MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Endgame, White Crow, Vault, Trial by Fire, Shiraz, Keaton, Rafiki, Damned Summer, Anti-Nowhere League. … More

Avengers: Endgame: Blu-ray/4K UHD
As I recall mentioning exactly a year ago, upon the general 4K UHD release of Avengers: Infinity War, any fan of the franchise who’s looking for educated opinions here is definitely barking up the wrong tree. Not surprisingly, then, the same caveat applies for Avengers: Endgame, which, we’ve been led to believe, is the massively successful series’ swan song. Any newbie who thinks it’s possible to step into it at midstream and appreciate how much serious thought, imagination, mythology and highly paid talent has been invested in The Avengers (2012) and its sequels, Age of Ultron (2015), Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019) will be mistaken. That isn’t to say that latecomers would be unable enjoy and admire Endgame’s spectacular 90-minute grand finale, without also understanding what happened in the first 90 minutes, but it would be like arriving late to a Fourth of July fireworks show and only catching the final barrage of explosives. It wouldn’t explain why dozens of characters from separate Marvel universes – including the Guardians of the Galaxy and the armies of Wakanda and Asgard — have gathered in 2023 to battle a genocidal Titanian supervillain decapitated in 2014.  and deny him the Infinity Gems, which never remain in the same hands for very long. Life is complicated in the MCU and it helps to have a scorecard handy. Through the miracle of time travel, an already dead Thanos (Josh Brolin) is prepared to destroy the portion of humanity he neglected to obliterate in previous installments. Credit co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for making such a ludicrous turnaround even remotely credible. After Captain Marvel (a.k.a., Carol Danvers/Brie Larson) rescues Tony Stark (Iron Man/Robert Downey Jr.) and the possibly duplicitous female warrior, Nebula (Thanos’ daughter/Karen Gillan) from Deep Space, anything is possible. They’re returned to the New Avengers Facility, where Scott Lang (Ant Man/Paul Rudd), a recent escapee from the quantum realm, hopes to convince the remaining Avengers to retrieve the six Infinity Stones that Thanos used to destroy half of all living creatures in the Snap. That terrible deed accomplished Thanos shrinks the stones and disperses them to prevent his work from being undone. Lang believes that the Avengers can create a new Quantum Tunnel and use advance tech suits to travel back in time, retrieve the stones, affix them to a gauntlet and reverse Thanos’ actions in the present. As skeptical and weary of battle as Our Heroes are, they see no other way to repair the damage done by Thanos and his cohorts. If that summary sounds overly complicated to late arrivals to the franchise, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the timeline included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki.

The other thing that rainy-day fans of MCU need to know about Endgame, which was shot back-to-back with Infinity War, is that it also features Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle). They might not recognize Thor and Hulk in their present states, however. MCU devotees needed no further encouragement to embrace Endgame. On its way to surpassing Titanic’s box-office record — $2,795,486,053, worldwide – it covered its estimated $356- million production nut on its opening weekend … in the domestic revenues, alone. Even so, I recommend that uninitiated viewers begin at the beginning. It will quadruple the enjoyment triggered during Endgame’s lollapalooza climax. By bringing back hundreds of Marvel characters, actors and voicing talent – from Dr. Stephen Strange and Spider-Man (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland), to Nick Fury and Groot (Samuel L. Jackson, Vin Diesel) – Endgame effectively serves as a monumental memorial to franchise co-creator Stan Lee, who died last November, at 95. One needn’t possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the MCU – or familiarity with Marvel comics — to get excited by that aspect of Endgame. After all, how many baseball fanatics can rattle off the stats associated with the players from the last 10 years’ worth of All-Star games? My other recommendation is for fans to invest in the latest technology – 4K UHD – so as to re-capture as much of the theatrical experience as is possible on TV monitors. The hi-res presentation does make a difference. The supplements included in the Marvel/Disney package can be found on the bonus Blu-ray disc. Among them are a short “Intro,” with Joe and Anthony Russo; “Strange Alchemy,” a look at bringing together so many of the characters from the Marvel universe; “The Mad Titan,” a focused exploration of the film’s antagonist, Thanos, and his historical role in the franchise; “Beyond the Battle: Titan” opens with another look at bringing all the characters together, but finally moves to more closely exploring the making of the film’s battle on Titan; “Beyond the Battle: Wakanda,” a look at the Georgia location that stood in for the fictional African kingdom; deleted scenes; gag reel; audio commentary, with the co-directors and co-writers; and a personal salute to Lee, focusing on his trademark cameos.

