with the almost stereotypically seductive Asian woman. The sex is hot, heavy and beautifully photographed. So much so that it confuses us when Hedi tests Iva’s commitment to her by finding new boy toys. Iva’s even more confused. When Iva’s fat, bourgeois father arrives in Munich on business and blows off their father/daughter/granddaughter reunion, Hedi even more curiously tracks him down at his hotel and seduces him. It leads to something so unexpected and disturbing that it’s difficult to tell if it’s real or Borchu is simply playing a trick on us. Either way, it’s a heck of an ending, which is more than can be said about too many other films that pass this way. Even at 88 minutes, however, Don’t Look at Me That Way could have used a bit more exposition and less mystery about Hedi’s motivations. For those who value sex above narrative, though, what there is of it here is inarguably captivating.

High Life: Blu-ray
Space: 1999: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Claire Denis is one those directors who’s somehow managed to find the freedom, money and energy to re-interpret genres whose fans typically reject such meddling. High Life takes on sci-fi and space travel in a way that recalls the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick. In Trouble Every Day (2001), Denis merged unchecked sexual urges with extreme horror in a commentary about society’s moral decay. She addressed the legacy of colonialism in Chocolat (1988), Beau Travail (1999) and White Material (2009), and in Friday Night (2002) and Let the Sunshine In (2017) explored the walls we build to protect us from the insanity and irrationality of love, sex and change. One of things that makes High Life so compelling is Denis’ willingness to mess with the one of most enduring clichés about space travel: the portrayal of astronauts as squeaky clean, red-white-and-blue Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and science teachers, who were desexualized at Mission Control. Here, the crew is comprised of death row inmates, whose sentences will come to an end as their spacecraft makes a flying leap into a black hole. There are no guards to keep them from attempting to escape and nowhere to go if they managed to leave the ship. They participate in experiments designed to manage boredom, repress sexual urges and deal with the psychoses of fellow prisoners, er, astronauts. The on-board doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), has a personal interest in captives Monte (Robert Pattinson) and Boyse (Mia Goth), whose regard for her authority couldn’t be lower. Neither does Denis spare us the realities of personal hygiene and less-than-tidy bodily functions in zero gravity, as NASA has done for the past 60 years.

The prisoners were coaxed into believing that their exploration of the black hole will make them heroes back home, instead of crash-test dummies. Why not simply populate the ship with robots that have well-defined duties and the ability to communicate with specialists in Houston? Perhaps, NASA authorities also wanted to learn about the potential for creating a self-sustaining food supply in space or test the effects of varying degrees of radiation on human beings. Those kinds of questions don’t mean much, compared to the tortuous conditions endured by the passengers, who somehow fall under the scrutiny of Doctor Strangelove-Dibs, who may well be testing the feasibility of remedying prison overcrowding by loading the baddest of the bad-asses onto giant ships and giving them a one-way ticket to deep space. This country’s demand for punishment without rehabilitation would be met and the prisons could be sold to real-estate speculators. Under Denis’ watchful gaze, the actors help their characters make the most of a difficult situation. Pattinson’s depiction of a single parent in space, along with Binoche’s tortured performance as the sex-starved mad scientist, are extremely convincing … even if the rest of the movie is too much to fathom. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Audacious, Passionate and Dangerous: Making High Life” and “Visualizing the Abyss: The Look of High Life.”

Shout Factory’s “Space: 1999: The Complete Series” begs the question as to why a respectable British/Italian joint venture would throw all of their marbles behind a prime-time space-travel series, so soon after the demise of “Star Trek.” ITC Entertainment, RAI and the creative team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (“Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”) clearly were on the same wavelength as the team at Paramount that bought the series from Desilu and licensed the broadcast syndication rights. Reruns began in the fall of 1969 and, by the late 1970s, the series aired in over 150 countries. It became the franchise that wouldn’t die. “Space: 1999” only ran for two seasons, from 1975 to 1977, attaining cult status at about the same time as rerun packages of such Supermarionation hits as “Supercar” (1961–62), “Fireball XL5” (1962–63), “Stingray” (1964–65) and “Thunderbirds” (1965–66) took off. In the opening episode of “Space 1999,” viewers were transported to a research station and nuclear-waste site, located in the crater Plato, on the dark side of the moon … which, come to think of it, is exactly what I’d consider doing with Earth’s growing problem. What could go wrong? When the storage site experiences a chain-reaction explosion, however, the moon is spun out of its orbit. In turn, it sends the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha – including characters played by Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (“Mission:Impossible”), Barry Morse (“The Fugitive”) and Nick Tate (“Holiday Island”) – hurtling through the solar system, toward deep space, where they encounter alien beings who didn’t make the cut on “Star Trek.” Never mind that such a catastrophe would cause irreparable harm to earthbound humanity and turn the green-cheese orb into an intergalactic whirling dervish. Much of the show’s sci-fi look is attributable to special-effects director/designer Brian Johnson, who previously had made the leap from The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and “Thunderbirds,” to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He later would be handed the FX reins to Alien (1979), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Dragonslayer (1981) and The Neverending Story (1984). At the time, “Space 1999” was the most expensive series ever produced for British television or for syndication. Among the actors making guest appearances were Christopher Lee, Margaret Leighton, Roy Dotrice, Joan Collins, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Cushing, Judy Geeson, Julian Glover, Ian McShane, Leo McKern, Billie Whitelaw, Stuart Damon and Brian Blessed. (Some appeared, as well, in future Star Wars and Star Trek movies.) In addition to the many special features included in previous sets, the Shout! Factory also offers new pieces, “Mission to Moonbase Alpha: An Interview With Actress Barbara Bain”; “Into the Uncertain Future: An Interview With Actor Nick Tate”; “Brain Behind the Destruction: An Interview With Director Kevin Connor”; “Moonbase Merch,” a tour of “Space:1999” ephemera with author John Muir; commentary by author Anthony Taylor on “Dragon’s Domain” And “The Metamorph”; commentary by series expert Scott Michael Bosco, on “Ring Around the Moon”; and a limited-edition set, which includes a snow globe, featuring an Eagle Transporter landing on the moon. The enhanced mono and 5.1 audio soundtracks add to the viewers’ fun.

Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Klute: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
By the time 37-year-old German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder completed “The BRD Trilogy” — The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982) he had already directed 44 films and television dramas (“Berlin Alexanderplatz”), written 15 stage plays and acted in several other projects. He died soon thereafter from an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates. Audiences outside Europe were only beginning to get beyond the “bad boy” reputation he cultivated by making outrageous pronouncements in the West German press, maintaining a fluid attitude toward his own sexual identity, dressing as if he were a hobo and chain-smoking cigarettes. We were attracted to his movies as much for their titles — Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) — as their content. Needless to say, too, the prints that made it to theaters outside New York were far less than pristine. This was true, as well, for the works Fassbinder’s contemporaries, Wim Wenders Werner Herzog, Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff. While that much has changed, it’s safe to say that Americans are still catching up their work on DVD and Blu-ray. The Criterion Collection’s new collection — “BRD” stands for Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the official name of West Germany and of the united contemporary Germany – allows us to re-watch his most accomplished films with a greater awareness of Fassbinder’s intentions. In a word, the experience is “revelatory.” If Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola or even John Waters had made them, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronika Voss would long ago have reached masterpiece status.

