MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: Furry Vengeance, The Last Song, Orlando, Skellig: The Owl Man, L’enfance Nue and more …

Furry Vengeance: Blu-ray

As much as I would enjoy seeing Brendan Fraser stretch beyond what’s required to meet the minimum standards of today’s kiddie comedies and adventure epics, it’s tough to begrudge an actor an opportunity to make another few millions of dollars.

Fraser was so good in the role of an amoral CIA agent in The Quiet American — holding his own opposite Michael Caine — that it’s sad to watch him being upstaged by animatronic forest critters in Furry Vengeance. Given the pitiful response to his and Harrison Ford’s medical-miracle drama, Extraordinary Measures, though, I suspect most of the scripts he’s seeing these days have numbers at the end of the title. (And, yes, a Mummy 4 is on the drawing table.)

No matter, Fraser does what he can to save Furry Vengeance from a lame screenplay, which relies almost entirely oncwazy, wascally-wabbit gags and slapstick. In it, Fraser plays a project manager for a company hoping to build a ritzy subdivision in a soon-to-be-clear-cut forest inhabited by animals only slightly less crafty than the Viet Cong.

A decent chap, really, Dan Sanders believes his firm is eco-conscious, but, like most such businesses, is only as “green” as the color of money. To prove how much faith he has in the company, Dan drags his family kicking-and-screaming from the Chicago suburbs to a model home in the Massachusetts-for-Oregon subdivision. Neither the animals nor his family (Brooke Shields, Matt Prokop) buy the gesture as anything but a sop to his greedy boss (Ken Jeong, whosenutzo shtick is nearing the point of over-exposure). What follows is a series of tortuous events the great Mack Sennett might have found difficult to make funny.

Nevertheless, given the willingness of its target audience to embrace anthropomorphic tricksters, I suspect the Furry Vengeance will do better in video than it did in its anemic theatrical run. The combined DVD and Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes; a gag reel; a pair of decent making-of featurettes, The Pitfalls of Pratfalls and Working with Animals: A Profile of Ken Beggs; and audio commentary. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Song: Blu-ray

Seventeen-year-old Miley Cyrus represents only the latest in a series of attractive Hollywood ingénues required to display their grown-up acting chops in a formulaic romance from Nicholas Sparks: Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember), Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) and Amanda Seyfried (Dear John). In The Last Song, Cyrus plays a troubled, if talented teen, Ronnie Miller, forced by her soon-to-remarry mother (Kelly Preston) to spend the summer with her brother and estranged father (Greg Kinnear) in a Southern beachfront hellhole that 99.99 percent of all Americans would consider to be paradise. (In a departure for the Carolinas-centric Sparks, the setting is Georgia’s Tybee Island.)

Without revealing too much of the obvious, the grumpy teen subsequently learns to love her life after meeting a rich and handsome, if similarly troubled townie (Liam Hemsworth); comes to appreciate her loving dad’s sacrifices and impending doom; becomes a role model for her wise-cracking brother (Bobby Coleman); and decides Julliard isn’t such a bad place to go to college, after all. To her credit and Disney’s relief, I suspect, Cyrus appears to be making the transition from TV pop-tart to movie star without much difficulty. I don’t know if her skills will carry her any further than other Disney starlets — whose careers wilted under the blinding flashes of the paparazzi – but, right now, it’s her future to lose.

As for Last Song, fans of Sparks’ previous work aren’t likely to be disappointed. The island setting is interesting and there’s enough comedy to keep the narrative from drowning in tear-inducing melodrama. The combined DVD and Blu-ray package adds an entertaining set tour with 13-year-old Bobby Coleman, who plays “the brother”; a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Cyrus’ music video, When I Look At You; commentary with director Julie Anne Robinson and co-producer Jennifer Gibgot; and, on the BD version only, an alternate opening sequence and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Orlando: Special Edition

In the 18 years since Orlando was released, Tilda Swinton has become an A-list star and Academy Award-winner. If more than a handful of voters had seen Sally Potter’s epic adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel, Swinton might have gotten her first nomination back then, and become a perennial Oscar finalist. Potter, too, might have been similarly honored.

