MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: All Is True, Patrick Swayze, Harder They Come, Aniara, Alice Guy-Blache, Akio Jissoji, Orcas, Ronja, Walking Dead … More

All Is True
The name of Kenneth Branagh and writer Ben Elton’s historical drama, All Is True, refers to an early alternative title to William Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” first performed in 1613. If the producers had wanted to attract an audience whose average age was closer to 30 than, say, 60, they might have considered changing it to “Even Bards Gets the Blues,” which not only is a tad sexier, but also is closer to the movie’s tone. Shakespeare is at the top of his game creatively and financially when disaster strikes. A cannon shot used as a special effect ignites the Globe Theater’s thatched roof and beams, burning it to the ground. Devastated, Shakespeare (Branagh) returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Still haunted by the death of his only son, Hamnet, Shakespeare is forced to examine his own failings as husband and father. They include extolling the legacy of his dead son, while denying the considerable literary gifts of his daughter, Judith (Kathryn Wilder). Previously, in “Upstart Crow,” Elton tackled Hamnet’s death at the age of 11 and he reopens that wound here, making it the film’s emotional center. Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) is required to referee the war between the two people she loves most and examine her own role in the fissure. She wants her husband to know how much his absence had damaged her, while knowing that her support will be necessary when some of more pompous residents try to knock him down. They attack Shakespeare’s daughters for being promiscuous – a rumor that’s stood the test of time – and resent his presence. When a local squire confronts Shakespeare in town, questioning the intrinsic value of being the greatest playwright in the English-speaking world, the Bard tears him a new asshole by explaining the correlation between running a successful playhouse and improving the economic lot of a city’s citizenry. Even today, Shakespeare’s soliloquy could be used in economics courses to teach students the meaning of “halo effect.” It’s doubly fun to watch Branagh and Dench trade barbs. When he stumbles over a line from his work, Dame Judi picks up the thread as if it had been scripted … which it wasn’t. The setting couldn’t more appealing, either. Ian McKellen, as Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, stops by to prop up his close friend’s spirits. When Shakespeare bemoans the loss of a literary peer, Wriothesley says, “We have only Johnson now.” It prompts William to whine, “Who laughs at me because I speak no Greek and don’t know whether Bohemia has a coast.” To which the Earl of Southhampton replies: “Oh Christ, Will, why do you care what he thinks? You wrote ‘King Lear.’” Some viewers will already know that Wriothesley has frequently been identified as the Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and they once may have shared something more intimate than advice.

Such exchanges are only half the fun here. Much of the rest is provided by the attention to period detail and lovely settings. New Place, Shakespeare’s final residence in Stratford-upon-Avon, is well represented by Dorney Court, a Grade I-listed structure in Buckinghamshire. Zac Nicholson’s cinematography wonderfully captures the estate’s natural beauty and that of the gardens the playwright now enjoys tending. Adding to the film’s verisimilitude are the candlelit interiors. Sadly, All Is True’s appeal likely will be limited to viewers whose knowledge of the canon isn’t limited to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) or Tim Blake Nelson’s O (2001). Those films were targeted directly at teens and young adults who don’t mind changes in period, locations and traditional costumes … even the addition of rock ’n’ roll. All Is True can be talky, anti-romantic, old-fashioned and absent actors with youthful appeal of Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles and Josh Hartnett. I wonder how many of the teenagers who dug Romeo + Juliet and O in theaters or on video enrolled in Shakespeare courses in college and went on to support local theater companies. Fifty-eight-year-old Branagh, who’s unrecognizable here, has done more to keep Shakespeare relevant, relatable and entertaining than anyone since Laurence Olivier. The Sony Classics package adds an excellent Q&A with Branagh and eight behind-the-scenes featurettes: “Shakespeare Comes Home,” “The Bard’s Reckoning,” “Becoming Shakespeare,” “Judi Dench,” “Ian McKellen,” “Fact or Fiction,” “A Family Drama” and “Visiting Stratford: The Story Behind All Is True.” FYI: In what must have seemed like the smart move at the time, Sony took the calculated risk of releasing All Is True in a handful of theaters last December 21, so as to qualify for awards consideration. Despite excellent performance and past track records, the only group that took the bait was the niche AARP Movies for Grownups Awards, which honored Branagh, as Best Director; Dench, as Best Supporting Actress; McKellen, nominated for Best Supporting Actor; the movie, as Best Grownup Love Story. It snuck back into a few dozen theaters on May 10. The more appropriate release date — for publicity, at least – would have been October or early November, before the comic-book epics and animated juggernauts take over the box office.

