MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Rocketman, Last Black Man, Tasteless, Pixelia, Cruising, Handkerchiefs, Kiarostami, Ozu, More Manson, Planets, Straight Forward … More

Rocketman: Blu-ray
Based on what we’ve seen already this year, it’s possible that the Academy Award for Best Lead Actor might go to Taron Egerton, whose entirely credible portrayal of Elton John, in Rocketman, should remind voters of Rami Malek’s exciting impersonation of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Most of the awards-bait movies have yet to be screened for the influencers who gather each year at the Toronto International Film Festival. So, it’s more of a hunch than an educated guess, and Egerton certainly deserves consideration.  If things do work out that way, it would heighten expectations for Johnny Flynn, who, in Gabriel Range’s still-in-production Stardust, plays David Bowie on his first visit to the U.S. in 1971. A possible three-peat for rock biopics could have the same effect on the Oscar-cast’s slumping ratings as a bona-fide Triple Crown contender has on ratings for the Belmont Stakes. Voters have shown no reluctance to honor actors players playing musicians. Jamie Foxx took home the statuette for Ray (2003); Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall did the same for Crazy Heart (2008) and Tender Mercies (1983), as did Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line (2005); Gary Busey was nominated for The Buddy Holly Story (1978); and, ditto, for Bradley Cooper for A Star Is Born (2018), Laurence Fishburne for What’s Love Got to Do With It (1992) and non-actor Dexter Gordon for Round Midnight (1985). Apparently, Oscar always dreamed about being a singer. This isn’t the same thing as saying that Hollywood studios are comfortable with such subject matter, because they aren’t. It took Rocketman 18 years to reach the big screen, after being aborted by Disney in its developmental stage in the early 2000s. Several studios wanted the picture to be shaped to receive a PG-13 from the ratings board. It was not something executive producer John could abide, and it left the door open for budget issues. Incoming chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, Jim Gianopulos, not only agreed to a budget somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million, but he also became a chief defender of the R-rating and sexual content.

In the past decade, Tom Hardy and Justin Timberlake were both seriously considered for the lead role. When Focus Films passed the baton to Paramount, the studio hired a new producer, Matthew Vaughn, who brought in Egerton – they’d worked together on Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) and Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) – and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott), in the key role of lyricist Bernie Taupin. Dexter Fletcher, who’d just swept up behind Bryan Singer on Bohemian Rhapsody, was in the director’s chair and handed a script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot). In May 2018, Egerton told reporters that the film would be more of a fantasy-musical, as opposed to a straightforward biopic. The distinction gave the filmmakers license to mess around with the chronological order of record releases and performances; revise the cast of the characters; and use an AA meeting as a framing device to introduce the wonderfully choreographed set pieces. (As is wont, John changes costumes in mid-session from a bright red hell-boy outfit, into a drab gray robe, to fit his mood.)  Veteran pop-culture watchers already will be familiar with John’s back story. As a boy, his impressive talent on the piano led to enrollment in Saturday classes to the Royal Academy of Music on a junior scholarship. While he impressed his schoolmates with Jerry Lee Lewis imitations and R&B standards during the week, John amazed his instructor at the academy by listening to a four-page piece by George Frideric Handel once and repeating it like a “gramophone record.” The next several years are compacted to show his commitment to rock ’n’ roll and R&B, playing in a backup band for touring musicians; the effects of a cantankerous homelife; his name change, from Reginald Kenneth Dwight to Elton Hercules John; his early collaborations with Taupin; and struggles to find representation.

Most of the movie’s second half is taken up by his loss of control over his addictions, petulant behavior, self-loathing and issues related to his sexual identity. In my opinion, there’s almost nothing so dreary as watching rock stars and other celebrities becoming addicted to drugs and booze. Blessedly, these moments are interspersed with impressionistic set pieces that correspond to the artist’s prevailing moods, including his several suicide attempts and nightmares. Without them, Rocketman would be a real bummer. Presumably, its timeline ends at 1990, when John declared himself to be clean and sober … except for the occasional shopping binge. However, his breakup and reconciliation with Taupin occurred a decade earlier than the movie suggests. Typically, historical accuracy is something I value in a fact-based movie. Here, however, any subscriber to People magazine or Rolling Stone already has memorized the chronological timeline and recognizes the difference between fact and fantasy. As conceived by Fletcher, Lee, cinematographer George Richmond, costume designger Julian Day and choreographer Adam Murray, Rocketman is ready-made for an adaptation on London’s West End, Broadway or Las Vegas. The non-linear narrative and song-and-dance numbers that are spun off the AA discussions, resemble elements of theatrical musicals as varied as “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Grease,” “Tommy,” “Dreamgirls,” “Mamma Mia,” “Chicago,” “Jersey Boys” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

I wish that the filmmakers had elected to retain at least one of the deleted scenes, during which John’s awareness of the incipient AIDS epidemic was triggered. The first depiction was staged inside a recording studio, as Renata (Celinde Schoenmaker) reads from a newspaper article about a “gay cancer” and she describes the symptoms experienced by a friend. The second deleted scene shows the singer’s first, inadvertent exposure to the plight of Indiana teenager and AIDS patient Ryan White, while watching a CNN report at a hospital waiting room. As a hemophiliac, White became infected with HIV from a contaminated blood treatment. In December 1984, he was given six months to live. Doctors said he posed no risk to other students, as AIDS is not an airborne disease and spreads solely through body fluids, but, when White tried to return to classes, many parents and teachers rallied against his re-enrollment. As harassment and intolerance against the family grew, the national news media quickly moved in, making the boy a cause célèbre. Unfairly, perhaps, some the coverage unfairly differentiated between victims deemed “innocent” (non-gay) and “guilty” (gay). Ryan’s entire battle moved John so much, he reached out to the Whites and invited them to one of his concerts. In October 1986, the singer arranged a private tour and a party for Ryan at Disneyland. When Ryan’s health took a turn for the worse in April 1990, John went to be with his family. He performed “Skyline Pigeon” at his funeral. In other excised scenes, John is shown being tested for HIV and telling people in his support group that he somehow had been spared. Ryan’s death and that of friend Freddy Mercury, in 1991, inspired John to create the Elton John AIDS Foundation, to which he donated proceeds from “The Last Song” to a Ryan White fund at Riley Hospital. His contributions are acknowledged in a postscript, which puts donations to support HIV-related programs in 55 countries at more than $400 million. Joining that war gave John reasons to live that eluded him in the years before he met Ryan.

Rocketman is reputed to be the first major Hollywood-studio production to include a sex scene between gay males. (Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Luca Gbeuadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, both of which did very well, were released by mini-major Sony Classics.) Dexter Fletcher’s musical fantasy has grossed $187 million worldwide against its $40 million budget. Fox’s PG-13 Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t feature any sex scenes, despite the fact that its protagonist was a gay icon. Both movies have been censored in Russia and Malaysia and the R-rated Rocketman was banned outright in Samoa. As far as I know, it has yet to open in China. In addition to the abovementioned deleted scenes and several others that didn’t make the cut, the sparkling Blu-ray package adds four extended musical numbers, with optional introductions by Dexter Fletcher; featurettes “It’s Going to Be a Wild Ride: Creative Vision,” “Becoming Elton: Taron’s Transformation,” “Larger Than Life: Production Design and Costuming,” “Full Tilt: Staging the Musical Numbers,” “Music Reimagined: The Studio Sessions,” a “Rocketman Lyric Companion: Sing Along With Select Songs” and “Rocketman Juke Box”; and a booklet written by John.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: Blu-ray
Widely acknowledged to be one of the most desirable places in the world to visit and live, San Francisco also is a real American city with real American problems. It has one of the highest costs of living in the world and homeownership is an impossible dream for anyone without a job that pays in the high six figures. Rentals are, at once, impossible to find and difficult to afford. Once a joy, strolling from one neighborhood to the next now demands paying attention to predatory panhandlers and human feces on the sidewalks. Dining can be a wonderful adventure, as well, but only if one can afford anything besides appetizers and, even then, get reservations to the choice spots. Things might become more affordable in the next recession – as they did in 2008 – but only if speculators don’t hit the bargains first. Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, reminds us that San Francisco’s minority population is being pushed out of their homes, even in some of the least favorable neighborhoods, which have been targeted by investors for gentrification, condominiums and mixed-use developments. The decommissioned Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, which figures prominently in the movie, has, since the mid-1990s, been designated as a Superfund site by the EPA. As soon as individual parcels are cleaned up, they’re sold to developers who can’t wait to offer condos with spectacular views of the bay. It’s where Fails’ best friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), clears his head by fishing from a rowboat. One day, Mont lands a perfectly normal-looking fish, except for its eyes, which are the same side of its head … and, no, it isn’t a flounder. Jimmie and Mont take the bus or skateboard to their jobs, so, they know it as well as anyone whose roots extend beyond one or two generations. Any pride in vicarious ownership is limited, however, by the fact that they share a tiny bedroom in the home Mont shares with his blind grandfather (Danny Glover).

