MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Country Music, Cassandro, Hana & Alice, Hesburgh, Bottom of 9th, Chicago Cab, Socrates, Intimacy, Noir Archive III, In the Aisles, Midsomer … More

PBS:  Country Music: Blu-ray
Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me: Blu-ray
Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am?: Blu-ray
Viewers whose VCRs are on the fritz or are too impatient to wait for each new episode in Ken Burns’ 16-hour “Country Music,” now showing on PBS affiliates, should know that it’s already available on Blu-ray. The wonderfully nostalgic, exhaustively researched, historically relevant and brilliantly produced series is broken into eight episodes, representing overlapping periods in the evolution of the genre, seminal influences and, simultaneously, the importance of Nashville in its growth. That doesn’t mean that Burns and his crew remain landlocked in central Tennessee. It makes as many stops along the long and winding road as the musicians themselves, on their way to fame on tour. Burns opens in the 1920s and ends in 1986, leaving himself plenty of room to inspect the mileage of the genre, which began with performances in fields and on front porches and ended up in football stadiums. The overriding point Burns makes throughout the series is how great a role blues and gospel musicians have played in each stage of country music’s development. You simply couldn’t have had one without the others. Burns also puts a tight focus on such emblematic artists as Fiddlin’ John Carson, producer/publisher Ralph Peer, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, writers Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks. Among the 100-plus people interviewed are Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, Garth Brooks, Brenda Lee, Ronnie Milsap, Roy Clark, Hank Williams Jr., Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill, Rhiannon Giddens, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. They supply anecdotes, recollections, gossip, some music and perspective. To the surprise of no one, Peter Coyote returns to Burns’ camp as narrator, for at least the seventh time. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews and “Behind the Scenes at Florentine Films,” in which viewers are invited to the New Hampshire compound owned by Ken Burns, who explores the incredible labor required to assemble his documentaries.

Two other new documentaries about music and musicians are available via MVD Visual, on Blu-ray. Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me relates the inspirational story of beloved R&B singer, Teddy Pendergrass. He was poised to be the biggest R&B artist of all time until the tragic accident that changed his life forever. In 1982, at the age of 31, a car accident left him paralyzed. At the time, Teddy was the first African American male to record five consecutive platinum albums. He later made a triumphant comeback in front of a global audience of 1.9 billion viewers at Live Aid. The doc features interviews with his family, friends and colleagues, alongside industry legends, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff; rarely seen archive footage; and a soulful soundtrack. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes.

Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am? reveals a side of the Big Man largely unknown to fans of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. In the wake of the group’s marathon “Rising Tour,” in 2003, Clemons felt as if he needed a break. So, he packed up his saxophone and journeyed to China, where he could be more or less a nameless traveler in a foreign land. Following him was director, friend and photographer Nick Mead, who documented his transcendent awakening overseas. Once Clarence had returned to the States, Mead decided to keep the cameras rolling, which is when tragedy struck. While in Florida, Clemons suffered a stroke and passed away. The Blu-ray highlights the life of the E Street band member, while also showcasing the spiritual side not many saw when he was away from stage lights. It also features interviews with former President Bill Clinton, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, Jake Clemons, former band mates, friends, and close family members.

Cassandro, the Exotico!
On the cover of French documentarian Maria Losier’s  Guggenheim Award-financed Cassandro, the Exotico!, her colorfully adorned subject strikes a pose that will be familiar to anyone who loves professional wrestling and knows even a little bit about its history. It should remind them of Gorgeous George, a superb athlete, who excelled in the ring as a professional wrestler and, more importantly, perhaps, as a showman. Known as the “Human Orchid,” his persona was created in part by growing his hair long, dyeing it platinum blond and putting gold-plated bobby pins in it. (He called them “Georgie Pins” and distributed facsimiles to the audience.). Not only did George Raymond Wagner influence such great entertainers and athletes as Little Richard, James Brown, Elton John, Muhammad Ali, Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and lucha libre superstar Cassandro, but also, along with Liberace, he helped television emerge as a popular medium. As far as the record shows, George was a straight man, married to two women for most of his life and with one biological son and two adopted children. (His first wife, Betty Hanson, recalled their in-ring marriage, in 1939, and the several times it was re-enacted, for show.) He portrayed himself as a cowardly “heel,” who used all the tricks in the book to antagonize the crowd and sell tickets and televisions. Sensing that George’s unsuppressed flamboyance and faux effeminate persona would corrupt millions of red-blooded American men and boys, the medium’s newly created production code forbade any inference that gay entertainers and showmen actually participated in sexual acts. It might explain why Liberace remained closeted throughout his career and even flirted with the idea of marrying Las Vegas dancer, JoAnn Del Rio. Lee even went so far as to “date” and be photographed in the company of Susan Hayward, Gale Storm, Rosemary Clooney, Mae West, Judy Garland and close friend, Sonja Henie, who testified in his victorious libel suit against a London newspaper. While his attempts to be a leading man in the movies failed, his concert appearances remained extremely lucrative for him. (My grandmother loved him.)

