MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: War & Peace, Heiresses, Styx, Maze, Felix Austria, Winter Passage, Fatso, Horror, 24-Hour Party People, FM, Cavett’s Baseball Heroes … More

War and Peace: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If, this summer, you have only seven hours to devote to the cinema, consider spending those 422 minutes – not including bonus features – watching Criterion Collection’s spectacularly restored edition of Sergey Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Although I don’t recommend carrying a portable Blu-ray player to the beach and watching it there – as one could do with the novel or Kindle’s 1392-page edition – the four-part epic would make a rainy day less gray. Made by Kinostudiya MosFilm at the height of the Cold War – from 1961 to 1967 – its production was motivated by the success of King Vidor’s 1956 American-Italian co-production, which starred Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer. With the 150th anniversary of the 1812 French invasion of Russia at hand, an open letter signed by many of the country’s filmmakers declared, “It is a matter of honor for the Soviet cinema industry to produce a picture which will surpass the American-Italian one in its artistic merit and authenticity.” The USSR must have been pretty flush, if it could afford to send ballistic missiles to Cuba and greenlight one of the most expensive movie epics of all time … anywhere. War and Peace not only received substantially better notices in the worldwide press than the short-lived missile crisis, but it also did buffo business at the box office and, in 1969, carried home Best Foreign Language Film awards from the HFPA, AMPAS, New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review. When such honors didn’t convince the Soviet Union to raze the Iron Curtain and end the Cold War, a great opportunity for peace was missed. (They did, however, prompt Soviet authorities to confiscate Bondarchuk’s Oscar, immediately upon his arrival in the USSR, and demand that he join the Communist Party.)

War and Peace dazzled audiences with splendid art design, period-perfect costumes, magnificent sets and acting, but it was the historically accurate re-creations of battles and preparations for war that drew comparisons to Gone With the Wind (1939). The overwhelmingly humanistic tone of the novel remained intact, as well. Three hours longer than “GWTW,” Bondarchuk’s adaptation delivers the same dramatic, romantic, historical and emotional punch. The only thing that raised eyebrows in the aftermath of its release were the mythic numbers attached to its production. A rumor that spread among critics and other pundits put the overall budget at $100 million. Bondarchuk, himself, would soon reduce that figure to $12 million, or nearly 9 million Soviet rubles, at 1967 rates. (That figure swells to around $60 million in 2017 numbers.) In a 1986 interview, the co-writer/co-protagonist/director would also reduce the number of soldiers requisitioned to the production from an estimated 120,000 to 12,000, as well as nearly a thousand horses. More than 40 museums contributed historical artifacts, such as chandeliers, furniture and cutlery, to create an authentic impression of the Russian aristocracy. Thousands of costumes were sewn by hand, mainly military uniforms of the sorts worn by the various units, including 11,000 hats of the cylindrical military variety. Sixty museum-quality cannons were cast, and 120 wagons and carts were constructed for the production. If the movie actually did cost $12 million, instead of $100 million, Bondarchuk made it look as if it were produced by James Cameron.

The first two full-length segments – “Andrei Bolkonsky,” “Natasha Rostova” — debuted before the third and fourth – “The Year 1812,” “Pierre Bezukhov” — which were delayed by the director’s long recovery from a near-fatal heart attack. To accommodate the film’s extreme length, distributors outside the USSR drastically shortened War and Peace – by an hour in the dubbed U.S. version – or presented it in two parts, over two days. Anyone who came of age after Tron got the CGI ball rolling, in 1982, may be surprised to learn that every soldier, horse, cart, hunting dog and wolf in sight is real. Among the camera and sound techniques unfamiliar in the Soviet cinema were aerial lifts, in which cameras were hoisted over battlefield sets to create “a cannon ball view”; hand-held cameras, which, when filming Natasha’s first ball, allowed the operators to circle between the dancing extras on roller skates; crowd scenes shot using cranes and helicopters; and a six-channel audio recording system. They deftly complement the performances of, among others, Bondarchuk, as Pierre Bezukhov; Lyudmila Savelyeva, as Natasha Rostova; Vyacheslav Tikhonov, as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Criterion’s two-disc Blu-ray edition features a new 2K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; fresh interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky and filmmaker Fedor Bondarchuk, son of Sergei; two 1966 making-of documentaries; a 1967 television doc, profiling Savelyeva and featuring Sergei Bondarchuk, a Janus re-release trailer; new English subtitle translation; and an essay by critic Ella Taylor.

There’s no shortage of excellent movies set during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland: The Crying Game (1992), In the Name of the Father (1993), Some Mother’s Son (1996), The Boxer (1997), Bloody Sunday (2002), Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008), ’71 (2014) and The Journey (2016), among them. The most unlikely, perhaps, Alan J. Pakula’s The Devil’s Own (1997), in which New York police officer Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford) is asked to take in a homeless houseguest, Francis “The Angel” McGuire (Brad Pitt), who turns out to be an I.R.A. terrorist. He’s in the Big Apple to shop for black-market surface-to-air missiles. After seven rewrites, the screenwriters finally managed to erase almost all mention of Irish politics from the script. If it weren’t for a boost in overseas revenues,  The Devil’s Own could have been written off by Columbia Pictures as a disaster. Steve McQueen’s brilliant Hunger (2008) would depict life – and death — in the H-Blocks of the HM Prison Maze prison (a.k.a., Long Kesh). It’s where Provisional IRA soldier and Member of Parliament Bobby Sands participated in the “second” hunger strike, in which protesters demanded a re-imposition of an agreement that effectively ended the “first” hunger strike. It stipulated that prisoners be treated as POWs, entitling them to certain rights and privileges not available to prisoners who weren’t IRA soldiers or such loyalist paramilitaries as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association. There were other demands, but the Brits weren’t about to give in to any of them. The strike was called off after 10 prisoners — including Sands had starved themselves to death – while successfully garnering the attention of world media. British PM Margaret Thatcher, a woman not known for displaying compassion or possessing a realistic perspective on such things, wanted the world to consider Sands and other dead convicts, victims of “suicide by starvation.” Most observers didn’t buy it.

Stephen Burke’s Maze picks up two years after the second strike ended and many of the participants were housed in an “escape-proof” unit in H-Block. The Brits also thought it might be fun to add a larger group of loyalist belligerents to the population. Instead of putting a chill on political activity among minority Roman Catholics on the outside, as Thatcher insisted had happened, the media coverage that surrounded Sands’ death resulted in a new surge of IRA enrollment, fundraising and politicking. To avenge the 10 deaths, the IRA went on a murder spree in which 61 people were killed, 34 of them civilians, including prison guards and politicians. Three years later, the IRA took direct action against Thatcher with the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing, an attack on the Conservative Party conference that killed five people and Thatcher only narrowly escaped death. Inside the Maze, the prisoners were biding their time for something more newsworthy than a third hunger strike. Maze depicts how, in September 1983, a longtime convict and habitual escapee Lawrence Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) helped Brendan McFarlane, Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly orchestrate the successful mass escape of 38 Republican prisoners from the air-tight facility. It was the largest prison escape in British penal history, but didn’t include Marley, who was close to his parole date. While his co-conspirators rallied the prisoners across separate cellblocks and exchanged messages with IRA supporters outside the prison, Marley took full advantage of his job as an orderly to gather intelligence on possible soft spots in Maze security. Although mortal enemies on political issues, Marley forms a relatively close bond with prison warden Gordon Close (Barry Ward), who was too pre-occupied with family matters to notice that someone was picking his pocket. Adding to the verisimilitude was the production’s ability to shoot interiors at Cork Prison, which had closed just weeks before shooting began. The 93-minute drama overflows with tense moments and threats to the ultimate completion of the plan, which almost goes off without a hitch. Describing what happens after the escape would require a 93-minute sequel.

The Heiresses
When it comes to movies that feature actors beyond a certain age in leading roles – actresses, especially – it’s tough to beat  the ones made in South America. And, they aren’t relegated exclusively to remakes of On Golden Pond or Driving Miss Daisy. Neither are the characters necessarily required to lose a long, drawn-out fight against cancer or succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford allowed themselves the luxury of playing characters their age, or older, in The Mule and The Old Man and a Gun, respectively. Oscar nominee Glenn Close (The Wife) was nearly 23 years older than the next-oldest candidate for this year’s Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Marcelo Martinessi’s outstanding drama, The Heiresses, starring Ana Brun, Margarita Irun and Ana Ivanova, was the official submission of Paraguay in the race for Best Foreign Language Film, but missed the cut. Somehow, I don’t see The Heiresses being adapted for American audiences, as was Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria (2013), which was remounted as Gloria Bell, with Julianne Moore in the lead role. Here, Chela and Chiquita are required by circumstances to sell off family heirlooms to keep them from going completely broke. They’ve lived together as lovers, comfortably and compatibly, for 30 years, in a country that traditionally has been more welcoming to ex-Nazis than gays and lesbians. When Chiquita is imprisoned on fraud charges, Chela faces a crisis in confidence. In a sense, they’ve both been put behind bars. Among the treasures Chela inherited from her father is a practically antique Mercedes-Benz. She’s never shown any interest in getting a license, because transportation was left to Chiquita. One day, one of their card-playing friends asks Chela for a lift to the weekly game, and she surprises us by agreeing to do it. Her passenger insists that she accept money for the trip. Before long, she’s chauffeuring several more friends to the game, all paying for the privilege. The women have outlived their husbands and enjoy seeing their friend in such an improved mood. Chela isn’t making a lot of money, just enough to keep Chaquita flush with cigarettes and coffee. Just as she’s begun to settle into her new life, she encounters the much younger, Angy (Ana Ivanova), who’s been around the block a few times and encourages her new friend to break out of her shell. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the almost certainly bisexual Angy uses the occasion of a wine-soaked evening to lay herself open to Chela. Clearly, she doesn’t know how to handle the overture or the adrenalin racing through her veins. Neither is she comfortable with Chaquita’s early release from prison and her desire to return to the point where their relationship left off. The dynamics experienced by the characters is wonderfully depicted by the three actresses, who’ve rarely, if ever appeared on the big screen. It’s worth noting that Brun found it necessary to use a pseudonym in her debut, fearing that her participation in such a controversial movie would have an adverse impact on her within still-conservative Paraguayan society. This, despite the absence of sex and nudity, gratuitous or otherwise. Anyone who’s interested in movies in which elderly characters are accorded the respect they’re due should check out Gloria; Sebastián Silva’s The Maid (2009) and Gatos Viejos (2010); Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story (1985); Jorge Gaggero’s Live-In Maid (2004); Walter Salles’ Central Station (1998); Andrucha Waddington’s The House of Sand (2005); and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius (2016).