In an unexpected shift in scenery, Talbot relocates the young men to a neglected, if still beautiful Victorian house in the Fillmore District. They’re re-painting the red and gold trim that adorns the small circular windows in the house’s tower, which is covered with white fish-scale shingles and extends to a “witch’s hat” cupola. It says “San Francisco” as well as any postcard view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Curiously, the couple that lives in the house – leftovers from the Summer of Love, no doubt – want nothing to do with Jimmie and Mont’s home improvements. If they accepted the gratis handiwork, they’d also have to acknowledge Jimmie’s belief that his grandfather built the house immediately after World War II, but he was ultimately forced to give it up. It’s led Jimmie to believe that he’s as genetically matched to the Victorian gem as he is to the city that’s provided his family a home, shelter and inspiration for most of the last 75 years. When the despicable woman is forced to move from the house, it doesn’t take longer than a few heartbeats for Jimmie and Mont to stake their claim by moving into it. And, it’s as impressive inside as it is from the street, where tourists on Segways sometimes gather to marvel at its facade. In his great naivete, Jimmie visits a real-estate agent to inquire as to what it would take to purchase the Victorian. Needless to say, the agent provides nothing in the way of encouragement to his visitor. It does, however, tip him off to a potential listing, which could put Jimmie in the streets, again. In the meantime, several enlightening things happen to the squatters. They’ll test their friendship, sense of worth as African Americans and San Francisco natives, and enthusiasm for getting up in the morning. The Last Black Man in San Francisco generated a lot of buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as comparisons to last year’s indie faves, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, both of which were set and shot across the bay, in Oakland. It deserves to be remembered when awards are handed out.

In the 1980s, a series of books — aptly titled “Truly Tasteless Jokes” — swept the nation with their crude, controversial and politically incorrect zingers. This was before such material spread at the speed of the Internet and social media provided avenues for instant criticism as vulgar, tasteless and insulting as the jokes themselves. Unlike almost anything published in the past 25 years, the “Truly Tasteless” books spared nothing and no one. The targets ranged from Helen Keller and dead babies, to Catholics, Jews and WASPs, and gays, women and minorities. Many of gags were inarguably funny, while others were “as funny as a crutch.” Not surprisingly, the books were especially popular with teens and adolescents, whose grasp of a joke’s subtext was, for the most part, pretty weak. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the series was the identity of their author, Ashton Applewhite, a lowly paid assistant at a New York publishing house, where she  asked co-workers to contribute samples from their own stash of tasteless jokes. Finally, an editor at Ballantine Books decided to publish it. The original title, “What’s the Difference Between Garbage and a Girl From New Jersey?” — punchline: garbage gets picked up – was vetoed by the marketing director, who didn’t get the gag and preferred the infinitely more direct, “Truly Tasteless Jokes.” For every new addition to the series, Applewhite was forced to cast her net wider than Publishers Row. Her new income allowed her to focus, instead, on issues relating to prejudices against the elderly and women’s rights. Like The Aristocrats (2005), Jeff Cerulli and Matt Ritter’s Tasteless features interviews with numerous working comedians, including a French-Canadian standup who was fined $80,000 for insulting a boy with a serious illness. It was a stiff price to pay for casting shade on the boy – a public figure in Canada – who defied the stated odds by not dying in a timely fashion. (The case is on appeal.) Anyone who enjoyed The Aristocrats and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018), Gus Van Sant and Joaquin Phoenix’s profile of the late quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, should find a lot to like in Tasteless. Anyone easily offended by such insensitive material, however, should give it a pass.

Is That You? (Eres Tu Papa?)
Thanks, in large part, to United States’ absurd 50-year-long economic embargo of Cuba – which, in a fit of pique, was re-imposed in 2017 by our current Lunatic in Chief – the country’s film industry has taken a backseat to more pressing issues, including obtaining medicines, food and tourist dollars. (In 1998, Donald Trump’s hotel and casino company violated the embargo by funneling a minimum of $68,000 into Cuba, without U.S. government approval. It did so in collaboration with Seven Arrows Investment and Development Corporation, which instructed senior officers with Trump’s company in ways to make it appear legal, by linking it after the fact to a charitable effort.) It was another classic example of a conservative president attempting to appease voters in south Florida, at the expense of farmers, industrialists and tourism officials who’d begun making inroads with Cuban officials in 2010, during the Obama administration. Ironically, attitudes toward maintaining the stranglehold on the island’s economy have shifted greatly in the last two decades, including those held by descendants of the original boatlifts.

Coincidentally, 2010 also marked the release of what many people considered to be the first horror made in Cuba in at least 50 years, Juan of the Dead, written and directed by an Argentinian filmmaker, Alejandro Brugués. By contrast, the frightening psychological thriller, Is That You? (Eres Tu Papa?), is a completely homegrown product. By contrast, Rudy Riverón Sánchez was living and working in his hometown of Holgyuin, acting in local  theater as an actor, when he decided to move to Havana to study film direction at El Instituto Superior de Arte. He also worked as an assistant director at Tele Rebelde, at the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Television. Seeking to expand his horizons, Sánchez moved to the UK, where he undertook a BA in Film and Television Production at York St. John University. In his final year, he was awarded a prize for the student who contributed most to the course and for his creepy short film, “Beyond Reach.” Sánchez returned to York to work on his MA at Northern Film School and make music videos for his Almost Film Productions. It couldn’t have cost much money for Sánchez to find the right locale for a picture that depends on complete isolation to maintain an atmosphere of dread. Most of Is That You? takes place inside a shack on a hardly farmed finca in the Cuban countryside.

It’s where 13-year-old Lili (Gabriela Ramos) and her mother, Alina (Lynn Cruz), have been imprisoned by the abusively perverted father/husband, Carlos (Jorge Enrique Caballero), a traveling shoe repairman with no visible worthwhile qualities. The only other person living on the property is a crippled Afro-Cuban assistant – no more than a slave, really – who’s incapable of helping the women. By the time Sánchez has convinced of us of Carlos’ irredeemably monstrous mentality, a scenario is presented in which Eduardo (Osvaldo Doimeadiós) is pushed one step too far and he beats his master to death, with Aline only a few steps away, bound to a banana tree plant. Typically, Lila and Aline would now be free to break away from their mental and physical chains and embark on a new life. In an extreme case of Stockholm Syndrome, however, Aline demonstrates no interest in moving away from the finca and Lila refuses to believe the lie that Carlos has either run away, been sent to prison or been seriously wounded in an accident on his mobile shoe repair vehicle. For all Carlos’ abusive behavior, Lila becomes distraught at the thought of losing the only man who’s ever shown her the slightest sign of affection in her life, however abhorrent. The closer the daughter comes to the truth,  the more she blames her thoroughly traumatized mother for her father’s disappearance. After running away from the shack to look for Carlos, she’s rescued from a roadside breakdown by Caridad (Eslinda Núñez), an elderly spiritualist who nurses the girl back to health and provides her with a recipe – largely dependent on breaking eggs – to coax him out of hiding, Upon Lila’s return to the shack, Sanchez dials up the atmospherics to a point where viewers will be forced to witness the slaughter of already damaged characters or the return of Carlos, in zombie drag. Either way, it’s a scary proposition. Owain Kell and James Williams’ freaky musical soundtrack only adds to the escalating sense of impending disaster. The DVD adds festival footage; behind-the-scenes material; and Sanchez’ prize-winning short, “Breaking Through.”