Paramount Network: I Am Patrick Swayze
If you sneezed, you missed it. Or, at least, that was the case for those of us who don’t study cable listings religiously. “I Am Patrick Swayze” debuted over the weekend on Viacom’s Paramount Network. Anyone not familiar with the service’s new name might recall the former occupants of the same numerical spot: Spike TV, National Network, TNN and the Nashville Network. (In May, Spike was relaunched in the U.S. as two streaming channels on Pluto TV, which, in March 2019, was acquired by Viacom.) At the moment, the highlights of Paramount’s programming are limited to “Yellowstone,” “The  Last Cowboy,” “Marriage Doctor,” “Bellator MMA Live,” “Ink Master” and recirculated episodes of “Cops,” “Bar Rescue,” “Mom,” “The Office” and “Two and a Half Men.” The “I Am …” series of documentary bio-docs is a welcome carryover from Spike TV. It began in 2012 with “I Am Bruce Lee” and also includes portraits of John F. Kennedy Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., Steve McQueen, Evel Knievel, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison,  Paul Walker, Chris Farley, Heath Ledger and Richard Pryor. From my experience, the chapters are well made, reliably informative and less exploitative than other such shows on cable. These qualities are on full display in “I Am Patrick Swayze,” which might be the most surprising of them all. The multidimensional Houston native took an atypical route to Hollywood, where his first visible role was in Skatetown, U.S.A. (1979), alongside a dozen, or so, former TV  stars who weren’t working on “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” or “The Hollywood Squares” that week. As the leather-clad leader of a skate gang, Swayze stood out from the crowd for his confidence, masculine bearing and athleticism, which evidenced years of dance training, competitive skating and a passion for sports. Not yet committed to the modified mullet/pompadour hairdo he would sport throughout most of his career, ranging from The Outsiders (1983), Red Dawn (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987), Road House (1989), Point Break (1991), to A&E’s “The Beast” (2009). (His roller-disco coiffure appeared to have been influenced more by Rudolf Nureyev than Rod Stewart.)

I Am Patrick Swayze” traces Swayze’s life backward from  Skatetown, U.S.A., to Houston, where he frequently had to defend himself from bullies suspicious of his ballet classes and violin case. His mother, Patsy, was a choreographer and owner of the dance school her son and future daughter-in-law, Lisa Niema, attended. His father, Jesse Wayne, was a draftsman at a chemical plant and a passionate horseman. His death, in 1982, devastated Patrick, but it also drove him to excel throughout his leukemia-shortened career. A serious football injury not only curtailed his athletic ambitions, but it also threatened a promising career in ballet. His New York City dance training included the Harkness Ballet School and Joffrey Ballet School. He first danced professionally as “Prince Charming,” in “Disney on Parade,” and played Danny Zuko in the original Broadway production of “Grease.” He was advised to hightail it to Hollywood, where his leading-man good looks and toned body lent themselves to action and romantic pictures targeted at teens and young adults. In Dirty Dancing, Swayze fully exploited all of his natural and acquired assets, as well as a personality that ran the full gamut of emotions from vulnerable to macho.

I Am Patrick Swayze benefits greatly from rarely seen home-movie footage, including a ballet performance in New York; heart-warming family photographs; plenty of clips from his hit movies; and candid interviews. Naturally, the exchanges are dominated by his wife and younger brother, Don, who followed Patrick to Hollywood. Co-stars given extended screen time here include Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott, Jennifer Grey, C. Thomas Howell, Marshall Teague, Kelly Lynch and Lori Petty. Director Roland Joffe (City of Joy), agent Nicole David, manager Kate Edwards, personal assistant Rosemary Hygate, stuntman Cliff McLaughlin and bodyguard Frank Whiteley also share their memories. Although some nasty business between family members battling over his estate is ignored, Swayze’s off-camera battles with alcohol and cancer aren’t. So, keep the Kleenex box handy. The documentary was a huge hit for Paramount Network, in all the important demos.

The Harder They Come: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Among the reasons that The Harder They Come was deemed an instant cult classic upon its U.S. release in 1972 was that, outside of a few major cities and college towns, it was almost impossible to find and, once located, difficult to understand, due to the heavy Jamaican patois and slang on worn prints. It received the push it needed when Island Records released the soundtrack album the same year and, in 1973, on Mango Records here. Although it peaked at No, 140 on the Billboard charts, the throbbing reggae rhythms reached the right ears, including those of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Cat Stevens. Instead of attaining cult-classic status, itself, the album swiftly became one of the most influential soundtrack albums in the history of popular music. Each track was a gem, especially Jimmy Cliff’s infectious rendition of the title song. Reggae wasn’t a completely unknown quantity in U.S., even though the genre had yet to be recognized by name. Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” found success on the pop charts in 1969, as did Millie Small’s ska version of the Cadillac’s “My Boy Lollipop,” in 1964. “The Harder They Come,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” “Pressure Drop,” “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and “Rivers of Babylon” continue to be played and covered today. A lot of people think Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff” was on the soundtrack, as well, if only because it fit so well thematically. It wasn’t released in Jamaica until a year later, however, and subsequently included on Clapton’s 1974 album, “461 Ocean Boulevard.” Meanwhile, The Harder They Come began multiyear runs in revival houses in Boston and Berkeley. It would take another 10 years before VHS and Beta cassettes became available for sale and rental, and several more years for Perry Henzell’s film to be adopted in the laserdisc. Some of the same technical problems persisted on the cassette editions, only to be rectified on DVD and Blu-ray in the late 1990s. (A Criterion Collection special edition, with only a couple of bonus features, was released on DVD in 2000.) Only one mystery remained: what happened to Henzell?