The 2000s have brought us several excellent films about men and women who attempt to defy nature by sailing great distances, alone, or fighting off unexpected adversaries on the open ocean. Some are deadly serious, while others serve as vehicles for adventure, thrills, horror and juvenile behavior. Among the most prominent titles are Open Water (2003), Open Water 2: Adrift (2006), Donkey Punch (2008), Triangle (2009), The Reef (2010), All Is Lost (2013), Open Water 3: Cage Dive (2017), Adrift (2018), The Mercy (2018), Maiden (2018) and, by stretching the parameters of this audit a bit further, Dead Calm (1989), A Hijacking (2012) and Captain Phillips (2013). The German/Austrian co-production Styx, now on DVD, is as good as the best of these titles, even though it lacks the threat of shark attack, a recognizable star, a mid-Atlantic collision, Somali pirates and very much dialogue. It depicts the transformation of a strong German doctor, Rike (Susanne Wolff), who spends most of her time at work in the back of an ambulance, patching up accident victims or watching them die. On her vacation, she hopes to sail from Gibraltar to Ascension Island, 1,000 miles west of the Angola and 1,400 miles east of Brazil. She wants to see for herself the results of programs launched by Charles Darwin and botanist/ explorer Joseph Hooker to bring greenery and bird habitats back to the dusty volcanic island, which, for many years, was used by the British military and U.S. intelligence-gathering services. I won’t be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of Styx by pointing out that her voyage is interrupted by unforeseen circumstances further north.

Shortly after weathering a powerful storm at sea, Rike spots a trawler adrift on open waters. At first, it doesn’t look as if there’s anyone aboard the vessel. Following nautical procedure, she radios in the trawler’s position and seeming lack of visible life. Defying an order by naval authorities, she decides to sail a bit closer to the boat and take a closer look. As she does so, it becomes apparent that some of the passengers not only are alive, but they’re desperate for rescue. In fact, several of the passengers jump into the ocean and attempt to reach Rike’s much smaller boat. Only one boy swims close enough to reach the life jacket she’s thrown into the sea, when it looks as if he might not make it. The boy, Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Wekesa), immediately falls into a deep sleep, as Rike takes to the radio to once again request help. And, yet again, she’s ordered not to make contact with any survivors. Help is on the way, she’s told. By now, both Rike and viewers will have recognized Styx’s central dilemma: assuming that Kingsley and the other passengers were infected by something resembling Ebola, what, as a doctor, was her obligation to come to his aid? Moreover, how should she react when Kingsley demands that she return to the trawler – he believes his sister is still alive – and he won’t take “no” for an answer. It comes to head when the boy begins throwing water bottles into the ocean and pushes Rike into the water. Will Kingsley show her the same quality of mercy that she’s been ordered by authorities not to give the survivors? What will happen after the men in Hazmat outfits arrive and take over the sailboat? Co-writer/director Wolfgang Fischer and freshman co-writer Ika Künzel leave those questions hanging in the air, until the very end of Styx.

In doing so, they force viewers to ponder how they’d react in the same situation. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the splendid opening sequence, in which Fischer uses one of Gibraltar’s trademark Barbary macaques to make a point about how animals adjust to their diminished environments in ways that almost make humans irrelevant. The apes thread their way through the urban jungle like their cousins in the wild. When the wildly inventive sequence ends, Fischer takes us to Cologne, where Rike has to decide how far she’ll go to save the life of a man who’s been in a terrible accident. It’s at this point that we return to Gibraltar’s teeming seaport, where’s Rike’s about embark on what she hopes is an excellent adventure in a sailboat that looks like a thimble among the oil tankers. Bonus features include commentary with Fischer and Wolff, as well as a short film about an Arab girl with a foot in the world of her parents and ancestors, and the one to which she’s been exposed by carefree tourists, who pay her to perform their chores.

In the Last Days of the City
Random Thoughts on Box Office
In one of its occasional surveys of the film industry, the New York Times recently assembled “a sprawling collection of influential figures … to assess the state of moviegoing.” According to Eric Kohn’s response-piece in IndieWire, “the result was a multifaceted collage of alarming messages.” Of course, any trend that negatively affects the bonuses of studio executives is going to be viewed with alarm throughout the industry. Trickle-down economics are alive and well in Hollywood. It made the producers and directors of so-called “small films” queasy about the future, as well. (Anyone who’s ever walked onto a soundstage or location shoot can identify myriad ways to save money, starting with craft services and star trailers, and ending with the expensive SUVs that shepherd key workers home or to their cars. Then, there’s the multimillion-dollar “consideration” campaigns, which allow thousands of industry insiders to bypass theaters entirely.) People fortunate enough to live in a city large enough to support more than one multiscreen arthouse don’t see the problem of empty seats from the same perspective as the people interviewed by the Times. Lovers of fine cinema will find quality entertainment wherever it is, and, yes, that includes the streaming services dedicated to new and vintage arthouse-quality films. It’s amazing what’s out there in the Land Beyond Netflix.

What is true is that the studios created their own monster and now their insatiable friends on Wall Street must be appeased. Not so long ago, the release windows for DVDs of mainstream movies and TV shows ranged from six months to a year. Today, those windows are nearly shut, allowing for the simultaneous release of mainstream and genre pictures, in theaters and inside the homes of once loyal fans. Studios have deemed some newly released movies to be too expensive to re-market and push the street dates of Blu-ray, DVD and digital products to less than a month after opening day, when trailers and ads are still fresh in the minds of consumers. They laud the big-screen experience, while conspiring to phase it out. Exhibitors who gather each year at NATO’s annual ShoWest/CinemaCon soiree have been waving the red flag on the same subject for the 15 years, at least. The studios respond by throwing them even more lavish feasts, following screenings of upcoming movies and product reels. Gone are the days when studios would take turns filling a dais with superstar talent and promises that the industry had the exhibiters’ best interests in mind. That might have been true before the industry realized that the pots of gold at the end of their rainbow had moved from the American heartland to developing markets in China, Japan and the rest of the Pacific Rim nations, and shiny new megaplexes in Europe and Latin America. In 2003, foreign revenues began to dominate the domestic market for good. Since then, they’ve bailed out the major studios’ tentpole pictures numerous times. Meanwhile, midlevel and smallish pictures have practically been ignored … until awards season. If attendance is down domestically, it’s easy to see why.

And, BTW, the same dynamics affecting the studios have, for some time, threatened the adult industry. When it became easy for viewers to find free hard-core products through mainstream search engines, the industry was forced to scramble. It made a mid-course correction by personalizing the niche products, expanding the fetish market, pumping up the Internet and phone services, and mixing gonzo titles with classics. Kohn’s survey of arthouse exhibiters was quite a bit more optimistic, if only because the movies shown in their theaters target adults, who’ve stopped going to the multiplexes – except for matinees and senior discounts — and can easily remember when the only way they could see niche movies was to find them at the local arthouse, on the big screen and without pre-popped popcorn. I concur with Dennis Lim, director of film programming at Lincoln Center, who points out that “the takeaway from the New York Times piece is not that movies are dying, it’s that Hollywood is in trouble.” We should all be in such trouble. He went on, “If Hollywood is struggling, maybe it is time to reframe this tired discourse and remind us all that cinema is about a lot more than Oscar movies and summer tentpoles. I watch hundreds of new films from around the world every year, and I find it hard to be pessimistic about cinema as an art.” I may not watch as many new films as Lim, but I’m constantly impressed by the dozens of niche, indie, foreign, genre and documentaries I see every month and review in this space.

Among them are a pair of intriguing DVDs from Big World Pictures, a dependable source for international and indie films that make the rounds of the festival circuit, before finding a distributor or disappearing completely. The Heiresses spent a full year on the international festival circuit, before opening in a small handful of theaters here and getting a DVD release. Júlia Murat’s Pendular and Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City spent quite a bit longer in festival limbo. One definition of “pendular” describes it as “moving or swinging back and forth in a regular rhythm, like a pendulum.” The film that’s taken that interesting concept as a title is set in a sprawling, largely abandoned industrial complex – in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, probably — that serves as a loft space and artists’ colony. Unlike other residents, dancer Alice (Raquel Karro) and her sculptor lover, Marido (Rodrigo Bolzan), have decided to live where they work. Their friends remind them that such workplace arrangements rarely are successful and no romantic relationship can withstand the pressure of being in each other’s hair for the better part of a 24-hour day. At the beginning of the film, the couple tapes off equal portions of the loft, demarcating “his” and “her” sections for their individual work. The loft may seem huge and the domestic area livable, but looks are deceiving. Marido specializes in large, heavy-to-lift pieces of wood, stone and metal. He uses a pulley to bring together parts that are intended to be bonded forever. His assistants use welding and shaping tools and to make Marido’s art come alive. Alice’s dances don’t clash with all the pounding and heavy lifting. In fact, she sometimes improvises routines around the raw and finished material. The inevitable moment of crisis arrives when Marido proclaims, “This isn’t working … I need more space.” After reminding him of their arrangement, Alice agrees to the kind of compromise that invariably favors the male. To the surprise of no one, it’s the first indication of bad things to come. The second comes when friends begin kicking a soccer ball around the loft and Marido throws a shit fit. What’s also striking about Pendular is the intense eroticism that turns their lovemaking sessions into tableaux vivants, with a dynamism all their own. The film’s climax may shock many viewers, but it isn’t out of step with what’s come before it.

