Movies Till Dawn: Unique, Eccentric, Exceptional

” (2020, Magnolia Home Entertainment) If you weren’t aware of civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis, who died on July 17 of this year, this documentary is the right place to start. Director Dawn Porter‘s film provides a basic primer on Lewis’s life and accomplishments, first as a civil rights activist in the 1960s and later, as a 17-term member of the House of Representatives. Lewis never shied away from a challenge – his 50+ arrests, brutal beatings as a Freedom Rider and a 2016 sit-in over gun control are all recalled – and remained determined to his cause until the end, which is praised in the film by Hillary Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. One wishes that more depth was offered instead of the now-famous clip of him dancing to “Happy,” but as a movie Cliff’s Notes on Lewis’s extraordinary commitment, “Good Trouble” delivers.

James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction” (2018, AMC Studios) Six-episode, four-plus-hours TV documentary on the genre’s history and future, overseen by the “Titanic” director. While this is not a definitive overview (which is an impossibility) and leans too heavily on newer, big-budget titles and A-list stars – many of whom, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Will Smith, haven’t much to say – Cameron is clearly enthusiastic on the subject, drives some engaging interviews with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro, and includes new and archival interviews with a wide and diverse array of authors and experts, ranging from Ray Bradbury to Nalo Hopkinson. If you’re a sci-fi diehard, “Story” is best enjoyed for its original elements; newcomers may appreciate having all the major talking points laid out for them in one place. AMC’s two-DVD set includes extended interviews with Lucas, del Toro, and Christopher Nolan, among others.

The Queen” (1968, Kino Lorber) Filmed at a time when it was a criminal offense in New York City for a man to dress in public as a woman, Frank Simon‘s long-out-of-circulation documentary “The Queen” offers a rough-hewn but intimate look at the roots of modern drag culture. As a historical document, it offers glimpses of such pioneering figures as Jack Doroshow/Flawless Sabrina, who serves as host and guiding force for the film’s primary focus, the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest; its real value is the raw and intimate footage of competitors speaking about their hopes and fears; these scenes, shown without judgment or filter, still feel as revelatory (and revolutionary) as they did at the time of the film’s release. Kino’s Blu-ray offers a 4K restoration of Simon’s film as well as an abundance of extras, including detailed commentary by trans artist/consult Zackary Drucker and journalist Diana Tourjee, who are also featured in a post-screening interview with Doroshow; outtakes from the film, a documentary short on trans men from ’67, and two shorts by Michele Handelman, both featuring Doroshow, round out the disc.

The Wild Goose Lake” (2019, Film Movement) Chinese gangster Hu Ge is wanted by both the police and fellow mobsters for his role in a grisly brawl (the that claimed the life of several thugs and a cop. Having retreated to Wuhan and the titular lake, he broods over his fate as both sides of the law close in and a call girl (Gwei Lun Mei) inserts herself into his life for her own purposes. Gorgeous Chinese neo-noir from Diao Yinan (“Black Coal, Thin Ice”) is a remarkable mix of jaw-dropping kinetic violence and carefully composed moments of stillness steeped in neon, rain (endless rain) and flashes of wonderful weirdness (a line dance that appears out of nowhere). Stylish and doomy in all the right places and ways; Film Movement’s Blu-ray includes a making-of doc, interviews with its leads and Renkai Tan‘s short, “The Goddess,” which envisions a different sort of male-female encounter in a downpour.

Black Rainbow” (1989, Arrow Video) Little-seen Southern Gothic with Rosanna Arquette as a duplicitous medium who discovers that her act – communication with spirits – is actually yielding premonitions of real death. Adding an element of political corruption – her prediction involves a whistleblower at a local chemical plant – to the fake-spiritualist-sees-real-visions premise is a novel touch, though the primary selling point for Mike (“Get Carter,” “Flash Gordon”) Hodges‘ film are the performances; Arquette is wholly committed to both sides of her persona, and she’s well supported by Jason Robards as her manipulative father and Tom Hulce as a skeptical small town reporter. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes two commentaries – one with Hodges and the other with historians Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, as well as numerous vintage making-of docs and interviews with cast and crew.

And while it’s yet to find a release date, I do want to put on your radar “All Hail the Popcorn King,” a documentary on writer Joe R. Lansdale, whose gritty, blood-red-raw genre writing (“Bubba Ho-Tep,” “Cold in July,” “Hap and Leonard“) has earned a sizable following. Some of his better-known fans, including Bruce Campbell, Joe Hill, Dark Delicacies’ Del Howison, and Don (“Phantasm”) Coscarelli, testify to his diverse talents, which also include his own form of martial arts and support for other creative types. You’ll just have to watch the film to figure out why he’s the Popcorn King.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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