Although the alabaster-skinned Scotswoman would eventually catch the attention Hollywood casting directors, I suspect Swinton was considered too aloof and eccentric for mainstream tastes. Her ability to work with Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and, yes, Keanu Reeves, one day, and Jim Jarmusch and Spike Jonze the next, turned a lot of heads in Hollywood.

As conceived by Woolf, Orlando chronicles the 400-year journey of a young aristocrat, who’s been commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to never grow old. Throughout the course of the story, Orlando also changes gender. Although the book was much admired, the conceit didn’t translate easily into film … or, so it would seem. Given the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and Sony’s sumptuous re-release of Orlando — in theaters and on DVD and Blu-ray — it’s easy now to see just how special Potter’s adaptation is still, irrespective of its miniscule budget and absence of CGI effects.

In addition to Swinton’s sly interpretation of the ageless protagonist, Orlando offers the kind of imaginative re-staging of history, previously associated with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Merchant-Ivory films. Among the film’s many pleasures are visits to England’s Blenheim Palace and Hatfield House, St. Petersburg and Uzbekistan, which, in 1992, seemed very far away, indeed. Watching Quentin Crisp portray the first Elizabeth Regina was pretty far out, as well. The costumes, too, look as if they were copied stitch-for-stitch from paintings hanging in the National Gallery.

The generous bonus package adds Potter’s commentary on select scenes and an interview; several behind-the-scenes featurettes; and a Q&A from the Venice Film Festival. If one thing is made clear, it’s that financing an unabashedly arty film two decades was no easier then than it is now. – Gary Dretzka

Skellig: The Owl Man
To Save a Life

Originally shown on Britain’s Sky1 network, Skellig is a remarkably absorbing adaptation of David Almond’s award-winning novel about a boy who can see the magic hidden behind the crusty shell of a hermit living in the shed of his family’s new home. To accentuate the fantasy/horror aspect of the story, the film’s American distributors have elected to attach “The Owl Man” to the title, a decision that definitely dilutes some of its mystery.

Tim Roth is terrific as the disheveled squatter, whose supernatural powers and strange appendages are revealed as the story evolves. The boy, Michael (Bill Milner), has been put in the awkward position of being both the New Kid in School and scapegoat for his parents’ recent plague of post-partum problems. His infant sister is suffering from a possibly fatal heart ailment and Mom (Kelly Macdonald) is pissed that Dad (John Simm) has become obsessed with rehabilitating their dilapidated home, which was purchased with the intention of making everyone’s life easier. No such luck, of course.

It takes a while for Skellig and the boy to become comfortable in each other’s presence, but, once assured, they’re free to embark on a journey that is based as much on faith as it is on the occult. Some critics have drawn parallels between Skellig and the Harry Potter series, but Annabel Jankel’s story is far more personal and traditionally dramatic than that epic fantasy. (Jankel was co-creator of Max Headroom, before getting stuck in the tar baby that was Super Mario Brothers.) As an old-fashioned family film, “Skellig” could hardly offer a more rewarding experience. It teaches values, while also being exceedingly entertaining. (Younger children probably would find the darker scenes and Skellig’s “deformity” unnerving, though.)

Too often, the term faith-based is merely a code used by studios to attract audiences who believe the only true Christians are those who are politically conservative and take the bible literally. As movies such as Skellig and Wings of Desire demonstrate, however, one needn’t be washed in the blood of the lamb to believe in angels, miracles and God’s glory.

To Save a Life is the story of a high school jock hero who realizes too late that his life is spinning out of control. It takes the very public suicide of a former best friend to put him on the lonely road to redemption. Once one of the coolest of the cool kids, the king jock (Randy Wayne) finds solace in the words of Pastor Chris (Joshua Weigel), who convinces him that losing his debauched friends is no big deal, compared to finding eternal salvation.