In the Last Days of the City is the debut feature of Egyptian  writer/director Tamer El Said. In it, a young Cairo filmmaker, Khalid (Khalid Abdalla), struggles to capture the soul of a city on edge, while facing trauma in his own life. Shot in Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad and Berlin during the two years before the pro-democracy revolution in Egypt, the film’s multi-layered stories are a visually rich exploration of friendship, loneliness, loss and life in cities shaped by the shadows of war and adversity. El Said began “Last Days” before the Egyptian revolution, but Khalid’s friends had already experienced the destruction of Beirut, Baghdad and Tripoli, with Damascus still to come. When he lost the handle on his narrative, he began asking people who escaped the carnage there to recall what those cities were like before they left. Many of the elderly sources describe scenes that might very well have been dictated by Omar Khayyam. Even Khalid’s young-adult friends remember a time before constant war … somewhere. Meanwhile, his mother is dying, his girlfriend (Laila Samy) has given him the heave-ho and Islamic demonstrators demand the ouster and trial of Hosni Mubarek. (State radio reports that the protesters are fans of the national soccer team, which just lost an important match with Algeria.) The overall tone of “Last Days” is melancholic and bound to get worse, when Syria explodes. Khalid’s confusion grows even worse when his friends head back to their war-torn homes or escape to Berlin, and the writing on Cairo’s walls isn’t getting any less ominous.

The Poison Rose: Blu-ray
Dead Trigger: Blu-ray
The sad fact is that bashing John Travolta, Dolph Lundren and other onetime superstars has become tres, tres tedious. I take my job seriously enough to give each new one an opportunity to shine, knowing that isn’t likely to happen. The Poison Rose surprised me by maintaining my interest for at least 65 minutes of its 98-minute length. The first good sign was Travolta’s hair, which, for once, didn’t look as if it were painted on his head with chia seeds added for texture. This being a contemporary noir, the second came in his ability to deliver hard-boiled dialogue, with only a trace of a marginal Texas accent, even though The Poison Rose was largely shot in Georgia. The inclusion of old pros Famke Janssen, Brendan Fraser, Robert Patrick and Peter Stormare could only be a good thing. The unusually high number of co-writers, co-directors and co-producers boded the opposite, however. Set in the late 1970s, Travolta plays Carson Philips, a dissipated L.A. private investigator with serious gambling debts and mobsters on his tail. Out of the blue, a sexy MILF hires him to locate her daughter, who recently disappeared from a rehab facility and hasn’t been heard from since. Turns out, the last place the girl was spotted was in Carson’s hometown, where his exploits as a quarterback are easily recalled. His former teammates haven’t moved more than a few feet from where they were sitting, standing or passed out, when he split Galveston to save his former wife, Jayne (Janssen), the prospect of an ugly divorce. Freeman plays a sleazy casino owner; Patrick, a thoroughly corrupted chief of police; Fraser’s character is an elephantine doctor at the rehab facility; and his ex-wife married well and was left a fortune when the jerk died. Here’s the kicker, though, Travolta’s 19-year-old daughter, Ella Bleu Travolta, plays Rebecca, the betrothed of a hotshot college quarterback. He gets into a fight at the casino the night before the big game and dies after being hit by an opponent, foaming at the mouth. And, yes, Ella Bleu is a dead ringer for her dad. Jayne hires Colin to clear Rebecca in what the chief of police has been told to investigate as a homicide. Again, viewers won’t need a spoiler alert to assume that all paths lead to rehab facility, run by Fraser’s bulbous doctor. If there are next to no surprises in this high-humidity noir, the actors are fun to watch, anyway, and the scenery isn’t bad. I found hilarious that the noir conceit extends to Colin’s pink Cadillac convertible, whose top almost always stays open, even when it rains.

If the title of Lundgren’s zombie thriller, Dead Trigger, sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an adaptation of the 2012 videogame of the same name and storyline. Developed by Madfinger, it is a first-person-shooter game, which demands that players survive a variety of missions, all deadly. It was popular enough to spawn a sequel and movie, which, after its 2017 debut at the Moscow Film Festival, waited two years before being seen in the United States, on May 3, 2019. Both the game and movie so closely follow the trajectory of “The Walking Dead” (2010) that they all could be arms of the same franchise, extending back to Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s “The Walking Dead” (2003) comic book and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later … (2002). (A mysterious virus has killed countless millions of people and turned others into bloodthirsty zombies.) In the movie, the government is incapable of stopping the Zombie Apocalypse, so it calls on a pair of muscle-bound Special Forces types to teach an elite force of gamers how prevent an undead army from spoiling a rescue mission. There’s plenty of action in “Dead Trigger,” but nothing that should surprise any fan of “The Walking Dead,”  “Fear the Walking Dead” or, even, Shaun of the Dead (2004). I’m always amazed by the inability of humans with perfectly satisfactory auditory and olfactory skills to discern the grunting and shuffling of foul-smelling zombies from a mile away. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that co-director Mike Cuff abandoned ship during shooting, due to creative differences. Cuff and game developer Madfinger withdrew their support for the film and had no further input on its making. Never a good sign.

Felix Austria!
The Illusionist: Blu-ray
Twenty minutes into Christine Beebe’s offbeat portrait of the historian and educator Brian Scott Pfeifle, I began to wonder if Felix Austria! (2014) was a faux documentary or mockumentary. The story about this unconventional human being was, at once, too good to be true and too good not to be true. I considered hitting the pause button to check if Brian Scott Pfeifle – think, David Hyde Pierce (“Fraiser”) in a Broadway version of Felix Austria! – was the real thing, or a figment of Beebe’s demonstrably fertile imagination. Either way, it didn’t much matter to me. As yarns go, this one was a whopper. Staring down the barrel of an incurable genetic disease — Huntington’s chorea, I believe — Pfeifle decided not to waste any more time denying  himself the luxury of living with one foot in academia and the other in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, when people look back at Belle Epoque Vienna, they recall such Secessionist artists and modernist thinkers as Gustav Mahler, Egon Schiele, Alfred Roller, Gustav and Ernst Klimt, Sigmund Freud, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich. Pfeile looked back at the period from a different perspective. He was a Humanities student at Cal-Berkeley and received a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Vienna, where he studied the theory and work of architect Adolf Loos. By then, too, Pfeifle began to indulge his budding Aestheticism, by favoring powdered wigs and cravats, and entering psychoanalysis to interpret his Habsburg dreams. He changed his name legally to Felix Etienne-Edouard Pfeifle. (Austria’s motto was, “Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube,” or “Let others wage wars, you, happy Austria, marry.” It referenced the diplomatic philosophy of using marriage to cement alliances and gain territory.) Does any of this sound real to you, yet?

The cherry on the sundae arrived in the form of a box full of correspondence between an ordinary American, Herbert Hinkel, and Crown Prince Otto von Habsburg, the last descendent of the Holy Roman Empire. The cache included more than 100 letters, from approximately 60 years of correspondence, dating from 1937, when the Hapsburgs decided they’d better leave Dodge or prepare for a showdown with Hitler they couldn’t win. Approaching his quest from the perspective of both a historian and a fin-de-siècle dandy, Pfeifle knew that it would take him to New York, to Hinkle’s last known address, and, with luck, to Otto’s final home, in Germany, Vienna and Sarajevo. It was in Germany that Pfeifle came face-to-face with the former monarch, who had remained politically active during the second half of the 20th Century. Not all fairytales come with such a  clear historical narrative and evidentiary trail. Once the 77- minute Felix Austria! takes hold – if it does — you may want to learn what was in the letters and how a late-19th Century dandy confronts the vulgarity of contemporary life. In 2015, after the doc was released, he founded the Felix Austria School of Civility, in Los Angeles. It’s a tutorial program that “addresses the pervasive changes that have occurred in Western etiquette since the advent of digital technology and social media.”

If any of this discussion about fin-de-siècle Vienna and the Habsburg reign tickles your fancy, you may want to check out Neil Burger’s lush period mystery, The Illusionist (2006). Never mind that the name of the key antagonist was changed from Crown Prince Rudolf to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Budapest stands in grandly for Vienna. Neither is much made of double suicide at the Mayerling hunting lodge, where, in 1889, the direct heir to the crown and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, fulfilled a love pact. That’s not how this movie ends. The illusionist in question here, Eisenheim (Edward Norton), enters into a dangerous game of tag with the Crown Prince for the hand of Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel). As children, they felt destined to marry, but, being the son of a woodworker, they were separated. A couple decades later, Eisenheim returns to Vienna as one the of world’s great magicians. The minute he sees the princess, Eisenheim dedicates himself to preventing the Crown Prince’s wedding plans. It won’t be easy – or without the possibility of bodily harm – but magic always works in behalf of lovers. Leopold has ordered his chief of police, Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), to investigate how the son of a woodworker could have become such a formidable foe. Uhl instantly confuses fraud and necromancy for legerdemain and goes to great lengths to back his suspicions. Eisenheim relishes the opportunity to prove both of these pompous fools wrong … or, at least, keep the wool pulled over their eyes.  Burger’s preparations included enlisting British magician James Freedman and the recently deceased American magician/historian/raconteur, Ricky Jay. The upgraded Blu-ray adds Burger’s commentary; a making-of featurette; and interview with Biel.

Mia and the White Lion: Blu-ray
Okko’s Inn: Blu-ray
Could the same audience attracted to Mia and the White Lion, a live-action story about an unlikely friendship, also be interested in an anime about a 12-year-old girl, whose parents are killed in a traffic accident and, with the help of some ghosts, learns how to get on with her life? In the former, 11-year-old Mia (Daniah De Villiers) is shaken to the core by her parents’ decision to move from London to South Africa, where they’ll manage a “lion farm.” Her father attempts to appease her displacement anxiety by allowing her to raise a white lion cub, until he’s too large to be a house pet. At first, their relationship is beyond cute. As they grow older, together, Charlie grows ominously large and Mia turns into a larger than life brat. Just as Mia becomes completely unreasonable in her love for Charley, director Gilles de Maistre (Le premier cri) and writers Prune de Maistre and William Davies (Johnny English Strikes Again) accentuate some of Mia’s better qualities and turn her father into a villain. Like his late father, he raises lions for the sole purpose of selling them to companies that promote can’t-miss trophy hunting. He neglects to reveal this detail to Mia, when she’s made Charley’s  guardian. When the lion’s deemed fully grown and Mia’s finally gotten his last nerve, he’s handed over to the broker. Naturally, Mia rescues her pet, with the intention of releasing it into a wildlife sanctuary set aside for white lions. His daughter’s rebellion convinces her dad to end his illegal business dealings and join her in the cross-country chase. As manipulative as Mia and the White Lion  can be, the points it makes about lion farms and cowardly trophy hunters are sound. It took three years for the real-life Charley and Mia to develop the rapport necessary to film them together in such unlikely circumstances. The scenery could hardly be more spectacular, especially as Mia nears the reserve. The DVD adds interviews and making-of featurettes. While the movie easily qualifies as PG, there are times when parental guidance is advised. There’s no getting around the ugliness of fake trophy hunting. The package includes several deleted scenes, making-of material and interviews.