Fassbinder’s goal was to trace the postwar history of West Germany in a series of films told from the perspectives of three remarkable women, portrayed by three exceptional actresses. They were colored, as well, by the tenor of West Germany’s anarchist movement and his deeply grounded cynicism over a series of governments that encouraged citizens to forget the atrocities of World War II and focus instead on the country’s “economic miracle.” In “Maria Braun,” Hanna Schygulla marries soldier Hermann Braun in the last days of World War II. A bomb ruins the ceremony, but it doesn’t prevent the signing of official papers. Almost immediately thereafter, Hermann would be captured by Red Army forces, who, presumably, either killed him or put him on a train to Siberia. Maria never stops loving him or giving up hope that he’ll return home alive. To survive the post-war occupation and deprivation, Maria puts her beauty and desperation to work for her, exchanging sexual favors for food, soap and other necessities, as well as the occasional luxury. A beautiful dress she’s given allows Maria to find work in a dancehall favored by G.I.’s and, in time, as a prostitute. She’s also able to see, first-hand, how the “miracle” can work in her favor in other ways. A couple of years later, when Hermann unexpectedly returns home from a Siberian labor camp. she’ll be caught in flagrante delicto with a black Allied soldier with whom she’s also fallen in love. Hermann takes the fall when she commits an impulsive act to keep her husband from being pummeled. His imprisonment doesn’t, however, prevent Maria from falling in love with a kind, generous and wealthy man she seduces on a practically empty first-class train car. He hires her to translate conversations and contracts, but she volunteers to use her body to close the deal. Strangely enough, he’ll approach Hermann in prison to see the man “she loves more than me.” They form curious bond that gives Hermann, when freed, an opportunity to rehabilitate himself and Maria time to amass a fortune at the textile company. Fassbinder’s “alternate” ending leaves room for conjecture as to the married couple’s fate. “Maria Braun” may remind viewers’ of Joan Crawford’s performance in Michael Curtiz’ rags-to-riches noir drama, Mildred Pierce (1945). Along with Douglas Sirk, Curtiz was a key influence on Fassbinder. “Maria Braun” is a heartbreaking study of a woman picking herself up from the ruins of her own life, as well as a pointed metaphorical attack on a society determined to forget its past.

Likewise, Veronika Voss will remind viewers of Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of the long-forgotten and extremely delusional silent-film actress, Norma Desmond, in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). In fact, Veronika Voss (a.k.a., “The Longing of Veronika Voss”) more directly reflects the tragic fall from grace of Weimar-era leading lady Sybille Schmitz (Rosel Zech). A great actress and beauty, her only flaw was not looking sufficiently Aryan for Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, with whom she is rumored to have slept. Struggling for survival in post-war Munich and haunted by her past glory, Voss encounters sportswriter Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a rain-swept park and intrigues him with her mysterious allure. As their unlikely relationship develops, Robert comes to discover the dark secrets that brought about the decline of Veronika’s career and virtual imprisonment by caretakers and drugs prescribed by a corrupt doctor.

Lola, which is an unmistakable homage to Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) is set in Coburg in the autumn of 1957. Lola (Barbara Sukowa), a seductive cabaret singer/prostitute, exults in her power to separate men from their money and pride. Like everyone else prospering from the “miracle,” she craves money, property and status. By pitting an oily building contractor and brothel owner (Mario Adorf) against the new straight-arrow building commissioner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), she launches an outrageous plan to elevate herself in a country where everything is for sale. Shot in wonderfully synchronized candy colors by Xaver Schwarzenberger, Lola is both a visual treat and another tragic example of how the vanity of accomplished older men can lead them into places they have no business being.  All three films are enhanced by 4K or high-definition digital restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks. The bonus features include several hours’ worth of vintage commentaries, featuring Wenders and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (on The Marriage of Maria Braun), film critic and author Tony Rayns (Veronika Voss) and film scholar Christian Braad Thomsen (Lola); interviews with actors Hanna Schygulla, Rosel Zech and Barbara Sukowa, Schwarzenberger, screenwriter Peter Märthesheimer and film scholar Eric Rentschler; “Life Stories: A Conversation With R. W. Fassbinder,” filmed for German television in 1978; “I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me,” a feature-length 1992 documentary on Fassbinder’s life and career; “Dance With Death,” a program from 2000 about UFA Studios star Sybille Schmitz; a conversation between author and curator Laurence Kardish and film editor Juliane Lorenz; vintage trailers; and a booklet containing an essay by film critic Kent Jones and production histories by author Michael Töteberg.

Including Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 thriller, Klute, in this summary may appear to be a leap, but, given its simultaneous release on Blu-ray by Criterion, the linkage should be obvious. Indeed, i’s tantalizing to imagine how movies such as Klute, Taxi Driver (1976) and Hardcore (1979) might have been turned out under Fassbinder’s guidance. (And, no, I’m not suggesting there’s anything remotely wrong with those films.) Like Fassbinder’s female protagonists, Jane Fonda’s retired call girl, Bree Daniels, is a product of her times. She works as hard for her money as Sukowa’s Lola and Schygulla’s Braun. Her philosophy, as related to an intimidated trick, is, “Nothing one does is wrong … let it all hang out.” This might have worked in postwar Germany, but it could get a woman killed in New York’s dystopian nightmare. Because Pakula’s film was targeted at sophisticated American audiences of the time, however, Bree’s philosophy had its limits with the newly installed MPAA ratings board. As forthright and independent a woman as she is in Fonda’s hands, Bree needed some help to survive as a single woman in New York. Moments after claiming her Academy Award for Best Actress, Fonda told reporters: “I’m not very happy about what the picture is saying to women, which is, if you get a good shrink and a good guy, everything will turn out alright. I don’t think that’s true.” In a conceit that would be echoed in Hardcore, Midwestern detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is recruited by friends of a missing man to go to New York and find the woman to whom his last letters were addressed. At first, Bree takes Klute for a rube with no clue as to how things work in the big, bad city. Her opinion changes when she begins to receive threatening calls and is asked by police to examine photos of dead prostitutes to identify her friends. Bree’s only defense is to accept Klute’s help, which turns out to be quite adequate to the task. Naturally, this will include a bit of off-the-books sexual healing. A master of tension, conspiracies and paranoiac behavior, Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis ratchet up the suspense to the point where an explosive ending is assured. Even 10 years earlier, Fonda’s portrayal of a fashion-conscious, independently wealthy, sex-positive prostitute wouldn’t have met restrictions imposed by the Production Code. She’s since become an archetype. The Criterion Collection edition has been accorded a terrific 4K digital transfer, supervised by camera operator Michael Chapman, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a fresh conversation between actors Fonda and Illeana Douglas; a new documentary about Klute and Pakula, by filmmaker Matthew Miele, featuring scholars, filmmakers and the director’s family and friends; “The Look of Klute,” a new interview with writer Amy Fine Collins; archival interviews with Pakula and Fonda; a making-of documentary made during the shooting of the film; an essay by critic Mark Harris and excerpts from a 1972 interview with Pakula.