Liberace’s affiliation with professional wrestling and boxing probably was limited to being named timekeeper at the first WrestleMania … and being photographed alongside Hogan and Ali in a publicity photo. Besides their ethnic backgrounds, El Paso-born Saúl Armendáriz (a.k.a., Cassandro, Mister Romano) and Gorgeous George differ in one significant way: the former is openly gay, and he doesn’t care who knows it. In 1988, Saul abandoned the gladiator-themed rudo (villain) persona of Mister Romano and took on a new exótico character, Baby Sharon. Exóticos are male wrestlers who dress in drag, portraying gay caricatures. While at the time, at least, most exóticos were straight, Sharon/Armendáriz was gay. Before he settled on Cassandro, he wrestled unmasked and in drag as Rosa Salvaje (“Wild Rose”). Like many other professional wrestlers, the 5-foot-5½ grappler’s career was affected by serious ring-related injuries, politics associated with who’s in line for championship bouts, homophobic promoters and an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Through spiritualism, he finally found sobriety on June 4, 2003, a date, which is tattooed on his back. Cassandro is roughly divided into three parts: the fighters’ daily ablutions; the intensely physical matches; and the difficult realization that he isn’t getting any younger or more resilient to pain. His makeup table is filled with enough cosmetic products, maintenance utensils and mirrors to keep an army of supermodels supplied throughout the New York, Paris and London fashion weeks. Losier also follows Cassandra around to family gatherings; behind the-scenes at matches in northern Mexico, Texas and England, where lucha libre is surprisingly popular; and teaching wrestling to the next generation of masked marvels.

The Case of Hana & Alice: Blu-ray
In the 45 years since The Godfather II established the prequel/sequel as a legitimate avenue for artistic expression and the art of storytelling, a week hardly goes by when a new installment in a popular series arrives in theaters or DVD. The subgenre can be traced back to the silent era, when Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920) expanded on the legend introduced in Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s now-lost, The Golem (1915). Arthur D. Howden Smith was authorized by Robert Louis Stevenson’s executor to write Porto Bello Gold (1924), a prequel to Maurice Tourneur’s Treasure Island (1920). Now considered to be lost, as well, it was the fourth of five such silent adaptations. Even before Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone/Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) were accepted by Westerns purists here as legit, United Artists green-lit a prequel, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), adding an air of respectability to Spaghetti Westerns. In Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather II, the interwoven prequel helped advance the events dramatized in the sequel sequences. The movie in question here, The Case of Hana & Alice (2015) is distinguished by writer/director Shunji Iwai’s decision to animate the prequel to his live-action hit Hana & Alice (2004) – based on his series of short stories for teen readers – and release it more than a decade later. Iwai’s list of credits already included the widely acclaimed All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), April Story (1998), Love Letter (1995) and Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (1995), which began its life as a live-action teleplay (1993), was released theatrically in 1995 and animated in 2017.

Unlike that version of “Fireworks,” The Case of Hana & Alice (a.k.a., “The Murder Case of Hana & Alice”) relies less on anime than good-old-fashioned rotoscoping, used by animators to trace over motion-picture footage, frame by frame, to produce realistic action. No less remarkable was Iwai’s ability to recast actors from the original for the prequel, without revealing the 11-year difference in their ages. After the breakup of her parents’ marriage, 14-year-old Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yū Aoi) moves to a new city with her youthful looking mother (Shoko Aida) and transfers to a middle school. Her new home in the boonies, as her mother describes it, is situated next-door to a reclusive classmate, Hana Arai. In school, Alice is bullied by students who know that the seat she’s been assigned once belonged to Kotaro Yuda, nicknamed “Judas,” who disappeared a year earlier and is believed to be a murder victim. Her undusted desk sits above letters the boy supposedly carved into the floor and portend evil for anyone who occupies the space. After an elaborately costumed student, Mutsu Mutsumi (Ranran Suzuki) accuses her of releasing the evil spirit, he leads the class in an elaborate ceremony to reseal it. Alice is told that Hana may know the missing student’s fate, but she hasn’t been unable to bring herself to attend class since “Judas” disappeared. The girls are natural opposites, who attract to investigate the case, which turns out not to be as mysterious as it appears to be, if no less entertaining and full of surprises. Newcomers to the movie/literary franchise won’t be penalized for starting with the prequel and moving backwards toward the future in Hana & Alice and the books. The Blu-ray bonus package adds interviews with voice actors Aoi and Suzuki, and Iwai; a film-completion press conference; stage greeting at the premiere; and a message from animator Makoto Shinkai.