The White Crow
As amazing as it might seem to Boomer parents and grandparents, their descendants’ knowledge of Cold War history begins with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc dictatorships and ends with President Trump’s bromance with his Russian counterpart. No memory of duck-and-cover exercises, fallout shelters or the space race. If the U.S. is a markedly less hospitable a place than it was 50 years ago, Russia under Vladimir Putin more closely resembles the USSR of Nikita Khrushchev than the one put out of business by Mikhail Gorbachev. Watching Ralph Fiennes and David Hare’s The White Crow, reminded me of a time when east was east, west was west, and the twain met at the Berlin Wall. as to how far the world has come in last 60 years. Inspired by Julie Kavanaugh’s “Rudolf Nureyev: The Life,” The White Crow also recalls a period in post-War War II history when ballet superstar  Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the west was front-page news in every newspaper – remember those? – in what was known as the Free World. That’s because half of the planet’s greatest artists, intellectuals and athletes were imprisoned by the countries they served in battle and represented in peace. Today, of course, the same VIPs travel back and forth as they please, unless they had the bad luck to have been born in North Korea, China or Cuba. Ballet was treated with more respect, as well. Today, it’s easier to recall Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1974 defection to Canada, if only because Nureyev practiced his newfound freedom in Europe, while Baryshnikov allowed himself to become one of the darlings of the American media. Although both men could fill the great concert halls of Europe and the Americas, Nureyev’s film career was dominated by adaptations of classic ballets and playing silent-screen legend Rudolph Valentino in Ken Russell’s “biggest mistake,” Valentino (1977). Baryshnikov joined some of this country’s most visible companies as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, while also experiencing  better luck in Hollywood. He fit right into The Turning Point (1977), receiving one of the film’s 11 Oscar nominations; was typecast as an expatriate Russian dancer in White Nights (1985), alongside hoofer Gregory Hines and Isabella Rossellini; as an aging star who takes a young female protegee (prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri) in Dancers (1987); as a jailed Soviet spy, Company Business (1991), with Gene Hackman; and in the final season of  HBO’s “Sex and the City,” during which he played a Russian artist who woos Carrie Bradshaw. He was a fixture at Club 54, frequently accompanied by Liza Minnelli, Halston, Mick and Bianca Jagger and Jackie O.

Fiennes and Hare elected to use flashbacks to explain how Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) rose from impoverished conditions as a boy – he was born on a Trans-Siberian train, near Irkutsk – to become the biggest star in the USSR, if not, yet, the rest of the world. The divergent influences of his mother and father are also depicted. It leads to the young man’s early training with the Kirov, whose leader isn’t to his liking. Otherwise, The White Crow’s tick-tock pace is dictated by the events leading directly to the defection. They begin with Kirov’s pre-tour sojourn in Paris, during which Rudy refuses to be caged in by the KGB, and end with the nearly aborted defection at the airport. In between, viewers will be torn between the behavior of Good Rudy and Bad Rudy. He’ll carry on almost simultaneous affairs with Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), the wife of his coach, Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes), and a younger East German dance student, Teja Kremke (Louis Hofmann), who encouraged the defection. We’re horrified by Bad Rudy’s behavior with other women, especially Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the French socialite who introduces him to her friends in Paris and helps him orchestrate the defection. Despite some explanatory notes ahead of the closing credits, The White Crow pretty much ends at the airport. Blessedly, at 127 minutes, the film allows plenty of room for dance. Because Ivenko is an accomplished dancer in his own right, the performance and rehearsal sequences don’t require doubles, inserts or visual tricks. Cinematographer Mike Eley was free to shoot him head to toe, without breaks or interruptions in Ivenko’s fluidity. This isn’t always the case in dance movies, where the focus is on anonymous steps or above-the-shoulder shots.. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the musical soundtrack is lovely. The package adds interviews and a Q&A.