The Baker’s Wife: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Lovers of pre-World War II French cinema will welcome the new Criterion Collection edition of The Baker’s Wife (1939), by playwright/novelist/auteur Marcel Pagnol. Set in the lovely feudal village of Le Castellet, in far southeastern France, The Baker’s Wife is an enchanting slice-of-life comedy and portrait of a close-knit village, where the marital woes of one beloved citizen concern everyone in his orbit. The basic story, adapted from a novel by Jean Giono, could hardly be more familiar. A talented, if grossly out-of-shape baker, Aimable Castanier (Raimu), moves to the Provencal countryside with his pretty and much younger wife, Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc). Their presence immediately fills a void in the community. By the time the ovens finally meet Aimable’s exacting specifications, a line has already formed outside the bakery. The customers aren’t disappointed. The priest and marquis Castan de Venelles order generous quantities in advance. In the same line is a virile shepherd, who locks eyes with Aurélie. That night, he returns to the bakery, with the intention of sweeping her off her feet and fleeing on horseback. Aimable is so devastated that he isn’t able to work, anymore. The villagers, who initially laughed at his cuckoldry, organize a plan to find Aurelie and bring her home. When they do locate the woman, the priest reads her the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery — “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” – and returns with her to Aimable. Her first word to her husband is “Sorry,” and the marital bond is restored. The citizens of Le Castellet will have fresh bread in the morning. It’s a lovely parable, enlivened by the personalities of the town’s residents. It’s also of a piece with Pagnol’s other humanitarian creations, which include Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources; “The Marseille Trilogy” (a.k.a., “The Fanny Trilogy”); Jofroi (1934); and The Pretty Miller Girl (1949). In 1940, the  National Board of Review Awards honored The Baker’s Wife with Best Foreign Film and Best Actor (Raimu) citations, while the New York Film Critics Circle Awards followed suit with it Best Foreign Film distinction. The film is also said to be mentioned in J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher In The Rye.” The Criterion edition features a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; selected-scene commentary, featuring Pagnol scholar Brett Bowles; an introduction by Pagnol from 1967 and excerpt from a 1966 interview with the filmmaker for the French television series “Cinéastes de notre temps”; a short French news program from 1967, revisiting the village of Le Castellet after a screening of the movie at a local bar; and an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.

The Professor: Blu-ray
It would be a stretch for anyone to blame Johnny Depp’s recent string of underachieving movies – including the ill-fated The Professor and City of Lies – on ongoing legal problems surrounding his similarly ill-fated marriage to actress Amber Heard. Good actors make bad choices for all sorts of reasons. The only people who stand to benefit in the long run are the legal teams who have persuaded their clients to wrestle so publicly in the mud. They’ve probably calculated that Depp’s bad-luck streak can’t last forever, and that Heard has already won the lottery with ongoing roles in the Aquaman and Justice League. Even so, lawyers go through money at approximately the same rate as vampires go through blood. Wayne Robert’s low-key dramatic comedy, The Professor, opened and closed faster than most people can blink and eye. Among other titles that it was pitted against were John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum and incumbent No. 1, Avengers: Endgame. Ironically, The Professor opened only a week later than the unrelated bio/dram, The Professor and the Madman, which starred Mel Gibson as the former and Sean Penn, as the latter. In it, Professor James Murray begins work compiling words for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, circa 1857, and receives over 10,000 legitimate entries from a patient at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Dr. William Minor. It’s currently on display on PPV streaming sites. Ironically, too, a full year before legal challenges cleared Gibson’s pet project for release, Comedy Central’s  “Drunk History” summarized the same fascinating story in the episode, “Dangerous Minds,” for comic effect. Anyway …

Robert’s The Professor, also available on PPV outlets, describes how an unassuming teacher at a private college, Richard Brown (Depp), handles the news that he has cancer and, even with radiation treatments, no more than a year to live. Crushed, Richard chooses to only tell his closest friend and fellow educator, Peter (Danny Huston), about his condition. He’s also decided to redirect the course of his life, by living it to the fullest and eliminating the things that have kept him from doing so in the past. His first act is to cull the dullards and hangers-on from his classroom, by promising them a C if they got up and left. He’d put the remaining students through their paces in a manner that recalls Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989). He openly lampoons school administrators, one of whom (Ron Livingston) is having an affair with his snobby sculptor wife, Veronica (Rosemarie DeWitt). Brown’s first act of defiance comes when his daughter, Olivia (Odessa Young), comes out as a lesbian, and he refuses to share in Veronica’s outrage. Meanwhile, he’s also taken to drinking, smoking dope and expressing his innermost thoughts with his students. The Professor, then, begins to lean toward To Sir, With Love (1967), as Brown’s pedagogical attentions turn to Claire (Zoey Deutch), whose uncle is the school’s dean. The problem is that Brown’s disease tempers his ability to demonstrate the passion for life and teaching in the same way as Williams and Sidney Poitier did in their performances. In turn, the cancer has taken control of the movie, preventing it from escaping the bonds of soggy melodrama. That said, Depp’s loyal fans won’t be terribly disappointed by his lackluster performance here, unless they truly miss the disguises, wigs, weird accents and counterintuitive actions that have cluttered his recent work. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Death and How to Live It: Making The Professor.”

Apparently, even the puny buildup accorded The Professor prompted Vertical Entertainment to free Roberts’ Katie Says Goodbye (2016) from festival purgatory and release it into a handful of theater and streaming venues. In it, a kind-hearted 17-year-old girl (Olivia Cooke), in the American Southwest, turns to prostitution to fulfill her dream of a new life in San Francisco.

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales: Blu-ray
No matter how many times animated features from outside the Hollywood firmament have been nominated for Academy Awards, mainstream American audiences have avoided them like the plague. I’d be surprised if Oscar voters took advantage of the free screeners and screenings before voting for the latest Disney/Pixar/Marvel blockbuster. (Anyone want to bet against Toy Story 4 in this year’s race? I thought not.) In 2002, the category’s second sanctioned competition, Hayao Miyazaki’s wondrous Spirited Away took the top prize back with him to Japan. (Figuratively, because the maestro refused to travel to the U.S., “while it was dropping bombs on Iraq,”) It became the first and, so far, only hand-drawn, non-English-language animated film to win that award. Then-Pixar director John Lasseter saw the monster numbers in Japan and asked Walt Disney Pictures to pick it up for distribution here, but not before he agreed to produce an adaptation for English-speaking audiences. Even though it would make $10 million here – not counting the video sales – Disney shortchanged the marketing budget when it was denied ancillary rights. Two years later, Miyazaki’s anti-war stance might have given Aardman’s stop-motion Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit a slight edge over Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, another Anglo/American stop-action picture. Ghibli would be represented again by also-rans The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014), When Marnie Was There (2016) and The Wind Rises (2013), which was competing against Disney’s monster hit, Frozen,  DreamWorks/Fox’s The Croods, Universal’s Despicable Me 2 and StudioCanal’s the Franco/Belgian’s delight, Ernest & Celestine. The extreme latter was produced by some of the same people responsible for the newly released The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales and César finalist, A Mouse’s Tale (2008).