If the message seems overly simplistic, that’s probably because today’s evangelists aren’t all that concerned with nuance or irony. It’s their way or the highway to hell. That said, the characters in Gossip Girl – who the students here resemble, minus the trust funds — and most teen gross-out flicks could use a lot more Jesus and far less rock ’n’ roll. – Gary Dretzka

L’enfance Nue: Criterion Collection

Normally, a movie about the plight of foster children in France, during the 1960s, might not be high on anyone’s list of must-see DVD titles, however interesting it might be. After all, being an American foster child – or parent, for that matter – is no picnic, either. L’Enfance Nue (Naked Childhood) will be of interest to admirers of French films, if only because it marked the feature debut of director Maurice Pialat (Loulou, À nos amours) and several of the key actors were actual foster parents, in large part playing themselves … marvelously.

The focal point of Pialat’s story is a troubled young 12-year-old, François (Michel Terrazon), who’s been shuffled through several families and basically is given one last chance, this time with one of the sweetest and most charitable couples on the planet. Today, I suppose, François would carry the ADD brand and be handed a daily regimen of Ritalin to help him and his elders make it through the day unscathed. Back then, here and in France, no such remedy existed. Kids were given the benefit of a doubt, at least, before being given a one-way ticket to the reformatory.

Pialat displays the entire range of the boy’s behavioral range, from charming to felonious, without resorting to easy sentimentality or making excuses for him. It’s easy, though, to empathize with Francois’ final pair of surrogate parents who began taking in foster kids after their large brood left the nest. They’ve seen it all and then some. Although Francois proves to be a handful, even from the beginning of his tenure in their home, the boy enjoys listening to stories of the old man’s experiences in the Resistance and the couple’s recollections of raising their own children. He also bonds with Grandma, who, although largely bed-ridden, never seems to tire of sharing time with Francois.

Just when you think he’s on his way to a stable home life, however, Francois can’t resist the temptation to cause some serious mischief with a pack of older boys. This leaves his future in the hands of the police, not social services or the foster parents. Although Francois might be recognizable as a provincial cousin to Antoine Doinel – who we watched grow up in Francois Truffaut’s films – Pialat’s portrait is that of a documentarian. The bonus package is just as worthwhile as one has come to expect from Criterion Collection. In addition to the newly restored high-definition digital transfer, the extras include Pialat’s 1960 short film, L’amour existe; a 50-minute documentary on the film and filmmaker; excerpts from a 1973 French television interview; a new visual essay by critic Kent Jones; interviews with Pialat collaborators; and a booklet with an essay by critic Phillip Lopate. – Gary Dretzka

Dark and Stormy Night
The Lost Skeleton Returns Again

These days, only the thinnest of hairs separates films intended to pay homage, satirize or outright ridicule movies in overly familiar genres. Mel Brooks and the teams behind The Kentucky Fried Movie, The Groove Tube, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Hollywood Shuffle are largely credited with opening the door to a literal tsunami of parodies, many not worthy of the designation. Larry Blamire’s genre takedowns Dark and Stormy Night, Trail of the Screaming Forehead, The Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again remind me very much of the inspired radio satires of the Firesign Theatre.

The new DVD releases of Dark and Stormy Night and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again skewer the drawing-room mysteries of Agatha Christie and cheapo sci-fi flicks of the 1950s. They do so armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the clichés, stereotypes, archetypes and narrative shortcuts employed by the writers and directors who churned out genre pictures as if they were so many widgets. Unlike the films chosen for Mystery Science Theater 3000, Blamire’s pictures are best enjoyed by audiences and geeks with a familiarity of the sets, dialogue and fashions in the movies that inspired them. Both DVDs arrive with commentary and behind-the-scenes material. – Gary Dretzka

Cougar Town: Complete First Season
Simon Schama: A History of Britain
Temple Grandin
Ugly Betty: The Complete Fourth and Final Season
Friday Night Lights: The Fourth Season
Dexter: The Fourth Season
Wolverine and the X-Men: Final Crisis Trilogy

In the parlance of porn, a cougar is a female predator that preys on far younger males of the species for the benefit of sexual pleasure. A cougar can be a MILF, as well, but only if she’s had children and is recognized by a younger male as a woman with whom he’d like to have sex. A woman of a certain age can be a MILF without even knowing what it means to be one or having any sexual desire, one way or another. A cougar isn’t a cougar unless one is on the prowl.