Chazz Palminteri and Don Johnson have lent their names and faces to so many projects that are destined for the small screen that it’s become impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff ahead their VOD/DVD release. Mainstream critics don’t go near them and Internet pundits are more likely to cut the stinkers enough slack to get them past street dates. The same, of course, applies to movies in which such past-their-prime action stars as Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eric Roberts, Dennis Quaid and Kurt Russell have willingly played second fiddle to up-and-coming actors … as long as they share top billing. Some, maybe most of these films are eminently forgettable. Others, including Tom DeNucci’s gangster thriller, Vault, are quite watchable and well worth the effort it takes to find them. Based on the incredible 1975 heist of an estimated $30 million in mob loot from a Rhode Island storage facility, Vault can be mentioned in the same breath as Goodfellas (1990), if only for the results of the real-life crime, itself. If it isn’t in the same ballpark creatively and budgetarily with Martin Scorsese’s classic drama, the audacity of the Bonded Vault Company break-in and the intrigue that followed in its wake are in the same league as the 1978 Lufthansa Airlines robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport. (Who, after all, would dare rob a mob “bank.”) As is the case in Goodfellas, too, the heist was planned by lower-tier criminals Robert “The Deuce” Dussault (Theo Rossi) and Charles “Chucky” Flynn (Clive Standen) and sanctioned by a Mafia associate, Gerald “Gerry” Tillinghast (Johnson). Despite making a lot of money for New England kingpin Raymond Patriarca (Palminteri),Tillinghast was resented for being an uppity non-Italian. Deuce and Chucky were childhood friends who trusted each other implicitly. Their gang was an efficient, if motley crew of local hoodlums, who protected each other’s anonymity by combining the name, Buddy, with that of their hometowns. The score goes off so well, in fact, that DeNucci and co-writer B. Dolan (Almost Mercy), have plenty of time to concoct an entertaining portrayal of Deuce’s large Italian family and embellish the role played by his girlfriend and future snitch, Karyne Sponheim. Denucci was also able to address the strict caste system of the underworld, such as it was after the establishment of the Witness Protection Program, in 1970, and subsequent adoption of the RICO Act. Both served to dilute La Cosa Nostra’s sacred omertà code of honor. To seal the deal on a high-profile conviction, federal and state officials could offer turncoats a get-out-of-jail card and the opportunity for a new life. While this didn’t stifle some criminals’ inclination toward ill-gotten gains – Henry Hill was expelled from the program – it raised the bounty on suspected informants. Just as the death toll rose in the wake of the Lufthansa robbery, so, too, did the list of people who could lead the feds and state police to Tillinghast  and Patriarca, who, some believe, came up with the idea to steal the goods from the New England mob’s bank, fence them overseas and play the victim. Most, possibly all the cash stolen in both shocking heists has yet to be recovered. Some gangsters, at least, can keep a secret. In addition to benefitting from the largely unsung incident, itself, and ready-made cast of colorful characters, Vault got a strategic boost from Providence city officials, who, acknowledged one producer, were “just so behind us in every way. … We had the ‘Superman Building,’ we had the streets and we were able to recreate that time period.” The DVD adds background and making-of material.

Trial by Fire
Based on David Grann’s reporting for the New Yorker, Trial by Fire uses the infamous case of Cameron Todd Willingham to reignite the argument on capital punishment. The number of minds it could possibly change, however, is negligible. Debate over the issue has become so polarized, politicized and defined by extreme religious beliefs that only a handful of people could be swayed by a movie they aren’t likely to watch. Who wants to be reminded of a miscarriage of justice so obvious that it made headlines around the country and forced investigations of judicial procedure by internal and external panels. Their conclusions came too late to save Willingham (Jack O’Connell), who, in any case, might not have been vindicated.  and, in any case,  state  that it’s painful to watch. That the alleged crime occurred in Texas, at a time when its governor was a right-wing opportunist, fundamentalist Christian and all-around nincompoop – yes, that Rick Perry — does not go unremarked upon in Edward Zwick and writer David Grann’s unabashedly humanistic drama. The picture opens on December 23, 1991, when three children are trapped inside the Willingham home, in Corsicana, and burned to death by a horrendous fire. Their father, Cameron, is shown rushing out of the house, only slightly burnt, calling for help, and making a futile effort to re-enter it. Their mother, Stacy (Emily Meade), was away, shopping for Christmas gifts. Nine months later, the unemployed slacker was sentenced to death for the arson deaths of their 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twin girls. Not only did circumstantial evidence weigh heavily against Cameron, but rumors circulated about him being a wife beater, an abusive father and a cheater.  Based solely on the state’s evidence, he was guilty as well. Viewers aren’t given much more evidence upon which to draw their own conclusions. Oh, yeah, Cameron was a belligerent defendant in the courtroom and lousy cellmate. If he had been executed  the next day, any mourning would been left to his widow. That wasn’t likely to happen, either. Willingham declined a life sentence offered in exchange for a guilty plea and, in Trial by Fire, only wavers in his determination to clear his name under extreme external pressure.