The Japanese title for Okko’s Inn is the far more descriptive, if hopelessly unwieldy, “The Young Innkeeper Is a Grade Schooler!” It’s based on a series of 20 novels written by Hiroko Reijo and illustrated by Asami, as well as a manga illustrated by Eiko Ouchi and a 24-episode anime television series, directed by Mitsuyuki Masuhara and written by Michiko Yokote. The new, feature-length anime, Okko’s Inn, was directed by Kitaro Kosaka, who designed characters for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013), It was written for the screen by Reiko Yoshida (Liz and the Blue Bird). As the movie opens, the pre-teen protagonist’s parents are killed in a car accident on the way back from a festival. It was held in the town where Okko’s grandmother, Mineko, runs a traditional ryokan, the Hananoyu Inn. Before Okko loses consciousness in the accident, she sees the ghostly image of a boy floating in the air. Once she’s recovered, she moves into the inn. It’s there that she learns that the boy is a ghost named Makoto Tachiuri, nicknamed “Uribo,” who died shortly after Mineko moved away from their hometown. Mineko makes her granddaughter “junior innkeeper,” giving her a kimono of her own to wear. While she doesn’t immediately take to innkeeping, her spirits are buoyed by Uribe and the idea that the Hananoyu Inn and its healing waters are intended for everyone. The animation bears a resemblance to that done at Studio Ghibli – generic round-eyed characters, detailed backgrounds, constantly in motion — but it’s understandable, based on creative team’s background. Besides Uribo, the inn is inhabited – haunted would be too harsh a word – by two more ghosts”: the sassy, mischievous, Miyo, and the pesky “demon,” Suzuki. Over the course of Okko’s coming-of-age journey, she meets a variety of unusual characters. Among them are a sullen teenage boy; a friendly fortune teller, Glory, who takes her on a memorable shopping trip; and a rival junior innkeeper, Matsuki, who treats her contemptuously at every opportunity. At the story’s core, however, is Okko’s inability to deal with the fact that her mother and father are no longer with her. This adds a contemplative tone to the proceedings that might make younger viewer restless. It’s a good reason for parents to stick around while the kids watch Okko’s Inn. That, and how to explain how ghosts act differently in other countries. The Blu-ray adds interviews and a Q&A with the creative team.

Winter Passing: Blu-ray
Released early in 2007, Winter Passage had the misfortune of being overshadowed by several pictures with essentially the same plot and tone. Zooey Deschanel, whose career was rapidly reaching its zenith, was cast as an aspiring off-off-Broadway actor, working as a bartender to make ends meet. She enjoys her cocaine and doesn’t always sleep at home, with her boyfriend. Her Reese Holden isn’t untalented, just one of thousands of twentysomethings seeking the same roles, careers and bliss. The chip on Reese’s shoulder becomes obvious when a book editor, Lori Lansky (Amy Madigan), pleads with her to share her parents’ love letters with the world, a get that would assure her career and profit the starving actor. The mere mention of her parents triggers an outburst that says almost everything about the source of her unhappiness and belligerent behavior. Turns out, Reese is the daughter of two highly successful and deeply depressed novelists, whose radical roots withered like their memories of the 1960s. It was a time when everything progressive was possible, except despair over a future that promised everything, but delivered nothing that hadn’t been exploited, bastardized and corrupted. Her narcissistic mother was estranged from her husband, Don Holden (Ed Harris), when she strangled herself, at home, with an old-school necktie. Both estranged themselves from Reese when she failed to show any interest in becoming the second coming of Emma Goldman or Rosa Luxemburg. Having avoided her mother’s funeral, Reese dreaded returning to her northern Michigan and asking her reclusive and alcoholic father where the love letters were hidden. Don’s in worse shape than even Reese could imagine. His literary outpost had dwindled to a few words a week and the onetime voice of his generation had been silenced. The only thing keeping him tripping down the stairs or completely ignoring meals are his worshipful live-in companions, Shelley (Amelia Warner) and Corbit (Will Ferrell), who Reese immediately mistrusts. It isn’t until she comes to the realization, they aren’t parasites – Don needs them as much as they need him —that writer/director Adam Rapp begins to lift the weight of doom, gloom and resentment off his character and narrative.

If you’ve already guessed the Don Holden is based on the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger, you’d be right. Even so, being cursed with an almost catastrophic case of writer’s block wasn’t unique to the author of “The Catcher in the Rye.” If only a few people, about the same age, were able to crack the wall of ice surrounding his New Hampshire home – novelist and onetime lover, Joyce Maynard, and, Margaret Salinger, his daughter by his second wife – it would take many years before they felt comfortable sharing details of his life with readers. Don Holden is probably 20 years younger than Salinger, who was in his mid-80s when Winter Passage was put into limited release. Don’s disheveled appearance more resembles how Howard Hughes was supposed to have looked toward the end of his cloistered life in 1976, at 70. Salinger and his eccentricities informed several other movies of the period, even if they weren’t nearly as sharply sculpted, and they still do. Rapp is said to have been influenced, as well, by Bob Rafelson’s portrait of middle-age alienation, Five Easy Pieces (1970). The list of dramas and black comedies that extended the Salinger legend include Wonder Boys (2000), The Door in the Floor (2004), The Squid and the Whale (2005), Running with Scissors (2006), Smart People (2008) and, skipping ahead, The End of the Tour (2015) and Rebel in the Rye (2017). Besides Harris, the stars included such heavyweights as Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, Jeff Daniels, Dennis Quaid, Jason Segel, Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Hoult. At times, Deschanel’s portrayal of a young woman attempting to escape the shadow of her talented, self-absorbed parents feels overly caustic. Rapp’s script gives her good reasons to behave so badly, though. In the key supporting performances, Ferrell does a terrific job in a counter-intuitive role and Emily Warner’s Mary surprises us – and Reese – by not being the gold-digger she, at first, appeared to be. (No spoiler alert needed.) When they finally come together as an only slightly dysfunctional family, we know that they’ve shared the same difficult journey and come out intact. That conclusion was always in doubt. Special features include a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Fatso: Blu-ray
I can’t remember if any advocacy group objected to anything in Anne Bancroft’s writing and directorial debut, Fatso. Like today, 1980 was a period in American history when everybody and their baby sister nitpicked movies for things to be offended by and report back to Oprah. Fatso is about a guy most people would recognize – Dominick DiNapoli, played by the admittedly overweight Dom DeLuise – who patiently listens to people warn him about the dangers of overeating, but is too busy stirring the tomato sauce to take notes. As the picture opens Bancroft employs a series of anecdotal flashbacks to demonstrate how Dominick came to be as large as he is and why it comes with the territory: Little Italy. He loves eating the food his mother and aunts make for celebrations, parties and funerals, and they love watching him gorge on it. After the opening credits roll, friends and family gather to say goodbye to Sal, his similarly fat cousin, who passed before he hit 40. This prompts his sister, Antoinette (Bancroft), to demand that he make another futile attempt at going on a diet and, failing that, she enrolls him in the “Chubby Checkers” support group. While DeLuise has us in stitches as he finds new ways to fall off the food wagon, viewers already are aware of the dangers he’s facing. So does Bancroft, of course. When Cupid’s arrows simultaneously strike Dom and Lydia Bollowenski (Candice Azzara) – an unconventionally pretty blond of mixed Italian and Polish descent — neither of them knows what to do with their feelings, except eat. Even when they do hook up, however, their insecurities keep them from fully connecting. You probably know the rest. Almost 30 years later, Fatso remains funny, without being cruel, offensive or insensitive. I can see where a person struggling with obesity in real life – DeLuise was merely dangerously large – might have some reservations about the movie, but not because it’s laden with clichés or stereotypes. Those, Bancroft reserved for the characters who resemble the Italian immigrants and first-generation Italian Americans around whom she grew up in the Bronx. They’re the flipside of the Corleones. It’s also possible to recognize the contributions made by her husband, Mel Brooks, and his production company, Brooksfilms. In an interview included in the bonus package, they both emphasize how difficult it was for a woman – any woman not named Streisand, anyway – to helm a mainstream feature in 1980. (Brooks’ name might have given Fatso a marketing boost, but he remained a very silent partner throughout the project.) Featurettes include “Looking Back on Fatso,” with Brooks and producer Stuart Cornfeld, and an interview with Maya Montañez Smukler, author of “Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s’ American Cinema.”