Miss Arizona
At the risk of sounding condescending toward Lifetime and other cable networks that cater to women, I’m surprised that freshman director Autumn McAlpin’s Miss Arizona didn’t debut on a service more attuned to its overriding themes of female empowerment and solidarity against abuse and sexism. Maybe, it tried and failed to impress anyone at the network level … I don’t know. I just think that the ambitious indie dramedy will have a tough time drawing attention to itself in a crowded VOD/DVD marketplace, despite recognizable stars and a meaningful LGBTQ subplot. Handing McAlpin’s sophomore screenplay – after Waffle House (2015) — to a more experienced director might not have hurt Miss Arizona’s chances, either. Johanna Braddy (“Quantico”) is credible as a former beauty queen, Rose Raynes, who lost her identity and independence when she married her college sweetheart, Rick (Kyle Howard), an aspiring talent agent, who enslaved her when he took a position in Beverly Hills. They live in a fancy house, but Rick has put her on a tight leach, questioning her every purchase and limiting her ability to use her credit card for anything beyond household essentials and clothes for their son. Rose suspects that Rick’s cheating on her with one or more of his clients, but she’s too busy meeting his petty demands to prove anything concrete. This weekend, Rose has been left at home, alone, while Risk’s escorting one of his stars to the Tony Awards ceremony, in New York, and her son is on a sleepaway with friends. It gives her plenty of time to substitute for a friend who teaches a life-skills class at a women’s shelter. Rose is so out of touch with reality that she brings along the relics from her pageant days, including a ventriloquist’s dummy with which she performed a rendition of Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” The four women in attendance are duly unimpressed by anything the beauty queen has to say. Bummed, she tries another tack. When the manager of the group home asks the ladies to split for a few hours – yeah, sure – Rose volunteers to escort them around town in her shiny new SUV.

After one of the women, Leslie (Robyn Lively), learns that she’ll need $800 to recover her children, who were abducted by her redneck husband and hidden in Kentucky, Rose agrees to use the only talent she possesses to raise it. It takes them to a talent and beauty pageant for drag queens, several of whom have appeared on “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” Even though an 8-year-old wouldn’t buy Rose as a female impersonator, she calls on her background in the Miss Arizona contest to make it through the preliminary rounds, prompting one of the contestants to trash her belongings and her agent, Emerald (Steve Guttenberg), to blow the whistle on her. (He works with her husband and shares friends in common with them.) Instead of being beat up by the rest of the girls, Rose is embraced as someone who needs their support, while she’s raising the spirits of the women of the shelter. Although almost everything else in Miss Arizona defies logic, the final scenes, at least, can be enjoyed for the contestants’ singing, congeniality and willingness to help a sister in distress. Beyond that, Rose is encouraged to finally to do the thing she should have done five years ago. Also good here ar Shoniqua Shandai, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Otmara Marrero and Missi Pyle.

It isn’t often that a movie will send one scurrying to the Internet to learn more about the culture and history of its little-known setting. Occasionally, the reviews on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes can be helpful in this regard, but not in the case of Pixelia. It took a deeper search to find anything useful about Ratheesh Ravindran’s debut feature. Once it became clear that picture takes place in a large city on the Indian Subcontinent, the boilerplate summary on the distributor’s website led me to the port city of Kochi, near the southwestern tip of India, in the country’s 13th most populous state, Kerala. Malayalam is Kerala’s official and most widely spoken language. Its film industry is a segment of India’s so-called Parallel Cinema, which originated in the state of West Bengal in the 1950s as an alternative to the mainstream commercial Indian cinema, known today as Bollywood. Inspired by Italian Neorealism, Parallel Cinema began just before the French and Japanese New Wave and was a precursor to the Indian New Wave of the 1960s. Among the PC’s leading lights was Satyajit Ray. Despite the deceptive sobriquet, Mollywood, Malayalam films carved a niche for themselves in the Indian film industry with its depiction of social themes. Pixelia is as modern as these things probably get, with a protagonist who drives for Uber, but only until he finishes his first graphic novel, also titled “Pixelia.” On the day we meet him, he picks up a lovely and outspoken transgender woman,  Mandakini (model/actress Gowri Savithri), who changes Kumar’s life forever. In fact, Kumar (Sanal Aman) incorporates Mandakini into the plot of his story. They spend the whole day together, as if they’re childhood friends meeting after a long absence. Mandakini shares her past life and desire to adopt a child, while Kumar narrates the story of his graphic novel. A special bond ensues, whereby Kumar realizes his own queer identity. With a stylized blend of documentary and magical realism, Pixelia speaks to the fragmentation of daily life due to the social media, pop culture iconography and near-instantaneous sexual gratification. While its look is inspired by comic books and genre clichés, it’s informed, as well, by yakshini spirits, sex robots and characters out of 1980s’ vintage Malayalam porn. What it doesn’t contain is a scene in which Kumar is freaked out to learn of Mandakini’s sexual identity – it isn’t as apparent as in other movies we’ve seen – or needs time to adjust to his own feelings. It’s all handled in an adult, non-exploitative manner, allowing viewers to focus on the story, instead of their own feelings about LGBTQ themes. Even so, Pixelia is a compelling representative of “Queer Drama,” a genre seldom touched in India … or anywhere else, for that matter.

In co-writer/director Amanda Kramer’s sophomore feature, to last year’s Paris Window, eight teenage girls become trapped in a large house in the aftermath of a powerful, if possibly apocryphal earthquake, that ruins their birthday party. While Ladyworld’s characters are left without much in the way of food, water and electricity, Kramer and Benjamin Shearn’s screenplay does allow for the creeping paranoia that spreads among them, when speculation over a sinister male, lurking in the shadows or basement, arises. As loaded with potential as such a scenario is, it doesn’t take long before Ladyworld  devolves into a loud and ugly example of what can happen when spoiled children are left to their own devices. Anyone who’s read William Golding’s timeless novel, “Lord of the Flies,” or watched Peter Brooks’ 1963 adaptation, will recognize certain inevitable parallels, as the trapped girls separate into cliques and behave according to their own rules. Adults aren’t likely to get much out of Ladyworld, which validates their paranoia about a mass psychosis that affects teenage girls and alienates them from their mothers, specifically. Clearly, boys no longer have a monopoly on wicked behavior. Teenagers, drawn first  to the movie’s excellent young cast, should recognize bits and pieces of themselves in the portrayals. The actors include Maya Hawke (“Stranger Things”), daughter of Ethan Hawk and Uma Thurman; Odessa Adlon (“Nashville”), daughter of “Better Things” creator, Pamela Adlon; Ariela Barer (Runaways); Annalise Basso (Ouija: Origin of Evil); Ryan Simpkins (Avengers: Endgame); Atheena Frizzell (The Old Man & the Gun), no relation to the late, great “Lefty Frizzell”; Tatsumi Romano (“Class of Lies”); and newcomer Zora Casebere. Callie Ryan’s screechingly empathetic soundtrack only adds to the chaos. The DVD adds a slideshow.