It isn’t until the Innocence Project enters the picture and Houston teacher Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) begins her correspondence with the convict, that Willingham is given any reason for optimism. Gilbert didn’t propose an exchange of letters because she had followed the case and believed his innocence. She hoped to gain as much in emotional currency as she could offer Willingham in moral support. Unlike his wife, Stacy, she made it a point to visit him in jail. Once convinced of his innocence, however, Gilbert uncovered the kind of evidence that would warrant a reversal or reprieve in most states outside the South. The problem is that true, blue Lone Star Texans only hear what they want to hear and mistrust the efforts of do-gooders to overturn decisions based on prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense lawyers, lazy investigators and the defendants’ inability to afford a proper defense. In fact, the prosecuting attorney paid off a jailhouse witness with the promise of clemency and money; a neighbor misremembered Willingham’s behavior on the day of the fire; and the expert witness who described the fire’s origin wasn’t an expert in anything except extracting fees from prosecutors in return for “junk science.” Despite Gilbert’s perseverance and intervention of the Innocence Project, the governor stood by his belief that Texas law is infallible and, even if it weren’t, it would be impolitic of him to interfere. Perhaps, Perry was encouraged to take such an idiotic stand by something the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in concurrence with an opinion forwarded by that other giant of right-wing jurisprudence, Clarence Thomas, “Not a single defendant in America has ever been erroneously executed. If such an event had occurred … the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”  This ran contrary to a decision made in 1999 by Illinois Governor George Ryan —  a Republican – when he ended the death penalty in the state, saying he “didn’t want to be responsible for the execution of another innocent soul, even if it were one in a hundred.” It’s a proposition that most Americans should be able to accept, no matter how one feels about capital punishment. As is demonstrated in Trial by Fire, that simply isn’t the case.

The Command: Blu-ray
Despite the dramatic license taken by the filmmakers and some middling reviews from mainstream critics, fans of movies set on submarines probably will want to check out The Command. It is Thomas Vinterberg and writer Robert Rodat’s frequently exciting, if flawed adaptation of reporter Robert Moore’s investigative book, “A Time to Die.” Looking back at the sinking of the K-141 Kursk and loss of its 118 submariners on August 12, 2000, I can’t recall how the horrendous event was covered in the American media. I suspect that the BBC and New York Times led whatever coverage there was of the Kursk’s sinking in the west, but were limited by the avalanche of misinformation, false leads, rumors and government subterfuge that followed in its wake in Russia. It would take Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov two years to compile a report for newly installed President Vladimir Putin that revealed “stunning breaches of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment,” as well as “negligence, incompetence and mismanagement.” The report said the rescue operation was unjustifiably delayed. At a length of 117 minutes, The Command is roughly divided into three intertwined parts: the disaster, itself; the government’s bungled response to it; and the futility and fear experienced by the seamen’s families, who bore the brunt of the misinformation campaign. The film’s greatest conceit is elongating by five days the surviving submariners’ battle to stay alive and, in doing so, demonstrate their heroism, courage and grace under pressure. The film implies that the 23 survivors of the initial blasts – dummy torpedoes, with live, non-nuclear charges, detonated by a chemical leak — lived up to a week in the chamber furthest from the explosions, before succumbing mere minutes and hours before they could be rescued. Contrary to the timeline established in The Command, none of the men could have survived more than 11 hours. In fact, rescue attempts hadn’t even begun at that point. Even so, Russian naval authorities took even greater liberties with the hearts of family members. The manipulation of time allows Vinterberg to develop a what-if scenario to showcase the theoretical final days of the elite sailors, under the direct command of Russian Navy Captain-Lieutenant Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts). The families’ resistance to official lies and misdirection is led by Mikhail’s skeptical wife, Tanya Averina, well played by Léa Seydoux. Max von Sydow does a highly credible job as Admiral Vladimir Petrenko, who delivers the lies to family members. Colin Firth plays British Commodore David Russell, whose good intentions and offers of help are rebuffed by Petrenko. Because The Command doesn’t feature any American stars, and was shot in Belgium and France, any distribution in the U.S. was bound to be limited, at best.