Shout! Factory’s “The Harder They Come: Collector’s Edition” is recommendable, even to longtime fans, for several reasons beyond the new 4K scan from the original 16mm negative and 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio. The feature adds new commentary with David Katz, author of “Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography,” and ported-over interviews, featurettes and a music video. It’s on the second and third discs that the real treasures are revealed. At one time, Henzell envisioned a Jamaican trilogy, with an immediate follow-up, No Place Like Home, and a direct sequel, in which Ivan Martin’s wounds have healed and he’s released from prison, into a Jamaica that’s become a  popular tourist magnet, known for its beaches, coffee, marijuana and entrenched poverty. Primarily a travelogue with music, No Place Like Home was largely complete, before it became stuck in bankruptcy hell and disappeared into the thin air. The post-prison sequel never saw the light of day. (In 2005, Henzell became involved in a stage musical by the Theatre Royal Stratford East and UK Arts International. It added a couple of new songs and toured a bit. Henzell continued to write novels and operate his Kingston studio/retreat.) As is recalled in several new featurettes, No Place Like Home was “miraculously” recovered in the 1ate 1990s, in a vault whose contents were set to be destroyed. New digital restoration technology was used to piece the film back together, but it wouldn’t be ready for viewing until 2006, the same year of the director’s death. It took another dozen years for the 16mm film – more of an enticing curiosity than anything else — to be restored to the point where it could shown in theaters.

The story involves a New York advertising executive, Susan – played by real-life advertising executive Susan O’Meara – is summoned to Jamaica when a shampoo commercial begins to go sideways. In it, model P.J. (P.J. Soles) gets tired of being told to continually repeat shots in which she’s required to run through a dense forest and sit under a waterfall to promote a shampoo whose manufacturer doesn’t have his shit together. When told to return to the bush to reshoot scenes, this time with a new label on the product’s container, P.J. decides to head for a then undeveloped Negril, before heading back to New York. O’Meara asks the shoot’s Rastafarian driver, Countryman (Countryman), to chauffeur her around the island to find P.J., who never stays in one place for very long. It provides the perfect opportunity for Henzell to showcase a part of Jamaica that had yet to be discovered by tourists and Countryman had connections via the ganga trade. To say that they’re living in two different metaphysical time zones is an understatement. She’s on Eastern Frantic Time, while Countryman is on the Me-Soon-Come Zone. Because Countryman’s taxi requires constant attention by laid-back rural mechanics, Susan has nothing better to do than hang out with Countryman and his friends, who introduce her to the sacred herb and a way of life that isn’t determined by clocks, schedules and deadlines. Things get done, but only when Jah deems them to be worthy of completion. When they finally arrive back in Kingston, the cacophonous chaos of city life is nearly unbearable. Henzell’s hand-picked soundtrack features songs by Marley, Etta James, Carly Simon, Toots and the Maytals, Marcia Griffiths, Desmond Dekker and the Aces, the Sensations, the Three Degree, Ernest Ranglin, the Heptones, Nasio Fontaine, Lobo, Lord Messam and His Calypsonians and a song recorded by Soles. This disc contains audio commentary with Perry’s wife, Sally Henzell, producers David Garonzik and Arthur Gorson, and stills photographer Cookie Kinkead.

Disc Three is filled with new material: “The Legacy of Perry Henzell: A Story of Jamaican Cinema,” produced and directed by Gorson and Garonzik, and exec-produced by daughter Justine Henzell; “Filmin’ in the Gully: Anatomy of Three Scenes,” with cinematographer Franklyn “Chappy” St. Juste; “Duppies in the Control Room,” about Dynamic Sounds Studios, past and present; “10A: Jamaica’s Film Yard,” the story of Perry’s Kingston home and production center; “A Conversation with Sir Ridley Scott,” who spent a great deal of time working at 10A on commercials; “Live From the Reggae Awards: Red Carpet,” with interviews recorded at Kingston’s annual music awards; “Out of Many, One Filmmaker: The Disciples of Perry Henzell,” with directors Storm Saulter, Rass Kassa, Chris Browne and producer Maxine Walters; “Everyone a Star: The Original Cast,” including actors Soles, Carl Bradshaw and Winston Stona; “Big Heap of Help: The Original Support Team,” with Perry’s first personal assistant Beverley Manley and assistant director Bobby Russell; “Roots: The Family Henzell,” with Sally, Justine and Jason Henzell; and “How Perry Rocked the World,” with radio personality “Native Wayne” Jobson, historian Chris Salewicz and composer Steven Soles. All of these riches from a 16mm movie, The Harder They Come, whose production was repeatedly halted by money problems and the ordeal of finding anyone in America to distribute it. Henzell’s stated goal was to showcase Jamaican culture and residents, whose presence was ignored by tourists, the producers of James Bond movies and the island’s ruling class. It was the new country’s first feature film.

