MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Toy Story 4, Wedding Guest, Genius Party, Family, Ice King, Ulysses and Mona, 900 Days, At War, Toys Not For Children, Peeps … More

Toy Story 4: Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray/4K UHD
First, the obvious. Toy Story 4 is a worthy addition to Pixar/Disney’s 25-year-old franchise, which, in addition to four exceptional feature films, has spawned a pair of 3D reboots; a series of short vignettes, “Toy Story Treats”; a making-of documentary, “The Story Behind Toy Story” (1999); the animated series, “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command” (2000-01); several 7-minute “Toy Story Toons” shorts; the 22-minute, “Toy Story of Terror” (2011) and “Toy Story That Time Forgot” (2014); a few interactive video games; the “Toy Story Midway Mania!” (2008), theme park attractions; clothing; costumes, accessories and playsets; and countless action figures, plush toys and collectibles. Following the lead set by Star Wars, Star Trek and 50 years of Disney classics, Pixar would offer further proof that no good movie goes unexploited. When Pixar joined forces with Disney – as would George Lucas’ Star Wars juggernaut — Toy Story’s commercial appeal zoomed through the roof. lead and market the hell out of the next quarter-century’s worth of hits. Today, the media treat each new chapter in the saga as if it were another step along the path to finding the Holy Grail. Prior to the release of Toy Story 4, it would have been difficult for anyone with a television to avoid watching Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and other cast members – old and new –extol the virtues of the third sequel in the series on morning, afternoon and late-night talks. and how their participation has changed their lives. (Don Rickles would have joined the parade, as well, if he hadn’t died last year, before he could recorded Mr. Potato Head’s dialogue.) Saturation publicity can help open a picture, but it can’t save it from a disastrous first weekend. There was no fear of that happening with “TS4.”  The newest cast members — Madeleine McGraw, Ally Maki, Juliana Hansen, Lila Sage Bromley — probably had more of an impact on ticket sales through  appearances on ABC, Disney Channel and other affiliated cable outlets. So, if it sometimes appeared as if “TS4” snuck up on the media – which overreacts to each new chapter in a franchise movie – kids were fully cognizant of the fact that the animated characters play a more essential role in a series’ success than actors who voice them. Otherwise, action figures representing Hanks, Allen, Christina Hendricks, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, would be sold alongside the irresistible characters.

It’s fun to recall that Toy Story was released into theaters by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution on November 22, 1995 … not quite the dawn of the digital age. It took Walt Disney Home Video nearly a year — October 29, 1996 – to accommodate the desires of fans, by sending it out on VHS and LaserDisc with no bonus material. More than 21.5 million VHS copies were sold the first year. On January 11, 2000, the film was re-released on VHS, but this time as the first video to be part of the Walt Disney Gold Classic Collection, with the bonus short film “Tin Toy.” It would sell another 2 million copies. Toy Story 2 debuted in megaplexes on November 24, 1999, and, again, the “window” for the VHS and DVD editions didn’t open until 11 months later. Ten years later, the demand for DVD and Blu-ray editions pressured WDHV to open the video window much further. After a boffo theatrical opening on June 18, 2010, Toy Story 3 came  out on November 2, 2010, in a standard DVD edition, a two-disc Blu-ray Disc and in a four-disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack. VHS was no longer a factor in the combined company’s financial picture. More crucial were ticket sales in the exploding non-domestic marketplace, which topped the domestic haul by $236 million and pushed total grosses past the billion-dollar mark for the first time in the animated arena. Toy Story 4 opened theatrically on June 11, 2019,  in Los Angeles, and 10 days later across the country in RealD 3D, Dolby Cinema, and IMAX. It’s taken fewer than four months for Toy Story 4 to enter the home-video marketplace. It was released digitally on October 1 and on Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD the next week, alongside Disney+ titles Captain Marvel, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Aladdin, Frozen II and The Lion King. I doubt that the prospect of watching such creative fare on a handheld device would have been encouraged by Uncle Walt … ditto, short windows and CGI animation.

