MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: After the Wedding, Buñuel in the Labyrinth, Bliss, Nuke ’Em High Redux, Tel Aviv on Fire, They Are We, Hitchhikers, Far Country, Popstar, Truth … More

After the Wedding: Blu-ray
In 2007, After the Wedding became the first Danish film in 16 years to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. The competition that year —  The Lives of Others, Days of Glory, Water, Pan’s Labyrinth – was typically intense and Suzanne Bier and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen’s drama lost to the excellent late-Cold War thriller from Germany. All things being equal, Mads Mikkelsen (“Hannibal”) could have been nominated for an acting nomination, as well, and no one would have complained. Apart from the two mortal locks in the Best Leading Actor categories — Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Helen Mirren (The Queen) – 2007 was a relatively slack year in acting contests. Four years later, Bier and Jensen would return to the red carpet with the Denmark/Sweden co-production, In a Better World. Except for a few revisions, writer/director Bart Freundlich’s remake of After the Wedding (2019) closely followed Bier and Jensen’s template. In the original, Jacob Pederson (Mikkelsen) lives in a Mumbai shantytown, assisting in the running of an orphanage and school. He has effectively adopted a young male orphan, Pramod, and takes special care of him.  Financial resources are dwindling, however. Out of the blue, the orphanage receives an offer of funding from a wealthy Danish business executive, Jörgen (Rolf Lassgård), which promises to alleviate the problem.

In both movies, the world-weary relief workers – played by Mikkelsen and Michelle Williams —  are required to return to their native countries and formalize the what they believe to be a done deal. Julianne Moore’s Theresa Young sits in for Rolf Lassgård’s billionaire industrialist in the 2019 adaptation. Like Mikkelsen’s Jacob, Williams’ Isabel Anderson is surprised to learn that she’ll have to jump through a few more hoops before contracts are signed, including attending a gala wedding for the benefactors’ daughters. This puts a crimp in their plans to return to India in time for their favorite students’ eighth birthday party, which is as important to the visitors as the wedding is to their hosts. In the meantime, they’re shown all of the respect and generosity one would expect from a billionaires setting the terms for a big deal. In fact, they’re embarrassed by the size of their hotel rooms and buffet spreads that would keep their orphans from experiencing hunger for a month, or so. Upon their arrival at the weddings, Jacob and Isabel are stunned to find significant others they’d left behind 20 years earlier, played in the original by Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Borgen”) and Billy Crudup (Spotlight), in the latter. Because the bride in both pictures is 19 years old and believes she was raised, in part, by a stepparent, it shouldn’t take a genealogist or math genius to guess that something besides a million-dollar donation is at stake here. What, exactly, isn’t revealed until later, but coincidence has nothing to do with it. The second half of After the Wedding plays out in a series of revelations, set ups and surprises, all which would qualify as a spoiler.

Bart Freundlich’s English-language remake will be familiar to fans of 2006 version, even with the director’s three primary revisions: 1) the locations of the business meetings and wedding have been changed, to New York; 2) the roles played by men in the original have been retrofitted to accommodate female protagonists; and 3), the specifics behind the breakups, 20 years earlier, have been tweaked to amplify the bride’s emotional predicament. Not surprisingly, Freundlich also  elected to forgo most of Bier’s Dogme 95 conceits — the handheld camera, natural lighting, spontaneous acting – that made her version so immediate and compelling but could irritate American audiences. While critics were almost unanimous in their praise of Bier’s After the Wedding, the melodramatic trappings of the remake divided them almost in half. This triggers the obvious question as to why Bier wasn’t hired to direct to After the Wedding a second time, with two of the best actresses in Hollywood filling in for two of the best actors in Scandinavia. Perhaps, it has something to do, as well, with Bier’s taking the industry to task for the glass-ceiling that keeps women from attaining key behind-the-camera jobs and equal paychecks with men for the same work. Last year, however, Bier was elected to the academy’s Board of Governor … so, never mind.  The more likely explanation is that Moore, in her capacity as co-producer (with Freundlich and more than a dozen others), felt more comfortable with her husband’s directing style and her access to the seat of power. Freundlich has been married to Moore since 2003 and, apart from collaborating on two children, worked together on The Myth of Fingerprints (1997), World Traveler (2001) and Trust the Man (2005). None are in the same league as the Oscar-winning Still Alice (2014) and runners-up Far from Heaven (2002), The Hours (2002), The End of the Affair (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997). Diane Kruger (In the Fade) was originally cast as Isabel, but, three months later, was replaced by multiple Oscar candidate Williams. despite the low box-office returns, Williams and Moore will always get a second look, at least, from AMPAS voters. For his part, Crudup is a multiple Tony candidate and has previously worked with Freundlich and Moore in Trust the Man and World Traveler. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles: Blu-ray
When the short lists of nominees in the niche categories are announced in mid-December, I doubt that they’ll evidence any more thinking outside the box than they usually do. Typically, the snubs outnumber the pleasant surprises by 2-to-1. Co-writer/director Salvador Simó’s highly inventive Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles theoretically could qualify in three different categories, including Best Documentary, Best International Feature and Best Animated Feature, where it has its best shot. Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is a co-production of Spain, the Netherlands and Germany, with French and Spanish being its primary languages. It’s best described as a fact-based documentary, which merges archival footage with animated depictions of Luis Buñuel’s journey from the University of Madrid, where he befriended Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca; to Paris, from which he was banished after he and Dali’s second scandalous collaboration, L’Age d’Or (1930) opened; back to Madrid, where anarchist sculptor Ramón Acin gave the director a share of his lottery winnings to make his next film; and, finally, to Las Hurdes, the desperately poor region of northwestern Spain, where, in 1933, he made the still- controversial doc/travelogue, Land Without Bread. The animated Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, adapted from a graphic novel by Fermín Solís, effectively ends with his return to Madrid, the first loud rumblings of the civil war and off-screen assassinations of Lorca and Acin. Bunuel’s life didn’t stop being interesting or any less controversial in 1936, of course, but there were no happy endings for him in Franco’s Spain.