Aniara: Blu-ray   
Arriving on the heels of Claire Denis’ existential sci-fi drama,  High Life, is Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s similarly bleak and unsettling Aniara, based on an epic poem Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson. Both works examine what life might be like for passengers on a one-way trip into Deep Space. While the former is adapted from a contemporary screenplay, Aniara’s roots stretch back to 1956, a year before the USSR launched Sputnik I into low-Earth orbit. At the time, space colonies, life on alien planets and stranded astronauts were domains left to the pulpy imaginations of sci-fi writers and their readers. Getting monkeys and dogs into orbit kept the hands of American and Soviet scientists full. In 1961, the year cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Polish writer Stanisław Lem’s hugely influential novel, “Solaris,” was published. It advanced a scenario in which a team of human scientists hovering over oceanic surface of the planet Solaris came to the realization that their attempts to communicate with its inhabitants were being blocked by a sentient force that’s studying the scientists and forcing them to address their inner demons. A psychologist from Earth is sent to the space station to determine why the scientists are going nuts. “Solaris” spawned a reasonably faithful made-for-TV movie shown to Soviet audience in 1968, and, four years later, Andrei Tarkovsky’s nearly three-hour adaptation of the same novel. Stanley Kubrick used Arthur C. Clarke’s 1948 short story, “The Sentinel,” as the foundation for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), another monumental entertainment that dealt which the disparity between human and alien intelligence and communication. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the near-disastrous voyage of Apollo 13 forced American citizens, scientists and politicians to accept the fact that failure is always a possibility in space travel and only the sharpest of human minds can prevent failures from becoming disasters. The passengers on the ship in High Life are doomed criminals, who accept a mission in space to become the subjects of a human reproduction experiment. They will come face to face with eternity in the form of black hole they are compelled to investigate. Based on an original script by Denis and frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, it may very well be a conceptual exaggeration of the sort of missions being planned by today at Cal Tech, MIT and the Johnson Space Center.

Certainly, Mars is a place being considered for habitation by researchers at those institutions and the politicians who have to allocate the money for such an adventure. For sci-fi writers, of course, it’s a case of been there, done that. Ditto, Hollywood screenwriters. Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard’s The Martian (2015) was adapted from Andy Weir’s self-published 2011 novel of the same title, in which an American astronaut (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars by his teammates, due to a freak storm. He, too, must decide between scrambling to remain alive, against impossible odds, or taking the cyanide pills that presumably are sewn into the fabric of each astronaut’s flight suit. As far-fetched as the premise sounds, Scott added a palpable air of credibility to narrative. Although I have no way of knowing if Kagerman and Lilja’s Aniara was influenced by anything except Martinson’s poem, it shares conceits with all sorts of sci-fi movies and books. It is set on one of the many spaceships transporting Earthlings from their ruined planet to their new home, Mars. The crafts are huge, more like oil tankers than the streamlined rocket ships of your, upon which facsimiles of modernistic cities have been built to accommodate the needs of the humans who may have vacationed on ocean liners. Algae ponds create the oxygen necessary for the passengers to breathe freely and there’s plenty of room for food storage and makeshift farms, not unlike the biological pods in Douglas Trumbow’s visionary Silent Running (1972). Provisions have been made for physical and social activity, mental health treatment, amusement and education. NASA estimates a trip to Mars using the fictional Hermes spacecraft, of the sort that carried the astronauts in The Martian, today would take about six to eight months.

In Aniara, a far-larger vessel is thrown off its course when it collides with space junk. The captain attempts to explain the situation away, employing the same unaffected tone and bromides that commercial pilots use today to pacify passengers after their plane hits an air pocket. Conditioned to accept the captain’s word as gospel, the passengers go about their business as if the situation is under control, which it isn’t. The difference between Aniara and other such stranded-in-space dramas is that the passengers aren’t doomed by a lack of oxygen, fuel or sustenance. They’ll die, eventually, but in due time and surrounded by people they know. Does that prospect sound to you as if it’s frightening or comforting? Kagerman and Lilja allow for the probability that boredom and overfamiliarity is a stronger negative force than the inherently human impulse to survive under extreme conditions. Some passengers will consider the ship to be a reasonably comfortable place to spend the next few decades, while others will feel as if they’re trapped on a floating hospice and consign themselves to permanent residence in the psyche ward. The tentative protagonist of Aniara is Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), whose job it is to monitor a room in which a sentient computer allows humans to experience near-spiritual memories of the Earth and its natural beauty. As the ship drifts further into the endless void, more and more passengers require her services and willingly break the rules to gain access to the veritable oasis. Pressure builds on Mimaroben as she is the only one who can keep the growing insanity and lethal depression at bay. Soon enough, passengers and crew members will congregate in groups dedicated to their own concerns, politics and religious preferences. Cults and cliques will form, if only to pass time. Pro-creation will be necessary to sustain the community as it closes in on in eternity, carrying with it other questions. Some viewers will hope against hope that God or some other deity pokes his/her head out from behind an asteroid and directs the ship to the next exit to paradise. Special features include behind-the-scenes featurettes on visual effects, production design, sound design and a conceptual design/art gallery.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache
This enlightening documentary is for anyone who believes that institutional sexism in the movie industry began in the early 1930s, when women who excelled in the silent era were put out to pasture and men filled the gaps left behind them. Or, in the early 1950s, when Ida Lupino became the exception who proved the rule, by breaking into Hollywood’s boys club. Or, you could try to answer the same question Pamela B. Green asks a couple dozen industry insiders in the prelude to Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache: Who was Alice Guy-Blanche? None of them could recall with any certainty that, when, in 1896, Guy-Blache completed her first film, she staked her claim not only as the first female filmmaker, but also one of the first directors of either gender to make a narrative film. That put her in the same forward-thinking company as the Lumiere brothers, Thomas Edison, Charles Pathé, Georges Méliès and Léon Gaumont. While working as a secretary at L. Gaumont et Cie, Guy-Blache was able study every facet of the fledgling motion-picture business, including the photographic equipment. After attending a demonstration screening of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), to promote the Lumiere’s projection technology, she asked Gaumont for permission to make a moving-picture that incorporated fictional story-telling elements into film. It was titled La Fée aux Choux (“The Cabbage Fairy”), described in a French newspaper as being a “chaste fiction of children born under the cabbages in a wonderfully framed chromo landscape.” Like Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), it incorporated special effects and in-camera tricks. From 1896 to 1906, Guy-Blaché was the company’s head of production and probably the first filmmaker to systematically develop narrative filmmaking and use audio recordings in conjunction with the images on screen.