Although a decade has passed since the release of Toy Story 3, little Bonnie Anderson (Madeleine McGraw) is only now making the transition from Sunnyside Daycare to kindergarten. At the end of the triquel, Andy Davis bequeathed his collection of toys to Bonnie, who already had a “family” of her own. Here, the two clans have very little trouble interacting with each other, even if Woody (Hanks) is throwing a pity party for the diminishment of his status in the transition. Nonetheless, Woody volunteers to surreptitiously accompany the painfully shy Bonnie to school, hidden in her knapsack. After she gets her first taste of bullying, Woody helps her create a new BFF, Forky (Tony Hale), from materials thrown away by the students.  Even though Forky dwells on being created from junk – it qualifies as an existential crisis — Woody reassures the makeshift toy of his place in the world of anthropomorphic toys. The plot thickens when Bonnie’s human family goes on a road trip in their RV, which can barely contain Bonnie’s toys. When Forky jumps out of the vehicle, Woody, once again, takes it upon himself to pursue him. Not far from the RV park, Woody spots Bo Peep’s lamp in an antique-store window and goes inside to find her. Instead, he and Forky encounter Gabby Gabby (Hendricks), a 1950s pull-string doll with a broken voice box. Gabby covets Woody’s mechanical vocal cords but is forced to leave Forky behind when they’re attacked by a her goons, who once served as ventriloquist dummies, At a playground, Woody reunites with Bo and her sheep, who now live as “lost” toys. Bo agrees to help Woody save Forky and return to Bonnie. As luck would have it, Woody hooks up with Buzz Lightyear (Allen), who, after serving time as a carnival game prize, escaped with the silly plush toys, Ducky and Bunny (Key and Peele). The posse is joined by toy cop Giggle McDimples (Maki) and stuntman toy, Duke Caboom (Reeves), but Forky’s rescue will require more than brute force.

Many observers felt as if Toy Story 3 carried enough emotional and narrative weight to serve as a tidy ending for the series. Andy’s decision to give his toys to Bonnie, on his way to college, provided closure. When “TS3” went on to become a monster hit, however, it made sense for Disney and Pixar executives to keep their options open. Just as the triquel had ended on a valedictory note, the combining of toy families and introduction of appealing new characters provides a jumping-off point that allows for more theatrical features, as well as fresh challenges for the marketing team. As for Buzz, Woody and Bo, no matter what happens to them, they’ll always be a heartbeat away from Bonnie’s combined families … and, of course, the troubling events in a girl’s life that only a prized toy or puppy can help resolve. It will allow for young viewers to become invested in the franchise, as their parents did. The other compelling thing about “TS4” is amazing collection of memorabilia and references that can be found throughout the picture. They’ll fly over the heads of newbies, but parents and longtime fans will have fun picking out the clues to the Pixar puzzle. Even ardent trivialists would require repeated viewings to identify and place most of the connections to the ghosts movies past. The combo package allows for direct comparisons between the 4K and Blu-ray discs, and the Atmos audio and Blu-ray’s DTS track. The UHD/Atmos presentation has already scored high marks with the tech crowd, and the Blu-ray is certainly acceptable. The bonus features are limited to the enclosed Blu-ray discs. On the first, the feature is supplemented by “Bo Rebooted,” an exploration of how Bo Peep makes the transition here to main character status; “Toy Stories,” in which cast and crew share their memories of favorite childhood toys; and audio commentary, with freshman director Josh Cooley and producer Mark Nielsen. On the second BD disc, fully  dedicated to additional bonus material, there are 28 minutes of deleted scenes and featurettes “Let’s Ride With Ally Maki,” “Woody & Buzz,” “Anatomy of a Scene: Playground,” “Carnival Run,” “View From the Roof” and “Toy Box.” I’m sure that Disney, as is its wont, is holding back a few more shorts, featurettes and songs for future editions of Toy Story 4.

The Wedding Guest: Blu-ray
Beginning with Welcome to Saravejo (2007), which was about a war that laid the foundation for conflicts in Chechnya, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and guerrilla attacks in Africa and the  Philippines, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has depicted the toll paid by civilians and falsely accused like no one else. Moreover, he’s done so without sacrificing his dedication to indie comedies, literature, thrillers, rock ’n’ roll, documentaries and mockumentaries. If they all weren’t successful commercially or critically – 9 Songs (2004), The Face of an Angel (2014), The Claim (2000) —  even the failures demonstrated a passion for the medium and its ability  to portray the human condition. In This World (2002), used amateur actors to depict the harrowing journey of two Afghan refugees from Pakistan, across the Middle East and Europe to Britain. The Road to Guantanamo (2005) was a docudrama about three British Muslims, captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and held in the isolated Cuba enclave under the terms of extrajudicial detention, which allowed for torture and religious debasement. A Mighty Heart (2007) was adapted from Marianne Pearl’s book about her journalist husband’s kidnapping and murder, and Trishna re-imagined Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” by setting the tragedy in contemporary India. It’s been reported the he’s developing a 10-part television series about the war in Syria, focusing on the involvement of foreign journalists and non-governmental organizations. Like so many of Winterbottom’s other films, The Wedding Guest (2018) was shot on location, in places that would try the patience and dedication of most other filmmakers.

Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) plays Jay, a stealthy kidnapper whose connections within the international criminal underworld suggest he’s either a former spy or Interpol agent. He carries numerous passports under assumed names and speaks or understands several Middle Eastern dialects and languages. He’ll use all of them in The Wedding Guest to rent vehicles and check into hotels in Pakistan and India, without drawing attention to himself. Jay knows better than to carry weapons into Pakistan — especially by  plane — when it’s easier to find them in the black market, upon arrival. We still don’t know what he intends to do with a gun, if anything, but it clearly involves the commitment of a crime. In Pakistan, where danger is everywhere, it helps to carry enough money to avoid incarceration. Jay wastes no time getting to the crux of his mission, however. It requires him to break into a walled residence, where a wedding is expected to take place the next night. He swiftly locates the bedroom of the bride-to-be, Samira (Radhika Pate), who’s sleeping, and not anticipating an early wake-up call by an intruder. Neither are viewers fully aware of what he plans to do with the terrified young woman. That Jay is willing to take extreme measures to capture Samira becomes obvious when he’s confronted by one of the few security guards in Pakistan who can’t be bought or coerced into ignoring what’s happening on his watch. Once they leave the city and she stops screaming and pounding the trunk of the escape vehicle with her feet, it becomes clear that Samira doesn’t want to be married to her pre-arranged fiancé, and the man who’s hired Jay, through a go-between, is back in London awaiting news of the abduction.

A true cad, Deepish (Jim Sarbh) takes the unexpected confrontation with the guard as a sign of trouble to come and decides that it might not be in his best interest to go through with the plot. He also knows better than to deny Jay the rest of the agreed payout. While Jay’s identity remains unknown, Deepish’s relationship with Samira is common knowledge in London. Sure enough, photos of the endangered lovebirds appear on the front pages of newspapers and Internet news sites the next day. He agrees to fly to India with more money, diamonds and a willingness to concoct a face-saving scheme that doesn’t include Samira. Deepesh’s desire to call the shots doesn’t sit well with Jay or Samira and, with his identity already revealed, he’s a potential danger to both of the protagonists. Long story short, the story will come to an end – one way or another – after the bounty is exchanged and the trio heads to Goa, on the beautiful shores of the Arabian Sea in southwestern India. (Deepish has already forced Jay and Samira to make unplanned pitstops in Amritsar, New Delhi and Jaipur.) Not surprisingly, perhaps, there will come a time in The Wedding Guest when Samira will have to choose between Jay and Deepesh – romantically and for pragmatic reasons – or begin developing a scheme to take the money and disappear. In this way, the movie reminds me a bit of Taylor Hackford’s steamy noir thriller, Against All Odds (1984), which was adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel and screenplay, Out of the Past (1947). While the majority of critics praised Giles Nuttgens’ atmospheric cinematography here, many were disappointed the absence of tension, urgency and thrills that might have derived from some skillfully executed chase scenes and near misses triggered by duplicitous forgers, fences, hotel clerks, train porters and bus drivers. After all, Samira’s photo appears on the cover of the same newspapers, wanted posters and Internet news sites that proclaimed Deepish’s guilt in the caper. Winterbottom can be forgiven for not playing the Jason Bourne or 007 card here, however. Adding action scenes would have cost the production many more millions of dollars to make and Winterbottom’s followers would have been disappointed in his lack of reserve. On the other hand, The Wedding Guest isn’t lacking in the sexual-chemistry department.

Genius Party/Genius Party Beyond: Blu-ray
Twenty-five years after Toy Story introduced feature-length CGI animation to the masses, the masses have begun to ask the computer jockeys, “What else can you show me?” Today, CGI is taken for granted, both in live-action extravaganzas and in animated storytelling. The best are excellent, while the least ambitious, straight-to-video releases have yet to be driven out of the marketplace. I only bring this up as a way to give fans of top-shelf animation a head’s-up on the arrival of Genius Party/Genius Party Beyond. Even if the Japanese import’s misleading title isn’t terribly alluring, the dozen imaginatively conceived and brilliantly rendered shorts contained in the Shout! Factory/Timeless Media package push the limits on what enterprising animators can do when given free rein by their studio. Here, the inspiration comes from Japan’s Studio 4°C and the only guideline required contributors to adhere to a single theme: the “spirit of creativity.” The Tokyo-based studio was founded in 1986 by Ghibli-veterans Eiko Tanaka and Koji Morimoto, both of whom worked on the Wachowskis’ science-fiction anthology, The Animatrix (2003), and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989).The setup for the Genius Party projects reminds me of Fantasia (1940), in which Disney animators were challenged by the boss to use classical music, provided by conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, as inspiration for eight short films. At the same time, Genius Party recalls graduation projects and production reels I’ve seen that showcase the unlimited potential of up-and-coming animators.  If some of the shorts have unfathomable throughlines and surrealistic imagery, they’re what make the package so interesting. The anthologies feature contributions from such directors as Shoji Kawamori, Shinichiro Watanabe, Masaaki Yuasa and Mahiro Maeda, as well as some impressive newcomers. Almost of the selections are informed by music, ranging from classical compositions to cutting-edge EDM. They combine sci-fi, horror and fantasy, frequently against the background of a dystopian universe and endless war. Some of the backgrounds reminded me of Ralph Steadman’s more frightening imagery. The colors are not to be believed. Because the stories pretty much lack recognizable narratives and storylines, Genius Party/Genius Party Beyond requires of viewers that they open their minds to the fantasies of strangers and go along with their sensory cues. The package is available for the first time in North America.