Killers Anonymous: Blu-ray
I can’t imagine what Tommy Flanagan, Gary Oldman and Jessica Alba saw in the screenplay for Killers Anonymous that convinced them to take the gig, but whatever it was failed to make it to the big or small screen. I doubt whether any of them needed the work or, like some of their fellow cast members, the exposure. Alba’s been attempting to demonstrate her bad-assedness ever since she appeared in Sin City (2005), Machete (2010) and The Killer Inside Me (2010), but, here, she is only given 10 minutes to prove her case and it isn’t all that convincing. Martin Owen’s extremely messy Killers Anonymous focuses on a support group that includes assassins, murderers and sociopaths, all of whom have expressed some interest in ending their felonious ways. The group’s leader, Joanna (MyAnna Buring), struggles to keep the killers on-topic, especially when they’re joined by a fresh-faced newbie, who appears to have been involved in the assassination attempt on a U.S. senator that afternoon. Tensions mount as the members of the group attempt to unravel the mystery behind the shooting, which later is explained in a way that makes no sense to anyone, including viewers. Meanwhile, The Man (Oldman) sits on a perch high atop a building overlooking the meeting space and greater London, where, we’re told, bedlam reigns. We have to take his word for it, however. Clearly, things happening below him aren’t what aren’t what they appear to be from that height.  When new truths are unveiled during the meeting, the killers form secret alliances and betrayals cause the session to explode into violence. In the end, when the CIA makes its sleazy presence known, Owen’s 95-minute package begins to burst at the seams. The DVD includes the director’s commentary, deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

Cruising: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Even before he had finished location shooting, in and around Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection) realized that his adaptation of Gerald Walker’s 1970 novel, Cruising, was in trouble. As sensitive as Friedkin thought he was being in depicting a murder spree within the S&M/leather community, it didn’t appease the crowds that gathered for the nightly protests, blowing whistles and air horns and flashing mirrors and lights on the sets. He’d bent over backwards to research the scene and hired extras who had an intimate knowledge of what happened inside the leather bars and cruising lanes. If the distractions weren’t enough, the actors, including Al Pacino, felt threatened by the size of the crowds and vehemence of the protesters. Upon the movie’s completion and release, in 1980, it was time for the producers to give critics their shot at savaging it, which many of them did, if rarely for the same reasons. Despite everything, Cruising probably returned a few pennies of profits to Lorimar and United Artists.

Watching the new Arrow Video, it’s easy to look back at the protests and see the disconnect between Friedkin and the people blowing horns in the streets. Based on a long history of studio films that portrayed homosexuals as being too sick or self-loathing to prevent them from acting on their base instincts, there was no reason to think Cruising was going to be any different. They were also angry about Hollywood’s abysmal treatment of gay and lesbian stars, directors and behind-the-camera talent, who risked being blackballed by producers and casting directors, and stereotypical portrayals of gay men as effeminate and wildly flamboyant providers of comic relief or outright perverts. It’s also easy to see that Cruising wasn’t attempting to make any political points – even a decade after Stonewall – or lump the S&M/leather community in with any other aspect of gay life. In a 2006 biography, Pacino said that he understood the protests but insisted that upon reading the screenplay he never at any point felt that the film was anti-gay. He said that the leather bars were “just a fragment of the gay community, the same way the Mafia is a fragment of Italian-American life,” referring to The Godfather.

In fact, it’s a police procedural whose straight characters are predominantly interested in capturing the serial killer and sending him to prison. Pacino’s undercover cop, Steve Burns, stops short of being the character in the novel who develops feelings for his gay neighbor (Don Scardino) at the same time he is in a relationship with his girlfriend (Karen Allen). Viewers will also savor fine, early performances by Paul Sorvino, Allan Miller, Richard Cox, Joe Spinell, Ed O’Neill, Sonny Grosso, James Remar, William Russ, Mike Starr and Powers Boothe. The Arrow package adds director-approved special-edition content; a fresh restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, supervised and approved by Friedkin; newly remastered 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio; archival audio commentary by Friedkin; “The History of Cruising” archival featurette, looking at the film s origins and production; “Exorcizing Cruising” archival featurette, looking at the controversy surrounding the film and its legacy.

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs: Blu-ray
Apart from the fact the Bertrand Blier’s odd 1978 comedy, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, probably couldn’t find backing or distribution today, it’s an interesting reminder of what was allowed back in the day, but soon would be taboo. Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, made in the same year and starring a pubescent Brooke Shields, would be stopped in its tracks, as well. First things first. “Handkerchiefs” opens as Raoul (Gérard Depardieu) and his noticeably depressed wife, Solange (Carole Laure), are eating in a bistro, across from another young man, Stéphane (Patrick Dewaere), who’s buried in the book he’s reading. Raoul describes Solange’s condition, which besides depression, has left her with a loss of appetite, migraines, insomnia, dizziness and fainting spells. Raoul believes that Solange’s condition might  improve if she agrees to take Stéphane as her lover and allows them to take turns attempting to impregnate her. Stéphane also shares with Solange his love for Mozart and complete library of Pocket Books. When their next-door neighbor, a greengrocer, complains about the noise from their apartment, he, too, is invited to join their circle … without benefits. It’s all lost to Solange, who sometimes appears to be rehearsing for “La sonnambula.” She  only lights up when she’s doing household chores and knitting indentical sweaters for the men in her life.

Soon, that number will include a 13-year-old math prodigy, Christian (Riton Liebman), who is bullied by the other boys at the camp that Stéphane’s parents run and where the trio will spend the summer, minding the rebellious kids. One night, after a particularly cruel hazing, Christian is allowed to share Solange’s bed. She awakens to find the boy with his hands inside her nightgown, exploring her body, and scolds him. He tells her a sob story about being a naturally inquisitive boy, whose parents don’t understand him and can’t wait until he’s 18 to taste forbidden fruit. Not only does Solange buy the story, but she also gives in to his request. She becomes dependent on Christian, who provides her with a vulnerability Raoul and  Stéphane can’t. When his parents insist that the boy return to his boarding school, his adult friends conspire to kidnap him, if only to keep Solange happy. There’s more, including a delightful scene between the grocer and Christian’s mother, but why spoil any more of the fun? “Handkerchiefs” is seen by some critics as a sequel to Blier’s Going Places (1974), which also starred Depardieu and Dewaere, as whimsical, aimless thugs who meet their match in Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou), a jaded, passive hairdresser who joins them as lover, cook and mother confessor. In 2020, Going Places will be remade as “The Jesus Rolls,” John Turturro’s spinoff of The Big Lebowski (1988). Forty years later, the Cohen Media release looks great and adds an introduction by Richard Peña.

The Koker Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It took a shared Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for Abbas Kiarostami to come to the attention of audiences outside the elite festival and international arthouse circuits. In Taste of Cherry a middle-aged and relatively affluent man drives around the hilly outskirts of Tehran, searching for someone who will bury him under a cherry tree if he succeeds in committing suicide. If not, that person would retrieve him. The film showcased many of the minimalistic traits that would distinguish his work as it became known to the world at large. Roger Ebert hated it, but he was in the distinct minority. Even before the festival began, however, the film’s profile was raised by the last-moment decision of Iran’s Islamic government to allow Kiarostami to attend the premiere of Taste of Cherry. By 1997, Kiarostami was an already well-known presence at Cannes. Two of the films included in Criterion Collection’s essential “The Koker Trilogy” (a.k.a., “The Earthquake Trilogy”) — And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994) – had already been showcased before festival audiences. Both depicted the effects of the May 1990 earthquake, which devasted large parts of Gilan province and left some 45,000 people dead. Even though the first entry in the trilogy, Where Is the Friend’s House?, was released in 1987, well before the quake struck, the fates of the amateur actors would provide the throughline in all three films. In my opinion, Where Is the Friend’s House? is nothing short of a cinematic miracle.

Set in the rural northern-Iranian town of Koker, it describes what happens when Ahmed, a boy of elementary school age, mistakenly carries home the notebook of a boy, Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh, who’s in trouble with their stern teacher. That morning, the strict disciplinarian had threatened Mohamed with expulsion, if he didn’t complete his homework in the designated notebook. Not wanting to cause the boy any more embarrassment and tears, Ahmed, asks his mother if he could return Mohamed’s notebook to him, before completing his own homework and chores. She flatly refuses his request. Visibly perplexed, he’s too preoccupied to do anything else. When his mother asks him to go to the bakery to pick up some bread, Ahmed uses it as an excuse to search for Mohamed’s house. The problem is that no one in his village knows anything about Mohammed and Ahmed’s grandfather is more interested in teaching Ahmad a lesson in respect and obedience than helping him out. Finally, Ahmad is told that his friend lives the neighboring hamlet, Poshteh, but the houses there don’t have addresses and the directions are vague, at best.