In 1907, the Chilean-born and French-educated Alice Guy married Herbert Blaché, who would become the production manager for Gaumont’s operations in the United States. Three years later, they partnered with George A. Magie in the formation of the Flushing-based Solax Company, the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America. They would invest more than $100,000 into new, technologically advanced production facilities in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the country’s filmmaking hub. The title of Green and co-writer Joan Simon’s documentary derives from a sign posted in the studio, “Be Natural.” As narrator Jodie Foster reminds viewers, actors in early silent films were anything but natural. By the time Guy-Blaché directed her last film, in 1919, the couple had moved to Hollywood, where their marriage quickly unraveled. It didn’t prevent them from collaborating  on two films starring Russian diva Alla Nazimova, The Brat (1919)  and Stronger Than Death (1920). In neither was she credited. In 1921, she was forced by bankruptcy to auction her film studio and other possessions. By the time she returned to Paris, Guy-Blache had directed more than 1,000 films, 22 of which were feature-length. (Around 150 of them have survived the physical test of time.) Her legacy also includes opening the door for actress/producer/screenwriter Lois Weber to become the first American woman to direct a movie and the second, behind Guy-Blache to manage her own studio.

Although she didn’t make another film after 1922, Guy-Blaché never stopped writing, sharing ideas with her peers and correcting the impressions left by historians and academics that Herbert was solely responsible for their joint projects, including the Solax Company. Her omission from the first official records would be repeated by subsequent generations of historians. In 1953, Guy-Blaché was awarded the Légion d’honneur, the highest non-military award France offers. On March 16, 1957, she was honored in a Cinématheque Française ceremony that went unremarked upon in the press. She died in 1968, four years after she returned to the U.S. to live with her daughter, Simone, in Wayne, New Jersey, not far from where her original studio was located. In 2013, Guy-Blaché was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache is a consistently compelling document that will be of interest to all students of the medium, as well as people fixated on the largely ignored role played by women in the early days of the cinema. AMPAS executives could rectify a huge miscarriage of historical justice by awarding Guy-Blache – and Weber, for that matter – with one of the academy’s posthumous awards. In 2010, its Film Archive preserved the Blachés’ short film, The Girl in the Armchair (1912). In 1960, Weber was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6518 Hollywood Boulevard.

Not having watched “General Hospital” since it jumped the shark, in 1979, by having the virginal Laura Webber forgive her scumbag rapist, Luke Spencer – so they could get married in a record-setting TV wedding — I have no idea how Wes Ramsey (a.k.a., Peter August) fits into ABC’s long running clusterfuck. I do know that Ramsey’s name on the publicity material for Ilana Rein’s uneven thriller, Perception, is the only hook likely to catch viewers who’ve never heard of the co-writer/director or anyone else listed on the website. And, he doesn’t disappoint. Neither does the female protagonist, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, an up-and-coming actress with an uncanny resemblance to Gina Bellman, of the British “Coupling” and TNT’s “Leverage.” Here, she plays the exotically beautiful Nina, who practices the ancient art of palmistry in a strip mall soon to be demolished by a real estate developer who pays Daniel (Ramsey) to deliver the bad news to tenants. On one such assignment, Nina’s weird little boy manages to slip out of the shop and sneak into Daniel’s truck, as if he wants to run away from home. She shows her gratitude by giving the handsome stranger a free reading. Nina guesses correctly that he’s haunted by the “presence” of late wife, Maggie, an artist. When Daniel says he’d pay any amount of money to be re-connected with the woman whose death won’t be fully explained until much later in Perception, she “reluctantly” accepts the challenge. In fact, Daniel is exactly the kind of fish that fortune tellers and psychics dream about hooking and hanging on their walls. She acknowledges as much to her mother and an older friend. What happens when Nina unexpectedly connects with Maggie, somewhere in the ether, freaks both of them out. The more she obsesses over the money she needs to send her seemingly autistic son to a private school, the more obsessed Daniel becomes with exploiting the medium’s ability to usurp the dead woman’s persona … sexually and otherwise. In fact, the boy’s incessant sketching of trucks, cars and people in distress holds the key to the central mystery. It’s at this point that Perception begins to resemble Vertigo (1958) and I began to wish it had been directed by Brian De Palma. If there’s nothing wrong with protagonists, whose attraction to each other borders on the explosive, almost everything else about the movie, including the supporting cast, feels hamstrung by a tight budget and Rein’s inability to tie things together with a tidy little bow.