In the original 30-minute documentary, Buñuel and two scholars travel in a small wood-paneled bus to Las Hurdes, which had only been connected to the rest of Spain in 1922, with the completion of a road. The residents of the region, who live in poverty and in isolation from the outside world, survive mostly on a diet of potatoes and beans with meat available only a few days a week. They eat goat meat only when one of the animals dies or falls off of a steep cliff. He’s told that in-breeding has  resulted in a disproportionately large number of people with mental disabilities and, in any case, there’s no access to medicine. The primary source of income comes from the government stipends that are given to residents who agree to adopt orphans from neighboring villages. Bunuel used “surrealist license,” if you will, to make Las Hurdes’ villagers look even more primitive and pitiable – there’s no tradition of bread making, for example — than they might have seemed to outsiders. That’s the assertion, at least, of the majority of people interviewed by Ramón Gieling for the feature-length documentary, Buñuel’s Prisoners (2000), which is included in the Blu-ray and demands to be watched. Among other things, Gieling plans to show Land Without Bread to residents – young and those old enough to remember the actual shoot – for the first time. Before that happens, though, he interviews people about the film’s ramifications on the region. Only a handful of them have anything positive to say about it. Many of them describe how Bunuel fabricated events depicted in the movies or exaggerated the hopelessness felt by villagers.  An old man recalls how the filmmaker put a pig next to some dirty-looking children being photographed, as if the environment weren’t sufficiently pathetic. Another remembers how a child that appears to have died in an epidemic, was still very much alive after being shown lying in the street. Other elderly men describe how Bunuel killed donkeys and mountain goats simply to add more edge to a doc that could hardly be more heart-wrenching. An interview with director Simó completes the package.

Bliss: Blu-ray
Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979) and both iterations of William Lustig and Joe Spinell’s Maniac (1980/2012) are the movies that come immediately to mind when attempting to summarize Bliss, Joe Begos’ follow-up to The Mind’s Eye (2015) and Almost Human (2013). I was also reminded of  David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) and, for some reason, everything that happened in Apocalypse Now after Colonel Kurtz’ admonition to Captain Willard, “We must kill them We must incinerate them.” Or, to be precise, the madness that ensues when the Doors’ “The End” kicks in for a second time. It’s possible that Begos’ was referencing that scene in the final 15-20 minutes of Bliss, with its barrage of blood, lasers and death-metal music. In it, a successful avant-garde artist, Dezzy Donahue (Dora Madison), is facing the worst creative block of her life. She hasn’t produced anything new for several months and its causing her agent, exhibitor and landlord to pressure her for a saleable painting and rent money. She rejects her boyfriend’s help and advice, preferring to follow to the party-hardy yearnings of her debauched friends, Courtney (Tru Collins) and Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield). Dezzy also chooses to accept advice from her good-natured drug dealer, Hadrian (Graham Skipper), whose menu of hallucinogens ranges in potency from recreational to satanic. You can’t say Hadrian doesn’t warn his steady customer about the dangers associated with each drug, including the black-powder concoction that combines elements of heroin, cocaine and LSD. And, while it does serve to lift her artist’s block, it also works when she’s blacked out in front of the increasingly demonic painting that she’s having trouble finishing. Indeed, the painting appears to be painting itself. Needless to say, it doesn’t take long before Dezzy becomes addicted to the drug, whose side effects include a growing taste for blood and gore. Eventually, her cravings will get the best of her, and anyone in her vicinity with a pulse is fair game. Even before Dezzy starts to imbibe the debilitating powder, she looks as if she hasn’t slept in a week. Once it kicks in, however, she begins to resemble an undead character in “The Walking Dead.” With her bony frame and out-of-control curls, Madison (“Chicago Fire”) looks as if she were born to play the part. She deals with the film’s borderline-excessive violence with an air of controlled reckless abandon. It allows Begos to ratchet up the horror at an orderly pace – none of Bliss’ 80 minutes are wasted – and, during the climax, take it to extremes.  It’s accompanied by an increasingly loud and brain-rattling musical score that perfectly matches the visual assault. Mark Beltzman, George Wendt and Abraham Benrubi add some temporary comic relief as the card-playing mopes who live in the same house as Hadrian and his cache and subsist on phony disability claims. I’ve watched too many indie horror flicks that attempt to replicate the extremes of bad drug trips with effects that haven’t improved since Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967).   Bliss, which has cult classic written all over it, is the real deal.

Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High: AKA Vol. 2: Blu-ray
There’s simply no way that I could improve upon the summary already provided by Troma’s marketing team for its latest epic sleazefest, Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High: AKA Vol. 2. (Only Tromaphiles and people conversant in double-talk will be able to decipher the title’s inner logic.) The blurb reads, “Welcome BACK to Tromaville High School! The once tone-deaf Glee Club has now turned into a vicious gang of Cretins, wreaking havoc upon Tromaville and two innocent lesbian lovers, Crissy and Lauren. As Lauren suffers the side-effects of a Cretin forced duck rape, Chrissy follows a trail of tainted toxic taco crumbs, leading her to the crux of all Tromaville High School’s mutating mires, the evil Tromorganic Foodstuffs Conglomerate and its salacious CEO, Lee Harvey Herzkauf! (Lloyd Kaufman). With a duck/human hybrid baby in one hand and a laser in the other, the lesbian duo fights against Cretins, Monsters and EVIL! Will they succeed or will Herzkauf and the Cretins reign supreme over Tromaville High School and the World!?” That’s verbatim, folks, and if it approximates John Waters’ worst fever dream, well, that’s kind of the point. Kaufman’s been churning out exploitation and sexploitation fare almost as long as the Bard of Baltimore, but it wasn’t until the 1989 release of The Toxic Avenger Part II that Kaufman dared add his own name to his own products. Between the 1971 sex comedy, The Battle of Love’s Return – co-starring Lynn Lowry, Lou Jacobi and  Oliver Stone – and 1988’s Troma’s War, he wrote, directed, acted, edited and produced under several aliases, including Samuel Weil (The Toxic Avenger), David Stitt (Les Nympho Teens) and Louis Su (The Divine Obsession).

The practice of using pseudonyms for work done on hard-core pictures didn’t begin or end with Kaufman. That Waters allowed his to name to be attached to Pink Flamingos (1972), which contained one of the most offensive scenes in the history of cinema, says a lot about his dedication to his craft and integrity. The same applies to Waters’ muse Divine, who made Waters’ nightmares come to life. The difference between Divine’s feces-eating scene and anything in Kaufman’s gross-out franchises to come – OK, I haven’t seen everything – was that Divine actually ate the dog poop and what actors in the Tromaville stable would want that on their resume? Kaufman comes close in the opening moments of Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High: AKA Vol. 2, when the film pays homage to the menstruation scene in Carrie (1976) by shooting it from an even more graphic angle. There’s nothing real about the blood, gore, violence and feces here or in most other Troma products, but Kaufman’s genius is turning the special effects into virtual reality. The duck-rape scenes couldn’t look less realistic, but we go along with them in the same way we dug Groucho’s duck in “You Bet Your Life.” The same applies to the acting, which can be forgiven for the loyalty shown to Kaufman and Tromophile by members of his repertory company: Asta Paredes, Catherine Corcoran, Zac Amico, Vito Trigo, Divine look-alike Babette Bombshell, Tara E. Miller Reiki Tsuno Clay von Carlowitz Debbie Rochon Mark Torgl Purple Pam Shelby and the late, great Stan Lee, Joe Fleishaker and Lemmy, all of whom are remembered in the bonus package. The two-disc Blu-ray set adds “Two Girls, One Duck,” a full-length documentary on the making of both volumes of “Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High: AKA Vol. 2; an introduction by Kaufman; the revelatory, “Cannes 2017: From Festival to Fascist; a featurette on the film’s screening at MoMA; and short films, “Mr. Topps” and “Merry Christmas to My Wife’s Butt.”