Anyone who wants to know the difference between a man who woulda/coulda/shoulda been president and the evil clown currently occupying the Oval Office really should check out Patrick Creadon’s Hesburgh. Instead of answering the call of friends and political cronies, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh followed the call that drew him to the priesthood in his teens. By the time he reached the ripe old age of 35, Father Ted was named president of the University of Notre Dame. He held the post for the next 35 years. His first goal was to upgrade the university’s image from “football school” to world-class institution of learning. (He later would oversee ND’s transformation to a coeducational institution.) At the same time, Father Ted couldn’t help but confront the great issues of his time: nuclear proliferation, race relations, immigration, Third World development, poverty and the war in Vietnam. When he was called upon by several U.S. president to serve his country on commissions and study groups  – while also serving his faith at Notre Dame – he declared his independence from partisan politics, just as he held interference from Vatican bureaucrats at arm’s length. Although Hesburgh proved himself adept at bringing Democrats and Republicans together on the contentious U.S. Civil Rights Commission, its findings were ignored by presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon, strictly for reasons based on political expediency. His greatest challenge may have come in his own back yard, in the late-1960s and early-1970s, when student activists demanded that he use his influence to push for an end to the Vietnam War. Nixon congratulated him for his tough stand against student strikes and protests, but Hesburgh disappointed the president by refusing to endorse legislation designed to punish protesters. Instead, he pushed for an acceleration in the removal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and Cambodia, while encouraging students to channel their anger through non-violent activism.

In 1969, after some of Notre Dame’s African American students criticized the low number of blacks enrolled at the university – and working in menial jobs for low pay — Hesburgh appointed a student-faculty committee to assess the issue. The committee’s findings caused him to take immediate measures to increase minority employment and aggressively recruit minority students. Hesburgh also persuaded the university’s trustees to lift their forty-year ban on participation in postseason football games and use revenues generated from Notre Dame’s bowl game appearances to fund minority scholarships. Even after his retirement in 1987, Father Ted remained active in various ways, including returning to the university to write his autobiography. In 2009, he supported the school’s invitation to President Barack Obama to speak at commencement exercise, which was controversial because of his strong endorsement of pro-choice legislation. Hesburgh died on February 26, 2015, at the age of 97. His funeral attracted a wide array of dignitaries, including politicians from both sides of the aisle, former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, a pair of Roman Catholic cardinals, former football coach Lou Holtz and the current vice president of the U.S., Mike Pence. Even more impressive, perhaps, was the cordon of students that lined the path to the school’s private cemetery. Hesburgh’s lifetime commitment to faith, humanitarian causes, racial equality and peace provided a prime example for three generations of politicians to follow. Precious few of them have elected to do so. The DVD adds anecdotes that didn’t fit the 106-minute film.

Chicago Cab
First staged in 1992, at Chicago’s fondly remembered Ivanhoe Theater, “Hellcab” is one of those plays that perfectly captured a slice of Windy City life and characters that locals loved but who didn’t always translate well in other urban centers. When, in 1981, the Organic Theater’s long-running “Bleacher Bums” was set to open in San Francisco, the producers hired eternal Cubs fan Jerry “The Bleacher Preacher” Pritikin as a paid consultant to coach the cast on Chicago fan vernacular and proper fan behavior. Now that Wrigley Field has been completely gentrified and the Cubs are a winning team, the same nearly empty bleachers are filled daily with yuppies; seating is assigned; tickets for big games cost a small fortune; and the characters immortalized in the play are strictly discouraged from being colorful. While they’re barely recognizable today, the actors who portrayed them in the 1970s include such then-unfamiliar faces as Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Dennis Farina, Gary Sandy, Keith Szarabajka, William Daniels, Stuart Gordon, George Wendt and Ian Patrick Williams. Like “The Vagina Monologues,” after it, “Hellcab” featured a rotating cast of Chicago actors, playing passengers in the cab of an unnamed taxi driver (Paul Dillon) over the course of one day and night in the city: December 24. Each new actor spun their character or characters’ dialogue and attitudes toward life a bit differently. (The cast ranged from 8 to as many as 30 characters, depending on the production’s budget.) The date is significant for several reasons, among them the passengers’ need for temporary shelter on a typically frigid day; the impact of the holiday on believers and non-believers, alike; and the feeling of loneliness and desperation that is shared by anyone forced to work on Christmas Eve or be out in the cold for reasons of their own.

On this particular December 24, beginning at the cabbie’s starting time of 6 a.m., it’s 20 degrees below zero. In the next 14 hours, the driver will pick up fares from parts of the city considered to be  “good” and “bad” – based primarily on one’s ability to avoid being robbed or killed – including a depressed rape victim, rabid crack heads, a pair of  hot and horny lawyers, a drug runner, a Gold Coast MILF willing to tip the driver with sex and a pregnant woman in urgent need of an emergency room. Chicago Cab (1997) was directly adapted from former cabbie Will Kern’s play by directors by Mary Cybulski and John Tintori. Apparently, the film’s prospects were hobbled by a marketing campaign that made it seem as if it was a horror movie. In Dillon’s signature portrayal, the driver loses his ability to remain objective and noncommittal toward his passengers about six hours into the shift. If Kern had wanted to rewrite Hellfire as a horror picture, all he would have had to do was turn the driver into a satanic messenger, with a ravenous appetite and ability to spare the passengers who already are living in their own personal hells. Among the actors giving cameo appearances are Gillian Anderson, John Cusack, Laurie Metcalf, Julianne Moore, Reggie Hayes, John C. Reilly, Michael Shannon, Moira Harris Sinise, Michael Ironside, Tracy Letts, Shulie Cowen and Reggie Hayes. People who love Chicago will appreciate the cabbie’s-eye tour of the city, which clearly wasn’t limited to the usual locations.