Judging solely from the evidence presented in Family, 35-year-old multihyphenate Veronica Kedar appears to be ready to make the leap from being a filmmaker known primarily in Israel, to becoming a player on the broader world stage. Since completing her graduation project, “Tail,” in 2008, the Tel Aviv native has finished three features and a quartet of shorts, which have been shown at niche festivals – LGBTQ, horror, fantasy — around the world and been nominated for awards back home. Family (2018) has been the best-received of all her films, but that hasn’t made it any easier to define. That’s due in large part to the thin line that separates horror, family dramas, black comedy and dysfunction, all of which come into play here. Family might also be a commentary on how Israel’s military culture has seeped into the country’s social fabric, but I don’t know. Kedar plays Lily Brooke, a young woman of indeterminate age – between 18 and the director’s own age of 35 – who is alternately portrayed as an emotionally damaged sociopath, desperately needy woman-child and the sanest member of the genuinely dysfunctional clan. When we meet Lily, she’s setting up a “family portrait” for inclusion in a photography contest. The only hint of the photo’s true nature is the bullet hole in her father’s head. In fact, everyone in the photograph is dead, except Lily, who’s positioned herself in the center of the sofa, staring directly into the camera.

After staging this bizarre family pose, Lily goes immediately to her therapist’s apartment, where, after some back-and-forth, she engages with the absent shrink’s disaffected teenage daughter. In numerous flashbacks, Kader reveals her character’s motivations. It’s made abundantly clear that Lily’s been surrounded all her life by anger, resentment, alcoholism, drug abuse, jealousy and sexual perversion. Her real problems began  when her abusive father (Eli Danker) decided he wasn’t interested in parenthood or remaining with his wife (Evgenia Dodina). It isn’t enough that Dad won’t help Lily afford the rent increase for her photography studio, he also feels it necessary to demean her abilities. At one time, Mom once was a dancer – and very attractive, as well — who expected in her eldest daughter, Smadar (Hen Yanni), to someday fill her ballet slippers. Instead, they argue constantly and plot to kill each other. The brother, Adam (Aryeh Hasfari), has just been relieved of his duties in the military for masturbating to naked photos of Lily. The interplay is savage enough for to name Family one of the 10 Best Foreign Horror Films of 2018 and for Brooklyn Horror Film Festival to honor it as winner of the Head Trip Competition. Kedar’s most impressive achievement here, however, might be keeping her audience guessing as to whether Lily is a monster to be feared or a victim, to be pitied.

The Ice King
In a happy coincidence, 2018 produced a pair of films honoring three of Britain’s most artistic and influential figure skaters: John Curry, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Glaswegian Gillies MacKinnon (Hideous Kinky), who frequently informs his films with dance and music — signed on to direct Torville & Dean, a biopic that was shown on ITV on Christmas Day. (A Blu-ray/DVD of the presentation has yet to be released in the U.S.) The second is James Erskine’s The Ice King, which opened theatrically in the UK on February 24, 2018, and, more than a year later, in skate-crazy Japan. Although multiple Gold Medal-winner Sonja Henie became a major Hollywood star, with 13 movies to her credit, it’s the rare Olympian today who can cross over to other post-career pursuits that don’t involve broadcasting, endorsements and representing commercial interests. For some reason, the traveling ice show circuit has fallen on hard times, as well. The Cutting Edge (1992), Blades of Glory (2007) did some business on their release, especially in the aftermarket. I, Tonya, which, coincidentally, opened wide in 2018, loosely depicts the events leading up to one of the most infamous incidents in sports history. While televised coverage of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding’s return to competition, in time for the Lillehammer Games, attracted huge audience numbers, the critically acclaimed I, Tonya underperformed at the box office. What, if anything, does any of this have to  do with the release of The Ice King on DVD? Practically nothing, except, as the documentary points out, Curry challenged many long-established taboos and stereotypes on his way to a world championship and gold-medal glory at the 1976 Winter Olympics, in Innsbruck, Austria.