24 Hour Party People: Blu-ray
Michael Winterbottom may be one of the world’s most innovative, provocative and universally admired filmmakers, but such attributes don’t cut much ice among AMPAS nominators and voters. He’s directly tackled such issues as the interrogation and torture of political prisoners (The Road to Guantanamo), the migrations of war-ravaged refugees (In This World) and terrorism (A Mighty Heart), while also making time for excursions into comedy (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), scientific ethics (Code 46), literary icons (On the Road), crime fiction (The Killer Inside Me), thrillers (The Wedding Guest), romance (A Summer in Genoa), porn (The Look of Love), war correspondents (Welcome to Sarajevo), documentaries (The Shock Doctrine) and, more often than not, rock ’n’ roll (9 Songs). I can’t recall ever being disappointed by one of his filmic detours. Newly re-released into Blu-ray by the MVD Marquee Collection, 24 Hour Party People (2002) describes how one idiosyncratic British television personality changed the face, sound and beat of rock ’n’ roll, first in Manchester and, then, throughout the UK and, to a lesser degree, America. Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) couldn’t play an instrument or sing a lick, but after attending an early, nearly empty Sex Pistols concert, he was inspired to promote local bands, start a record label and open a nightclub. An idealist from the word “go,” Wilson did business the old-fashioned way: a handshake and a bloody thumbprint on a wall. It may have sounded like a righteous business practice at the beginning, but sincerity has never been one of rock’s selling points. He was fortunate enough to find and promote such quirky bands as Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, while also running the Factory nightclub, which became the sweaty “mecca of rave culture” in “Madchester.” His idea of solving a business problem was hiring local mobsters to keep track of admissions and sales, and opening the door to drug dealers – ecastasy, mostly – whose products killed sales of alcoholic beverages. All the while, he’s narrating his own rise and fall, with a stiff upper lip and British schoolboy’s sense of humor. The late, great cinematographer Robby Müller (Paris, Texas) captured both the club’s frantic atmosphere and the gritty urban sprawl of working-class Manchester, during the Thatcher years. The upgraded MVD Marquee Collection release adds commentary with Coogan and producer Andrew Eaton, as well as a separate track with the actual Tony Wilson, who still can’t understand what all the fuss was about; “Manchester: The Movie”; an “About Tony Wilson” featurette; 11 deleted scenes; and a photo gallery. In the aforementioned Pendular, Alice creates an impromptu solo dance to Joy Division’s, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Resurrecting the Champ: Blu-ray
When the struggling sportswriter Erik Kernan Jr. (Josh Hartnett) rescues a raspy-voiced, homeless man, known around Denver’s Skid Row as the Champ (Samuel L. Jackson), from an assault, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the kind of beating he was about to endure. Neither can we. Although Rod Lurie’s absorbing urban drama, Resurrecting the Champ (2007), looks, smells and quacks like a boxing movie, it continually flirts with other themes and ideas. Unlike his father, who was a well-known sports broadcaster, Erik has yet to display any talent as a writer. His intentions are sound, however. He recognizes the torn and tortured Champ as a boxer whose legitimate name, “Battling” Bob Satterfield, somehow rang a bell. A visit to the newspaper’s morgue reveals that a fighter named Bob “Bombardier” Satterfield was, indeed, a prominent heavyweight contender, but has long been assumed to be dead. Things like that sometimes occur to punch-drunk fighters, who, when their careers are over, either end up sweeping the floors of a gym or collecting recyclable items to earn the price of a beer. In the movies, down-and-out athletes, Thoroughbreds and coaches are routinely re-discovered by guys like Erik, who help them sober up and aspire to something resembling redemption. While it’s clear that Champ suffers from dementia, Jackson has molded him into a likeable character, who means no harm to anyone and isn’t embarrassed to be penniless. When he’s tormented by punks, who, when drunk, want to impress their friends, he reflexively defends himself as any boxer would do in the same position. In this case, his tormentor received plenty of help from his cronies.

When Erik learns about Satterfield’s professional background – and the role his father played in bringing him down – he proposes a story to his editor (Alan Alda) that could eventually pull him out of his old man’s shadow and someday impress his son. Erik and his reporter wife, Joyce Kernan (Kathryn Morris), are going through a not terribly nasty divorce, and he fears losing contact with the boy. When the story is finally written and published, Erik’s career takes a turn for the better. Before long, however, the rug is pulled out from him. Suffice it too say, Satterfield isn’t who he appears to be and, in his own rush to redemption, Erik commits the one journalistic sin that’s never forgiven. Just ask New York Times reporters Jayson Blair and Judith Miller; the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke; the New Republic’s Stephen Glass; and the Boston Globe’s Patricia Smith. As a film critic for Los Angeles Magazine and KABC Talk Radio. who often clashed with studio publicists, Lurie (The Contender) would have been aware of those controversies and may have used them to shape Erik Kernan’s journey. Like co-screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett Lurie, would also have read a 1997 piece in Los Angeles Times Magazine, in which reporter J.R. Moehringer described his own uneasy father-son relationship with a homeless guy he knew both as Champ and Bob Satterfield. In doing the research that Erik should have performed before doing an end run around his editor and selling his article about Champ to a publication other than the Denver Post, Moehringer avoided his own brush with infamy. Both reporters discover the truth, but Erik’s article was based on a delusional fighter’s imaginary alter ego. Moehringer’s piece, also “Resurrecting the Champ,”    documented his search for the truth after his no-brainer magazine feature collapsed around his ears and he had to rethink the whole project. The result was an excellent piece of introspective exposition that every aspiring journalist should read, before following a story that’s “too good to be true” off a cliff. If Lowrie had simply adapted Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ,” as written, it might have been four hours long. As it is, Resurrecting the Champ captured the essence of the article, by tweaking certain key facts, adding the bit about Erik and Joyce’s separation and fudging Moehringer’s own backstory. Jackson’s portrayal of Champ reminded me so much of Romulus “Rom” Ledbetter,  a similar character he played in Kasi Lemmons’s The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), that I wondered if he reclaimed the tattered costumes and unkempt dreadlock wig from that underseen picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary from Lurie, a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew.

The Old Man and the Sea
Shark Attack 3-Pack
The 1990 made-for-television adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Old Man and the Sea,” may not cast the same spell as the 1958 version, but that has more to do with our familiarity with the story and limitations demanded by network television, than anything else. Because so much of the three best-known iterations were set on the seas off Cuba – or sound stages at Warner Brothers’ Burbank Studios – it doesn’t matter where the great battle between man and beast finally took place. The beachside scenes could have been shot almost anywhere between Malibu, Acapulco and Honolulu. Most of the paint-on-glass animation for Aleksandr Petrov’s 20-minute The Old Man and the Sea (1999) was completed in Montreal and intended for exhibition on IMAX screens. (It won an Oscar for Best Short Film/Animated.) For some reason, John Sturges and Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation used locations in Hawaii, the Bahamas, Peru, Panama, Colombia and Cuba, before moving on to Burbank. (Presumably, Hemingway wanted to fish for marlin on the studio’s dime.) This one was shot on location on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. (The reason my recollections of 1958 The Old Man and the Sea are in black-and-white is because we wouldn’t get a color set for another 15 years.)  Here, Anthony Quinn finally got to play Santiago, the baseball-loving Cuban fisherman who is suffering through an 84-day string of bad luck. Legend has it that Sturges preferred Tracy over the Mexican-born two-time Oscar-winner (Viva Zapata!, Lust for Life), but the studio felt as if Tracy’s name carried more commercial value. Even at the ripe old age of 74, Quinn definitely fits the role of Santiago better than Tracy. Both performances are noteworthy. Once the most successful fisherman in town, others have begun to notice signs of a natural diminishment in his strength and judgment. his problems feeling he maybe too old to fish. The parents of his apprentice, Manolin, have gone so far as to forbid him to go out with Santiago. Even so, their bond remains extremely tight. On the day of his greatest challenge, Santiago makes the decision to venture farther north, into the Gulf Stream, than he normally goes. It’s where the pernicious god of fishing decided to give his friend a great gift and, then, two days later, begin to take it away from him, piece by piece. His adult children Valentina (Nuts) and Francesco (Platoon) also can be seen here, alongside Gary Cole (“Veep”), Patricia Clarkson (“Sharp Objects”) and Joe Santos (“Rockford Files”), in roles, I believe, were added to the story. Blessedly, the commercial breaks don’t disrupt from the flow of the movie and, at 93 minutes, is family friendly. Actor bios are included.

Remember Birdemic: Shock and Terror, the 2010 Hitchcock parody that gave serious movie critics a reason to slit their wrists? I’ve just received “Shark Attack 3-Pack,” a box set of movies about a species of killer sharks that inhabit fresh-water lakes in Ontario. That some varieties of sharks can survive out of their salt-water habitats for long periods has been proven in any number of extreme fishing shows on cable. Unlike “Birdemic,” Shark Exorcist (2015), Raiders of the Lost Shark (2015) and Sharkenstein (2016) run out of fresh gags almost immediately after the opening credits roll. Although the writers will accidentally make a funny reference to a movie that has nothing to do with sharks, these movies have about as much chance of breaking into a “Shark Week” rotation as the Facebook mini-movies I share with my sisters. In all possible ways, from lousy special effects to risible accents, these three exports from the Great White North make every other Canuxploitation title look like the French New Wave.

Heroes Shed No Tears: Blu-ray
1986 was a watershed year for martial-arts specialist John Woo, a Hong Kong-based writer/director/actor who’d gotten bogged down in the studio system and desperately wanted to make a name for himself. In the early 1970s, Woo left the Shaw Brothers’ factory and joined Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho’s break-way Golden Harvest Studio, which kept him busy churning out kung fu actioners and the occasional comedy, until the company’s heavy-handed editing drove him away. By 1984, he’d already collaborated with such giants as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark and Damian Lau, and moved over to Lau’s fledgling Cinema City, where, two years later, his string of box-office disappointments ended with the Triad thriller, A Better Tomorrow, produced by Hark. It was a landmark film, credited with drawing the template for the “heroic bloodshed” subgenre, whose influence easily crossed the Pacific, to Hollywood. Still sitting on a shelf at Golden Harvest, however, was Heroes Shed No Tears, which had been manhandled by the editors there and wouldn’t be released until A Better Tomorrow proved itself. Because Rambo: First Blood Part II was released in 1985, when Woo’s mercenary-based actioner was still gathering dust, it isn’t likely that one influenced the other. That they could have been hatched from the same egg, though, is pretty obvious. In Woo’s tale, a group of Chinese mercenaries is hired by the Thai government to capture a powerful drug lord, based in the Golden Triangle. While the mercenaries manage to capture the drug lord, they soon find themselves pursued by his private army and troops loyal to a bitter Thai officer. The Chinese mercenaries, led by Chan Chung (Eddie Ko), may be vastly outnumbered, and as their numbers begin to dwindle, the fighters raise the ante on carnage. Along the way out of Laos, the Chinese soldiers cross into Vietnam, where they are confronted by a sadistic Vietnamese colonel (Lam Ching-ying). Adding to the degree of difficulty is Chan’s desire to protect his family, who live in a village near the border with China. As the enemy closes in, women and children there pick up guns, grenades and rocket launchers to support the Chinese mercs. Heroes Shed No Tears has been described as one of Woo’s most gratuitously violent movies, which, I guess, is saying a lot. The fighters are either deadly accurate with their machine-gun fire or hopelessly inept. Bodies fly like drunken ballet dancers, auditioning for “Swan Lake.” Chan’s relationship to his son, and some of the other story elements, appear to have derived from the Japanese manga, “Lone Wolf and Cub.” A relatively scandalous drug/sex scene was imposed on Woo by the studio to give the movie more “production value” for sale to foreign territories, and the total on-screen body count is 323. What are you waiting for?  The long-awaited Blu-ray adds an interview with Ko and new essay by author, film programmer and Asian film expert Grady Hendrix.

