Movies Till Dawn: Cinematic Journeys

5-25-77” (2022, MVD Visual) Bittersweet, if overly long tribute to the pros and cons of the creative in the form of a nostalgic valentine to backyard moviemaking and teenage nerd-dom. Writer/director Patrick Read Johnson – a former special effects creator who directed another likable underdog pic, “Angus” – revisits his own childhood in the mid-70s Midwest, where he directs backyard sci-fi epics and dreams of Hollywood. A chance opportunity to visit Los Angeles introduces him to the reality of achieving those dreams via visits to the sets of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters,” but there is also real life, including a shot at romance, to contend with. Produced over a period of nearly two decades, “5-25-77” (which was the release date for “Star Wars”) emerges with many rough edges intact (including a slow fizzling conclusion), but its core story – the need for Pat (John Francis Daley) to make movies – is depicted with charm and humor, both of which are buoyed considerably by Austin Pendleton’s turn as real-life cinematographer Herb Lightman and Emmi Chan as the girl who gives pause to Pat’s movie dreams. MVD’s Blu-ray includes commentary by Johnson, a Q&A from 2013, and promotional material.

Cinematic Journeys: Two Films By Juleen Compton” (1965-66, Flicker Alley) A pair of rarely-seen features by actor-turned-filmmaker Juleen Compton, who merged French New Wave and avant-garde sensibilities with the early American independent film aesthetic. Compton stars in and directs “Stranded” (1965), a visually gorgeous skip through the Greek isles with a free-thinking American women (Compton), her square, traditional-minded boyfriend (Gary Collins, of all people) and her gay bestie (Gian Pietro Calasso). Nothing much happens during their travels (save for her near-drowning, to which she responds, “I almost lost my hat”), but the cast and locations look stunning and evoke the blithe wanderlust and hazy moral debates of ’60s-era Godard and Antonioni. Flicker Alley’s set also includes “The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean” (1966), a more accomplished and fascinating indie feature with Sharon Henesy as a young girl with psychic abilities which are exploited by a pop trio (featuring Sam Waterston!). Compton slides into surreal territory – a tea party with a Mad Hatter and enormous White Rabbit is a show-stopper – while also offering a sanguine warning about capitalist greed and sexism in counterculture trappings. Fascinating work by a filmmaker that should have been allowed to blossom like Cassavetes; Flicker Alley’s set includes commentary on “Norma Jean” by filmmaker Allison Anders (“Gas Food Lodging”) and historian Makya Montanez Smukler, who also interviews Compton; the filmmaker also offers up behind-the-scenes images from her films and comments in the liner notes, which are paired with an essay by Richard Brody.

After Effects: Memories of Pittsburgh Filmmaking” (2021, Red Shirt Entertainment/Diabolik DVD) Affectionate documentary about the Pittsburgh filmmakers who orbited and collaborated George Romero on his seminal horror films and their attempt to make their own horror title. The project, a moody thriller called “Effects,” had limited distribution and essentially disappeared for over a quarter century before its revival by Synapse and the American Film Genre Archive. Both releases featured an hour-long doc about “Effects,” comprised of interviews with its primary crew: director Dusty Nelson, actor/composer John Harrison, editor Pasquale Buba, and special effects creator/co-star Tom Savini, all of whom began their careers with Romero. The late filmmaker is included in the archival interviews, which are notably warm and funny and nostalgic for a period in which regional creatives could feasibly get a motion picture to national audiences; fans of both Romero and indie filmmaking will appreciate the opportunity to spend time with this likable crew. The Blu-ray features an expanded version of the original doc, along with effusive commentary by director Michael Felsher, as well as interview outtakes and deleted scenes and footage from a 2005 screening of “Effects” at the Andy Warhol Museum.

Voodoo Macbeth” (2021, Lightyear Entertainment) Backstage drama based on the events around the titular production, staged in Harlem, NY in 1936 and featuring a Black cast under the direction of a pre-fame Orson Welles. The push and pull between the 20-year-old Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridge) – brought aboard the show by producer John Houseman – and actress Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor), who headed the federally-funded Negro Theatre Unit – has some bite (and avoids the “white savior” conundrum) because the film paints Welles as both genius and colossal pain in the ass; the scenes of the production itself, complicated by personal problems among the cast (especially Jack Carter, played by Gary McDonald), hew towards chaotic, but also give a glimpse the show’s remarkable Caribbean-inspired costumes and sets. Produced and directed by students and grads from USC (10 directors and eight writers are credited), “Voodoo” is capably handled and serves as a solid supplement to historical coverage of this watershed moment in Black theater history and its participants; Lightyear’s Blu-ray offers commentary by members of the writing/directorial team with Bridges and two producers/a four-minute clip of the actual “Voodoo Macbeth” production is a bigger draw.

Poppy” (2021, Indiepix) Likable New Zealand feature about the title character, a 19-year-old with Down Syndrome played with considerable pluck by Libby Hunsdale and based loosely on her own experiences. Much of the film focuses on how the world, including her brother Dave (Ari Boyland), views her – largely a mix of pity and misunderstanding – which, it goes without saying, is quite different from Poppy’s perception of herself. Poppy’s quiet determination to enjoy a normal life (getting her driver’s license, having a boyfriend) does much to boost the film’s slightly mawkish plot and spotty performances, with Hunsdale’s abundant charm doing much of the heavy lifting. Indiepix’s DVD is widescreen.


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 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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