The Assault
If Tom Sizemore’s resume on is to be believed, the reigning King of the B’s has more than two dozen projects somewhere in the production cycle, from already completed to pre-production. It’s difficult for me to imagine how the onetime co-star of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Black Hawk Down (2001) could think it was possible to squeeze the completely illogical The Assault into his taxing schedule and think that it would do his career any good. Based solely on his exhaustively reported problems with substance abuse, domestic violence and other legal issues, it’s conceivable that the better-than-decent actor not only needs the money, but he also could benefit from doing constructive with his time, besides getting into even more trouble. Clearly, the Detroit native and former boyfriend of “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss no longer can expect the same multimillion-dollar paychecks he commanded in his heyday. It’s possible that his performance in Jacob Cooney’s non-thriller required only a few days of his time. If it doesn’t look as if he phoned in his portrayal of a New York cop who’s relocated to the boonies, then he obviously wasn’t expected to do much heavy lifting. His character, Detective Gary Broza, leads the investigation into a series of robberies by a pair of robbers disguised as ninjas, wielding automatic weapons and speaking through voice modifiers. The first big clue arrives in the form of a burned-out car, with a bag full of stolen cash burned to a crisp in the backseat. Huh? Figuring out who’s pulling off the increasingly violent crimes isn’t difficult, neither is their motive. They’re amateurs, but they pull off their jobs as if they’re seasoned professionals. That the final twist doesn’t square with reality isn’t surprising, either. Potential spoilers prevent me from revealing much more than the story’s bare outline. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, however, I can reveal that the detectives spend an inordinate amount of time in a local strip club, where, like “Cheers,” everyone knows their name.

Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy: Limited Edition; Blu-ray
If all one knows about Japanese film and television director Akio Jissôji is his 40-year relationship with the venerable sci-fi franchise, “Ultraman,” Arrow Video’s “Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy” will come as a revelation. In Japan, at least, Jissôji is famous, as well, for the tokusatu epic, Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1988), based on Hiroshi Aramata’s historical fantasy novel, “Teito Monogatari.” (Tokusatsu is a Japanese term for live-action film or television dramas that use special effects in the service if science fiction, fantasy or horror.) His body of work also includes adaptations of books by Japanese horror and mystery author Edogawa Rampo. Between 1966 and 2006, the year of his death, Jissôji bounced back and forth from children’s television, to genre material and sexually provocative films that sometimes highlighted sadomasochistic and non-consensual sexual practices. Until recently, most of these films have been unavailable outside Japan or with English subtitles. The four films included in Arrow’s “trilogy” walk a tightrope between dramas based on Buddhist themes, art and principles and the pinku genre, which came into vogue in the 1960s and promoted nudity and abhorrent content. They encompassed everything from serious dramas, to action thrillers and exploitation features. This Transient Life (1970), Mandara (1971), Poem (1972) and the bonus feature, It Was a Faint Dream (1974), are examples of the New Wave movement, produced by the Art Theatre Guild and shot in radically stylized manners. They are about as different from “Ultraman” as “Superman” was to “Gone With the Wind,” both of which starred George Reeves

This Transient Life, winner of the Golden Leopard at the 1970 Locarno Film Festival, concerns a brother and sister from a rich family, who defy the expectations placed on them by siblings and society. Instead, Masao prefers studying under a master sculptor famous for making Kannon statues of the Goddess of Mercy. His sister, Yuri, is frustrated in her pursuit of a husband when she’s impregnated by her brother in game involving masks and roughhousing. The nature of their illicit relationship is disguised by Yuri’s ability to marry the man everyone assumes is the baby’s father. A monk at the nearby monastery sets off a chain-reaction that involves Masao, the sculptor, his unfaithful wife and their son, who she violates in response to her own indiscretion. He blames everything on Masao and vows to kill him. Mandara, Jissôji s first color feature, extends the controversial subject matter, by focusing on a cult that recruits followers through rape and believes that true ecstasy can be achieved through sexual release. Poem is centered around the austere existence of a young houseboy, who becomes helplessly embroiled in the schemes of his two brothers. It continues the trilogy’s exploration of faith in a post-industrial world. In this case, though, the story takes place in late-13th Century Kyoto, a decidedly pre-industrial period dominated by the Kamakura Shogunate, It Was a Faint Dream incorporates ideas from all three movies. Shijo, an attractive and perceptive peasant girl, is sold to the Imperial Court to live her life as a concubine. Although she’s treated well by her master, his mild demeanor becomes so boring that she allows herself to be seduced at different times by his brothers – a high priest and the future shogun – and, yes, impregnated. That her daughter is taken from her at birth and sent to live in a royal palace continues to haunt her throughout the film. After the men around her begin to die off, she sets off on a voyage of discovery to determine her daughter’s well-being. Finally, she elects to become a nun, in order to pursue a life without desire.

Anyone who thinks I’ve provided potential viewers with far too many spoilers should know that they merely scratch the surface of the films’ complexity, drama, perception and appeal. The harsh treatment of the women characters merits a spoiler alert for scenes in which they’re raped, undermined, dismissed and otherwise taken advantage by men. Considering that films were made at the dawn of the women’s liberation movement, it’s possible that Jissôji’s presentations were dictated by the perceived interests – or titillation — of unenlightened male viewers. Or, he intended the brutality to come as a wake-up call to viewers whose acceptance of a male-dominated hierarchy extends to the 13th Century and probably before that. It should be noted, however, that, while violence toward women was permissible, Japanese censors prohibited depictions of graphic sex or nudity in which the genitalia and pubic hair was shown. What makes these films truly special are Masao Nakabori and Yuzo Inagaki brilliantly emotive cinematography; Jissôji’s attention to period detail and societal standards; Toru Fuyuki’s occasionally startling music and sound design; and the acting, which allows us to get inside the characters’ heads and emotional mindset.  The Arrow package is enhanced by original uncompressed LPCM mono 1.0 audio, on all three films; introductions by David Desser, author of “Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave”; scene-select commentaries on all three films by Desser; original trailers; limited-edition packaging, fully illustrated by poster artist Maarko Phntm; and an illustrated 80-page perfect-bound collector’s book, with new writings on the film by Anton Bitel and Tom Mes.