Tel Aviv on Fire: Blu-ray
The title of co-writer/director Sameh Zoabi and Dan Kleinman’s unexpectedly wonderful Tel Aviv on Fire (2018) grabbed my attention, simply because it was overshadowed by nearly everything else on the Blu-ray jacket, including the Certified Fresh tomato of approval. While there isn’t anything misleading or inappropriate about it, any title that alludes to a conflagration in a major city in Israel is probably going to lead potential viewers to expect something to do with the ongoing hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians. Tel Aviv on Fire features  actors and characters from both sides of the wall separating the two nationalities, but as people capable of dealing with each other amicably and no fear of reprisals. As misleading as it might sound, I can’t think of a better one for the Luxembourg-Israel-French-Belgium co-production. In fact, the title alludes the incendiary plotlines of a soap opera that’s popular with Palestinians and Israelis, possibly because it accentuates the similarities between them and underplays the tensions. Tel Aviv on Fire stars Kais Nashef (Paradise Now) as the gangly and unmotivated Salam Abbass, a Palestinian Arab from East Jerusalem, who is a low-level production assistant on the soap opera, which is filmed in Ramallah. One day, at a checkpoint manned by hair-trigger Israeli soldiers, something he says causes him to be escorted to the office of the commanding officer, Captain Assi Tzur (Yaniv Biton). When the officer is given a copy of the teleplay to inspect, Salam stretches the truth by telling that he’s a writer on the soap opera. Because Assi’s wife is a fan of the show, he thinks it might be fun to come home with some top-secret information on that night’s developments. Indeed, the next time Salem is pulled over at the checkpoint, Assi offers him some tips on how the Israeli characters should be redrawn. Although the Palestinian is in no position of authority at the show, his uncle is a producer in direct contact with network executives. Bassam (Nadim Sawalha) listens to Salam’s suggestions and asks the show’s imperious head writer (Laëtitia Eïdo) to incorporate them into the narrative. When she stomps off the set, Bassam buys into his nephew’s lie in much the same way as Assi continues to do so, except for the fact the Bassam has made Salam’s alibi come true by giving him a title. After his wife notices Assi’s contributions to the soap, he decides to cut a deal with Salam. In exchange for top-grade Palestinian hummus, and a promise that the series’ plot will end with a wedding, the odd-couple buddies continue to collaborate, with Salam’s own imagination and confidence expanding with every visit. A complication arises when the show’s financial backers disagree about how the show should end. When he explains this to Assi, the officer confiscates his identity papers to ensure that Salam remains in Ramallah and comes up with an ending satisfactory to all parties. After much head scratching, that’s exactly what he does. Meanwhile, the characters in “Tel Aviv on Fire” are getting dizzy, trying to keep up with the revisions in the scripts and the people they portray. The show’s lead romantic interests – an Israeli general (Yousef Sweid) and deep-cover Palestinian terrorist Lubna Azabal) — are living a lie of their own, dictated by the whims of Salam, his girlfriend, Assi and his family members, all of whom now are emotionally invested in the no-longer-endangered series, which is more popular than ever. Just when you think that the writing partners have dug a hole for themselves that is too deep to escape, Zoabi and Kleinman come up with a way to make everyone happy, including viewers of the soap and Blu-ray. In some ways, Tel Aviv on Fire reminded me of the cross-cultural 2007 romantic comedy, The Band’s Visit, which became a global hit and inspired a Broadway musical. Curiously, perhaps, Tel Aviv on Fire is representing Luxembourg in this year’s Best Foreign Language race.

They Are We
Icarus Films has resurrected the sadly underseen 2014 documentary, They Are We, which can trace its historical roots to an examination of the slave trade that brought an estimated 600,000 men and women from West Africa to Cuba over the course of three centuries. It took the island nation more than 60 years to follow the lead of Britain, Spain and U.S. in banning the importation and trade in slaves. The Catch-22 came in the inability of many countries that had ended the trade in slaves to formally abolish slavery, itself, especially in colonies that supplied sugar and other goods to Europe and in America’s agricultural South. While doing research in West Africa, Australian historian Emma Christopher discovered evidence that a group of slaves exported almost exclusively to Cuba retained cultural touchstones from their homelands and passed them along to their descendants, without much cross-fertilization from other territories. Today, in Central Cuba, proud members of the Ganga-Longoba community — a small Afro-Cuban ethnic group — have kept their unique heritage alive through decades of oppression, enslavement and political upheaval. For her part, Christopher spent two years showing a film made about Ganga-Longoba songs and dances to several thousand people across Sierra Leone. Finally, in an isolated village with no road access, she found a man who reacted with joy and wonder, as he watched the film. “They are we,” he exclaimed. Other villagers soon were able to share his excitement. In early 2013, members of the Ganga-Longoba were granted permission to visit Sierra Leone. It turned into a remarkable celebration of music, dance, food and everyday life on both sides of the ocean. It’s especially touching to hear villagers discuss the capture of their ancestors’ friends, relatives and children as if it had happened 10, not 170 or more years ago. They Are We is a remarkable document, at once heart-wrenching, joyous and educational. I wonder what might happen when researchers here begin to link the DNA of African Americans to members of specific tribes and long-separated relations in Africa.