Even so, Ahmad is desperate to return the notebook. His mission turns into an odyssey, which requires several trips over the hilly zig-zag path that links Koker to Poshteh, where more bittersweet encounters await. The film ends the next morning, in class, with the boys next in line for the teacher’s inspection. Brothers in real life, the actors playing Ahmad and Mohamad bear an uncanny resemblance to Dewey in “Malcolm in the Middle,” who already had three years of experience when he joined the Fox sitcom. Kiarostami’s early experience with Iran’s Center for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults must have imbued his work with a humanistic foundation and an ability to elicit a wide range of emotions from his amateur cast. Simply put, Where Is the Friend’s House? is a wonderfully ecumenical film, easily accessible to anyone between 8 and 80. The Blu-ray disc adds the filmmaker’s entirely relatable 1989 documentary, Homework, in which he interviews a couple dozen pupils – and a few parents — at a Tehran elementary school their feelings about afterschool responsibilities.

And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees were produced in the direct wake of the earthquake. In the former, amateur Farhad Kheradmand plays Film Director, who travels north with his son, by car, into the area most affected, hoping to learn the fate of the children who acted in Where Is the Friend’s House? The roads are virtually impassable, and communications are limited to word-of-mouth and rumors. Puya (Buba Bayour) is full of difficult questions for his father to answer and more curious than saddened by the devastation. After pulling off the jammed highway to Gilan, they must ask local residents – some of whom are injured or in mourning – for directions to Koker and Poshteh. Most assume the roads have been rendered unusable by landslides and fissures. All of them have lost family members, neighbors and friends. Somehow, though, they make it to their destination, where FD finds some of the people in Where Is the Friend’s House? living in makeshift campsites and making the most of a very bad situation. It’s God’s will, after all. Puya is coaxed into remaining in the tent village by a pair of green-eyed maidens – the genetic trait runs through the villages – who know he wants to watch the World Cup match with their friends, one of whom is stationed on a hill adjusting the antenna. Clearly the implied message in the title, And Life Goes On, applies directly to the people rebuilding their lives and those of others so soon after the tragedy. In Through the Olive Trees, experienced actor Mohamad Ali Keshavarz assumes the role of Film Director, while Kheradmand plays Farhad, an actor in a movie the FD is making about the production of And Life Goes On, two years earlier. It’s as much of a Chinese box as a film-within-the-film. And, it’s funny to boot.

Hossein Rezai, in his first acting role, plays a local stonemason-turned-actor, who takes over for the director’s first choice, a guy who freezes when coupled with his female co-star in their first scene together. It didn’t happen in rehearsal, but neither did the young man admit to stuttering when in the company of women. Hossein assures FD that he can handle the part, but, the same silence spoils the scene. Hossein sheepishly explains that he knows his co-star and she refuses to speak to him, whether he’s being himself or playing a character. Apparently, Hossein had proposed marriage to Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian), but was shoot down by her grandmother – her parents died in the rubble – who considers him to be too poor, illiterate and houseless to claim the green-eyed girl. When FD convinces Tahereh to reply to her co-star – in a scene unrelated to the proposal – Hossein uses the setups to bombard her with reasons why she should marry him. As convincing as he is, she remains mute. Meanwhile, FD and his AD, Mrs. Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva), are fighting a losing battle with their crew members, who have more pressing concerns than participating in a movie they may never be able to see. The students from the tent school, who’ve been given permission to watch the shoot, are also getting antsy. (The FD calms them down by asking them questions from their textbooks.)

With no one paying attention to her and tired of performing menial tasks for the director and Miss Shiva – as does Hossein — Tahereh splits for home. Undeterred, Hossein follows her through a grove of olives, still pleading his case, and another lush field, before she reaches a zig-zag path leading to Poshteh. Because the scene is shot from a high and distant perspective, viewers will have to guess for themselves what happens in the field, when Tahereh stops walking, turns around and finally says something to Hossein, who heads back to Koker with a indeterminate a bounce in his step. Even absent a firm resolution, it is one of those inarguably poetic single-take scenes that are worth the price of a rental, alone. (The enigmatic ending for And Life Goes On is similarly impressive.) It went on to become the first film to be officially submitted to the academy after the Islamic revolution. I expect that the decision had something to do with the scenes that show Iranian citizens and relief workers joining together to get the region back in shape, without any hints of dissatisfaction over government support. The survivors’ continued belief in Islamic principles must have impressed the ruling mullahs and censo, as well. The Criterion package benefits from new 2K digital restorations of all three films; audio commentary on And Life Goes On, featuring Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, coauthors of “Abbas Kiarostami”; “Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams,” a 1994 documentary; a fresh interview with son Ahmad Kiarostami; a conversation between Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami and film critic Godfrey Cheshire; a chat from 2015, between Kiarostami, who died a year later, and festival programmer Peter Scarlet; and an essay by critic Godfrey Cheshire.

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Except for a conciliatory ending that’s played with grace and dignity, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1952 marital drama The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is informed by the same feminist sensibilities that Hollywood wouldn’t explore until the mid-1970s. That’s when such pictures as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), An Unmarried Woman (1978), Coming Home (1978), Starting Over (1979), 9 to 5 (1980) and, 10 years later, Thelma & Louise demonstrated that middle age working women could be as sexually aggressive, outspoken, funny, profane, independent and dangerous as their male counterparts … and there was an audience for such fare. Likewise, as an admirer of Ernst Lubitsch, Ozu may have been looking backwards, to Hollywood comedies in 1930s, when some female protagonists possessed a talent for exchanging snappy dialogue with men, holding their own at a bar or cocktail party, and weren’t tied down by marriage vows. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggested that Ozu’s class-conscious comedy, What Did the Lady Forget? (1937), which laid the blueprint for The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, might have been influenced by the lead characters in The Thin Man (1934). The earlier Ozu film is included in the bonus features here. I would have loved to see what the actors in George Cukor’s delightfully snarky “The Women” could have done with the same material in an American adaptation.

Like the 1937 film, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice concerns a mismatched Tokyo couple, whose long childless marriage has reached the point of diminishing returns for both of them. Secrets and deceptions strain the already tenuous relationship of the middle-aged pair, Taeko and Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi, Michiyo Kogure), as the wife’s city-bred sophistication has finally begun to collide with her engineering executive husband’s small-town simplicity and willingness to forgo the luxuries of life, which, of course, she covets. Things get complicated when Taeko’s niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), arrives in Tokyo at precisely the same time as her aunt his using the girl’s “illness” as an excuse to visit her sister.  Oops. No matter, because she figures out a scheme to visit a spa with her BFFs, anyway. Among their amusements is comparing the fish in the koi pond to their husbands, in none-too-flattering ways. The reason Setsuko has come to the city is to participate in a matchmaking session her mother has arranged for her, but she has no intention on attending. Even Taeko demands that her niece take the old-fashioned route to an unhappy marriage. If her headstrong behavior clashes with her aunt’s sense of hidebound tradition, it has a positive effect on her uncle. A visit to a recently legalized pachinko parlor has the unexpected benefit of reuniting Mokichi with one of the men in his command in the war. They become fast friends, in addition to onetime comrades. It recharges his batteries and inspires Setsuko to invite Taeko to re-evaluate her priorities. She even finds a potential boyfriend. Even by 1952 standards, the ending is enigmatically sexy, but satisfying.  In addition to the earlier movie, the Criterion package has been given a 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a new interview with film scholar David Bordwell; “Ozu & Noda: Tateshina Diaries,” a documentary by Daniel Raim on Ozu’s relationship with longtime screenwriter Kogo Nodall and an essay by scholar Junji Yoshida.