Long Gone Wild
Like people, nations evolve, mature and flourish without regard to time, speed or prevailing fashions. Americans may think they’ve held the moral high ground since, at least, the last 250 years, but that wouldn’t explain how the British and French managed to abolish slavery decades before we did; police have been required to do the dirty work for corporations and right-wing politicians; Vietnam; Iraq; and global warming. Every time President Trump signs into his Twitter account, he pushes us closer to the next world war, a global depression, the destruction of our planet and an autocracy. And, he does so simply to watch liberals and reformists cringe. One morning, he decides to lift protections on endangered species; the next, he gives polluters permission to befoul our air, rivers and federal lands. In less than four years we’re devolved from a country that’s been a leader in the conservation movement, to one that refuses to acknowledge the writing on the wall. Bill Neal’s pointed documentary, Long Gone Wild, reminds us of the fragility of legislation specifically protecting killer whales, a species that most Americans assume is protected from exploitation and abuse. It also reveals how theme parks, hunters and traders have continued to profit from the quasi-legal trade in cetaceans, decades after President Richard Nixon signed the sweeping, if imperfect U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, in 1972. That’s right, the same conservative Republican who created the EPA; signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Clean Air Act Extension of 1970 and Endangered Species Act of 1973; and proposed the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, none of which would get a hearing today, in Mitch McConnell’s Senate.  The Marine Mammal Protection Act was approved a mere decade after the first orca died a horrible death in captivity, at Marineland of the Pacific, south of Los Angeles, and two more were shot by the aquarium’s head animal collector in Haro Strait, off San Juan Island, in Washington State. A couple years later, a killer whale dubbed Moby Doll — harpooned by a sculptor in pursuit of a model — lived long enough to be briefly exhibited in a makeshift pen in Vancouver Harbor. In 1965, Ted Griffin, the owner of the Seattle Public Aquarium, set a precedent by agreeing to purchase Namu from a B.C. fisherman for $8,000 … “cash on the barrelhead.” Once a base price was established, hunters developed a netting technique for capturing specimens in Puget Sound. By the early 1970s, Don Goldsberry had captured more than 200 orcas, about 30 of which were sent to various facilities, while the rest went to Sea World. The ante was raised when the corralling of 80 killer whales, by collectors from the Seattle Public Aquarium, resulted in the deaths and slaughter of several orcas, whose carcasses washed up on shore. The locals were outraged. The MMPA still allowed the collection and sale of cetaceans under specified conditions, including that they be used for solely for scientific and educational purposes, a loophole Sea World easily slid through. In 1976, an aide to Washington Governor Dan Evans witnessed a roundup by representatives of Sea World, illegally using aircraft and explosives to herd and net the whales. A clear violation of the permit granted to collectors under the act, it prompted Evans to declare state waters an unofficial sanctuary. In turn, the ban prompted Sea World to send collectors to Iceland for its finned performers. When Sea World reached its quota, the extras were sold to aquaria on the Island, Canada, France and Japan.

Anyone wondering how Shamu fits into this scenario should know that the first star of Sea World San Diego was caught in October 1965, by Griffin, in Puget Sound; sold to the southern California landmark, when it was rejected by its playmate in his Seattle attraction; and died in 1971, after about six years of performances. Shamu’s swan song came on April 19 of the same year, when she bit the legs and hips of Anne Eckis, a SeaWorld employee who was trying to ride her as part of a filmed publicity event. Shamu refused to release the woman, who had been instructed to wear a bikini that day, instead of the one-piece suit the orca might have instantly recognized, until other workers came to the rescue and pried the its jaws apart with a pole. It meant instant retirement for the orca and, soon thereafter, a quick death. Shamu’s name would be trademarked, however, and awarded to whichever killer whale was the star of that day’s show. In doing so, Sea World effectively convinced a generation of children and, conceivably, their parents, that orcas live forever and could be trained not to attack their trainers, another myth shattered in Long Gone Wild. In the mid-1980s-90s, the attention of activists turned to Japan, where “drive fishery” was practiced by fishermen, who didn’t discriminate between bottle-nosed dolphins and orcas. It wasn’t until the release of Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove (2009) that the whistle was blown on a practice that would turn the waters of a dead-end cove near Taijii, Japan, red with blood. The film also reported on Japan’s alleged “buying” of votes of poor nations in the International Whaling Commission.