When it comes to questions pertaining to LGBTQ rights in Kenya, the answers are “No,” “No,” “No” and “Don’t even think about it.” Otherwise, I’m told it’s a nice place to visit our animal friends. Compared to Sudan, Somalia, Somaliland, Mauritania and northern Nigeria, where homosexuality is punishable by death, Kenya’s laws are almost progressive. In Uganda, Tanzania and Sierra Leone offenders can be imprisoned for life. If the laws in these countries weren’t sufficiently draconian, there’s Nigeria, which, in addition to criminalizing homosexuality, has enacted legislation that would make it illegal for family members, friends and “allies” of LGBTQ people to be “supportive.” In Kenya, the state does not recognize any relationships between persons of the same sex. Same-sex marriage has been banned under the Kenyan constitution since 2010. Adoption is denied same-sex couples. Sodomy is a felony, per Section 162 of the Kenyan penal code, punishable by 14 years’ imprisonment, while “gross indecency” between males will get offenders five years in stir, under section 165 of the same statute. Here’s the kicker, though: on May 24, the High Court of Kenya refused an order to declare Sections 162 and 165 unconstitutional. That’s May 24, 2019. To be fair, however, I’m told there are no statutory provisions relating to transgender rights and it’s legal for Ts to change the names appearing on legal documents. If there’s a common denominator throughout Africa, it’s the unchecked power of evangelical preachers and imams to encourage their flocks to treat LGBTQ individuals as if they were Satan’s representatives on Earth. Politicians followed suit. It is against this poisonous background and the 2014 passage of the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act that Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu and South African co-writer Jenna Cato Bass chose to adapt Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko’s “Jambula Tree” as Rafiki. The short story won the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing, a first for the East-Central nation.

Kahiu and Bass moved the setting from Kampala to Nairobi, where the overripe symbolism of the jambula tree’s tangy purple fruit might have been lost on viewers. It also was important for the director to show the modernity and dynamism of Nairobi, where young people with new ideas set the tempo for the country’s cultural ecology. Teenagers ride their skateboards through the busy streets and home-grown music provides a reason, if any were needed, to step lively. Just out of high school, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are opposites that attract while one is going about her chores and the other is across the street working on her Beyoncé with her college-bound friends. The next time they meet, the girls form a friendship that leads tentatively, but inexorably toward forbidden love. Although, they attempt to keep it on the down low, Kena and Ziki’s exuberance can hardly be contained. As dangerous as such a liaison already is, its degree of difficulty is compounded by the fact that the girls’ fathers are campaigning for the same political office. Their mothers have different, more traditional goals in mind for their daughters. For their part, Kena and Ziki only want to sprout wings and fly away to somewhere where their love might flourish, along with their dreams. When they’re discovered, all of their options disappear in an instant, and things turn ugly fast. This is especially true for Kena  who had fewer choices all along. Rafiki was banned outright by Kenyan censors for its positive portrayal of lesbian romance. Pressure from people who caught it on the festival circuit, led to the government reluctantly opening a seven-day distribution window to allow for Oscar consideration. Instead, the nominating committee chose another film to represent the country in the Best Foreign Language races. The window was shut as quickly and emphatically as was opened. The Film Movement package includes a short film about a lesbian couple dealing with joint motherhood.

Shiraz: A Romance of India: Blu-ray
The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 3: Blu-ray
Restorations of nearly century-old silent films have opened a door for a new generation of audiences and filmmakers drawn to classics they may have only read about in books or watched in scratchy 16mm versions. Up until recently, the deterioration of such movies – many in the public domain or hidden in vaults – presented a challenge that wasn’t worth accepting. Cohen Media’s ongoing series of newly upgraded Buster Keaton films from the 1920s provides a perfect example of how great films can be made to look and sound even better than they did upon their original release. Juno Films’ unexpected gem, Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928), not only reminds us of the many forgotten masterpieces that stand to benefit from such brilliant restorations, but also the complete disappearance of thousands of other movies that no one thought mattered. An Indian/British/German co-production, Shiraz was the second of three silent films made on location in India by Munich-born director Franz Osten and Bombay Talkies founder Himansu Rai, who also starred in them. Largely made for consumption in western countries where “oriental”-themed pictures were popular.