Ghibli’s success may have opened the Academy’s door for such later nominees as The Triplets of Belleville (2003), Persepolis (2007), The Secret of Kells and A Town Called Panic (2009) (2009), The Illusionist, A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita (2010), Boy and the World (2013), Song of the Sea and The Dam Keeper (2014), My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle (2016), The Breadwinner and Loving Vincent (2017), and Mirai (2018), but the floodgates to commercial acceptance have remained closed to outsiders. Only Oregon-based Laika’s Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) have topped the same nine-figure barrier that Disney/Pixar, Disney Animation, DreamWorks, Marvel/Sony/Disney, Paramount/Nickelodeon and Warner/Village Roadshow routinely expected for their products, along with Oscars. It once was easy to pin the blame on bad dubbing and annoying lip-synching for poor box-office returns. They imbued the animated features with a foreign air that frightens audiences who grew up on Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker and the antics of Tom & Jerry. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Robert Zemeckis toyed with viewers’ lifelong relationship with their favorite cartoon characters.

I’ve always believed that the round-eyed characters in Japanese manga and anime – first attributed to Osamu Tezuka’s “Astro Boy”/ “Mighty Atom” (1963) – were drawn that way to appeal to western audiences, in the same way that dubbing was introduced to ease their fear of subtitles. Along with that came the routine assembling of A-listers to lend their disembodied voices to a project’s dub track. If, in the 1960s, western audiences for anime and manga weren’t so minute, that theory might have carried some weight. Tezuka is said to have drawn inspiration from Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse and “Looney Tunes.” It didn’t take long for Japanese audiences to recognize a full range of emotions and personality traits telegraphed by subtle variations in the shape of a character’s eyes or color of their hair. The subject of eye shapes soon became a non-issue. Today, the trend has reversed course and more sophisticated animated features have adopted a more naturalistic look.

I’m not the only person who’s seen a resemblance between the characters in The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales and those drawn by Walt Disney, Tex Avery and other animators at Walter Lantz Productions, in the early 1930s. By putting words in the mouths of barn animals and forest dwellers, they created a paradigm that has lasted for nearly 100 years. Film journalist Gary Morris has described how Avery shifted that paradigm by “steering the Warner Bros. house style away from Disney-esque sentimentality and making cartoons that appealed equally to adults, who appreciated (his) speed, sarcasm, and irony, and to kids, who liked the nonstop action. Disney’s ‘cute and cuddly’ creatures, under Avery’s guidance, were transformed into unflappable wits like Bugs Bunny, endearing buffoons like Porky Pig or dazzling crazies like Daffy Duck.” In “Big Bad Fox,” co-director/co-writer Benjamin Renner rejiggers both Hollywood cartoon formulas – whose usefulness has nearly been exhausted – and adds a layer of madness that includes role reversal, wish fulfillment and multiphrenia. From a distance, everything looks calm and peaceful. Up close, it’s a ball of confusion. We’re introduced to a fox who thinks it’s a chicken, a rabbit that acts like a stork and a duck who wants to replace Father Christmas. In this, Renner’s third animated film – he created the comic book, upon which the stories are based – he also appears to have been influenced by Doctor Seuss and Adult Swim. In the first tale (“A Baby to Deliver”), a feckless stork leaves a baby in the hands of a rabbit, a pig and a duck, urging them to make the delivery in his place. The second and longest story (“The Big Bad Fox”) follows a fox scrounging around for food and winding up — not unlike Seuss’ “Horton Hatches an Egg” — with a set of baby chicks to manage. It proves he may be a better at child-rearing than at hunting. In the third section (“The Perfect Christmas”), the animals mistakenly think they’ve killed Santa Claus and try their best to impersonate him. The package adds a nine-minute interview with co-directors Renner and Patrick Imbert (Ernest & Celestine), in which the characters are studied, identifying temperaments and quirks, and the challenges of direction are recounted; a fifteen-minute making-of featurette, in which four children attempt to interview select members of the crew; a Q&A at the New York International Children’s Film Festival (4:35, HD); and a piece on the English dub session.

Hold Back the Dawn: Blu-ray
Life along the border has always been contentious, harsh and dangerous. President Trump wants us to think that the men, women and children currently being held in cages are criminals, gang members, leeches and disease carriers, not human beings seeking freedom, jobs and security for their children. For Trump and his Republican cronies, most of whom have never done an honest day’s work, banging on the immigration drum is a way to stir the rabble and get re-elected. Mitchell Leisen’s surprisingly topical and frequently charming Hold Back the Dawn (1941) takes place on the border separating Tijuana and southern California, at a time when refugees from around the world – not just Mexico and Central America – were begging, scheming and bribing their way across the border. They did so to escape fascism, mindless violence, prejudice and poverty. Most of the refugees then waiting desperately for papers to be signed or a gate to open were vaguely aware, at least, of the quote engraved on a plaque mounted inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” If POTUS had his druthers, he probably would order the National Park Service to build a Trump-branded hotel next to Lady Libertas, just like in Las Vegas. I wonder how many of the Democratic presidential candidates could quote more than a few words from the plaque, either.

Mitchell Leisen’s Best Picture-nominated romantic drama, Hold Back the Dawn, was co-adapted by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, from a story by Ketti Frings, “Memo to a Movie Producer.” As an Austrian Jew, Wilder was among “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” who got out of Europe when the getting was still good. He would struggle a bit upon his arrival in in Hollywood in 1933, but the émigré community gave him its support. Before he was partnered with Brackett on a series of movies that led from Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939), to Hold Back the Dawn, he had one more large hurdle to clear. It directly inspired Leisen’s film. Like Charles Boyer’s devious gigolo, Georges Iscovescu, Wilder spent time in Mexico, waiting for the U.S. government to renew his papers after his six-month visa had expired in 1934. He was denied re-entry for several months, until, at the point of losing hope, he went to a new immigration officer. After the guard asked Wilder his profession, he stamped Wilder’s papers, adding, “Make good movies, then.” In today’s America, the next Billy Wilder could be trapped in a cage along the border, waiting for the 2020 elections to play out.

Hold Back the Dawn opens with a disheveled Iscovescu suddenly appearing at the gates of Paramount Studios, demanding to see Leisen, whose character, director Dwight Saxon, was on a soundstage rehearsing a scene from I Wanted Wings (1941), with Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy and Richard Webb. As will become apparent much later in the picture, Romanian-born Iscovescu wants to sell the story of his recent troubles for $500. What we aren’t told is the reason why. When Saxon takes the bait, the real-life director throws his movie, Hold Back the Dawn, into flashback mode. Now, Iscovescu is in Tijuana, being told that the waiting period for Romanian immigrants currently stands at eight years. Fortuitously, he runs into his former dancing partner, Anita (Pauline Goddard), who found a sugar daddy and, just as quickly, ditched him. She  advises Georges to marry an American woman and desert her once safely across the border. After being turned down by a German woman (Rosemary DeCamp) who’s already married, he sets his sight on American teacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland). Emmy’s school bus broke down in Tijuana, stranding her with a dozen kids who have nothing better to do than terrorize the guests and managers at the Hotel Esperanza. Georges talks the mechanic into taking his time fixing the vehicle, giving him another day to win her heart. At the same time, a dogged Border Patrol inspector (Walter Abel) has figured out the scheme – a Romanian gigolo would stand out in most crowds — and vows to catch Georges before he can break Emmy’s heart. After he breaks the bad news to the teacher, she turns tails and returns home to Azusa. A terrible twist near the film’s end prompts the visit to Paramount Studios, where Iscovescu hopes to sell the story to Saxon.