13 Graves
Filmed in woods surrounding historic Herstmonceux Castle, in Sussex, John Langridge’s undead thriller, 13 Graves, takes a simple idea and makes it feel a lot bigger than it is. It does so by putting a pair of hitmen in suits and requiring them to march their intended victim – also nicely dressed – to patch of land occupied by the decaying corpses of their favorite hits. Naturally, the snazzy assassins are ordered by their boss, Maddy (Terri Dwyer), to escort Billy (Jacob Anderton) a short distance into the woods and make him dig his own grave. Billy appeals to the gunmen (Morgan James, Kevin Leslie) to allow his escape, in return for a pile of money. Billy probably reneged on a drug deal, but it hardly matters. No sooner is some headway made on the grave than a hulking hillbilly appears out of nowhere to distract Frank and Terry long enough for Billy to sprint deeper into the woods. Meanwhile, the hitmen have lost all sense of direction and keep re-tracing their own tracks. Once they find their target hiding in a home that looks abandoned, but probably is used by Satanists to prepare for their rituals, they unload their pistolas into him and attempt to carry him back to the gravesite. This time, however, they not only get trapped in bogs and gullies, but they also find themselves encircled by a darker, more poetically judicial force. As night falls, things grow even creepier for the killers, who recognize some of the undead spirits as former acquaintances. Because only a couple of them look as if they’ve begun the transition into zombiehood, writer/director Langridge neatly avoids succumbing to all-too-familiar horror clichés. The movie’s 83-minute length doesn’t leave much time for applying too much extraneous baggage and viewers won’t miss it, anyway.

From the makers of the well-received 2013 anthology, “HI-8 (Horror Independent 8),” comes Wild Eye’s sequel, of sorts, HI-Death. While the former essentially was a love letter to the  VHS format and independent shot-on-video filmmaking,  the latter employs only a few visual references to that unlamented format. The HI-Death collection consists of five low-budget horror shorts, linked by a pair of female tourists who think it might be fun embarking on a smartphone-directed “Terror Tour” around Los Angeles. The framing device, helmed by Brad Sykes (The Pact), requires that they watch a selection of scary videos. First concerns a junkie tormented by a skeletal demon in a motel room. It’s followed by a story about a true-crime obsessive who’s forced to confront the dark escalation of his fascination with morbid memorabilia; a video-store clerk who can’t escape the threats emitted from a mysterious DVD; an actress facing a rather aggressive audition process; and a painter held captive as part of a demonic ritual. Some the scenes, while imaginatively conceived, require a strong stomach.

The New York Ripper: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
The Green Inferno: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Double Face: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The flag of Italy waves over these releases, even though two of them were shot – partially, at least – in New York, London, all over Europe and South America, and, only then, Cinecitta studio, in Rome. The multinational casts were chosen with international sales in mind, and the films all suffered the indignity of being mutilated or banned in countries that promote creative freedom. I’m not a big fan of censorship, but these films all pushed the limits on graphic violence and sexuality. If your tolerance level is low – especially for extreme giallo, krimi and unnerving soundtracks – I recommend taking on pass on them. On the plus side, though, the production values are high, the locations exotic and the casts chosen for reasons other than their thespianic skills. (Is it possible for an actor to be considered gratuitously beautiful or handsome?) Neither did the studios’ marketing teams use tactics intended to mask the true nature of the sordid content. Their appeal can be summed up in a single sentence.

In Lucio Fulci’s garishly disgusting The New York Ripper (1982), for example, “A burned-out New York police detective teams up with a college psychoanalyst to track down a vicious serial killer, randomly stalking and killing various young women around the city.” The only things missing in mukthat description are the killer’s mutilated hand and propensity to wield cutlery of mass destruction. And, yes, his targets are, indeed, gratuitously beautiful. The fiend’s killing grounds extend a bit further than Travis Bickel’s cab took him in Taxi Driver, six years earlier. If anything, however, the Italian vision of Times Square is even more sordid than proffered by Martin Scorsese. NYPD detective Fred Williams (Jack Hedley) follows the trail of butchery from the decks of the Staten Island Ferry to the sex shows on the  Deuce. Soon enough, it becomes abundantly clear that the killer either has a childish sense of humor or is a fan of bad imitations of Donald Duck, because that’s what he uses to taunt the police and perspective victims … and torment viewers. Fulci, one of the early pioneers of giallo (Don’t Torture a Duckling, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), let it all hang out with The New York Ripper, which was entirely banned in the UK until 2007, when a DVD, reduced by 41 seconds, was cleared by censors. The cuts had nothing to do with the screenplay – credited to Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, Dardano Sacchetti and Fulci, on the Italian side – which benefits from a sound narrative and, of course, the scenery. It’s being presented by Blue Underground with a new 4K restoration from its original camera negative, completely uncut and uncensored. Extras include commentary with Troy Howarth, author of ”Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films”; interviews with co-writer Sacchetti (Manhattan Baby), actors Howard Ross (The Killer Reserved Nine Seats), Cinzia de Ponti, Zora Kerova and Stephen Thrower (author of ”Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci”) and poster artist Enzo Sciotti; the featurette, “NYC Locations, Then and Now”; an original theatrical trailer; and, separately, the film’s original soundtrack CD, by Francesco De Masi; a collectable booklet, with a new essay by Travis Crawford; and lenticular 3D slipcover.

The mini-summary of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (2013) reads, “A group of student activists travels to the Amazon to save the rain forest and soon discovers that they are not alone, and that no good deed goes unpunished.” The aforementioned Gianfranco Clerici teamed with Ruggero Deodato on Cannibal Holocaust (1980), a true exploitation classic, in which, “during a rescue mission into the Amazon rainforest, a professor stumbles across lost film shot by a missing documentary crew.” They already collaborated on the kindred, Jungle Holocaust (1977), one of several titles in the post-“Mondo” cannibal subgenre. Co-writer Sacchetti joined Antonio Margheriti for Cannibals in the Streets (1980). Umberto Lenzi’s The Man From Deep River (1972), Eaten Alive! (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981) framed the trend. In an interview included here, Roth (Cabin Fever) admits a fondness for Cannibal Holocaust and a desire to create an opportunity for escape by spiking a student’s corpse with high-octane ganga and waiting for them to fall asleep. There’s no denying that The Green Inferno overflows with nearly unwatchable gore and sexual violence. It’s primary problem, though, comes toward the end when the endangered students – or what’s left of them – are rescued by the same de-foresters and racist plunderers they came to expose. One deeply secreted tribe is powerless against another deeply secreted tribe, which, we’re led to believe, begs for its own extinction by eating the well-meaning environmentalists. As the forest is depleted, the need for habitable land and access to water has pushed the rival tribes to war, which requires the intervention of do-gooders or corporations with a vested interest in one side winning or both sides losing. As an amoral cannibal entertainment, though, that reality encourages viewers to side with the guys driving bulldozers and carrying automatic weapons, who would create concentration camps or eliminate the tribes if they don’t agree to installing porta-potties and wear overalls. The rain-forest locations and Antonio Quercia’s cinematography almost made me forget scenes of free-flowing entrails. The two-disc set adds an exclusive original soundtrack by Manuel Riverio. with bonus tracks not included in the film; a new intro and interview with co-writer/producer/director Roth; the featurette, “Uncivilized Behavior: Method Acting in The Green Inferno, with actors Lorenza Izzo, Daryl Sabara and Kirby Bliss Blanton; nearly an hour of never-before-seen footage; commentary with Roth, producer Nicolás López and cast members; a vintage making-of featurette; and a stills gallery.

Released in 1969, Riccardo Freda’s Double Face is described thusly, “A millionaire is unwittingly led into murder by his lesbian wife.” Falling somewhere between a giallo and a krimi, the generically flexible thriller benefits greatly from a comparatively restrained portrayal of the protagonist, John Alexander, whose unfaithful wife, Helen (Margaret Leer) dies in a car crash. The vehicle looks as if they were borrowed from the layout of a toy train, while the landscape is no more authentic than an aluminum Christmas tree. The plot thickens when evidence arises suggesting that the car was tampered with prior to the crash. John’s entire perception of reality is thrown into doubt when he discovers a recently shot pornographic movie, which suggests that Helen is in alive and playing an elaborate mind game on him. The worm will turn a few more times before it becomes clear as to who’s going to survive the plotting, which was tentatively based on an Edgar Wallace novel – as were most other German thrillers of the period – and re-interpreted by Freda, Fulci, Paul Hengge (Spanking at School), Romano Migliorini (The Inglorious Bastards) and Gianbattista Mussetto (Bandidos). Born in 1909 to Italian parents, living in Egypt, Freda began his career during the war. Instead of following his peers in neo-realism, he proved himself adept at historical spectacles (Theodora, Slave Empress), horror/fantasies (Lust of the Vampire), spy films (Coplan FX 18 casse tout), a Western, or two (Death at Owell Rock), and gialli (The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire). Here, Freda adds a healthy dollop of psychedelia, as well. The Italian production team’s southern flavor is balanced by the inclusion of such northern accents as Christiane Krüger, Günther Stoll, Margaret Lee and Sydney Chaplin. The hardcore inserts (circa 1976) featured the heavenly body of Alice Arno. The Arrow package is enhanced by a new 2K restoration of the full-length Italian version of the film, from the original 35mm camera negative; original English and Italian soundtracks, titles and credits; new commentary by author/critic Tim Lucas; a fresh interview with composer Nora Orlandi; “The Many Faces of Nora Orlandi,” a new appreciation of the composer, by musician and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon; “The Terrifying Dr. Freda,” a new video essay on Riccardo Freda’s gialli, by author/critic Amy Simmons; an image gallery from the collection of Christian Ostermeier, including the original German pressbook and lobby cards, and the complete Italian cineromanzo adaptation; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork, by Graham Humphreys; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell.