Shiraz, The Light of Asia (1926) and A Throw of Dice (1929) draw on historical legends. Even Cecil B. DeMille might have been impressed by Rai’s ability to round up the 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants — provided by the royal houses of Jaipur, Udaipur and Mysore – for The Throw of Dice. Likewise, Shiraz features a huge cast of humans and animals. British screenwriter William A. Burton based the sweeping historical romance, set in the Mughal Empire, on a play by Niranjan Pal. In it, Rai portrays a villager named Shiraz. The son of a potter, he becomes infatuated with a little girl named Selima, who’s brought to his village after her caravan is attacked and everyone else is killed. Unbeknownst to the villagers, Selima (Enakashi Rama Rao) is a princess. Later, she’s kidnapped by bandits and sold as a slave to Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) — later Emperor Shah Jehan – who falls for her. This doesn’t sit well with his lover, Dalia (Seeta Devi), who conspires to ruin her every hope for happiness and freedom. In one unforgettable scene, Shiraz is arrested while seeking news of Selima’s well-being in the women’s quarters of the emperor’s place. The young man comes within a inch of being squashed by a gigantic elephant, before one of Jehan’s aides recognizes a pendant worn by Selima that authenticates her royal status and overrides the execution order. She marries the prince and becomes Empress Mumtaz Mahal, while Dalia is banned for her machinations against Selima. Although, Shiraz is also told not to return to the palace, he’s never far away from her. When Selima dies, in 1629, the emperor demands of his realm’s greatest architects and artisans that they present designs for a memorial to her goodness and his love. Inspired by feelings of love and loss, the now nearly blind Shiraz carves a model of what will become the Taj Mahal, where Selima will eventually be interred, alongside her husband. Its construction will take 10 years and become one of the world’s most admired buildings. Shiraz: A Romance of India can be enjoyed as an overtly melodramatic tribute to the triumph of love over jealousy and tyranny or as an epic built on a foundation of dubious history and lore. Either way, it’s difficult not to be moved by Shiraz: A Romance of India. Adding to the enjoyment is a new and brilliantly evocative musical score by Anoushka Shankar, Ravi’s daughter and Norah Jones’ half-sister. Shankar utilizes everything from ethnic instruments — lots of tablas — to Moog synthesizers. It’s worth the price of a rental, alone.

While we’re in the temporal neighborhood, fans of great silent movies will be happy to learn that Volume 3 of Cohen Media’s  Buster Keaton Collection has been cleared for a landing, on Tuesday. Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926) may not have been rated among the Great Stoneface’s triumphs at the time of their release, but critics were weighing them against some of the greatest comedies of all time, including Keaton’s best work. The set pieces in both films, at least, have stood the test of time as well as anything in The General (1926) or Sherlock Jr. (1924) and continue to be referenced by filmmakers today. In Seven Chances, Keaton plays a struggling businessman, James Shannon, who stands to inherit $7 million from his grandfather, on the condition he gets married before he turns 27, and the church bells toll 7 p.m. He’s already been turned down by his first choice, but that was before the inheritance came into play. Almost all of Seven Chances is consumed by a wonderfully elaborate chase sequence, which begins slowly when Shannon searches for the other seven women on his list. When his dilemma is mentioned in a newspaper story, the number of self-anointed candidates expands exponentially, to 500. They chase him through the streets of a very rural looking Los Angeles, narrowly escaping disaster at every corner. The climax comes when he arrives at a hilly part of town, where he’s outrun his pursuers, but still must contend with dozens of rocks and boulders dislodged in his dash to the church. Battling Butler can easily be summarized as, “a love-struck weakling must pretend to be boxer in order to gain respect from the family of the girl he loves.” Alfred’s father has ordered him to take a trip to the mountains, where he can breathe fresh air, hunt, fish and generally get in manly shape. His idea of roughing it, though, involves loading a trailer with luxury items and bringing along his valet (Snitz Edwards). Alfred finds himself attracted to Mountain Girl (Sally O’Neil), whose overprotective brothers and father aren’t impressed by him. It isn’t until they confuse Keaton’s milquetoast millionaire Alfred Butler with champion boxer Alfred “Battling” Butler (Francis McDonald) that he begins to notice a cloud of doom looming on the horizon. Coincidentally, the two Butlers cross paths in the same backwoods Kentucky town. Unwisely, Alfred agrees to meet Battling Butler, again, in the ring at Madison Square Garden. Keaton’s idea of training is turning around at the one-mile mark of a 10-mile jog and cutting corners wherever he can find one. The battle to impress Mountain Girl is full of wonderful surprises, as well. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Buster Keaton: The Daredevil.”