It’s a neat gag that gets even better knowing Wilder’s experience at the border. Hold Back the Dawn would be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Writing (Wilder and Brackett), Best Actress in a Leading Role (de Havilland), Best Cinematography (black-and-white), Best Art Direction (interiors) and Best Music (drama). Arrow Academy’s high-definition presentation is from original film elements and adds new commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; featurette “Love Knows No Borders,” a new appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew; “The Guardian Lecture: Olivia de Havilland,” a career-spanning interview with the star, recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1971; a rare hour-long radio adaptation from 1941, starring Boyer, Goddard and Susan Haywood; a gallery of original stills and promotional images;  a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by writer and critic Farran Smith Nehme. The great bluesman, Sonny Boy Williams I, makes a sadly uncredited cameo as a street musician.

Noir Archive 9-film Collection, Volume 2: 1954-1956: Blu-ray
It’s been a short three months since Kit Parker Films and Mill Creek Entertainment released “Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954,” which is comprised of rarely seen thrillers from the Columbia  Pictures archives. Not all of the nine movies fit easily within the established parameters of noir, but the ones that don’t can be enjoyed as above-average B-movies and oddities. All benefit mightily from the upgrade to Blu-ray. Chronologically, “Noir Archive 9-film Collection, Volume 2: 1954-1956” picks up at exactly the same point as where “Volume 1” left off: 1954, which was on the downhill side of the subgenre’s life expectancy. Technically, the same can generally be said of movies intended as second features in theaters and drive-ins. The designation also applied to shorter, more budget-conscious horror, sci-fi and Western flicks. Just as Roger Corman provided opportunities for young, unestablished film school graduates in the 1960s, studios in the 1930s,’40s and ’50s maintained stables of emerging and submerging actors, directors, cinematographers and writers to churn out B’s. Today, many of their films have been upgraded to A-level status by buffs, collectors and academics.

“Volume 2” may only cover a two-year span, but the movies are of equal value to ones in “Volume 1,” which represented a full decade. Many viewers will be drawn first to 5 Against the House (1955), if only for the glowing presence of a 22-year-old Kim Novak, whose next picture would be The Man With a Golden Arm (1955). Digging further reveals the fingerprints of co-writers Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night), William Bowers (Support Your Local Sheriff!), co-writer/producer John Barnwell, Frank Tashlin (The Girl Can’t Help It), magazine writer/novelist Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and journeyman director Phil Karlson (Hell to Eternity). In a plot that might have inspired Ocean’s 11 (1960), four Korean War veterans, attending college on the GI Bill, devise an elaborate scheme to rob Reno’s “impenetrable” Harold’s Club casino. At first, the idea is simply to prove it can be done. Brian Keith (“Family Affair”), who suffers from war-related flasnbacks, has other designs for the money, however, and his pal Guy Madison (“Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok”), feels obligated to join him. His girlfriend (Novak) plays a sultry cabaret singer, who thinks it might be fun to tag along. (Here’s how she was described in the New York Times’ slurpy review: “Kim Novak, as the blonde songstress who can’t quite make up her mind about her man, is as tempting a dish as any to have been set before a viewer this season.”) The co-stars include comic sidekick Alvy Moore (“Green Acres”), matinee idol Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) and William Conrad (“Cannon”), as a casino employee. More of a caper picture than noir, 5 Against the House has a lot to recommend it.

Also on tap are Hugo Haas’s Bait (1954), a tale of deceit set near the top of a mountain, which holds just enough gold to turn geezer partner, Marko (Haas), against his young and virile partner, Ray (John Agar), and the blond bombshell, Peggy (Cleo Moore), who marries the old man, prefers the younger guy and plays both of the prospectors against each other to escape with the claim. The echoes from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) resonate between the Sonoran Desert and a snow-covered soundstage in Culver City. Cell 2455, Death Row (1955) was, of course, based on the autobiographical best-seller by San Quentin inmate Caryl Chessman (William/Robert Campbell). Although his crimes fell just short of murder, he was sent to Death Row under California’s Little Lindbergh Law. Released before Chessman was executed in 1960 – after dozens of appeals and stays — the popularity of the book and movie not only spurred protests against the death penalty, but also encouraged thousands of jailhouse lawyers to challenge their convictions. The setting shifts continually from Cell 2455 to scenes from his youth, when the well-meaning juvenile delinquent turned into a heartless criminal. Andrew Stone’s The Night Holds Terror (1955) also is based on a true crime. This one involves a carjacking by escaped convicts and the subsequent home invasion and kidnapping of the adult daughter (Hildy Parks) of a wealthy man. The movie, which easily passes for noir, is essential for early appearances by John Cassavetes (“The Dirty Dozen”), David Cross (“77 Sunset Strip”), Jack Kelly (“Maverick”), Vince Edwards (“Ben Casey”), fresh off an appearance in Cell 2455, Death Row. In addition to being a decent thriller, The Night Holds Terror works well as a procedural.

The other five Blu-rays in the bonus-free package include Nathan Juran’s The Crooked Web (1955), a post-war potboiler that largely is set in  Occupied Berlin, where a murder and theft remain unsolved 10 years later; Arthur Lubin’s “Gothic noir,” Footsteps in the Fog (1955) stars real-life couple Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons in a tale of homicide and psychological gamesmanship that smacks of Hitchcockian intrigue; ; Vernon Sewell’s Spin a Dark Web (1955) also was sold to Columbia after being made in London by Frankovich Productions. It involves a Canadian prizefighter (Lee Patterson), who, instead of excelling in the ring, finds work as an enforcer for the brother of a femme fatale, played by Faith Domergue (This Island Earth). By the time he figures out their game, it’s almost too late to escape a prison sentence. William Castle’s New Orleans Uncensored (1955) arrived in theaters less than a year after On the Waterfront (1954), although on opposite sides of the fence. In the similarly themed B-movie, a Navy veteran (Arthur Franz) purchases a government surplus vessel, hoping to restore it and make a living at sea. His plans are almost thwarted by a turf battle between gangsters and longshoremen. Beverly Garland, Helene Stanton and Michael Ansara add luster to the proceedings.

It’s impossible to imagine a universe in which Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim might have been influenced by Fred F. Sears’ Rumble on the Docks (1956), when they were putting the finishing touches on “West Side Story.” Or, that Jack DeWitt and Lou Morheim’s low-budget morality play used “Romeo and Juliet” as a launching pad, as was the case with the multi-platform musical. The original concept for “West Side Story” focused on a conflict between Irish Catholic and Jewish families on the Lower East Side, of during the Easter/Passover season. In “Rumble,” the gangs are largely generic, and they clash over territory along the docks. In his first feature film, James Darren (Gidget) plays the estranged son of a printing-press owner, Pete Smigelski (Edgar Barrier), whose back was broken in a labor dispute when he was a child. Ever since, Pete has treated Jimmy as if he’s personally responsible for the damage done to him by the local crime boss, Joe Brindo (Michael Granger), who thinks he owns the docks.  After doing a favor for the comically adorned Brindo – who should measure his tailor for concrete slippers — Jimmy thinks he’s found a surrogate father. He didn’t count, however, on being on the same team as thugs capable of beating up his girlfriend’s little brother and trashing his father’s shop. Look for Robert Blake as one of Darren’s fellow gang members and the late, great Hollywood heavy, Timothy Carey, as one of Brindo’s henchmen.