Yesterday Was a Lie: Blu-ray
How’s this for a new sub-subgenre of dramas based on terrible crimes, time-honored stereotypes, cinematic conceits, parapsychology and mathematics: metaphysical noir. In an interview included in the bonus package, writer/director James Kerwin says that he wanted to combine a few more of his favorite things, those being quantum physics and 1940s-era private dicks, dolls and molls. In another delicious twist, the “gumshoe” in Yesterday Was a Lie (2009) is a doll, directly informed by Lauren Bacall’s steamy interactions with characters played by Humphrey Bogart. As Hoyle, Kipleigh Brown (“Star Trek Continues”) also echoes such noir bombshells as Veronica Lake, Joan Bennett, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Barbara Stanwyck. Hoyle’s wardrobe favors dark pantsuit outfits, with shiny white blouses, or bust-enhancing evening gowns, long raincoats and felt fedoras. Her drink of choice is bourbon, although she won’t refuse a martini. On the trail of a reclusive genius, Dudas (John Newton), and the notebook full of mathematics and scientific formulae that he’s stolen, Hoyle crosses paths with the sultry lounge singer, Singer (Chase Masterson), who shares her taste in deeply cut gowns and sensually coiffed blond tresses. (They even show up at Singer’s nightclub in matching dresses and bustlines.) But the P.I.’s work takes a series of unforeseen twists as events around her grow increasingly fragmented, disconnected and surreal. (Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” provides a clue.) If that weren’t sufficient cause for Hoyle’s concern, she’s gained an ever-present shadow (Peter Mayhew) who may or may not be demonstrably dead. (He’s is better known for playing Chewbacca, albeit behind a veritable mountain of fur.) Boiled down to its essence, Yesterday Was a Lie promotes the theory that the most powerful force in the universe – “the power to bend reality, the power to know the truth” — lies within the depths of the human heart. OK, but it would take a backhoe for the average viewer discern any recognizable plot and logical solution here. No matter, because half of the fun that comes from watching Yesterday Was a Lie can be credited to Kerwin’s willingness to experiment with things that have nothing to do with the nearly indecipherable story, including the hi-def, back-and-white imagery and smoky/foggy atmospherics. As such, it’s clearly an example of art for art’s sake filmmaking, which has its merits. Yesterday Was a Lie is said to have been shown at 55 festivals, winning a couple dozen prestigious awards, before finding a tentative home on DVD. The restored Blu-ray edition provides a much better showcase for the cinematography. In addition to an audio commentary, featuring Brown, Kerwin and Chase Masterson (“Deep Space Nine”); several making-of featurettes and interviews, camera tests and outtakes, trailers, and a Wondercon panel with cast and crew. Brown, Kerwin and Masterson would collaborate four years later on the seven-minute short, “R.U.R.: Genesis,” which they hope to expand into the feature-length adaptation of Karel Čapek’s visionary play, “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” which is as relevant today as it was in 1920, perhaps even more so.

To say that James Franco is shown next to no love by critics, whenever he steps behind the camera as director, writer or producer, is like pointing out that San Francisco can get a bit foggy every now and again. They have been kinder when it comes to his acting credits, but only sparingly and, seemingly, begrudgingly. That’s no reason to blanketly disparage critics, who, for the most part, call ’em as they see ’em, but it’s possible that their red marks and thumbs-downs are a way of telling the 41-year-old Palo Alto native that less is more. The kudos he received for his portrayal of twin brothers in “The Deuce” were fairly earned, as were the honors he’s received for his work in such disparate movies as “James Dean” (2001), Milk (2008), 127 Hours (2010), Spring Breakers (2012), I Am Michael (2015) and The Disaster Artist (2017). These represent only a small fraction of the 150 titles that appear on his resume at for acting. His other credits include 67, as producer; 39, as director; and 25, as writer. His willingness to experiment with such a wide variety of subjects, characters and genres has drawn criticism, carrying accusations of dilettantism. For my money, though, any actor willing to create characters based on the prose and poetry of William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Sal Mineo, Hart Crane, John Steinbeck, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anthony Hecht and “SpongeBob SquarePants” writer Merriwether Williams is someone who deserves  some slack. Some producers in Hollywood would add “delusional,” “fool hardy” and “arrogant” to “dilettante.” Without discounting or ignoring allegations of sexual coercion made against Franco, by five female students at his now-shuttered acting school, I think that he should be allowed to churn out the occasional clunker, including Pretenders. Early last month, two of the women filed suit against the actor, his business partner and production company, along with its general manager, Los Angeles County Superior Court. Franco has steadfastly denied the accusations and vows to clear his name in court, if necessary.

So, what about the much-reviled Pretenders, for which Franco served as director and occasional actor. Where Yesterday Was a Lie takes viewers back to the golden age of Hollywood noir,  Pretenders pays homage to the French New Wave and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), which was set in 1968 and also featured a love triangle of horny cineastes. If one looks at Pretenders hard enough, they’re also likely to see elements of François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962). Based on a screenplay by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars), it involves a New Wave-obsessed student and aspiring professional photographer, who, in the early 1980s, meet in New York and fall for a wannabe actress. Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley’s son, Jack, plays the film student, Terry Lamm, a sensitive Baltimore transplant who’s first seen in 1979 at a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Une femme est une femme (1961), which also involves a love triangle. Afterward, Terry’s unsuccessful attempt to pick up an actress, Catherine (Jane Levy), outside the theater is noticed by the self-absorbed photography student Phil (Shameik Moore), who offers to help Terry track her down. Soon thereafter, Terry wins Catherine’s heart, leaving Phil envious of their happiness and intent on interjecting himself into the equation, which he does. Tired of participating in a ménage à trois, Terry steals the slightly off-kilter actress/model, Victoria (Juno Temple), from under the nose of a famous director (Franco). The triangle is broken when Terry heads to Hollywood to direct his first project – poorly — which was brokered by former girlfriend. In a decision that will break viewers’ hearts, Terry pulls the kind of impulsive move on Victoria that we don’t expect of him and allows Catherine to re-enter his life. It effectively knocks the wind from the movie’s sails, leaving it drifting into oblivion. Among other things wrong with Pretenders are the too-many references to New Wave classics, whose tone and nuances Boone may not have fully grasped when he began to write it. There’s also the male-centric narrative, which women will tire of fairly quickly. Dialogue delivered by Franco’s sexist character could inspire viewers to hit the “stop” button. (Apparently, Pretenders was completed in 2006, well before l’affaire Weinstein and other #MeToo scandals.) The picture benefits from Peter Zeitlinger’s pitch-perfect cinematography and distinctive score by composer Mark Kozelek and his group, Sun Kil Moon.