Bottom of the 9th
If anyone wanted to produce a biopic about former Major League slugger Jose Canseco – and I doubt there’s much demand for one — Joe Manganiello would be the natural candidate to play the lead. They’re about the same size and look as if they could be brothers. Moreover, in Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th, he fits the role of a former baseball player in need of redemption to a T. Joe’s real-life wife, Sofía Vergara, seems comfortable, as well, playing the girl Sonny Stano  gave up when he was sent up the river, to Sing Sing. He caused the accidental death of a Bronx punk, who threw a drink that struck his car’s windshield. After he beat the crap out of a prisoner, who attempted to bean him in a pickup game, his 6-year beef was raised to 16. Before that happened, Sonny had signed to play for the Yankees, but by the time he was released, that dream was dashed. Although Angela Ramirez stopped waiting for his release at about the same time as Sonny lost his temper a second time, she isn’t unhappy to see him, again. The same can’t be said for her cop cousin, who warns the parolee against breaking her heart, again, and the revenge-minded brother of the guy he killed. When Sonny’s ready to give up his job at a friend’s fish marketa, he runs into his old coach, Hannis (Michael Rispoli), and the scout who signed him (Burt Young). Hannis offers him a job as his assistant with a minor league team in Staten Island. It will demonstrate to him just how much the game and players have changed over the last 16 years. Maybe you can guess, by now, how the rest of Bottom of the 9th plays out. The thing is, though, De Felitta (City Island) knows his way around the boroughs and finds ways to keep the movie fresh. Manganiello and Vergara aren’t required to add any beefcake or cheesecake to the proceedings and producer William Chartoff has proven adept at turning out human reclamation projects in Rocky Balboa (2006) and Creed (2015). With the Yankees already in the playoffs, Bottom of the 9th is a pleasant way to kill time before the post-season begins. The DVD includes a behind-the-scenes featurette with Manganiello and Vergara.

Noir Archive Volume 3: 1957-1960: Blu-ray
The period, 1957-1960, didn’t produce many noir classics, if only because audiences clamored for movies released in Technicolor, Cinemascope and other advanced technologies. Neither are the titles available in “Noir Archive Volume 3: 1957-1960” definitively noir. What differentiates this collection from previous sets is a topicality that foreshadows the lowering of the Iron Curtain, the “scourge” of illegal drugs and easy access to foreign countries, thanks to the general acceptance and affordability of jetliners. Among the selections in this, the final three-disc, nine-film compilation are Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959), which deals frankly with mid-century race relations, specifically those involving Asian-American men and Caucasian women; Don Siegel and Stirling Silliphant’s The Lineup (1958), in which a psychopathic gangster and his mentor retrieve heroin packages carried by unsuspecting travelers disembarking in San Francisco; Ken Hughes’ The Long Haul (1957), in which a former G.I., stationed in Germany, takes a job as long-haul truck driver, in Britain, where he runs into an organized-crime syndicate that controls the industry; William Asher’s The Shadow on the Window (1957), during which three teenagers break into an isolated farmhouse and murder its prosperous owner, whose secretary witnesses the crime and is taken hostage; John Gillings’ Pickup Alley (1957), in which a faceless international narcotics smuggler is trailed through various European countries by a dogged DEA agent; André De Toth’s Man on a String (1960), a twisty Cold War thriller, in which a Russian American secret agent is sent to Berlin to pretend to be a spy for the USSR; Leslie Kardos’ fact-based The Tijuana Story (1957), in which a ruthless Tijuana mob and its influential enablers are threatened with exposure by a crusading newspaper editor; Sidney Gilliat’s She Played with Fire (1957), about an insurance investigator. who runs into a still-beautiful ex-girlfriend, who ropes him into a scheme involving arson, blackmail, and murder; and Paul Wendkos’ also fact-based The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), about corrupt cops, mobsters and a recent police-academy graduate involved, in various ways, with an illegal gambling operation in the borough. Among the noteworthy actors who pop up here are Glenn Corbett, Victoria Shaw, James Shigeta, Ernest Borgnine, Colleen Dewhurst, Philip Carey, Victor Mature (twice), Diana Dors, Anita Ekberg, Trevor Howard, Darren McGavin, Jack Hawkins, Arlene Dahl, James Darren and Jerry Mathers, as a character other than the Beaver. The Kit Parker Films package is enhanced by digital upgrades of the film.