Universal Horror Collection, Volume 2: Blu-ray
The second volume of obscure horror titles from the Universal archives follows the first into release by six weeks. That one featured four films in which Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff appeared together as atypical characters (for them) and for various amounts of time. A couple of them were good enough to recommend, while those others were curiosities, at best. The similarly upgraded “Universal Horror Collection, Volume 2” is comprised of movies Boomers and their parents might have watched as midnight monster-movie packages or at Saturday afternoon matinees. The selections were released by TCM in five-movie sets a couple of years ago and I don’t know why consumers today are being shortchanged, unless it was part of the deal with Scream Factory. A. Edward Sutherland’s Murders in the Zoo (1933), Joseph H. Lewis’ The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942), William Nigh’s The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942) and James P. Hogan’s The Mad Ghoul (1943). All of them represent the mad-scientist or pseudoscience subgenres that were popular in the 1930-40s and provided Universal with low-budget alternatives to its monster series. They’re short on suspense; criminally underwritten; full of goofs (a python is passed off as a green mamba); and, apart from Shemp Howard, Charles Ruggles and a then-unknown Randolph Scott, populated with long-forgotten actors. They were part of the original “Shock Theater” package of 52 Universal titles released to television in 1957 and followed a year later with “Son of Shock,” which added 20 more features. They all look a lot better today. That said, buffs of such movies won’t mind wasting a few hours watching these bizarre entertainments.

The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 2: Blu-ray
At Cohen Media, 2019 has turned into the Year of Buster Keaton, which should come as good news for anyone who’s never seen his work in such pristine shape. It began on April 2, with the release of Peter Bogdanovich’s 101-minute documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration. According to the boilerplate, the doc “celebrates the life and career of one of America’s most influential and celebrated filmmakers and comedians, whose singular style and fertile output during the silent era created his legacy as a true cinematic visionary.” No hyperbole, there. Keaton incomparable comedy was and continues to be the gold standard. Just in case some young whippersnapper wanted to argue a contrary position, Cohen released “The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 1” a month later. It contains two of the greatest films ever made … comedy or drama, silent or otherwise: The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), both restored in 4K and featuring fresh orchestral scores by Carl Davis and featurettes. A couple of weeks ago, “The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 2” added the equally hilarious and influential Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator to the mix, again restored and with featurettes. The embarrassment of riches continues in three weeks with “The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 3,” containing the more infrequently seem, Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926). But don’t take my word for it, “The Great Stone Face” has appeared in eight films that have been selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry, as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant: One Week (1920), Cops (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928) and, lest we forget, Sunset Blvd. (1950). He also directed seven of those entries. All of the silents were made within the nine-year period, before he made the mistake of signing with MGM.

Among the things for which Sherlock Jr. will be forever remembered are a lengthy chase scene that occurs during a projectionist’s dream and pulls all the brilliant gimmicks out of Keaton’s bag of tricks; a game of pool that took four months to master and five days to shoot; the scene in which the projectionist’s alter ego, Sherlock Jr., escapes gangsters by leaping headfirst through the body of his disguised assistant, Gillette (Ford West) and disappears; and, of course, the sequence in which Sherlock Jr. is running along the roofs of some moving freight cars and grabs the spout connected to a water tower. Keaton’s weight caused the spout to descend and, as it did so, the gush of water washed him on to the track with force, fracturing his neck nearly to the point of breaking it. Not only is the scene in the picture, but the fracture went undiagnosed for until the 1930s, when Keaton sought relief from blinding migraines. All 45 minutes of Sherlock Jr. overflow with laughs, thrills and surprises. Oddly, it didn’t fare well with critics or audiences of the day. Go figure.

Released back-to-back, The Navigator (1924) became Keaton’s most successful movie in gross revenues. Co-directed by Donald Crisp, who took an early powder, Keaton and his sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire) are the only persons aboard the Navigator, when it’s cast adrift by saboteurs hoping it clogs the entrance to the harbor. Instead, it finds its way to an island populated by cannibals. When the Navigator runs aground, the islanders snatch Betsy While that happens, Rollo is underwater in a diving suit and weighted shoes, attempting to assess the damage. The head-to-toe outfit will come in handy when he walks to shore and scares the natives, but only for an hour or two. Then the battle begins. The innovate underwater scenes were shot off Catalina and in Lake Tahoe. The retired freighter Keaton purchased for the production provided him with all sorts of opportunities for gags and escape routes. The Cohen package adds a pair of featurettes that combine making-of and biographical detail.

Hellboy: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The Doors: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Weird Science: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Even if Guillermo del Toro’s original Hellboy (2004) didn’t set the turnstiles ablaze in its theatrical run, video sales encouraged the writer/director and its star, Ron Perlman, to return four years later in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which did very well. It wasn’t until February 2017 that Del Toro admitted that the trilogy he proposed wouldn’t be completed under his and Perlman’s watch. Why any production company would turn down another opportunity to collaborate with Del Toro and Perlman is another one of those rhetorical questions pondered by so-called entertainment reporters … or so-called reporters of so-called news in the so-called entertainment industry. Given how quickly bad news travels on the Internet and among ComicCon geeks, it’s difficult to understand how anyone would greenlight a reboot of Hellboy (a.k.a., “Hellboy: Call of Darkness”), with an entirely new cast, a new writer (albeit from the same Dark Horse universe) and the near certainty of meddling by executives. And, of course, it failed to reach every measurable goal, commercially and critically. I suspect that Hellboy completists will want to check out the new Blu-ray/4K and re-evaluate it out of the shadows of their group-think peers. The special effects are pretty wild and, to me, David Harbour was indistinguishable from Perlman in the title role. Recruiting Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, and Thomas Haden Church wasn’t a mistake, either. I found it impossible to follow the many – too many – individual conceits, however. Before I was able to fully savor any of the individual set pieces and creatively drawn characters, others would follow immediately behind them. Fanboys already are aware of the film’s graphic-novel roots: “Darkness Calls,” “The Wild Hunt,” “The Storm and the Fury” and “Hellboy in Mexico.” It earns the series’ first R rating, so sayeth the MPAA, with “strong bloody violence and gore throughout, and language.” Those who make it through the end credits will be rewarded with a cute little scene alluding to a sequel that probably won’t be made. The package adds the feature-length “Tales of the Wild Hunt: Hellboy Reborn,” with principal cast and crew members, along with creator Mike Mignola; deleted scenes; and computer animated storyboards.