Neal also credits Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary, Blackfish, with alerting Americans to the continuing abuses and coverups at Sea World. It does so by focusing on the captivity of Tilikum, an orca involved in the deaths of three people, as well as the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity. Long story short, the resulting debate, rebuttals and court cases led to Southwest Airlines ending its 26-year relationship with Sea World and a boycott by musicians participating in a “Bands, Brew & BBQ” event at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa. By November 2015, Sea World announced it would stop killer-whale shows at its theme park in San Diego. Five months later, park officials announced it would end its orca breeding program and begin to phase out all live performances using orcas. Long Gone Wild isn’t likely to have the same impact as The Cove and Blackfish, if only because the hunting, buying and exploitation of killer whales is now being conducted in countries that are at the same ethical point in environmental law as the U.S. and Canada in 1960. Russians fisherman must attain permits to gather specimens for sale, but don’t appear to care how many animals die in the process of making their quota. The orcas that survive capture are frequently sold in China, where dozens of marine parks have recently been built or are under construction. The activists we meet in Long Gone Wild manage to infiltrate one gigantic facility that will soon be used to store orcas awaiting distribution to new Chinese parks. The film also spotlights the Whale Sanctuary Project, an organization committed to establishing model seaside sanctuaries, where once captive and injured cetaceans can live in an environment that maximizes their well-being and autonomy and comes as close as possible to their natural habitat. It was inspired by the sanctuaries that have proven their ability to care for zoo animals and circus attractions, when they’re given their pink slips or abandoned by people who no longer are interested in caring for them. It was announced earlier this month that Russian authorities have begun the transport of a third group of orcas from the “whale jail” on Russia’s Far East coast to the Sea of Okhotsk, where they will be released into the ocean. The government’s objective is to return all 10 orcas and 87 belugas to the ocean by this coming fall, with the Whale Sanctuary Project’s possible participation in future releases.

Ronja: The Robber’s Daughter: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
The Walking Dead: The Complete Ninth Season: Blu-ray
Shimmer and Shine: Legend of the Dragon Treasure
Even by the usual standards applied to the work of Studio Ghibli, “Ronja: The Robber’s Daughter” was an unusual undertaking. Based on the book, “Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter,” by Astrid Lindgren, the creator of Pippi Longstocking, the animated series is a first for the studio famous for the hand-drawn, feature-length anime of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). Among other things, it is the first television series to be co-produced by Studio Ghibli and directed by the Maestro’s son, Gorô Miyazaki. It also represents the first time the studio Ghibli has produced a computer-animated cel-shaded anime. Divided into 26 episodes that run about 25 minutes each, “Ronja” first aired in Japan between October 11, 2014, and March 28, 2015. It follows the daughter of a bandit king, Mattis, from her birth in a castle in the woodlands of early-Medieval Scandinavia, to her coming of age as a devil-may-care teenager. When, in Episode Two, the girl turns 10, her parents encourage her to venture into the surrounding forest, exploring and discovering its wonders and dangers for herself. They include mystical creatures, like the gray dwarves, who resemble hedgehogs but are extremely dangerous, as are the harpies that hover above the trees and have the faces of women. Ronja’s life begins to change, when she happens upon a boy her own age, Birk, who turns out to be the son of the rival clan chief. They become fast friends, constantly testing the limits of their courage, strength and their parents’ patience. Despite theme music that grows more annoying by the episode, the characters are irresistible, the dubbing is flawless and the story can be enjoyed by children and adults, alike, without condescending to one group or adding hidden messages to keep the other interested. It recalls Pippi Longstocking in that regard. Another interesting aspect arrives when Ronja stand up to her frequently unreasonable father and takes to the forest with her new accomplice.

For those keeping score at home. the ninth season of “The Living Dead” is based on material from issues #127 to #144 of the comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. It focuses on the aftermath of last season’s All Out War, which pitted the Militia, led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), and the Saviors, led by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The season opens 18 months after Negan’s defeat, as the various communities are working on rebuilding society. However, the Sanctuary suffers from infertile ground and underlying support for Negan. Rick leads a trek to a Washington, D.C., museum to recover pioneering supplies. On the way back, they find the main bridge to Hilltop has been wiped out by a storm, forcing them to detour. A young man, Ken (AJ Achinger), is killed while protecting the group’s horses from walkers. Gregory (Xander Berkeley), ousted as Hilltop’s leader, convinces Ken’s father, Earl (John Finn), to try to assassinate Maggie (Lauren Cohan), but he fails. Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) ask Maggie for Hilltop’s help in providing for the Sanctuary, but she refuses. That evening, Maggie has Gregory publicly executed for his actions. And, that’s just for starters. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple was promoted to chief content officer for both “The Walking Dead” and its spin-off show “Fear the Walking Dead,” while writer and co-executive producer Angela Kang has taken Gimple’s role for “The Walking Dead.” Fans will already know that two of the show’s biggest stars won’t make it until the end of Season Nine. The Blu-ray contains commentaries on three episodes; deleted scenes; episode recaps and brief character and thematic insights for each episode; making-of featurettes; several backgrounders; an “In Memoriam” salute to the characters who died in the ninth season; and a look at Andrew Lincoln’s work on the series and the character’s story throughout the past nine seasons.

The latest Nickelodeon collection, “Shimmer and Shine: Legend of the Dragon,” features six dragon-themed episodes, including two double-length adventures, and follows Shimmer, Shine and Leah as they meet Dragon Rider Farnaz, track down a Dragon Gem, rescue dragons and even learn to ride one. Fraternal-twins Shimmer and Shine are genies who unintentionally create chaos, sometimes in magical ways, while attempting to grant wishes for their human best friend, Leah. The selections include “Legend of the Dragon Gem,” “The Dragon Rider,” “Zahracorns on Parade,” “Nazboo’s Magic Robe,” “Dragon Tales” and “Nazboo’s Family Reunion.”



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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