While watching Jiang Yichun’s deeply moving story about two very different young adults in China, dealing with alienation and loneliness in a city teeming with people, I was reminded of John Prine’s poignant ballad, “Donald & Lydia.” Donald is a PFC, confined to life in an army barracks not far from Lydia, who subsists by “making change behind the counter in a penny arcade.” Even if they may never have met, these two lonely souls share similar dreams, however impossible, and a lust to connect with someone … anyone: “The made love in the mountains, they made love in the streams/They made love in the valleys, they made love in their dreams/But, when they were finished, there was nothing to say/’Cause mostly they made love from ten miles away.” Jiang’s feature debut, Intimacy, is set largely in Shanghai, a city of 24 million people that also serves as the commercial, financial, trade and transport center of China. Bin (Xipeng Zhang) hails from Dali, a city of 652,000, whose economy is dependent on tourism and services catering to travelers. Because his mother runs a small business that can hardly support two adults, Bin decides to seek more stable employment in the PRC’s largest metropolitan area. It isn’t much, but the small, white-glove factory to which he’s directed is clean, legitimate and active. Shanghai attracts travelers from greater China and around the world. They’re drawn to the mega-conventions held there, business opportunities and architecture that rivals that in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. Bin’s curiosity is dampened by a man at a viewing site, who attacks him for pointing his cell phone camera in his direction. He’s actually taking a photograph of the cityscape in the background, but the man demands he surrender the camera. Bin returns to his tiny room in an SRO building, with his tail between his legs.

While Qin (Jingxuan Huang) comes from a relatively wealthy family, she does nothing all day, except surf social-media sites, and usually feels depressed for no reason. She, too, is searching for greater meaning in her life, but she limits her access to the outside world to her telephone and nightclubs. While Qin isn’t opposed to hooking up with the guys she meets there, the encounters are quick, sloppy and immediately forgettable. Things get all too real for Qin when, during a flirtatious chatroom exchange, she makes the mistake of revealing her address. The man arrives soon thereafter and begins pounding on her door. He knows she’s inside, because he can hear the ringing of her phone when he calls her from just outside the apartment. Qin isn’t shy, unattractive or a tease. She’s mostly just trolling for something meaningful, while her dad’s away on business. By contrast, Bin is shy, cautious and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. He finds something resembling sexual satisfaction with a demanding young prostitute, who looks as if she would be out of his league financially. Their worlds overlap in seemingly the least consequential of ways, providing Intimacy with a path to a compelling coming-of-age conclusion. If you’ve ever thought of visiting Shanghai, but need a good excuse for doing so, Intimacy might do the trick.

I apologize ahead of time for once again relying on the lyrics of a song to summarize my impressions of a movie that most viewers haven’t seen. This time, it’s from Blind Willie Johnson’s oft-adapted blues standard, first recorded in 1927, “Motherless Children.” It was inspired by a terrible event that followed the death of his mother and his father’s subsequent remarriage. Most of Johnson’s biographers agree that he was blinded at the age of 7, by his stepmother, when his father discovered her infidelity. During the argument, she splashed Willie with a caustic solution of lye, permanently blinding him. Despite the impairment, he went on to write and record “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole,” “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed,” “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” “John the Revelator,” “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” and “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time,” whose opening and closing stanzas include the lines, “Motherless children have a hard time, mother’s dead/They’ll not have anywhere to go, wanderin’ around from door to door/Motherless children have a hard time.” Socrates opens with the title character’s discovery of his mother’s unexpected death, which occurred while sleeping. Already living on the margins of São Paulo, near a garbage-strewn beach, 15-year-old Socrates (Christian Malheiros) attempts to disguise her death, by fulfilling her janitorial duties at the train depot. Although his work in a thankless job is impeccable, his mother’s boss refuses to pay him, unless she shows up, in person, to pick up the check. When the asshole learns that the boy is underage, Socrates is fired. A case worker then warns him that he could be sent to a home for abandoned and disadvantaged youths, unless a guardian agrees to take him in. Socrates doesn’t consider his estranged father to be an option, primarily because he abandoned the family in a violent confrontation with his mother. A cousin refuses to shelter him, as well. By this time, a subtext begins to emerge to explain the boy’s predicament. After being given a temporary job at a construction site, he gets into a fight with a  strangely belligerent co-worker, Maicon (Tales Ordakji), who probably believes he’s being replaced. The storm quickly blows over, however.

It is at approximately this point in the narrative that co-writer/director Alexandre Moratto elects to reveal his hole cards. After being lured to Maicon’s apartment under false pretenses, Socrates surprises us by nuzzling up to the shaggy young man and inviting him to return the show of affection, which he does. Even at 15, Socrates’ approach makes us think that, despite an awkward moment, he’s not only comfortable with his sexuality, but he’s already been around this block a time or two. It also explains almost everything we need to know about his estrangement from remaining family members and the vacuum left behind by the death of his compassionate and nurturing mother. When his promising relationship with Maicon is cruelly abbreviated, and a plea for temporary shelter is rejected, we’re reminded of Johnson’s prophesy, “Motherless children won’t have anywhere to go, wanderin’ around from door to door.” Broke, lonely, famished and still three years from being legally employable, the extremely likeable Socrates turns to alcohol for relief and, for money, sex with strangers. The rest of the movie holds several compelling surprises for Socrates and viewers. Socrates is the debut feature from the 29-year-old Brazilian-American filmmaker, Moratto, who wanted to make a statement about the worldwide epidemic of homelessness among children and teenagers. If anything, he says, the problem is greater in Brazil than the United States and elsewhere. Significantly, too, Socrates is the first feature produced by São Paulo’s innovative Querô Institute, where, with the support of UNICEF, it was co-written, produced, and acted by at-risk teenagers. After the film premiered at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Moratto, whose mother died in 2014, received the Someone to Watch Award at the 2019 Spirit Awards ceremony, in absentia. The wonderfully talented Malheiros was nominated for Best Male Lead – against Joaquin Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, John Cho and Daveed Diggs – as was the ensemble cast for the John Cassavetes Award. The extras include a Q&A at the Out at the Movies Festival and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