Among other things, the Birmingham native changed the way male skaters dressed for competition, presented their routines and behaved off the ice, all of which were still being lampooned, 30 years later, in the funny, if sometimes cruel Blades of Glory. As an amateur competitor, Curry was noted for his ballet-like posture and extension, as well as his superb body control, instead of his athleticism and jumps. Along with Canadian skater Toller Cranston, Curry was responsible for bringing the artistic and presentation aspects of men’s figure skating to a new level. He would continue to expand his vision in his post-amateur career, creating “theater on ice” or skating as a form of dance expression, rather than simply winning medals. In his private life, Curry refused to deny or confirm that he was gay. His exit from the closet – the decriminalization of sexual activity between men in the UK was less than a decade old – came on the eve of the world championships, when he was outed in a scurrilous article in the German tabloid newspaper, Bild-Zeitung. He admitted as much the next day and won first prize in the Worlds. A few weeks later, the disclosure had already become a non-issue in the European athletic community. His acknowledgement cleared the way – slowly– for other prominent skaters to follow and eventually take advantage of the loosening of prohibitions against same-sex marriage. Gay and lesbian athletes in other sports haven’t been nearly as forthcoming. In 1987, Curry was diagnosed with HIV, and, in 1991, with AIDS. He died of an AIDS-related heart attack on April 15, 1994 in Binton, Warwickshire, at the age of 44. Crisply narrated by actor Freddie Fox, The Ice King offers a nice blend of archival performance footage, interviews and biography. The magnificent “Blue Danube” sequence that forms the climax had never been shown before it was included in this film. It came courtesy of Nathan Birch, the choreographer. The extras include “On the Beautiful Blue Danube: Creating the Music of The Ice King” and a Q&A with director Erskine.

900 Days
If Americans are ever going to understand Russia’s often belligerent, always paranoid stance on relations with the United States, it will be necessary for us to grasp the difference between enduring war at home and observing its horrors from great distances. The fact the invaders were ultimately vanquished is noteworthy, of course, but memories of starvation, frigid conditions and deprivation are never far from Russia’s collective memory. When Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe River, on April 25, 1945, the happy faces, hugs and handshakes, and shared toasts suggested to civilians that all things were now possible in international diplomacy. The euphoria wouldn’t last long, of course. Sword-rattlers in the Kremlin and Washington almost immediately began preparing for a third world war. It explains why the western allies would be so insistent on creating  capitalist democracies in West Germany and Austria, and the Soviets were so intent on establishing socialist republics in the countries it helped liberate. Stalin knew that influential politicians in Washington and across the Potomac River, at the Pentagon, were disappointed with the decision to end the war where it started. Likewise, President Truman believed that the same atomic bombs that helped end our war with Japan would serve as a deterrent to the Soviets’ expansionist goals in Asia and, ultimately, western Europe. Despite his murderous policies at home, Stalin was worshipped throughout his war-weary nation. Truman, who made so many brave and controversial decisions … not so much.

It would take a few years for Eastern Europeans to experience the failures of communism first-hand and come to resent Uncle Joe’s imposition of police state to clamp down on any resistance – real and perceived — even by fellow socialists. In a roundabout way, it explains why movies and television shows about the 900-day Siege of Leningrad and the 160-day Battle for Stalingrad have never been accorded equal weight in the popular media. Both demonstrated the strength and perseverance of the cities’ citizenry, while delivering decisive blows to Adolf Hitler’s strategy on the Eastern Front. According to archival figures, the Battle for Stalingrad (now, Volgograd) cost the Soviets some 1.13 million total casualties, with 478,741 persons killed or missing, and 650,878 wounded or incapacitated by illness. By comparison, more than a million citizens of Leningrad (now, St. Petersburg) died in aerial and land attacks, from starvation, the extreme cold and disease. Nonetheless, less than a decade later, Stalin’s supposed jealousy of Leningrad’s city leaders resulted in politically motivated show trials and purge of state and Communist Party functionaries, allegedly for publicly overestimating the importance of the city as an independent fighting unit and their own roles in defeating enemy. (In the years leading up to WWII, Stalin used the suspicious assassination of party leader Sergey Kirov, in 1934 as a pretext to launch the Great Purge of 1936-1938. It resulted in the murders of an estimated 1 million political opponents, Trotskyists, Red Army officers, kulaks and ethnic minorities, who, Stalin feared, stood in the way his consolidation of power.) On Hitler’s direct orders, the Wehrmacht looted and then destroyed most of the imperial palaces, including the Catherine Palace, Peterhof Palace, Ropsha, Strelna, Gatchina and other historic landmarks located outside the city’s defensive perimeter, with many art collections transported to Germany. A few years  after the war political forces within the Kremlin demanded that the well-curated Leningrad Defense Museum be destroyed, along with many valuable exhibits. The museum was revived in the late 1980s – and is shown as an educational institution in 900 Days – but the repatriation of antiques and artistic treasures remains tangled in litigation over who can claim items looted not only by Nazis, but also soldiers and officers of the Allies.