Scared of Revolution
Although the roots of hip-hop can be traced to the poetry of Langston Hughes and other artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance, they only began to take hold and spread in the late-1960s, with the emergence of the Last Poets and, two years later, Gil Scott Heron’s musical manifesto, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” After them, the deluge. Daniel Krikke’s compelling bio-doc, Scared of Revolution (2018), traces performance poet Umar bin Hassan’s rocky journey through life, from 1969, when he joined the Last Poets, to his reckoning with drugs, alcoholism and the ravages of time, regret and loss. The Last Poets became an integral part of the black-power movement, which followed the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and included the rise and persecution of the Black Panther Party. When the original trio broke up, a year after it made its presence known at a birthday celebration for Malcolm X, Abiodun Oyowele recruited Alafia Pudim and Bin Hassan to fill the void. Many white Americans and Europeans were introduced to the Last Poets through the inclusion of “Wake Up, Niggers” on the Performance soundtrack. The group’s second studio album, “This Is Madness,” peaked at No. 104 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart and at No. 14 in the Top R&B Albums category. Songs from the album have been sampled by several hip-hop artists. “With their politically charged raps, taut rhythms, and dedication to raising African-American consciousness,” as critic Jason Ankeny observed, “the Last Poets almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop.” An underground culture formed during the 1970s, when Africa Bambaata’s block parties became a magnet for African American youths residing in the Bronx. It was comprised of rapping, break-dancing, MCing and DJing, scratching and graffiti writing. Hip-hop didn’t find exposure on radio and television until 1979, when the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became a crossover hit and Keith Cowboy, rapper with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, gave it a name. After the popularity of spoken-word albums gave way to rap, Bin Hassan succumbed to the temptations free-base and crack cocaine and booze. No surprisingly, he lost everything that was important to him, including his family. In mid-1993, he was able to regroup with the release of his first solo album, “Be Bop or Be Dead.” Clean and sober, he moved to Flint, Michigan, where his younger sister resided. He began to tour under the banner of the Last Poets and also make solo engagements. Scared of Revolution is less about making spoken-word music than observing Bin Hassan as he reconnects with his family – especially his grandchildren – and shares his memories of growing in an abusive environment and opinions about the current state of the genre, radio, his health and Flint’s ghost-town ambience. The doc’s title derives from “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution,” from the Poet’s first album, which chastises African Americans for complacency, conformity and timidity in the face of revolutionary change. At 72 minutes, Krikke’s could have found room for more historical perspective and a breakdown of the group’s legacy, from artists and critics not directly affiliated with Bin Hassan.

Hitch Hike to Hell: Blu-ray
Road Games: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
All one needs to know about the “plot keywords” section of is that it shouldn’t be taken as the bible, at least when it comes to searching for movies cut from the same place. As a reference tool, it typically provides a good place to start, however. In my perusal of movies related to Hitch Hike to Hell (1978) and Road Games (1981), I combined the keywords “Hitchhiker” and “Hitchhiking.” If I had thought to add “Teaching to Hitchhike” to my search, it finally would have located It Happened One Night (1934), which contains the single most memorable hitchhiking scene in cinematic history. In it, Clark Gable’s roguish reporter, Peter Warne, is so famously incapable of scoring a ride that he challenges Claudette Colbert’s spoiled heiress, Elle, to land a fish. She succeeds, of course, but only after hitching up her pre-code skirt and flashing one of her shapely gams at the next driver. Among the hitchhiking movies that rank higher than the Frank Capra classic are Cher, Sonny and Alessio de Paola’s Chastity (1969), in which the love-starved title character rides her thumb to a Mexican brothel; Heckle and Jeckle, in the animated short, “The Hitch Hikers” (1947); Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), a cross-country noir thriller; Ida Lupino and Collier Young’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), which showed up on TCM this week; and dozens of titles that may have little or no relation to hitchhiking. Today’s entry Hitch Hike to Hell, which serves both as a psycho-killer drama and cautionary PSA on the subject, should not be confused be with the sexploitative Hitchhike to Hell (1941), which warned American motorists about the presence of prostitutes and pimps, who plied their trade on the open road. Arrow Video thinks enough about the former that it has given it special-edition treatment, with a 2K restoration, special packaging and the usual array of informed analysis, contextual pieces and interviews. Working from a no-frills screenplay by John Buckley (Malibu High), genre specialist and veteran dialogue coach Irvin Berwick (The Monster of Piedras Blancas) simply arranges for a series of SoCal runaways and free spirits to be abducted by Howard, an introverted momma’s boy who picks up female victims along his route for a laundry service. Their fate depends on how they answer questions about their relationships with their mothers. Russell Johnson, who will forever be known for playing Professor Hinckley on “Gilligan’s Island,” portrays the movie’s conscience, Police Captain J.W. Shaw. Everything plays out methodically and without much flair, as the clues to the killer’s identity slowly emerge and Howard is caught. Hitch Hike to Hell very much looks its age and is of a piece with other hippies-in-danger flicks that flooded the market after the Tate-LaBianca murders cleared America’s highways of hitchhikers – long-haired and otherwise — and few people trusted the police to keep them safe.