In the Aisles
At first, second and third glance, Thomas Stuber and co-writer Clemens Meyer’s bittersweet dramedy, In the Aisles, could easily be confused with an undiscovered film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre) or an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. The movie shares with Kaurismaki a taste for deadpan sight gags and an interest in the lives of blue-collar  drones … of the honey-producing variety. Franz Rogowski (Transit) plays the almost painfully introverted Christian, who takes a job on the night shift at a big-box superstore, somewhere in Germany. He’s assigned to the beverage department of the cavernous facility, where he’ll learn the ropes of operating a forklift, which isn’t nearly as easy as his dour supervisor, Bruno (Peter Kurth), makes it seem. Christian is the opposite of a quick study, frequently turning a perilously unbalanced load over to his mentor before disaster strikes. Eventually, the two men become friends … or, at least, the workplace equivalent of friends. Anyone who’s worked the graveyard shift can attest to the camaraderie that develops among men and women who labor outside the direct purview of ass-kissing foremen or a curious boss. He absorbs some playful teasing by a charming, if enigmatic co-worker “Sweets Marion” – played by Michelle Williams-lookalike Sandra Huller (Toni Erdmann) – who, you guessed it, toils in the pastry and desserts department. In a different workplace ritual, they often get together during breaks to chat, flirt and drink coffee, without fear of raising eyebrows. Without warning, though, Marion stops coming to work. Bruno, who somehow knows all of the store’s secret, explains that she’s married to a right bastard, who must have sensed she was beginning to enjoy work a tad too much. It causes Christian to go into a tailspin, reverting to bad habits with unsavory friends. Soon enough, however, the pace quickens, and loose ends are tied. The two overriding questions involve the options open to Christian and Marion, and his ability to fill Bruno’s shoes, when and if that becomes necessary. Peter Matjasko’s cinematography and lighting somehow manage to turn a cold and sterile warehouse into a place where everyday laborers and precariously stacked packaged goods co-exist in harmony. Even if it doesn’t work quite that way in real life, the efficiency of shiftwork in German factories and warehouses leaves plenty of room for casual friendships to blossom. The DVD adds interviews, Q&As and making-of featurettes.

Hypnosis to Be Happy
I probably would have gotten more from Victor Audiffred’s perplexing, if beautifully rendered romantic drama, Hypnosis to Be Happy, if the producers had chosen not to put lemon-yellow subtitles on white and yellow backgrounds. (Ingmar Bergman once was notorious for utilizing white-on-white subtitles, as if to piss off non-Swedish audiences.) Even though I have an excellent Samsung television, with a moderately large screen, capable of displaying 4K UHD images, I have no idea what information was shared by the two lonely protagonists, Pilar (Ericka Ramirez) and Felipe (Antón Araiza), in the first 10-15 minutes of the film. However lovely the scenes might be, their meaning was lost to me. I still don’t know, for example, where the Spanish-language movie is set and why these two fine people feel so isolated. I assume they’re in Mexico, but I’ve never seen anything to match the scenery in other films shot there. When the subtitles became legible Felipe and and Pilar – both in their early 40s — appeared to be enjoying dinner in a nice restaurant. (There’s next to nothing about the movie on the Internet.) From what I could gather, they had begun dating casually for a while, probably after taking some hits in previous relationships. At one point, Felipe decides to raise the ante by presenting an engagement ring to Pilar. Stunned by the impertinent gesture, she tells him that she’s just come off a tortuous relationship and wasn’t ready to risk another one. Felipe takes the rejection extremely hard. Even so, he offers to give her a ride home. On the way, they stop at a non-descript, if spacious garage, where he maintains a library of thousands of books and manuscripts, many of them first-offs. Pilar is duly impressed, but things turn dark when he refuses to let her leave the second-floor space that doubles as his bedroom. Even though we fear the worst, when the sun rises the next morning, they hop into a yellow car and head off for points unknown. The route takes them through some spectacularly beautiful and topographically diverse scenery that I’ve never associated with Mexico. It leads them into an agricultural area, with fields of corn stretching to the horizon and a valley dotted with sugarloaf mountains. Another stop requires them to hike into a forest, along a rugged path that leads to a pristine waterfall, pond and river. It’s here that Pilar and Felipe elect to lean against a large tree and watch the river flow. They allow themselves to be hypnotized by the sheer beauty and near-silence of the place. In other movies, they might have realized their love for each other and consummated it on the spot. Here, it comes off as a plug for a book and self-help program, also called “Hypnosis to Be Happy.” The subtitles were no help here, either.