Jessica Gorter intended for her highly compelling documentary, released here on DVD/Blu-ray in 2011, to set the historical record straight, while also recounting the harrowing stories and opinions of survivors of the siege. For 2½ crushingly long years, the city’s dwindling population of 3 million inhabitants – pre-war and post-purge — was trapped without food or drinking water. As supplies ran out or were destroyed in bombings, they ate glue, leather soles, pets and an untold number of human beings. Survivors speak openly, many for the first time, about their experiences during the siege and with post-war censorship. As difficult as it is to hear them dredge up such unpleasant memories, there’s no escaping the humanity and pride in their eyes. It’s there, as well, when men and women gather once again to commemorate their victory, which wouldn’t be complete for another two years. Let’s hope that our president’s good friend, Vladimir Putin, doesn’t morph completely into Stalin and the war mongers in Congress learn lessons taught in such movies as 900 Days, PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead: Deadliest Battle” and partially fictionalized Enemy at the Gates (2001). Who knows when an American city of strategic importance  – Cleveland or Detroit, perhaps – is encircled by Russian or Chinese soldiers and its citizens are forced to pay the price for failed diplomacy.

At War: Blu-ray
Having observed the confrontational nature of labor relations in France from afar, the argumentative nature of the negotiations depicted in Stéphane Brizé’s At War didn’t surprise me. Taking to the streets to protest working conditions, layoffs, the rising costs for staple and gasoline, and other cutbacks, as become old hat for American news bureaus in France. They only pay attention when streets and highways are blocked by tractors and trucks, and protestors and police renew their ritual dance with  violence and arson. Some Americans fondly recall similar confrontations during the era of antiwar and civil rights marches here. When blue-collar workers accepted Richard Nixon’s promise of “peace with honor” and other Republicans offered relief from overseas competition and outsourced jobs – which never came – they opened the door for Reaganomics to tighten the noose around the neck of organized labor. Still, blue-collar workers refused to support the Democrat agenda, which demanded racial and gender diversity. As is evident in the stalled negotiations between General Motors and the UAW, management holds most of the cards and the workers’ only option is holding out until the companies’ surplus of cars and trucks is exhausted. When Michigan voted in favor of a Trump presidency, it expected the President to reciprocate by making good on his pledge to halt the exporting of jobs to Mexico. They should have known better. As is the case in At War, union members made sizable concessions to management when the grip of the 2008 recession took hold.

In Stéphane Brizé’s intimate depiction of labor negotiations gone sour, the strike against a moderately sized manufacturing plant in Agen, Lot-et-Garonne, has been called, in part, to press the plant’s new German owners to honor promises made to keep it open for another three years. The agreement also allowed the firm to help itself to state subsidies – tax revenues denied the employees — and, when the economic picture brightened, divvy the profits among shareholders. They would prefer to close the factory and pay each of the 1,100 workers a €25,000 severance package. (Some 46,000 union workers are being affected in the GM/UAW strike.) The company would settle for another drastic cut in  wages and benefits, but any continuance of the strike would result in the rescinding of the one-time payout, freezing medical benefits and closing the plant. As it is, any hope of a settlement is subject to the legal restrictions of two very different governments. The workers’ team is led by the fiery shop steward Laurent Amédéo (Vincent Lindon), who would have gone along with any decision the union members made to go on strike or accept the severance deal. Once they voted to go on strike Laurent committed himself to a bare-knuckle fight to save their jobs. Where the union team uses logic and blistering testimony on the deprivations already affecting factory workers to make their case, the management side attempts to dazzle them with statistics, legal mumbo-jumbo and lies. When he offers sound proposals to streamline operations and cut costs, Amédéo is told that the owners pay experts good money to come up with solutions to their problems. In what appears to be a concession, management promises that the German owner will arrive in person to plead his case and listen to the workers’ complaints. Of course, he decides not to honor his pledge as long as the strike continues. Finally, management decides to play its trump cards – if you will — by directly presenting its arguments to striking workers and their families, while using divide-and-conquer tactics to inspire dissention among the workers.  It’s the oldest trick in management’s book. The ending takes what some critics determined to be an overly melodramatic shortcut and, yes, it feels forced. Nonetheless, it’s of a piece with Brizé and Lindon’s previous collaborations, The Measure of a Man (2015) and A Few Hours of Spring (2012), all of which bear comparison to the socially realistic dramas of Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake), with Lindon serving as his blue-collar Everyman.

I will admit to not noticing, at first, that At War was a work of fiction and not an adaptation of a documentary, with actors stepping in for the actual participants in a labor dispute. It’s why I wasn’t taken aback by Lindon’s emotional presence and the other actors’ ability to nail their characters’ intensity and quirks. It’s also possible that all or most of the other cast member are first timers or civilians, who are perfectly suited for portraying themselves or their neighbors. I wonder if anyone at Cinema Libre Studio has considered holding screenings of At War for striking workers in Detroit.