Released in 1981, Richard Franklin’s Ozploitation favorite, Road Games, is a much more advanced product than Berwick’s film. Shot on location along Australia’s South West and South Coastal highways, the opportunities for mystery and terror are nearly endless. If dingoes don’t get you, the kangaroos that loiter on the roads will. Although the scenery along the coast is spectacular, the vast emptiness of the interior can be a daunting ordeal for a long-distance trucker. Here, Stacy Keach does a nice job portraying Pat Quid, a drifter of indeterminate origins, who washed up on the eastern shore and found steady work, riding the range in an 18-wheeler. His routes are so desolate, in fact, that Franklin and screenwriter Everett De Roche (Razorback) felt it necessary to add a canine traveling companion to the mix, if only to provide opportunities for dialogue. As the picture opens, a vicious killer has made his presence known to police and the media, and his trail appears to parallel Quid and his trailer full of frozen pig carcasses. He’s given several opportunities to pick up a hitchhiker, Hitch (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose only protection from the elements is a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, white muslin pants and jacket, and moccasins. As brash as she is, Hitch doesn’t look as if she could last a weekend in the Outback. Quid has plenty of time to wonder what she’s really doing in Australia and how she pays for it. He’s also concerned that she’s made herself easy prey for the fiend, who Quid correctly senses is behind the wheel of a green van. You wouldn’t think that Franklin would have many opportunities to ratchet up the suspense and take advantage of his crack stunt team and effects coordinators, but the movie’ss full of them. Cast and crew members share plenty of entertaining stories about the shoot in Shout! Factory’s bonus package.

The Far Country: Blu-ray
At one crucial juncture in The Far Country (1955) — one of five Westerns that James Stewart made with Hollywood auteur Anthony Mann – drover Jeff Webster is required to decide between guiding his herd of cattle over the Athabasca Glacier, in Alberta’s  Jasper National Park, or taking the longer ground route that bypasses the icepack. Even though the herd’s owner, Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), insists on getting to Dawson in the least amount of time possible, Webster uses his veto power, as head drover, to take the overland route. Ronda and other members of the caravan elect to take the shortcut. In his argument, Jeff neglects to explain to Castle why he’s so steadfast in his decision, which will add several days to the journey. The boomtown madam and entrepreneur probably wouldn’t have agreed with him, anyway. Sure enough, an avalanche and rockslide crash down on Castle’s crew, killing several people. Typical of Stewart’s against-type character here, the information that he neglected to share with his boss anticipated the occurrence of just such a disaster, based on his belief that the thaw had made the snowpack above the glacier unstable and any loud noise could cause it to fracture. That devious ruse doesn’t square with anything we know about Steward and the kind of forthright characters he typically portrays … except in the movies directed by Mann. Their partnerships are fully documented and analyzed in Arrow Video’s bonus package, as well as The Far Country’s place in the evolution of the revisionist movement to come. As much as we’ve come to empathize with and support Stewart’s characters, his flaws here are deep and easy to find. Without him, however, the closest thing to a hero is Webster’s sidekick, Ben Tatem, played by the great Walter Brennan. Also skewed is Jeff’s relationship to the film’s diametrically opposed love interests, played by Roman and Corinne Calvet, who looks as if she’s moonlighting as one of Santa’s elves. While Ronda openly flirts with Jeff, she’s is in cahoots with the evil judge and constable, Gannon (John McIntire), who was modeled after Judge Roy Bean … or his legend, at least. Jeff’s ethical quandaries don’t end with his arrival in Dawson, though. He feels it advantageous to pan for gold while Gannon and Castle divvy up the Yukon territory, kill anyone who stands up against them and steal their claims. As so often happens in post-WWII Westerns, Webster will be pushed to the wall before he does what he should have done when Gannon first crossed him. Like it or not, his only hope for redemption will come at the point of a gun.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
I’m not sure why this box-office dud is being given the “Limited Edition Steelbook” treatment by Shout! Factory, only three years after it was shipped out on Blu-ray by Universal. The economics of DVD/Blu-ray/Digital aren’t nearly as transparent as those that accompany theatrical releases, at least nothing to compare to Box Office Mojo. According to that resource,  Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) grossed less than half of the money it cost to produce – an estimated $20 million – and recouped a mere $1.1 million in the first seven months of its video incarnation. It’s possible that potential audiences had simply tired of being disappointed by movies spun off “Saturday Night Live” sketches by former and current Not Ready for Prime Time players, such as co-writer/co-producer/star Andy Samberg, Maya Rudolph, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Joan Cusack, Bill Hader, Will Arnett, Kevin Nealon and Will Forte, as well as various guest hosts, writers, musicians and various flashes in the pan. By and large, mainstream critics enjoyed “Popstar” more than those in the demographic target by “SNL.” I don’t think that “steelbook” editions are more valuable as collectibles than Blu-rays in their original packaging, but completists might be drawn to fresh cover art and new bonus features, although they’re no guarantee, either. In September,  a separate attempt to breathe new life into “Popstar” and the Lonely Island comedy team, which featured Samberg and co-director/writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone in such video sketches as “Dick in a Box,” “Jizz in My Pants,” “I’m on a Boat” and “Turtleneck & Chair.” The Alamo shows featured such interactive gimmicks as on-screen lyrics for all songs, subtitles for key quotes and such props as inflatable microphones, glow necklaces and ribbon wands.