The Kids Table
It wasn’t all that long ago that poker, at the professional level, at least, was said to be on its deathbed. The introduction of hole-card cams provided the impetus for expanded television coverage of the World Series of Poker and subsequent tours, while video poker in casinos and on the Internet introduced the game to millions of new addicts, er, players. The WSOP expanded exponentially, as did the prize money, inclusion of foreign and Internet players, and television coverage. Newspapers added poker columns, to run alongside the traditional bridge replays. Bridge got a bump from Internet competition, but, as far I know, the game has yet to make the transition to television. Edd Benda and Stephen Helstad’s documentary, The Kids Table, describes what happens when four young friends discover the highs and lows of the game, competition and a community where the average age of their opponents was 73. The teenagers didn’t simply jump into competitive bridge feet-first. The game’s far too complicated for that to happen. They’re tutored by experienced players, Brian Reynolds and Samantha Douglas, who keep a watchful eye on them as they move to the tables. Any young people inspired by The Kids Table should check out the website,

Nightwish: Blu-ray
Finished in 1988, but not released until 1990, Bruce R. Cook’s straight-to-video thriller, Nightwish, provides a prime example of VHS-era horror at its most generic. Unearthed Classics has given it a fresh new digital polish from its original camera negative and presents it in a 1:85:1 aspect ratio. Nightwish isn’t a classic – unearthed or otherwise – but it has its moments. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they’re reserved for examples of David P. Barton’s slimy makeup-effects work and the mandatory T&A provided by co-stars Elizabeth Kaitan (Necromancer) and Alisha Das (The Slugger’s Wife). They play graduate students whose demented professor is trying to come up with a way to “narrate” dreams. It allows for Cook to keep viewers on edge by alternating between dream sequences, hallucinations and reality, all of which include elements of horror. This requires the flimsily clad young women to spend time in an immersion tank, connected by electrodes to a gizmo controlled by the professor, whose previous experiments led to him being fired from other institutions. Even knowing this much about the guy’s past, four students accompany him to a remote cabin in the mountains, which is reputed to be haunted. It doesn’t take long for the prof’s true intentions to be revealed, and, while the special makeup effects are pretty good, the other fakery is unconvincing. Commentary is provided by Unearthed Films executives Stephen Biro and Paul White, who add some behind-the-scenes insight into the film and its stars, and a photo gallery is also included.

The Hills Have Eyes: Part 2: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Few movie sequels have been reviled as much as The Hills Have Eyes: Part 2, now available in a “Special Edition” from Arrow Video. It followed by seven years the enthusiastically greeted original, which was inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the legend of Sawney Beane and his family, a feral clan who inhabited and roamed the highlands of Scotland’s East Lothian County, near Edinburgh, in the early 1400s. Before they were captured, tortured, judged insane and summarily executed, on the order of Scotland’s King James, the miscreants tormented and ate several travelers. When, in the movie, the Carter family finally takes revenge on their cannibal adversaries, they become as brutal as their attackers. It helped introduce a subgenre of horror that later would be tagged, “torture porn.” Most of what became The Hills Have Eyes: Part 2 was shot before Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was released, but production was halted due to budget concerns. After “Elm Street” became a hit, VTC convinced Craven to finish Hills Have Eyes Part 2 using only the footage that had already been shot. Since there was not enough for a feature-length film, footage from the original was edited in to pad out the running time. Even though Craven disowned the sequel, he footed most of the blame from critics. In it, a motocross team on its way through the desert to test a new fuel takes an ill-advised shortcut through a nuclear test site. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, Rachel (Janus Blythe) is a survivor of the cannibal clan that menaced the Carter family several years before. She directs the team’s bus to the remnants of her demented kin, including the menacing Pluto (Michael Berryman) and a hulking, blood-hungry brute, The Reaper (John Bloom). James Whitworth and Suze Lanier-Bramlett, among other stars from the original, were added through borrowed material. The highlight for many viewers were flashbacks attributed to the dog in the original. If nothing else, it set the movie’s lighter tone. The new Blu-ray edition includes a new commentary with podcasters from The Hysteria Continues; “Blood, Sand and Fire: The Making of The Hills Have Eyes Part II,” a fresh making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Berryman, Janus Blythe, production designer Dominick Bruno, composer Harry Manfredini and unit production manager/first assistant director John Callas; a stills gallery; lobby cards; a reversible fold-out poster; a limited-edition 40-page booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Amanda Reyes; an archival set visit with Fangoria reps; and reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper.

Mock & Roll
One of the things that made This Is Spinal Tap (1984) such an influential and enduring entertainment was its ability to confound the expectations of viewers who loved heavy-metal music and those who loathed it. That, and the fact that the musical parodies were as good as anything on the Top 40 charts. Because heavy metal lyrics were, at once, indecipherable and irrelevant, the parody was lost on diehard fans, who, nonetheless, were attracted to Spinal Tap because of its self-ordained reputation as “one of England’s loudest bands.” It drew enthusiastic audiences on the road; sold lots of albums; and would frequently turn up on “SNL” and late-night talk shows. It opened the door for dozens of mockumentaries to come, some terrific, like Best in Show (2000) and Fear of a Black Hat (1995), and more than a few parodies that completely missed the mark, such as Ben Bacharach-White’s Mock & Roll, a new DIY spoof on metal bands. It features an Ohio parody band, Liberty Mean, whose targets are limited to rock groups that are unknown outside south-central Ohio, including the Black Owls. The band steals the Black Owls’ music, but rewrites the lyrics for its own purposes. In that regard, the members credit Weird Al Yankovic for inspiration. Liberty Mean’s larger goal is to raise the money needed to attend the South by Southwest Music Festival, with or without an invitation. When a crowd-funding campaign fails miserably, the band turns to crime, which doesn’t work, either. On the plus side, Mock & Roll features special appearances by Roger Earl, of Foghat; reasonably listenable metal music; Cleveland rock legend, Michael Stanley; and Alex Ortiz, the “Boriqua Beast of Comedy.”