Rambo: Blu-ray/4K UHD
When this chapter in the Rambo saga arrived in my mail, I had no idea where it fit into the franchise. In knew that it wasn’t First Blood, the 1982 opener that a lot of people believe was called “Rambo.” Neither did I think it was a Blu-ray/4K UHD edition of the awkwardly titled, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) or Rambo III (1988), which acknowledged the misconception, while adding to the confusion. A close look at the cover convinced me that the newly released disc, Rambo: The Fight Continues, actually was Rambo, and since I hadn’t stored it in my memory bank back in 2008, I came to believe that it was the latest installment in the series, which, in fact, is called Rambo: Last Blood, and is slated for September 20. But, I’m not the only person to have mistaken the Blu-ray/4K UHD for something else. Four of the five “reviews” on its page think that it includes characters from a 1986 cartoon series, which lasted 65 episodes, or from the various video games in which John Rambo appears. Someone isn’t monitoring the website very well. Then, too, there’s Ramb-Ohh! (1986), Ramb-Ohh: The Sex Platoon (1987), Rambone XXX: A DreamZone Parody (2013) – none of which, alas, star Stallone, who broke into the business in the early porno, The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970) — and the series spun off Rocky/Creed, The Expendables and Escape Plan. Nope, Rambo (2008) is very much its own creature.

Serious fans of Sylvester Stallone’s oeuvre will already know that Rambo was set and shot in the jungles of Thailand and Burma, where Our Hero stays busy carrying the occasionally tourist or entrepreneur up the Mekong for purposes of their own. He also collects pythons, cobras and other critters, which he sells to people whose intentions aren’t always honorable. (And, no, the snakes don’t reference his vigilante cop in the 1987 actioner, Cobra.) Here, Rambo is cajoled into escorting a group of evangelicals upriver to the site of their mission. He knows it’s dangerous, but just try to explain that to bible-bangers determined to bring medicine and Jesus to the embattled Karen people. Like the Rohingya Muslims, a decade later, the Myanmar military has been given license to commit genocide on the Karen. Among the evangelists are Julie Benz (“Dexter”) and Paul Schulze (“Nurse Jackie”), who are horrified by Rambo’s use of firearms to prevent them from being beheaded and raped by river pirates. It’s the martyr complex in action. Sometime later, the leader of the missionary organization (Ken Howard) arrives at Rambo’s camp, begging him to carry a team of mercenaries upriver to check on the well-being of his team. Naturally, by now, they’ve all been captured by government troops and are being held in cages, awaiting their fates. The mercs don’t think the “boatman” can help them out much, until he uses his archery skills to pulls their asses out of the fire in an encounter with the cold-blooded soldiers. From that point on, it’s Rambo’s show. In the “extended version,” at least, the rescue mission turns into the largest bloodbath in the series, with a body count of 466 mostly Burmese soldiers. And, of course, the carnage is magnified in 4K UHD. Normally, I’d be among the critics who criticize the indiscriminate killing and profuse letting of blood in such fantasies. In Rambo, however, Stallone purposely chose to depict the horrors of the never-ending civil war in Myanmar and genocide against the Karen, who were left hanging by the British after serving them in World War II. As such, the excessive and gratuitous violence didn’t raise much of a stink here in 2008. The Burmese troops might as well have been Nazi stormtroopers in a Tarantino flick, for all we cared. The near extinction of the Rohingya Muslims, only a decade later, would have required the intervention of a thousand Rambos to prevent. Naturally, the DVDs were banned from distribution in Myanmar, making them even more valuable on the black market. By contrast, Karen Freedom Fighters said the movie gave them a great boost of morale, as well as some rah-rah platitudes to copy. The new package from Lionsgate has ported over the dozen bonus features previously included on the Blu-ray.

Darlin’: Blu-ray
To fully appreciate the frequently disturbing horror/thriller Darlin’, it helps to have already seen Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee’s 2011 cult favorite, The Woman, and Ketchum and  Andrew van den Houten’s Offspring (2009), which was adapted from Ketchum’s first novel, “Off Season.” Published in 1980, it was partially based upon the legend of Sawney Bean, which also inspired Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The reason to do a bit of home work before leaping in Darlin’ is to familiarize one’s self with one of the primary characters in all three pictures, the Woman, played by Pollyanna McIntosh. Immediately recognizable from her performances in “Hap & Leonard” (Angel) and “The Walking Dead” (Jadis/Anne), the 5-foot-10 native of Loch Lomond, Scotland, graduated to the post of writer/director/actor in Darlin’. I didn’t do as much homework in my senior year in high school, but, I think, it would help anyone looking to get full value from the trilogy. Offspring centers on survivors of a feral flesh-eating tribe, whose members have terrorized unsuspecting locals in the Northeast since the 1850s. In The Woman, a successful country lawyer captures and attempts to “civilize” the last remaining member of the violent clan by hanging her in his basement naked and occasionally hosing her down. It puts the lives of his family in jeopardy, but where better … a zoo? In the latest chapter, the Woman drops off her feral daughter, Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny), at a hospital, where the well-meaning staff tries to deal with her problems, without getting bitten or killed in the process. An especially kind male nurse (Cooper Andrews) is the only one who makes any headway with the filthy, barely clothed teenager. Then Darlin’ is shipped off to a residence for wayward girls run by nuns in full penguin habit and a creepy bishop (Bryan Batt). As prim as she now looks, the illiterate red-haired vixen has a short fuse, which causes the rest of the girls to anxiously await confrontations with the mean nuns. Only Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone) shows Darlin’ the time and patience to get her through her lessons and catechism. When trouble comes, as it surely will, other feral creatures are in close enough proximity to rush to her rescue. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Conflict of Wings (Fuss Over Feathers)
Child’s Play
The Vanishing Shadow
Part of the fun that derives from this job/hobby comes in discovering entertainments that don’t show up on the weekly list of new releases or even on the websites of PPV and streaming services. You never know what to expect. Unlike the days of VHS and Beta, though, most of the ones that come my way, whether they’re from such high-end companies as Criterion Collection, Arrow, Shout or Cohen Media, or niche distributors,  like Juno, VMI or MVD, have been accorded a digital makeover and, in some cases, bonus material. This month’s package from Brit-centric Juno Films Selects contains a seaborne thriller, a populist comedy and a Little Rascals lookalike. All are from post-war England and none would be confused with a “kitchen sink drama.” They are fun to watch, however. Anthony Squire’s Doublecross (1954) was adapted from Kem Bennett’s sharply honed spy story, “The Queer Fish,” collected in “Deep Water, Mysteries on the Waves.” In it, Cornish fisherman and salmon poacher Albert Pascoe (Donald Houston) is approached by a stranger, Anna (Delphi Lawrence), and two men, who offer him a great deal of money to smuggle them across the English Channel. Albert is unaware that the men are criminals and espionage agents, who’ve stolen top-secret documents and killed a man in the process. A bit of a con artist himself, Albert jacks up his fee to a price he’s willing to accept and adds a few more pounds for a tip. First, though, he must appropriate a rusty trawler belonging to a weekend resident of the village and make sure it will make the trip. About halfway through their voyage, Pascoe overhears his guests talking about the murder and slyly turns the boat back toward Cornwall. The experienced seaman adjusts the compass to fool the passengers into thinking they are still on course for the French coast. (That gambit will only work until sunset, however.) Feeling guilty, Anna warns Pascoe that his life is now in danger, as well. Meanwhile, back on shore, the villagers have no idea where Albert is and begin to fear the worst when his dinghy, with a small fortune in poached fish aboard it, floats into the harbor. Left hanging in the air are questions pertaining to the stolen boat, illegal salmon, the shanghaied spies and weather or not the burly blond villager can sustain a romance with Anna. The noir touches are provided by the storm clouds that are as essential to the story as the bad guys’ guns and the curiously duplicitous Anna. I wouldn’t be surprised if Doublecross turned up one Saturday night (or Sunday morning) on TCM’s “Noir Alley.”