Anti-Nowhere League: We Are the League
The Beatles: Made on Merseyside
Based on what’s revealed in the rockumentary, Nowhere League: We Are the League, it’s possible that Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer were inspired to make This Is Spinal Tap (1984 ) by the English hardcore punk band, Anti-Nowhere League. Formed on a whim in 1979, the League was comprised of lead singer Animal (Nick Culmer), a biker; guitarist Magoo (Chris Exall), a skinhead; Bones (Tony Shaw), a grammar-school boy, on drums; and Persian exile Chris Elvy on bass. Their musical proficiency was roughly that of the Ramones at the same time. It was a Queens garage band that relied on four chords to maintain a torrid tempo, and songs that weren’t much longer than two minutes. After a slow start commercially, the Ramones caught a fair number of breaks, including becoming the de facto house band of CBGB’s and appearing in Roger Corman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. The League, which isn’t likely to follow the Ramones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had even less instrumental expertise behind its anarchic vocals. Because hardcore punk and metal were giving way to power pop, however, the members found a ready audience as an opening act for the Damned. This included an ability to mix antisocial lyrics with extremely loud guitars and a we-don’t-give-a-shit persona. That they really didn’t give a shit is one of the key points made in Cleopatra’s high-volume rockumentary Anti-Nowhere League: We Are the League, which is as watchable for its Spinal Tap-like anecdotes as repeat recitations of its hits, “So What?,” “Streets of London” and “I Hate … People.” Like most such  ensembles, the turnover in personnel always threatened the band’s existence. The replacement musicians interviewed here were cut from the same cloth, though. Another highlight comes, in 1992. when Animal joins Metallica on the Wembley Arena stage for a killer rendition of “So What?,” which it covered. The film, directed by George Hencken, features cameos by Stewart Copeland and Rat Scabies. The two-disc package adds extended interviews.

The story of how the Beatles made the musical leaps from dreary post-war Liverpool, to the bustling bars in Hamburg’s red-light district, and back again to the home of the Mersey Sound, where fame awaited them. The Beatles: Made on Merseyside recounts how the Fab Four (or Five) parlayed a passion for American rock ’n’ roll and R&B into a band that shocked the world with its original songs and albums (none of which are heard here). It’s a familiar story, sweetened with fresh contributions from the “fifth Beatle,” Pete Best; Quarrymen Colin Hanton and Len Garry; Brian Epstein’s business associate, Joe Flannery; the Beatles’ first secretary, Freda Kelly; original Merseybeat magazine owner Bill Harry; and flatmates of John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. Naturally, there’s a stop along the way at the Cavern Club.

Damned Summer
If I had the time and inclination to re-watch Pedro Cabeleira’s inarguably intoxicating Damned Summer, it’s possible that I might find a sign-of-the-times story with a discernible beginning, middle and end. Probably not, though. As near as I can tell, it’s a slice-of-life depiction of young adults in Lisbon, waiting for jobs to appear out of thin air, but, until that happens, have enough drugs to keep them going until fall. The protagonist here is a handsome young philosophy major, Chico (Pedro Marujo), who, when we meet him, is visiting his grandparents in the boonies. There’s a discussion about the state of this season’s lemon crop, but the scene mostly exists to establish the character’s rural roots. On the way back to the capital, Chico and his more responsible brother engage in some horseplay under a gigantic wind turbine, It ends when the wrestling threatens to tarnish the brother’s uniform. The wind turbine probably is intended to represent Portugal’s transition from an agrarian economy to one dominated by urban-based industries. By all outward appearances, the clean-cut Chico is as responsible his brother. He has a job interview scheduled for the next day and probably thinks a degree in philosophy might lead to something fulfilling, besides slinging hamburgers or attending graduate school to study something useful. Looks are deceiving, however. Chico is one of several young people we appear content to hang out in public spaces and chat with friends about what they should be doing, instead of smoking pot. (Marijuana has long been decriminalized in Portugal, while the possession of stronger drugs will get the offender a ticket.) Nights are reserved for more communal activities in apartments of some of the same friends and lofts. Prominent among them are the nightly parties in makeshift dancehalls, where Chico and his uniformly attractive friends play musical partners, dance to electronic trance music and do E, cocaine and molly until the cows come home. Unless I missed something, that’s it. By comparison, Roger Corman and Jack Nicholson’s similarly hallucinogenic  The Trip (1967) is Citizen Kane. That isn’t to say, however, that Damned Summer is dull or without purpose,  because, like the music, the overall vibe can be hypnotic. The movie will appeal to people drawn to raves and vacations on Ibiza. The message here, if any, boils down to; have fun while you’re young, unemployed and don’t need more than an hour or two of activity to bounce back from a hangover. I can’t argue with that.