Just for the record, “Popstar” concerns former boy-band superstar Conner4Real (Samberg), who, after a tremendously successful two-year-long worldwide tour, appears to be sitting on top of the world. Instead, his sophomore album flops so badly that Rolling Stone magazine dismisses it with a “shit emoji.” Although his fall from grace stuns the industry, Conner4Real vows to “never stop never stopping.” Among  the celebrities making cameos are Justin Timberlake, Adam Levine, Pharrell Williams, Carrie Underwood, DJ Khaleed, Nas, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Ringo Starr, Pink, Simon Cowell, Questlove, Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton and Seal. The package adds commentary with Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone; deleted scenes; music videos; a gag reel; interview outtakes; and bonus footage.

Typically, I try not to mix bitching and business, at least when it comes to the DVDs that are sent to me for consideration for inclusion in this column. Sometimes, though, it can’t be helped. Eric Paul Erickson’s politically charged psychodrama, Truth, was produced by Dual Visions and Viking Dog Films, and distributed through Random Media, a company that seems more interested in hiding their new releases than finding an audience for them. Typically, they’re next to impossible to find on Amazon, VideoETA, and other reliable sources of information on new products. After some Internet scratching, I found that Truth was, indeed, an actual movie, with real stars and good reasons for being seen. On the usually reliable site, however, it’s listed as still in the post-production stage of its cinematic life, with no release date. A visit to the film’s website reveals that it’s “coming soon.” Which would fine, if it weren’t for the fact that the pitch letter attached to the screening copy sent to critics tells us that Truth will most assuredly be released this past week digitally and on DVD. A closer perusal of the IMDB site reveals that the movie’s stars have been honored with nominations and trophies at film festivals ranging in distance from Laughlin and Marina del Rey, to Tokyo’s Bloodstained Film Festival and the Arctic Open International Film Festival, in Russia’s Archangel Province. And, yet, there aren’t any reviews or release dates to be found there. No matter how much coaxing a movie’s publicists do to support its release – as is the case with Truth – they have to be able to prove to writers that it exists, and their readers can find it in the marketplace … and that’s the distributor’s job. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Enough with the kvetching already, though. In a scenario that could have been lifted from Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s stage play, Death and the Maiden (1994), Truth is a two-hander in which the victim of torture is given the opportunity to interrogate the man she believes was responsible for it. Polanski’s drama was set in “a country in South America,” probably Chile,  “after the fall of the dictatorship.” Truth takes place in the basement of a government building in an  unnamed country that has endured a different long and bloody civil war. In the runup to an armistice, the winning side is preparing to try soldiers and functionaries from the losing team, who are seeking amnesty before Truth and Reconciliation Commission committees.

In Dorfman’s play and Rafael Yglesias’s screenplay, a political activist (Sigourney Weaver) convinces herself that the neighbor (Ben Kingsley) who gave her lawyer husband a ride home in a storm is the same man who tortured her – and thousands of other leftists – at the behest of the fascist government. The film is driven by ethical and moral dilemmas, as well as questions about the capacity of a person’s mind to recall with certainty the source of their continuing trauma and despair. In Truth, captured army officer Xavier Faraday (Erickson) is interrogated with similar ferocity by Maria (Rachel Alig), who peels away the layers of his life through straight talk, torture and psychotropic drugs supplied by the CIA. By the end of both movies, the female protagonists are forced to confront demons hiding deep with their own psyches. In Erickson’s two-hander, viewers may exit the experience as wrung out as his character and still confused about what really happened. Death and the Maiden left the question of the neighbor’s fate hanging until the very end of the movie. If Alig’s portrayal of a deeply traumatized woman confronting the man who denies torturing her isn’t comparable to Weaver’s performance, it isn’t off by much. My own preconceptions of how such a victim ought to look and act told me that Alig is too young, lithe, fashionable and undeniably beautiful to carry the weight of Maria’s pain. Anyone able to find a copy of Truth and screen it at home might very well disagree with that opinion, however. There aren’t any bonus features attached to the DVD I received.

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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