Adapted from a novel by Australian-born writer/director Don Sharp, Conflict of Wings (a.k.a., “Fuss Over Feathers”) is a 1956 British comedy/drama directed by John Eldridge (Scotch on the Rocks) and starring John Gregson (The Lavender Hill Mob), Muriel Pavlow (Doctor in the House) and Kieron Moore (Darby O’Gill and the Little People). It is set in a seaside village in Norfolk, whose marshy Island of Children has just been chosen by Ministry of Land Acquisition as a perfect place to put a target range for RAF pilots. Historically, it’s also served as a bird sanctuary and locals-only fishery, as designated by Henry VIII, or so the story goes. For its part, the RAF is anxious to test the limits of its new fleet of jet fighters and the rockets they carry. Not surprisingly, the residents of Cley Next the Sea and Ludham are reluctant to allow missile testing on their beloved island, whose legends date back to Roman times. In a well-coordinated and potentially dangerous act of civil disobedience, the locals form an alliance with the national birders society, fishermen and even a few RAF crew members stationed nearby. Needless to say, the protest doesn’t go exactly as planned.

Sharp’s fingerprints are all over Juno’s Child’s Play (1954), as well. Although the similarities to the Little Rascals and Our Gang comedies are undeniable – the child actors are billed collectively as the Holy Terrors – a British franchise never developed. With the help of an advanced chemistry set kit and a lava rock said to be from Krakatoa, a group of children living in the village of Hambleden manages to split an atom. They use the energy generated in their experiments to create a new type of popcorn, called Bangcorn. The American snack wasn’t well known in the UK, at the time, so kids could be excused if they confused popping a kernel of corn with splitting a molecule. Naturally, the very real explosions the Holy Terrors set off – mushroom clouds and all — frighten the residents and alert the police to some serious shit going down in the sleepy hamlet.

As late as 2008, the 1934 Universal sci-fi serial, The Vanishing Shadow, was given up for lost. Then, three minutes of a 35mm nitrate preview trailer were discovered in the George Eastman House archives, in Rochester, New York. Two years later, after being copied onto safety-film stock, all 12 of the series’ 20-minute chapters – all directed by Lew Landers’ (“Tailspin Tommy”) — were made available for viewing on YouTube. Serials began to emerge in the U.S. in the early teens, with the release of Edison Studios’ “What Happened to Mary?” (1912) and “Who Will Marry Mary?” (1913) and Pathé’s “The Perils of Pauline” (1914). The early talkie serials were heavy on genre fare, including Jungle (“King of the Wild”), Western (“The Vanishing Legion”), Sports (“The Galloping Ghost”), Mystery (“The Whispering Shadow”) and Aviation (“The Airmail Mystery”). In 1930, Ben F. Wilson’s sci-fi serial “The Voice From the Sky” became the first to have full sound. For its part, The Vanishing Shadow features what is believed to be the first appearance of a hand-held ray gun in film. In hindsight, that may sound insignificant, but it also introduced a vanishing ray, a destroying ray, a lock-buster ray and full-size robot with superpowers and a head that looks as if it belonged to Chickenman. Of course, The Vanishing Shadow’s plot is goofy as hell, the props are bogus and the action sequences are dominated by fistfights, car chases and explosives. The trick was to end each episode with a cliffhanger, capable of luring patrons back to the theater each week. All of the gimmicks and gizmos served the relatively lame story Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens), the son of a murdered newspaper editor, who teams up with Gloria Grant (Ada Ince), the estranged daughter of a villainous and thoroughly corrupt tycoon to protect the journalist’s legacy. When the mogul’s henchman begin to appear around every corner, Stanley turns to Carl Van Dorn, a “mad scientist” and ally of the handsome young protagonist. In one of the chase scenes, freshman actor Lee J. Cobb (uncredited) plays a roadwork foreman who tries to warn Gloria of an impending explosion.

Disney Channel: Back of the Net
Watching Skateboard today, 40 years after its original theatrical release, is kind of like observing the athletes going through their paces in the early chapters of Criterion Collection’s “100 Years of Olympic Films.” While the athleticism and desire to win are on full display in the historic footage, the participants appear to be hamstrung by clothing and equipment that defies unfettered movement. Today, of course, sports science has pushed competitors beyond their natural limits, giving some of them advantages over their rivals that border on thievery. That includes swimsuits and running apparel that cut seconds – milliseconds, even – off an athlete’s time and gives him or her a temporary edge, at least. Today, the characters in Skateboard could be mistaken for any number of kids honing the skills on the local playground. Neither are the uniforms anything special. The moves are far than X-treme, as well. The publicity material would like us to think that it’s a “cult classic” and represented the cutting-edge of skating in 1978, but, in reality, Scott Dittrich’s Freewheelin’ had introduced Stacy Peralta and the Z-Boys in 1976. It would be safe to say, I think, that Skateboard was the first traditional sports melodrama with a boarding theme and, for that matter, the great-granddaddy of all skatesploitation films.

Directed by George Gage (Fire on the Mountain) and co-written by Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”), Skateboard tells the story of an underachieving Hollywood agent, whose gambling debts have come home to roost. After almost being blindsided by a group of kids racing down a road in the Hollywood Hills, Manny Bloom (Allan Garfield) comes to believe that he can take the same hooligans and turn them into a competitive team, the L.A. Wheels, and make up the debt with a few victories. The team’s leader is played by teen-idol Leif Garret, who reportedly did his own stunts. Teammate Tony Bluetile was portrayed by Z-Boy Tony Alva, the 1975 USSA World Invitational Skateboard Champion and Skateboarder magazine’s “Skateboarder of the Year,” as determined in a readers poll. In the film, Alva performs a barrel-jumping stunt that’s still hard to believe. Thirty-year-old Kathleen Lloyd (The Missouri Breaks), who could pass for one of Garret’s teenage fans, plays the nurse who provides a sweet counterpoint to Garfield’s prickly pear exterior. The soundtrack contains songs written by Mark Snow (“The X-Files”) and sung by Dr. John, Mickey Thomas (Jefferson Starship)  and an uncredited Leon Russell. The DVD adds interviews with Gage and Alva. I don’t think much effort was put into upgrading the audio and video presentation.

While not nearly as fat with talent and resources as the average  Disney Channel Original Movie — High School Musical, Camp Rock, Teen Beach Movie – the inspirational Aussie export, Back of the Net, makes a reasonable facsimile thereof. So much so that it imported rising Disney star Sofia Wylie (“Andi Mack”) and features some of the brightest and bubbliest teen talent in Australian. After its theatrical run Down Under, Back of the Net aired on the DC here and in the UK. Wylie plays Cory, an American math and physics wiz who flies from L.A. to Sydney to catch one of those Semester at Sea voyages that weren’t around when these kids’ grandparents were young. Instead, Cory mistakenly hops on a bus heading to the national soccer academy in a town called Wollongong, in New South Wales. The problem is, of course, that the math nerd’s knowledge of soccer is limited to the fact that it’s played with a spherical ball. She will learn, by observation, that the best players employ laws of physics and aerodynamics to bend the ball like Beckham, if you will. Typically, Cory will meet resistance from the school’s ruling clique, especially the resident princess, Edie (Tiarnie Coupland), who doesn’t want to share her turf – and boys – with the newcomer. It’s ludicrous, of course, because Cory is a hopeless athlete and isn’t confident in her dealings with the players on the men’s team. She’s adopted by the girls on the “practice team,” who are delightfully patient with her lack of skills and willing to listen to her scientific explanations for things they don’t understand. Ninety-minute story short, everything comes to a head when Edie’s team of bullies meets the practice squad in the Big Game. As predictable as Back of the Net may sound – and it is – it avoids must of the pitfalls of the genre and frosts the clichés with enthusiastic performances and super-cute actors. In Skateboard, with the exception of one or two black faces seen in crowds reacting to stage directions, the only African American actor with a speaking role is a thug sent by the bookie to threaten Garfield. By contrast, Back of the Net is as diverse as these things get in Australia, I suspect, with Asian-Australian, Anglo-Indian, Polynesian and African Australian actors in prominent roles. I didn’t notice any Aboriginal characters, which probably is par for the course, as well. Still, at a time when our women’s soccer team is outshining the men in World Cup competition, a movie that’s strong on Girl Power is welcome.