The Other Side of Everything
One needn’t have a post-graduate degree in modern European history to fully appreciate Serbian filmmaker Mila Turajlic’s compelling documentary, The Other Side of Everything. A  bachelor’s degree and familiarity with the events that led to the Yugoslav Wars, from 1991 to 2001, should suffice. At once a homage to her mother – Belgrade-based academic and political activist Srbijanka Turajlić – and an exploration of how 100 years of political dysfunction and toxic nationalism have torn a country and its inhabitants into shreds. The movie opens with a question of identity. Before the civil war, many of the people we meet here considered themselves to be Yugoslavian and colored only by the various shades of red in the spectrum of communist and socialist beliefs. Within only a few years, however, we watch as census takers begin to ask pointed questions relating to a citizen’s ethnic background, religion, political leanings and travels outside Serbia. After the country’s breakup into individual republics, Turajlić became a vocal critic of Slobodan Milošević’s nationalist policies and repression of intellectuals, labor unions and students. While her friends voice different opinions on the validity of going to war to keep the country from splitting apart, Turajlić’s focus is on bringing democracy to Serbia. “Other Side” also recalls the impact of sanctions imposed on the republic by western governments and the 1999 bombing campaign by NATO forces to destroy Serbian infrastructure and prop up a pro-Albania government in Kosovo, led by the guerrilla paramilitary group KLA. (Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008.) After presidential elections in September 2000, opposition parties accused Milošević of electoral fraud. A campaign of civil resistance followed, led by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), a broad coalition of anti-Milošević parties. Turajlić recalls the optimism that quickly rose when a half-million people from around the country congregated in Belgrade, a month later, compelling Milošević to concede. Her dissatisfaction with the new government echoes the lyrics to the Who anthem, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” A parallel throughline in the film explains the title, The Other Side of Everything. After World War II, apartments belonging the people deemed “bourgeoise” were subdivided to allow several families to live in a space just big enough for one. Early on, Mila Turajlić asks her mother what’s behind a door that’s remained locked for as long as anyone can remember. When the door’s seal is finally cracked, the hidden room and the documentary, itself, reveal little more than a house and a country haunted by history. The parallels between Turajlić and her friends’ feelings of hopelessness, throughout the film, will remind some American viewers of their deepening concerns over the possibility of a second Trump administration.

The Whirlpool
After spending most of the last seven years in limbo, IndiePix’s The Whirlpool is being given a chance to find an audience on DVD and its subscription service. Apparently, the company has given up any thoughts of releasing its 2015 acquisition into theaters and is willing to take what it can get for it. Don’t bother looking for a review on the Internet, though, because all you’ll find is the same boilerplate description, repeated over and over, again. Primarily set in and around Niagara Falls, N.Y. – there’s even a stop at the infamously toxic Love Canal site – it features two French-speaking strangers who meet at the onetime Honeymoon Capital of America and, after some non-stop sex, will take their time returning to Boston’s Logan International Airport. Blond chain-smoking Agathe (Agathe Feoux) has come to the falls for no other reason than she’s heard it’s an interesting place to kill time –which it is — and its’s closer to France than the Grand Canyon. While standing on a ledge overlooking the falls, puffing away in the face of nature’s grandeur, Agathe is  approached by a fellow chain-smoker: the young, heavily accented Victor (Pierre Perrier), who, when he deigns to remove his shades, resembles Donny Osmond. After some idle chitchat, Agathe invites Victor to crash in her bare-bones motel room and devour her body … which he does. On the drive to Logan, the couple makes an inexplicable stop at a tidy home, overlooking a river, that once belonged to his father. They spend a couple of days there smoking, having sex and wearing clothes left behind by his father. It takes a while to learn that Agathe supports herself by trading sex with her therapist for prescription drugs, which she then sells to yuppies in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Viewers are encouraged to believe that Victor moved to Paris after the death of his parents, although it doesn’t explain the full-blown accent. Or, maybe, I just missed something. Maybe Victor will follow Agathe to Paris and maybe he won’t. That’s all there to this 80-minute throwback to experimental films of the 1960-70s, when such spontaneous hookups weren’t uncommon. The best thing in The Whirlpool is Claudia Carty’s spooky musical score, which doesn’t always jibe with what’s happening on the screen, but triggers emotional responses on its own,   would have worked better in a movie with characters whose sole virtue is in their boobs and bums. It definitely helps camouflage the increasing dullness of the sex, between a pair of increasingly dull, if beautiful people. It came as no surprise to learn that writer/director Alvin Case threw out his original script; abandoned the Mojave Desert idea for Upstate New York; added a male protagonist; and told the actors to improvise their lines, without rehearsals. It shows. The DVD adds interviews with Feoux and Perrier.

PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Creepy Creatures
In this 74-minute compilation of “Wild Kratts” episodes, the gang isn’t sure what to do for Halloween. (I know what you’re saying, what happened to Labor Day?) Should they go trick-or-treating or simply enjoy a Halloween party? The Kratt Brothers decide that the best thing to do is discover some new holiday-appropriate creatures. But when they set off to find new cool and creepy friends, Martin and Chris discover that Zach and the other villains have come up with a plan to ruin Halloween.

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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