American Horror Project, Volume Two: Blu-ray
Histories of independent film in America sometimes aren’t able to find room for movies that failed to crack even the bottom tier of the drive-in circuit at its peak. There probably are a hundred reasons for such oversights and omissions, but, until they’re viewed with fresh eyes, there’s no way of knowing if the films were even worth the effort to add opening and closing credits. Anyone who’s gotten this far in the column already knows that I watch some movies so you don’t have to and will go out of my way to find a single saving grace in them. (Did I mention that the entries in the “Shark Attack 3-Pack” weren’t completely devoid of humor, especially if you’re Canadian.) I didn’t have to search very hard to locate reasons for the continued availability of Dream No Evil (1970), Dark August (1976) and The Child (1977), all of them collected by Arrow Films in its features-laden “American Horror Project, Volume Two.” or this presentation. I got an assist from curator Stephen Thrower, author of “Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents”), who made the selections here and for 2016’s “American Horror Project, Volume 1,” and has no trouble defending them. John Hayes’ Dream No Evil exists as a yellowed postcard from a long-ago period in American history. It portrays life on the road for a traveling preacher and faith healer, the Rev. Paul Jessie Bundy (Michael Pataki), who demonstrates the ravages of hell fire by requiring of his bombshell partner (Brooke Mills) that she put on a provocative costume, climb to the top of a tall, none-too-secure ladder, and dive into a bag filled with foam-rubber scraps. When she tires of this charade, the increasingly delusional Grace vows to find her missing father, Timothy (Edmond O’Brien), last seen in a small-town brothel and retirement home, right out of “Twin Peaks.” The retired evangelist is there, alright, ready to be embalmed by a sleazy undertaker (Marc Lawrence). While Grace is negotiating with the creep, Timothy somehow re-animates himself. After slicing open the undertaker with a scalpel, they return to the encampment. Since being resurrected, Timothy has let the bible dictate his actions, including beating Grace when she doesn’t bring his food quickly enough to the table and he catches her “fornicating” with Rev. Bundy. But, that’s only half of the gag. The disc adds featurettes “Melancholy Dreamer,” a savvy appreciation by Thrower, an Arrow regular; “Hollywood After Dark: The Early Films of John Hayes,” Thrower’s enjoyable retrospective overview of Hayes’ career; a 2005 audio interview and slide show with Hayes’ ex-squeeze, Rue McClanahan; “Edmond O’Brien: An Actor for All Seasons,” a 22-minute appreciation of the actor’s career; and commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan.

It’s followed by Martin Goldman’s Dark August (1976), which stars Academy Award-winner Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) in a story about a nervous wreck, Sal (J.J. Barry), who moves from the city to sleepy rural Vermont. He’s barely settled into his cabin, when he accidentally kills a little girl while driving through the countryside. He couldn’t possibly see her running into winding road without looking, but is severely traumatized by the event, anyway. After a while, he begins to experience hallucinations of a menacing figure, wearing a cowl and hood, and impromptu visits by the girl’s grandfather, who’s also cast on spell on him. It appears to be working, because he’s acting like a PTSD sufferer who’s decided to stop taking his meds. Finally, he takes the advice of friends, by scheduling a healing session with a local white witch (Hunter), who puts him on a different path to madness. Dark August definitely qualifies as a “slow burn chiller,” which is OK, because it gives us time to admire the Vermont scenery. It adds “Revisiting Dark August,” with Thrower; “Mad Ave to Mad Dogs,” a career-spanning interview with Goldman; “Don’t Mess With the Psychic,” an interview with producer Marianne Kanter; the 34-minute “The Hills Are Alive: Dark August and Vermont Folk Horror,” an overview of films with some kind of connection to the state; commentary with Goldman, moderated by Brandon Daniel and Joe Luke; and an original press book, accessible as BD-ROM content.

Any movie titled, The Child, runs the risk of being pigeonholed. The popularity of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) made it difficult for horror/thriller directors to come up with something more succinct and instantly identifiable. Even more difficult, of course, was meeting the expectations of fans and critics who take any comparison with Polanski’s horror/thriller as a challenge. Onetime director Robert Voskanian and writer Ralph Lucas (Zipperface) doesn’t look as if it’s going to break any new ground – a college student is hired by a weird family to be the nanny for an evil child – until the girl raises an army of the udead to attack the people she holds responsible for her mother’s death. It doesn’t matter that there weren’t marquee-value stars. The Blu-ray adds “Zombie Child,” with Thrower; “Fathers of The Child,” with director Robert Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian; commentary with Voskanian and Dadashian, moderated by Thrower; and BD-ROM access to the original press book.

Night of the Creeps: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
One the most difficult things facing publicists for genre films is avoiding giving away the gags, without dampening the expectations of fans and buffs. Another is to convey the fact their project is a genre parody, or a sendup of conventions and tropes loved by people in the target audience. Mel Brooks didn’t have to worry about offending geeks, because he knew that his admirers were adults, who’d grown up watching the movies being spoofed – gently – and understood the difference between satire and tone-deaf comedy. They knew he was laughing along with the audience, as they recognized where his pictures were going, not at them. It explains why people publicizing less-polished genre parodies find target-rich gatherings – ComiccCon, gaming conventions – provide the fans with enough free swag to put them in a mood for liking what’s being pitched and screened. (The same gimmick works for HFPA members, who love to be coddled and wooed.)  Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps (1986) was a smart and funny cross-genre satire that failed at the box office for some of the same reasons it would become a cult classic. In 1986, there was no ComicCon as we now know it. Megaplexes had nearly wiped out drive-in theaters, which served as a breeding ground for buzz and word-of-mouth. And, of course, the Internet was still catering to scientists, the military, people who played Solitaire at work and video games at home. Worse, Night of the Creeps’ title conveyed nothing about what the movie was about and why buffs should be interested. It opens in 1959, when an alien ship crashes to Earth, without completing its experiment. A student is infected by something in the payload but is isolated inside a temperature-controlled capsule before the virus can do much damage. It also will provide sufficient time to search for a cure or antidote. Twenty-seven years later, the body of the cryogenically frozen student is thawed out by fraternity pledges determined to prove their worth to the Greek system. Once this happens, a plague of creepy crawlers invade the campus turning students into zombies. (A much better title would have been, “Night of the Creepy Crawlers.”) That Dekker’s scatter-shot approach frequently hits his targets and the gags show a working knowledge, at least, of B-movie history, Too often, however, they’re meaningful to film-school students and the writer/director’s friends. For example, the last names of the main characters are based on famous horror and sci-fi directors: George A. Romero (Chris Romero), John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper (James Carpenter Hooper), David Cronenberg (Cynthia Cronenberg), James Cameron (Detective Ray Cameron), John Landis (Detective Landis), Sam Raimi (Sergeant. Raimi) and Steve Miner (Mr. Miner, the janitor). Graffiti on the wall of the men’s lavatory, where one of the protagonists is trying to escape the killer slugs, reads, “Go Monster Squad!,” referring to The Monster Squad (1987), another Dekker project. Corman University is a nod to the maestro of exploitation, Roger Corman. You get the picture. Both of the discs containing the director’s-cut and theatrical versions contain more bonus supplements than a non-fan could handle. Cultists will eat them up.

The Believers: Blu-ray
After making two of the best movies set partially, at least, in New York – Midnight Cowboy (1969), Marathon Man (1976) – the frequently brilliant London-born director, John Schlesinger, returned to the Apple for a movie about, what else, Santería. He probably shouldn’t have bothered. Although The Believers (1987) was sandwiched between two other entertaining pictures — The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Madame Sousatzka (1988) – Schlesinger hadn’t logged a commercially successful movie in 11 years. His bad luck streak would dog the Academy Award-winning filmmaker for the rest of his career. Based on a novel by Nicholas Conde, The Believers was adapted for the screen by Mark Frost (“Twin Peaks,” “Hill Street Blues”), whose only previously produced screenplay was the haunted-house thriller, Scared Stiff (1987), recently restored by Arrow Video. There may not be anything nearly as poignant here as the Ratso Rizzo’s  death scene, in Midnight Cowboy; as revolutionary as the MMF love triangle, in Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971); or as disturbing as the torture-by-dentistry scene, in Marathon Man. It does, however, open with a truly shocking expository scene, in which a 7-year-old boy, Chris (Harley Cross), witnesses the death of his mother, after she steps into a puddle of milk that has been electrically charged by a shorted-out kitchen appliance. The electrocution could have been eliminated from the narrative, entirely, but it serves to explain how psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) ended up in Manhattan, shrinking the heads of traumatized cops. He’s one of the few psychologists I’ve seen – in the movies, anyway — who’s called to particularly nasty crime scenes by a police lieutenant (Robert Loggia), concerned about the welfare of his officers, including Jimmy Smits. In short order, Cal falls for his lovely landlord (Helen Shaver) and Chris becomes the object of obsession by “the believers.” Apparently, he’s the perfect candidate for sacrifice to the gods of darkness, as determined by a tall, skinny spiritual leader (Malick Bowens), who passed through U.S. Customs as if he were Casper the Friendly Ghost. I doubt that many viewers would be surprised by the intensity of the “blood rituals” performed by otherwise sane New Yorkers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t gut-churning, only that we’ve seen such rituals performed dozens of times in the last 30 years. The Olive Films Blu-ray adds a theatrical trailer, a MGM 90th– anniversary trailer and isolated score, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0.

The Dark Side of the Moon: Blu-ray
Rock-video specialist D.J. Webster received his first and only shot at big-screen fame with The Dark Side of the Moon (1990), a dark and moody sci-fi drama, set in 2022. Writers Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes would fare better, finally hitting high gear in 2013, with James Wan’s international blockbuster The Conjuring. “Dark Side” went straight to video, a category that allows for experimentation, plot cloning and looser accounting standards. In 2022, while in Earth orbit to repair nuclear satellites, Spacecore 1 suffers an inexplicable power failure. The crew panics as the ship is drawn towards the dark side of the moon and they are left with only 24 hours’ worth of oxygen and power the craft. On their journey into eternal darkness and mystery, they are stunned to find Discovery 8, a NASA space shuttle that crashed in the Bermuda Triangle 30 years earlier. After docking with the shuttle, the Spacecore crew members are taken over by a parasitic organism. It falls upon crewman Paxton Warner (Joe Turkel) to find the links between the deadly aliens and the Bermuda and Devil’s triangles. While there aren’t many surprises here, killer-alien-parasite completists should find something to like. Bonus features include interviews with actor Allen Blumenfield, stuntman Chuck Borden and FX artist Chris Biggs; commentary with producer Paul White and Stephen Biro (American Guinea Pig); production and dialogue notes.