Ulysses and Mona
Also from France, Ulysses and Mona is quirky buddy film, whose protagonists kind of, sort of remind me of Harold & Maude’s Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort, in reverse. It isn’t as darkly humorous as Hal Ashby’s 1971 masterpiece, but by the time Mona wears down Ulysses’ rough edges, it’s easy to see the tenderness and humor invested in the characters by writer/director Sébastien Betbeder (Marie and the Misfits). In a scenario that mirrors athlete-turned-actor Eric Cantona’s own stunning mid-career shift – “The King” left Manchester United, in 1997, to pursue acting and painting – his 55-year-old character, the bearish Ulysses, 55, is four years removed from his abrupt exit from France’s high-art scene. He decided to spend the rest of life in seclusion, avoiding admirers, family and friends, along with most of the trappings of fame. His lakeside villa could hardly be more secluded and difficult to find, and the only person not chased away from his doorstep is an 8-year-old boy, Arthur, who’s nicknamed the bearded Goliath, “Vampire.” When Ulysses abandoned polite society, he also gave up on his wife and son. Nowadays, he lives alone, with his dog, Joseph, and whiles away the hours by playing tennis against a robotic volleying and listening to horror movie soundtracks. Ulysses isn’t a recluse, but he might as well be one. Twenty-year-old Mona (Manal Issa) is a talented, if bored art student, who has idolized Ulysses from afar for years. His Contemporary paintings move her in ways her hide-bound teachers don’t. Out of the blue, Mona asks a classmate to ask his father – a cop –to locate the painter’s home on a map. After a fruitless first attempt to meet Ulysses, it takes a medical emergency for her to make herself useful in his life. The close call is followed by tests that, with Mona’s insistence, cause him to re-evaluate recent decisions in his life. He’s also inspired by a coincidental encounter with his young neighbor. The newly minted buddies embark on a journey that will change the course of their lives. The melodramatic touches toward the end of Ulysses and Mona
may feel all too familiar to fans of these sorts of road/buddy movies, but they don’t come off as being disingenuous or gratuitous. The Film Movement package adds the bonus short, Aino Suni’s “Wolf Carver.”

My Samurai: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The latest entry into MVD’s Rewind collection easily qualifies as a movie that’s so bad, it’s fun to watch … sometimes. It’s a quality the essential distributor of specialty films embraces in the movies it elects to release. It hopes that the post-Boomers and millennials who grew up watching “MSTK3” will enjoy checking out the same sorts of movies playing on the Satellite of Love and adding snarky commentary of their own. So far, the results are mixed. Too many of the selections are so bad they’re terrible. Shot in 1988, My Samurai wasn’t released into VHS until early 1993. It hasn’t appeared on disc until this week. If it had been made 25 years earlier, before Fist of Fury (1972) and The Street Fighter (1974) electrified the martial-arts genre and forced practitioners to step up their game, it might have been mentioned in the same breath as those two classics. Arriving in the wake of My Bodyguard (1980), The Karate Kid (1984) and The Karate Kid Part II (1986) and Part III (1989) and TMNT (1990) — all of which it resembles — My Samurai looks as if it were released solely to be mocked by the MST3K crew. When young misfit Peter McCrea (John Kallo) witnesses a mob murder, he becomes a target for assassination by several strange-looking gangs and a police department comprised of corrupt cops. If that sounds like overkill, consider that Peter is able to enlist his martial-arts master, Young Park (Julian Lee), for his defense team. Because of limitations forced by a tight budget, Park is forced to become a one-man army. As if protecting the kid wasn’t sufficiently difficult, director Fred H. Dresch (The Kudzu Christmas) and writer Richard Strahle (Shock ’Em Dead) conspired to add a fifth wheel in the shapely form of model Lynne Hart. Her foremost responsibility here is to run away from trouble in an ultra-tight mini-dress, black stockings and heels. Try it. For my money, it should either become an Olympics event or a new category in the Academy Awards. Everything else in My Samurai suffers by comparison, even the no-contact fighting scenes. And, you guessed it, the movie has less to do with samurai than it does with taekwondo, which was introduced by Korean fighters. The bonus package adds a fresh interview with stars Julian Lee (Fatal Revenge) and stunt actor Mark Steven Grove (The Shadow Walkers); “Watching My Scenes,” with actor Jim Turner (“Arli$$”); and a conversation with Christophe Clark (Buttman’s European Vacation). Football and light-beer commercial star Bubba Smith (Police Academy) makes an extended cameo, but Strahle didn’t give him any funny lines.

Hamlet in the Golden Vale
Although I’ve never pretended to be a theater critic, I’ve seen the works of Shakespeare performed in dozens of different ways, from traditional, to period to sci-fi. Even though I prefer the old-school adaptations in classic settings, I’ve learned to be flexible. In Hamlet in the Golden Vale, a company of young actors arrive at a castle deep in the Irish countryside and set into motion the story of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The lives of the actors and their characters intertwine as Prince Hamlet confronts the ghost of his father and seeks revenge on the treacherous Claudius, his uncle and newly appointed king. Hamlet’s pursuit of vengeance scorches the lives of everyone inside the castle’s walls and lays bare the many contradictions and ambiguities of human existence. It plays out in various rooms of castle, with the actors sometimes wearing whatever they have on at the moment. The high degree of difficulty comes in knowing that six members of troupe play 19 separate characters. The sole responsibilities for Taylor Myers and Anthony Vaughn Merchant are Hamlet and Horatio, respectively. At the play’s end, seven days have passed, and the actors emerge, leaving the castle and characters behind. At the very least, Hamlet in the Golden Vale offers a fresh take on a 425-year-old masterwork.