I’ve been listening to the Doors since the release of the band’s eponymous first album, in 1967, thanks primarily to a column written by Robert Christgau in the June issue of Esquire, to which my father subscribed. Included in his perusal of emerging west-coast bands, as well, were Love and Jefferson Airplane, whose debut albums didn’t particularly impress him. He had better things to say about the Doors, whose “esoteric” mix of original and covered material impressed him, if not as much as the Monkees. At the time, Christgau somehow neglected to mention the contributions of songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to the pre-fab band’s fame. He also didn’t bother to learn the name of the singer he dismissed – the great Arthur Lee – in his far less than visionary take on Love. The forgivably young critic completely missed the boat on “Surrealistic Pillow,” which he reviewed through the eyes and ears of a native New Yorker. I purchased all three, anyway, and, with later, began to listen to the Monkees with more educated ears. Christgau now is one of the grand old men of rock critics and frequently is asked to share his learned opinions in other rockumentaries. Writers with more than 50 years of experience under their belt shouldn’t be judged by their earliest columns, just as a rock band’s inaugural album shouldn’t be measured against the pioneers of rock, blues and R&B, which is how that particular article read.

Like millions of other people around the world I was saddened by Jim Morrison’s untimely death – yes, he was 27 — a mere four years after “The Doors” was released. That doesn’t mean I was surprised by the news, however. Neither have I ever felt the need to erase Doors’ songs from my various playlists because of Morrison’s suicidal behavior and ugly demise. Two decades later, Oliver Stone directly confronted Morrison’s legacy and that of the band. Did the generation nurtured on heavy metal, hip-hop, reggae, glam rock and punk still care about the Lizard King (Val Kilmer)? On the radio, yes; on the big screen, not so much. Stone’s hallucinogenic biopic, The Doors (1991), barely broke even at the box office. If it had been released alongside Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born, Rocketman and Yesterday, it might have had a fighting chance. We’ll see. I don’t blame Oliver Stone’s adventurous direction, which pushed the limits on how much AIDS-era fans actually cared about behind-the-scenes mayhem, unfettered promiscuity and good old-fashioned substance abuse. The overfamiliarity with the Doors’ catalogue, caused by the explosion of greatest-hits packages, music videos, concert footage and rockumentaries, on every conceivable platform, definitely worked against Stone’s hagiography. A decade earlier, Francis Ford Coppola’s unforgettable use of “The End,” from the Doors’ first album, in Apocalypse Now (1979), triggered the same resurgence Stone envisioned. The depiction of Morrison’s inevitable decline and parallel addictions remains almost unbearable to watch, as are his alienation from the band and indefensible treatment of his terminally loyal girlfriend Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan, at her most adorable). As he had in Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), immediately before The Doors, Stone deftly captured the frenzy, looks, sounds and textures of the times. The crowd scenes, newsreel footage and recreations of events from the band’s heyday are well recalled and depicted, seemingly from memory. The scenes at Andy Warhol’s Factory and its environs do a couple of things simultaneously: plumbing the depths of the chasm between east coast and west coast demimondes and demonstrating Morrison’s fish-out-of-water discomfort in the company of hard-core degenerates, as portrayed by Michael Madsen, Kathleen Quinlan, Mimi Rogers, Jennifer Rubin, Paul Williams, Costas Mandylor and Crispin Glover, as Warhol. There’s an abundance of nudity, but, as I recall, it fit the times. Neither did the psychedelic bits with the Navajo angels (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, Wes Studi, Rion Hunter, Steve Reevis) bother me. Hippies and rock stars worshipped Native American culture, even if they didn’t completely grasp its nuances. The 4K package contains final-cut (2:18:11) and theatrical-cut (2:20:29) editions; new interviews with Stone and Lon Bender, mixer for the new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. The standard Blu-ray edition picks up lengthy featurettes, deleted scenes and an archival EPK from the 2008 edition.

Written and directed by the late, great John Hughes at the height of his creative power, Weird Science (1985) has been accorded the kind of Arrow Video upgrade all of his films merit. The still uproarious sci-fi comedy arrived on the heels of Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985), and just ahead of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). By 1991, Hughes decided to stick exclusively with the writing and producing end of the profession. In a sense, Weird Science was Hughes’ computer-age homage to the Frankenstein legend. When Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) finally get sick of being bullied and ridiculed for being at the bottom of Shermer High’s food chain, they take advantage of their nerd skills to create a far more attractive version of the Monster’s Mate. Covergirl Kelly LeBrock had just played a model in Gene Wilder’s The Woman in Red (1984), but her portrayal of the geeks’ cybernetic dream girl required a bit more comic acting and personality. It works. She uses some supernatural magic to turn her ugly ducklings into full-blown swans, admired by everyone in the school for being attached to such a spectacular woman. Bill Paxton played Wyatt’s sadistic older brother; Robert Rusler and Robert Downey Jr. are the boys’ nemeses; and newcomers Suzanne Snyder and Judie Aronson played the hot babes on campus. Hughes’ broad, generous and au courant sense of humor – and empathetic feelings for his characters — was what shone through the Weird Science and his other classic comedies. It reportedly was inspired by EC Comics and, of course, was boosted by a killer soundtrack that included the title theme, by Oingo Boingo. Arrow Films’s restoration includes a 4K scan of the original negative; a theatrical version (94 minutes), edited-for-TV cut (95 minutes) and extended edition (97 minutes), featuring two additional scenes newly remastered in high-definition; newly filmed interviews with special makeup creator Craig Reardon, editor Chris Lebenzon, casting director Jackie Burch, composer Ira Newborn and supporting actor John Kapelos; “It’s Alive: Resurrecting Weird Science,” an archived documentary, featuring interviews with cast, crew and admirers; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tracie Ching; and, first pressing only, an illustrated booklet, with new writing on the film by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Amanda Reyes

Hail Satan?
As ridiculous as some of the people we meet in Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? may be, the documentary lays out issues that strike at the heart of our democracy. They include the still raging debate over the separation of church and state; the frequently conflicting freedoms of speech and religions; whether the Constitution applies to those who put their trust in God, not Satanists or atheists; and how to deal with citizens who put their beliefs over those of their fellow Americans. Even though the Supreme Court is pretty clear on the issue, a vocal minority of Christians apparently won’t be satisfied until the “silent majority,” if you will, is required by law to adhere to their interpretation of the bible. They want to be able to display giant crosses, nativity creches and replicas of the Ten Commandments on public land and government buildings, even when the law forbids them from doing so. Here, we see Satanists demanding the same right to gather and be represented in public forums as everyone else, as well as being allowed to parade their iconography in places where their opponents can see it. What I see as the basic issue being debated in Hail Satan? is whether the rights of hypocrites preclude those of non-conformists, provocateurs and kooks, and Lane makes a strong case for the latter. Or, that the well-informed, entirely logical and sometimes outwardly offensive Satanists – some of whom admit to being  non-believers in either deity — make it for her.