Manson Family Movies: Limited Edition
Anyone whose appetite for Manson-family lore and arcana has been whetted by Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Charlie Says and The Haunting of Sharon Tate may want to extend the experience by checking out Cult Epics’ “Manson Family Movies: Limited Edition.” It has been re-released on DVD, accompanied by a separate disc, “Sharon Tate’s Home Movies,” which wasn’t available on previous editions. The genesis of the compilation began with rumors that 8mm home movies, taken during family rituals and parties and confiscated by police, were available if one knew the right people. Instead, underground Baltimore filmmaker and self-described “aesthetic nihilist” John Aes-Nihil (The Goddess Bunny Channels Shakespeare) and his troupe approximated what might have been revealed on the Family movies, including preparations for the killings, the killings and visits to such Family landmark as the Spahn/Barker ranches; Jay Sebring’s hair salon; Topanga Canyon; and Leno LaBianca’s market. Given the filmmaker’s roots, it should come as no surprise that his movies have won praise from John Waters (Pink Flamingos), Kenneth Anger (Hollywood Babylon) and George Kuchar (The Devil’s Cleavage). I couldn’t find any redeeming social or satiric value in the film and its outtakes, but, the experience, such as it is, is enhanced by the director’s commentary tracks. Also included is “never before released Manson music,” which, as has been noted previously, isn’t as bad as it could be; “original” cover artwork; and LAPD morgue photos … not for the faint of heart. “Sharon Tate’s Home Movies” appear to be authentic and include footage from her studio shoots – with Dean Martin – and romps with Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow and friends on Malibu Beach. If nothing else, it’s Tate’s great beauty and natural charisma that shine through the silent 16mm film.

Acorn TV: Straight Forward: Series 1
PBS: NOVA: The Planets
ITV: Martin Clunes: Islands of America: Season 1
Nickelodeon: Blaze and The Monster Machines: Ninja Blaze
Nickelodeon: Sunny Day: Welcome to the Pet Parlor
The latest engrossing mini-series from Europe, via Acorn Media, is a transcontinental affair, Straight Forward, pitting a master con-artist, Robyn (Cecilie Stenspil), against a traditional Danish crime boss, Ravn (Mark Mitchinson, who set the wheels in motion by killing her crooked father outside a Copenhagen restaurant. As revenge, Robyn and her Merry Men rob a truck full of kroner, which Ravn dearly misses. He hires a pair of ruthless Serbs, natch, to do the dirty work, while computer geeks in the employ of both parties keep the balls rolling on the darknet. Finally, a series of genuine threats to Robyn’s safety leads to her belligerent daughter, Ida (Marie Boda),being held for leverage by Ravn’s goons. By this time, though, Robyn’s ensconced in a spectacularly scenic beach community in New Zealand, communicating with her hacker, Huss (Arlo Green), who demonstrates with a flick of wrist that the Web is truly worldwide and he’s the equal of Ravn’s geek, Nord (Stephane Garneau-Monten). The wildcards in all this madness are Ida, who still loves her self-serving slime-ball daddy, Gillard; her busybody grandmother, (Vibeke Hastrup); the razor-toting black-widow, Karmen (Mia Pistorius); and a couple of Copenhagen cops, who remain behind the 8-ball throughout most of series. Award-winning writer/creator John Banas (“City Homicide”) keeps things lively by bouncing between the northern and southern hemispheres and keeping things dangerous for everyone. The eight-part story is distinguished, as well, by New Zealand’s magnificent scenery.

I’d have a lot more faith in the scientific establishment if the experts interviewed on such documentary series as PBS’ “The Planets,” didn’t say, “This changes everything,” so often. I feel the same way about the paleontologists who continue to discover bones indicating that half of what we know about dinosaurs is wrong. But, hey, if nothing changed, we could rely on the bible for scientific facts, as Republican Party dullards insist, anyway. No sooner had PBS finished its stellar coverage of the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing than it began churning out the amazing five-part “NOVA” series. Using data and digital images sent back to Earth from all of the various probes, rovers, missions we’ve shot into space, scientists at JPL and other facilities deconstruct the high-resolution shots that, among other things, reveal what Mars might have been like before its vast deposits of water disappeared; how the rings of Saturn were formed; amazing ice and stone formations on Uranus and Neptune; and the mysteries of the Kuiper Belt. Based on the degradation of resources on the planets closest to us, the scientists interviewed don’t appear to be particularly optimistic about the chances of Earth avoiding their fate. It explains the urgency to find places suitable for the survival of our species … not that we deserve it, considering how we treat Mother Earth. Apparently, though, with everything changing on each new mission, there are more mysteries left to solve in space than on all of the true-crime shows on television, combined.

Last month, MVD Visual released “US Generation: 1982: The US Generation,” an all-encompassing look at a festival conceived by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and music impresario Bill Graham, at a venue carved into a hillside, where the I-15 now merges with the I-215 near San Bernardino. Besides taking a documentary approach to the construction of the giant arena and setting up the entertainment menu – including tents promoting Apple’s then-fledgling line of computers – the film offered a sampling of the talent on display. From Shout! Factory comes “Santana: Live at the US Festival,” which puts a tight focus on Carlos Santana and his eponymous band’s nearly hourlong performance. Among the songs are “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” “Oye Como Va,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Incident at Neshabur” and “Jingo Lo Ba.” The interview breaks add “Santana Reflects on His Career,” “Explaining His Signature Sound” and “The Theory of Santana’s Music.”

Alexander Martin Clunes, OBE, is an English actor, television presenter, film director and comedian. He is best known for portraying Martin Ellingham on “Doc Martin” and Gary Strang in “Men Behaving Badly.” In 2008, the affable, if slightly goofy host began starring in animal documentaries, mostly on dogs and horses. Acorn’s “Martin Clunes: Islands of America” is the third mini-series that began with “Islands of Britain” (2009) and “Martin Clunes: Islands of Australia” (2017). Here, starting off in Hawaii, Martin witnesses the islands’ great natural beauty firsthand, as well as  destruction caused by recent volcanoes. His journey continues in Kodiak Island, Alaska, where giant bears play like children and enough of a Russian presence remains for Vladimir Putin to consider annexing it. Then it’s off to California’s similarly protected Channel Islands, where he encounters seal and sea lions in abundance, in addition to the  endangered fox population; and Washington state’s most remote islands, one of which was shared by American and British colonial troops simultaneously. On the East Coast, Martin salsa dances in Puerto Rico, learns about the mysterious lost colony of Roanoke, and watches wild ponies swim at Chincoteague, before ending his journey in New England’s playgrounds of presidents.

“Blaze and the Monster Machines: Ninja Blaze” is comprised five vintage episodes. In “Ninja Blaze,” Ninja Master Blackbelt is training Blaze and AJ to become powerful ninjas, when Crusher and Pickle accidentally launch themselves onto an icy mountain; “Ninja Soup,” when Blackbelt’s Grandma Ninja, gets a bad cold, Blaze, AJ and Blackbelt set out to make the most powerful medicine there is: Ninja Soup; “Pickle Power,” Blaze, AJ, and Pickle work together to save Crusher after he gets sucked into his own Auto MegaVac; “Defeat the Cheat,” Blaze and AJ are gearing up for the second-ever Team Truck Challenge, and this time, their teammate is Crusher; “The Super-Size Prize,” Blaze and AJ don’t have enough coins to try the new Supersize Prize Machine at the Axle City Fair, so they  have to take odd jobs to cover it.

Sunny Day: Welcome to the Pet Parlor” has three episodes from Season One: “Pet Parlor,” “Parlor Problems” and “The Royal Wedding” and an episode from Season Two, “Sunny and the Groom and Vroom.”

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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