42nd Street Forever: Peep Show Collection: Volume #32/33/34
Zoom Up: Graduation Photo
Anyone who’s been following HBO’s scintillating mini-series “The Deuce” for the past three years, but still has only the vaguest awareness of pornography, might want to check out the latest entries in Impulse Pictures’ “42nd Street Forever: Peep Show Collection,” which is in its 32nd,  33rd and 34th iteration. As played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, former “working girl” Eileen “Candy” Merrell has been our guide to the evolution of 42nd Street from its depiction in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Taxi Driver (1976), through its Disneyfication period and the domestication of pornography. Candy has introduced newbies to peep shows, which have been around since nickelodeons ruled the midway, but, in the 1960-70s, provided the New York mob with unimaginable profits. And, simply put, the peeps were little more than 8mm stag films shown on loops inside booths designed to accommodate men for whom masturbation is one the only ways to make their lives better … messy floors and all.

The Golden Age of Porn would re-introduce stars of the peepshow era to viewers who didn’t mind sharing the experience with a couple dozen other like-minded viewers. The introduction of VHS cassettes brought the same experience home, minus the sticky floors, where couples could enjoy porn in the privacy of their own home. I don’t know if Candy will make it to the computer age, with video dating and streaming, but women have served on the front lines of the sexual revolution ever since 1964, when Carol Doda not only became the first topless dancer, but also enhanced her breasts with silicone injections, going from size 34 to 44. Five years later, she added bottomless dancing to her topless act, at San Francisco’s Condor Club. As usual, her mere presence raised the hackles of cops, civic leaders and suburbanites, who would have had no reason to be in the club, anyway. Each of the remastered DVDs in the series presents actors whose names would only become public knowledge when they appeared on the covers of cassettes and on posters promoting the latest attraction at the local Pussycat Theater. I suspect that Candy is a composite of Gloria Leonard and Candida Royalle, who made the leap from the peeps to producing and publishing hard-core material. Among  the actors featured in the hard-core series are future stars Susan Nero, John Holmes, Vanessa del Rio, Annette Haven, Loni Sanders, Arcadia Lake, Veri Knotty, Cris Cassidy, Mai Lin and Linda Shaw.

Impulse Pictures has also introduced American audiences to a wide range of Japanese pornos, commonly known as “pinku eiga” and “eroduction.” The genre roughly followed the timeline that began in the U.S. in the late-1950s with such nudie-cutie titles as Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), Peter Perry Jr.’s Revenge of the Virgins (1959), Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Naked Venus (1959) and Larry Wolk and Doris Wishman’s Hideout in the Sun (1960), most of which observed the existing laws by filming in nudist clubs, artist studios or from the point of view of a professional photographers. In Japan, pink films became wildly popular in the mid-1960s and dominated the Japanese domestic cinema through the mid-1980s, with major studios taking over production in the 1970s. Nikkatsu started focusing almost exclusively on erotic content, while Toei started producing a line of what came to be known as Pinky Violence films. Unlike their American counterparts, Japanese filmmakers were able to tell complete stories, however lurid, salacious, kinky and repulsive the subject matter became. If there wasn’t nudity in the picture – no matter the genre – it wasn’t pinku. And, by law, the nudity was limited to bare breasts, bottoms and pixilated or blurred genitalia and pubic hair. Zoom Up: Graduation Photo is part of a series of films that began in 1979, with Zoom Up: Rape Site and added such sequels as Zoom In: Rape Apartments,Zoom Up: The Beaver Book Girl, Zoom Up: Woman From the Dirty Magazine and Zoom Up: Sexual Crime Report. They might as well have been the same movie.

Here, Yoko (Reiko Nakamura) is a young woman who takes a job working as a nude model for an adult magazine. At first, she is so ashamed of the photographs – Yoko was promised the mag wouldn’t be circulated anywhere near her hometown – that she denies the pictures are of her. When the publication, with Yoko on the cover, turns up in vending machines, her boyfriend, Junko (Yuka Koizumi), and his buddies decide that she’s graduated from being girlfriend material to rape-bait. Feeling bad about her decision to model, she tries buying back the negatives but is unsuccessful. Embracing her popularity and steady paychecks, Yoko is cajoled into modeling for fetishists, whose tastes run from shaving, sex toys and girl-girl action, to enemas and fruit crushing. It isn’t until the end that she’s able to achieve her goal of falling in love and experiencing straight sex … with a clever twist.

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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