Why do I call the preachers and their followers hypocrites? Primarily because of the inconsistency of their constitutionally protected messages. For example, if religious leaders are so offended by the blasphemers and sinners in their midst, why have they refused to call for the impeachment of President Trump – an adulterer, sexual predator and unrepentant liar — strictly on moral and ethical grounds? It would mean the automatic ascension of one of their own: Vice President Mike Pence, who hasn’t been timid about his fundamentalist views. He’d back the same anti-abortion activists, name the same conservative judges and offend the same women’s group as his current boss and is more familiar with domestic and foreign policies. He probably wouldn’t play the clown to amuse his backers, either. What would Jesus do? Probably send Trump packing, back to New York, with all of his possessions balanced on the back of mules. Just as the President has deflected attention away from his miserable behavior and disgusting pronouncements by questioning the patriotism of his enemies, Evangelical preachers have rallied their flocks against self-described Satanists, atheists and quasi-religious narcissists. The Satanists we meet here are every bit as media-savvy as Trump’s advisers – so are the Nazis, skinheads and white supremacists who’ve been allowed to cause mayhem in our streets – but are vastly outnumbered by the MAGA crowd. Television camera crews will follow anyone’s parade down a lonely street on a Saturday afternoon, if something sexier – a police chase, hotdog-eating contest, random street crime – isn’t happening. Although Catholics are underrepresented in the movie, some of the people interviewed argue persuasively that the Church has allowed priests to serve Satan by buggering altar boys and, until recently, escape accountability. Again, WWJD? In her previous work, Lane (Nuts!) has displayed a willingness to stir up controversy. The transposing of a goat’s head on the visage of the Statue of Liberty, on the DVD cover, pretty much guarantees that civil libertarians will be as reluctant to watch Hail Satan? as the bible-bangers who only watch movies with a family-friendly, Dove-approved presentation.

Eternity Has No Door of Escape: Encounters with Outsider Art
Arthur Borgnis’ fascinating documentary, Eternity Has no Door of Escape, easily recalls a period in 20th Century history when Adolph Hitler and his perverted acolytes determined, on behalf of  all citizens of the Third Reich, split art into two categories: representative of Aryan values and “degenerate.” The latter category included modern and interpretive art, Surrealism, Dada and anything else Der Führer believed was experimental, Jewish or that “insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.” From July 19, 1937, to November 30, of the same year, an exhibition of forbidden art was staged in counterpoint to the concurrent Great German Art Exhibition. The Degenerate Art Exhibition presented 650 works of art confiscated from German museums. Presumably, those pieces were subsequently destroyed, unlike the works stolen from Jewish homes and horded by Nazi leaders in caves, until the end of the war, or sold to private buyers. (In the U.S., today, some people consider statues of Confederate generals to be high art and of historical significance. Easily offended parents and special-interest groups – on both sides of the racial and political fence – have labored to ban such essential books as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Great Gatsby,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Lord of the Flies,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Color Purple” and even “Harry Potter.”) Eternity Has No Door Of Escape traces the tumultuous history of outsider art (a.k.a., art brut) and introduces us to its pivotal figures, including psychiatrist and art collector Dr. Hans Prinzhorn and Surrealist artist and writer André Breton. Using a treasure trove of rare archival footage, the film brings viewers to the places and institutions – including mental hospitals –from which such frequently wondrous and atypically sacred examples of outsider art emerged. Borgnis invites viewers to feast their eyes on art that defies easy translation or understanding, while delighting us with fanciful images, illogical positioning and whimsical takes on architecture and practical objects. Among the artists discussed are Jean Dubuffet, Adolf Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, Laure Pigeon and August Natterer. Hitler wouldn’t approve.

Shortcut to Happiness
On paper, Alec Baldwin’s adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1936 short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” should have had a fighting chance at success. In fact, though, Baldwin’s first and only turn as a director of a feature film turned out to be a disaster, compounded by a train wreck. As the film’s protagonist, novelist Jabez Stone, Baldwin isn’t half-bad, and because Benet’s story has stood the test of time, changing the locale to New York’s chi-chi literary demi-monde shouldn’t have presented any problem, either. Moreover, Baldwin could count on screenwriters Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and Pete Dexter (Mulholland Falls) for a decent script and a supporting cast that included Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, Bobby Cannavale, Kim Cattrall, Darrell Hammond, Barry Miller, Amy Poehler and cameos by John Savage, George Plimpton, Jason Patric, Carrot Top, Gay Talese and Gregg Bello. Baldwin plays a failed writer so desperate to be recognized at Elaine’s and other literary haunts that he signs a pact with the Devil. (That wouldn’t be unusual in a profession dominated by self-help hacks and genre specialists, who write the same book over and over, again.) I don’t think many people would pick Jennifer Love Hewitt as their first, second or third choice to play the antagonist, though. As the heroine of a Nicholas Sparks romance, sure, but not Ms. Scratch. And, not when you already have Cattrall on board as a demonic literary agent. That’s because, when things don’t go as planned for Stone, and he wants his life back, Hewitt’s can’t hold a candle to Hopkins’ portrayal of the great lawyer, statesman and orator, Daniel Webster.

The movie’s woes really began during the 2001 shoot, when financial woes hobbled all of production’s forward momentum. Baldwin has said that the movie was taken from him during editing and it prompted him to demand his directorial credit be replaced with the pseudonym “Harry Kirkpatrick.” Shortcut to Happiness was purchased from a bankruptcy court for an undisclosed amount by producer Bob Yari (“Crash”). Once the still unfinished film was cleared to be sold for distribution, a rough cut was screened at film festivals in 2003 and 2004. It then needed further financing to complete the editing and special effects, as well as to replace temporary music. Finally, in July 2006 it was announced that Yari’s company would work on finishing the film and shoot for a 2007 release … in Kazakhstan. The best estimate on Box Office Mojo puts the domestic haul at “n/a” and foreign box office at $605,294, making it a bomb of monumental proportions. The MVD Marquee Collection edition – probably, the first in high-def – doesn’t look any worse for the wear. Completists and diehard fans of the players might get something out of it, but only barely.

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Blu-ray
With the exception of the hand game for which it’s named, Rock, Paper, Scissors (2017) is an acceptably thrilling collage of time-honored horror/splatter conceits. It’s directed by Tom Holland, who began his career directing such squirmy fare as Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988), and writing The Beast Within (1982), Psycho II (1983) and Scream for Help (1984). Here, serial killer Peter “Doll Maker” Harris returns to his ancestral home after being released from the state’s hospital for the criminally insane as a “cured” man. Michael Madsen plays the police officer who arrested Harris and rejects the idea that such a monster could be cured, as his psychotherapist (Tatum O’Neal) insists. He pledges to return Harris to the hospital – or kill him – before he can do any more damage to teenage girls in the neighborhood. He also suspects that the woman who’s moved across the street from him – a true-crime writer and sister to a still missing girl —  will become Harris’ next victim or goad him into attacking others. For his part, Harris has stopped insisting that he was ordered to kill the girls by his twin brother, who nobody except Peter believes exists. Neither do we, even when Harris begins playing “rock, paper, scissors” with visitors, just as he did with his victims. Holland takes his time answering our questions, while also building tension within the confines of Harris’ house, which may still harbor horrors and secrets. Pretty basic stuff really, especially the bit about the nonexistent evil twin. Michael Madsen will never go hungry as long as B-movies like Rock, Paper, Scissors are made. FYI: In the past 20 years, no fewer that 22 movies, shorts and television episodes have carried the same title.

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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