Acorn/PBS: Midsomer Murders: John Barnaby’s Top 10
PBS: Tiananmen: The People Versus the PartyPBS: Secrets of the Dead: World War Speed
Nickelodeon: JoJo Siwa: Sweet Celebrations
Nickelodeon: Ready, Race, Rescue
Now that a 21st season of “Midsomer Murders” has been commissioned, it’s a good time to check out the latest DVD collection from the show, which is shown here on Acorn, PBS and Netflix. With a title like “Midsomer Murders: John Barnaby’s Top 10,” the gift set hardly needs any more introduction than that. Located in several small English country villages, the show’s unusual mix of drama, lighthearted whimsy and dark humor has survived several cast changes, including the transition from John Nettles, as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, to Neil Dudgeon, as his younger cousin, DCI John Barnaby. (Nettles retired from the show in 2011.) The show is based on Caroline Graham’s “Chief Inspector Barnaby” book series, as originally adapted for television by Anthony Horowitz. Dudgeon has selected 10 out of 120 episodes for inclusion in the specially designed package, which adds witty and revealing anecdotes about the series’ production. Affable and amusing, Dudgeon introduces each mystery, sharing behind-the-scenes stories and favorite memories that explain his selections and provide a window into the on-set antics. His choices pinpoint such highlights as Funniest Moment, Favorite Storyline, Best Costumes and Unlikeliest Murder Weapon. Also included is the hour-long documentary, “20 Things to Do in Midsomer … Before You Die,” presented by Nettles.

On June 4, 1989 the world’s biggest, longest and most famous pro-democracy demonstration was brought to a tragic end. The images from those final bloody days have, ever since, been impossible to forget, especially the images of a young refusing to make room for a cordon of tanks to pass. The still disputed death-toll totals range from the official Chinese-government figure of 300 to estimates as high as 15,000. “Tiananmen: The People Versus the Party” recalls the gripping narrative of the seven-week period in which the whole future of China rested and where, at various crucial turning points, the final tragic outcome could have been avoided. These key moments unfold over two hours, in a story told with the drama and pace of a political thriller. Never-before-seen Chinese television footage and exclusive interviews with key insiders — from protest leaders and students, to government officials — reveal the scale of the 1989 protest, its aims, the military crackdown and its aftermath.

It’s long been known that German soldiers used a methamphetamine called Pervitin in the World War II, to sharpen their senses and drive them toward unthinkable carnage and atrocities. Indeed, PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead: World War Speed” was preceded on DVD this year by AcornTV’s “Blitzed: Nazis on Drugs” and Film Movement’s “Nazi Junkies,” based on Norman Ohler’s research. The History Channel’s “High Hitler” was released on DVD in 2010. The PBS series argues that tales of Nazis on speed – and Japanese troops, for that matter — obscured the other side of the story: the massive use of stimulants by British and American troops. Did total war unleash the world’s first pharmacological arms race, which continues today with the popularity of crystal meth? Historian James Holland searches for the truth behind a coverup designed to paint Axis fighters and leaders as dope fiends and the Allies as untarnished heroes.

Sixteen-year-old Joelle Joanie “JoJo” Siwa is an American dancer, singer, actress and YouTube personality, familiar to fans of “Dance Moms” and single records “Boomerang” and “Kid in a Candy Store.” JoJo signed with Nickelodeon in 2017 and has since appeared on the network’s “Make It Pop,” “The Thundermans,” “Lip Sync Battle Shorties,” “School of Rock,” “SpongeBob’s Big Birthday,” “All That,” feature films “Blurt” and “SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout,” and Disney Channel’s “Bizaardvark.” Her visual trademark comes from wearing large, colorful bows in her hair. It turned into a successful business venture for her. “Jojo Siwa: Sweet Celebrations” contains “The Jojo Siwa Special: Jojo’s Dream Birthday,” and a half-dozen episodes of “The Jojo & Bowbow Show.”

For reasons known only to Nickelodeon, Walmart is the exclusive retail outlet for “PAW Patrol: Ready, Race, Rescue.” It’s probably because it will be released in theaters next month and Nickelodeon doesn’t want to dilute the potential audience. In advance of the Adventure Bay 500, the pups have built a racetrack and are ready to serve as the pit crew for their hero, the Whoosh. When the legendary driver is unable to drive in the championship race, he calls on his biggest fan, Marshall, to replace him and take on his dastardly rival, the Cheetah.

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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