The Dick Cavett Show: Baseball’s Greatest Hits: The Pitchers
Syfy: Leprechaun Returns: Blu-ray
You never know exactly what to expect in S’More Entertainment’s series of themed episodes from Dick Cavett’s various talk shows. That’s because the common elements in the collected titles are sandwiched between the host’s other guests on any particular night. They’re nothing, if not eclectic. Previously issued episodes have featured appearances by influential black comedians, established white comics, emerging talents, famous news anchors, “Hollywood Greats,” rock icons and this week’s “The Dick Cavett Show: Baseball’s Greatest Hits: The Pitchers.” As nerdy and sycophantic as Cavett can be when interviewing personalities he particularly admires, he usually leaves enough room for tasty tidbits of talk. Because he’s loved baseball since childhood, he gives his guest even more room to share on-field anecdotes, opinions and personal stories. He even gets Tommy John, Satchel Paige and Whitey Ford to teach him their strikeout pitches. The other guest hurlers are the wonderful Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Denny McLain, Vida Blue and Mickey Mantle. Now, imagine these All-Stars, from all walks of life, siting alongside the likes of Paul Simon, Salvador Dali, Robert Altman, Rose Kennedy and Marcel Marceau, who teaches Cavett the moonwalk, 10 years before Michael Jackson introduced it to the masses. The DVDs add player bios and direct access to the pitchers’ segments.

Earlier, a bit farther north in this column, I made a case for the movies contained in “Shark Attack 3-Pac” being among the worst made in any genre. In making such an assertion, I took into account the possibility that the filmmakers might actually agree with it and knowing full well that some pundits consider Leprechaun 3 (1995) to be among the worst, as well.  The latest installment in the famously non-linear franchise, Leprechaun Returns, is a Syfy original that qualifies for true sequel status, albeit a quarter-century past the original theatrical release, Leprechaun (1993). The bad news here is the continued absence of Warwick Davis, the wee fellow who’s played the diminutive green booger in all but one other installment. I’m more upset by the fact that Jennifer Aniston passed up the opportunity to portray the mom who threw  the leprechaun into the well, 25 years ago. Her daughter, Lila (Taylor Spreitler), has returned to the area to attend college and help fix the old abode, so it can be converted to a sorority house. It doesn’t take long before the Leprechaun  (Linden Porco) is awakened by all the noise and demands to know where his cache of gold coins was hidden by Lila’s mother. There’s no lack of guts, gore and trash talk in Leprechaun Returns and there are times when nothing makes any sense, whatsoever. Special features include “Going Green With Director Steven Kostanski,” behind-the-scenes footage and a stills gallery.

Wild Eye Releasing is a reliably unpredictable distributor of low budget, independently made genre titles that may have experienced difficulties finding a home anywhere else. The DVD covers are deliciously lurid, but it’s likely that most consumers find its selections through PPV services. Scrawl has a better backstory than most other horror, slasher and sci-fi pictures you’d tend to find in the bargain bins of Internet distribution. Back in 2014, when it was shot, Welsh writer/director/producer Peter Hearn was known, if at all, for Appleseed Lake (2001) and Cross-Eyed Waltz (2005), a pair of films that were largely unseen and unreviewed. Ditto, Scrawl, which began its life as a collaboration between industry professionals and in-training actors and technicians of Andover College. After being shown at a couple of festivals, Hearn pulled it back for re-editing and reshooting, not to be seen again until this month on iTunes, which just pulled the plug on itself. (It’s available on Amazon Prime, YouTube and DVD.) All of that said, however. Hearn had the great good luck to have cast an unknown Daisy Ridley in a key role, at approximately the same time as she was hired to play Rey in the Stars Wars sequel trilogy, which opened with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). It’s taken Hearn four years to be able to exploit that happy coincidence. Ridley’s character in Scrawl, Hannah, is an unnerving presence that appears almost randomly, before someone is going to be sliced up. (A recent slasher trend is showing a head or torso being split in two and the victim’s innards flowing outward … none too convincingly.) The movie is nicely set in and around a beachside community in Hampshire, England. Simon Goodman (Liam Hughes) is an imaginative 16-year-old, who,  with his best friend, Joe Harper (Joe Daly), creates a gory comic book called Scrawl as a way to escape their mundane reality and, perhaps, get a leg up on their school’s social ladder. The characters are modeled after classmates, along with a few ringers, such as Hannah. Unfortunately, in an extreme example of life imitating art, Hannah’s presence in the comic foretells the occurrence of horrible things happening to the real-life students. Once that becomes clear, Simon and Joe must fight the forces of evil – sometimes, mirror images of the characters in the book — to gain enough time to rewrite death. The reviews of Scrawl I’ve read on niche websites are all over the block on its quality or lack thereof. Some of the writers are able to get past the confusion that comes with separating reality from fiction, while others aren’t nearly as forgiving. All agree that the gore, however gratuitous and cosmetically applied, should satisfy most fans of slasher flicks. The DVD, which may be a Walmart exclusive, adds the short film upon which the movies is based.

Crisis Hotline
After a week of nights spent fielding calls from people whose troubles hardly qualify as crises, Simon (Corey Jackson) receives one from a man who’s reached the end of his rope and has nowhere else to go for help. There are a lot of hotlines out there, serving the general public and niche communities, alike. In Crisis Hotline (a.k.a., “Shadows in Mind”), Simon is a gay man who volunteers for an agency that focuses its efforts on the LGBTQ demographic. It could just as well be focusing on veterans suffering from PTSD, alcoholics or drug addicts. Suicide isn’t limited to any single group. The differences are in the details. Here, at least, Simon benefits from knowing the caller, Danny (Christian Gabriel), is gay, and he can eliminate certain problems limited to heterosexuals. Cutting to the chase, Danny is a recently uncloseted man, who cruised many social media sites before finding “the right man.” Kyle (Pano Tsaklas) introduces Danny to another couples, whose sexual proclivities make him uncomfortable. One thing leads to another and Simon receives his first all-too-real crisis call. Not only is Danny suicidal, but he also wants to take out three other people before he goes. Because Crisis Hotline is a slow-burner that plays out in real time and flashbacks – and the conclusion is always in doubt —  you either buy into the premise right away or not at all. Schwab makes it easy to stay with it.  The DVD adds interviews with the cast and crew.

Hot Doug: the Movie
The classic Chicago hot dog – not to be confused with Nathan’s Famous or Dodger Dogs – has withstood the tests of time, trends and revisionist recipes. Here’s what you do: place an all-meat Vienna hot dog in a steamed poppy-seed bun. Then, pile on the toppings in this order: yellow mustard, sweet green pickle relish, chopped onion, tomato wedges, pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt. The tomatoes should be nestled between the hot dog and the top of the bun, just right. Place the pickle between the hot dog and the bottom of the bun. No ketchup … ever. In Christopher Markos’ 56-minute documentary, Hot Doug: the Movie, we’re introduced to Doug Sohn, a restaurateur who didn’t want to reinvent the classic dog, necessarily, just introduce variations that consumers hadn’t tasted or expected. In Chicago, no one would dare label their hot dogs “gourmet” or “boutique,” because Windy City eaters would rather stand in line outside a disco than admit to paying Michigan Avenue prices for a hot dog that wasn’t any better, and probably worse than the ones they can pick up in their local dump for a fraction of the price. When Sohn opened his Avondale “sausage superstore,” at about the same time as the new millennium arrived, the last thing anyone in Chicago needed was a new place to buy a hot dog, deep-dish pizza, gyro or Italian beef sandwich. Iconoclast chef Sohn defied conventional wisdom by referring to his specialties as “encased meats” and using ingredients some would consider exotic. Typically, the menu featured 11 dogs and sausages, ranging from a standard Chicago-style hot dog with all the trimmings, to the Norm Crosby — a Thuringer sausage, made from beef, pork, and garlic — foie gras sausage with duck-fat fries, alligator and andouille sausage and, even, a ginger-spiked rabbit sausage with red pepper mayo and crème de brie. If that sounds completely non-Chicagoan, you should know that customers routinely lined up for hours to enjoy a Hot Doug’s dog. I wish that Markos’ film was half as tasty. Even at 56-minutes, the documentary feels padded and overly worshipful. It ends with the sad news that Sohn was closing the business and his workers would have to find work somewhere else. Viewers aren’t told why he pulled the plug, what he was doing at the time the movie was released (2016), if he gave his employees a decent retirement package and what kind of food the next restaurant in its place served, if any. (Apparently, he has a booth in the Wrigley Field bleachers.) I would have loved to see how his more noteworthy sandwiches were constructed, served and received at first bite. Instead, the movie is bloated with testimonials from people standing in line and his purveyors, and clips of Sohn taking orders. There simply isn’t enough meat in Hot Doug: the Movie.

FM: Special Edition: Blu-ray
By the time John A. Alonzo and Ezra Sachs’ FM was released on April 20, 1978, it already was outdated. With few exceptions, the murder of free-form radio was in full gear, and pre-programmed Adult Alternative Music and Classic Rock were its corporatized replacement. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and the Ramones were waiting in the wings, as was MTV and the Walkman. When deejays at Q-SKY Radio balk at being required to run recruitment ads for the Army, the station’s owner threatens to oust its manager. Fans cause a near riot outside the station, which, in any case, would not have happened in pacified 1978. Indeed, Steely Dan’s wonderfully smooth title song was an ode to the post-1960s weariness and ennui that affected psychedelic rock ’n’ roll, folk rock, blues rock and their cocaine-addicted stars, who sold their souls to the demons running record labels and concert tours. It opened the door to prog rock, glam rock, metal and punk, which is largely underrepresented in FM. The sexism and racism is probably real. That said, however, Baby Boomers will definitely enjoy watching Linda Ronstadt perform live and in her prime … Jimmy Buffet, too. The cast includes Michael Brandon, Eileen Brennan, Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Alex Karras, Norman Lloyd, James Keach and Cassie Yates. The Arrow Blu-ray presentation has been transferred from original film elements, and includes “No Static at All,” a newly filmed interview with Brandon; “Radio Chaos,” a fresh interview with Sacks; “The Spirit of Radio,” a video appreciation of the era of FM radio and the FM soundtrack by the film and music critic Glenn Kenny; and extensive gallery of original stills, promotional images and soundtrack sleeves; an isolated music and effects track; a reversible sleeve, featuring two original artwork options; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by writer and critic Paul Corupe.

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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