Even 15 years ago, I doubt ABC would dare name a show Cougar Town, thinking it too suggestive a title for Midwestern tastes, even if it’s more tease than strip. On September 23, the former Tiffany Network, CBS, will debut a sitcom $#*! My Dad Says, based on a Twitter feed “Shit My Dad Says.” We’ve been instructed to think of the show as “(Bleep) My Father Says,” but only a prude, moron or network executive would be sufficiently dim-witted to do so.

CBS has dismissed the concerns of the Parents Television Council by saying the actual expletive wouldn’t air in prime time – no shit! – and, in any case, offended parties could program their television’s V-chip to block the show (on the off chance anyone actually knows how to do it). Cougar Town wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, but it showed enough promise to warrant a second-season renewal. If $#*! My Dad Says delivers ratings, expect NBC to resurrect MILF Island, a concept forwarded in 30 Rock.

In the ABC sitcom, Courteney Cox plays a recently divorced wife and mother in her early 40s, who is trying to adjust to the contemporary dating scene. Since her Jules fits the bill nicely as both a cougar and MILF, Cox’s character is allowed to sample forbidden fruit, if only tentatively. Mostly, she’s required to deal with a bumbling former husband, who won’t go away (The New Adventures of the Old Christine, anyone?), meddlesome neighbors, a college-bound son and a flame more her age. Without Cox, the show probably would have been canceled after four episodes.

Married … With Children said and did it all before, better. The DVD set includes bloopers, deleted scenes, the making-of featurette Taming Cougar Town, Jimmy Kimmel’s Saber-Tooth Tiger Town, Ask Barb (the show’s actual cougar) and the leeringly titled, Stroking It With Bobby Cobb, which refers to the ex-husband’s golf background.

To understand America, it’s essential to know what brought the British colonists to this country in the first place and how our rebellion and constitution were shaped by the experiences of a people whose history included domination by Romans, Vikings, France, religious despots, a dozen different warring tribes, demonic kings and queens, visionary statesmen and money-grubbing imperialists. Columbia University professor and art critic

Simon Schama’s 15-part BBC series, History of Britain, is as entertaining as it is enlightening, breathing new life into figures recalled, if at all, from college textbooks, Shakespeare and period movies. The six-disc package clocks in at 882 minutes, most of which are filled with splendid cinematography; fascinating visits to castles, shrines, archeological digs and battlefields; intriguing interpretations of historical data; and Schama’s forthright and often quite poetic narrative.

For those unaware of the length and breadth of British history, the documentary could prove as stimulating as Rob Roy, Braveheart, The Patriot, Master and Commander, The Tudors, Into the Storm and Young Victoria. Nor does Schama ignore the United Kingdom’s many political blunders, its institutional arrogance, brutality and racism. The DVD package arrives in widescreen aspect, interviews and biographies, behind the scenes material, the original score, the featurette Television and the Trouble With History and Simon Schama’s John Donne.

Although the HBO publicity team wasn’t able to give its inspirational original biopic Temple Grandin a tenth of the attention devoted to True Blood, Entourage and Hung, it was seen by enough Emmy voters to garner nominations in 15 different categories. Claire Danes plays the title character, a woman diagnosed with autism at four and destined to live an isolated life in a mental institution. Instead, she would defy her doctors’ gloomy expectations by excelling at school, becoming a best-selling author and a pioneer in the humane treatment of livestock.

Gradin was able to reach the pinnacle of her field, even though she still was hampered somewhat by traits of her autism. (Different traits would allow her to function at a higher level than her scientific peers in other areas.) Danes is excellent in the demanding role. Nominated, as well, were Julia Ormond, who played Grandin’s mother; Catherine O’Hara, as her aunt; and David Strathairn, as a teacher who believed in her abilities and potential.

After four mostly successful seasons, ABC pulled the plug on the offbeat dramedy series, Ugly Betty, which was based on a Colombian telenovela. As played by America Ferrera, Betty was an “ugly duckling” hired at a New York fashion magazine as a personal assistant to a womanizing editor-in-chief. The idea was that the editor wouldn’t be attracted to Betty and, perhaps, he would be able to focus on the job before him. Over the next three years, Betty would blossom both personally and professionally. No one was particularly happy to see the series come to an end, but its cancellation was made inevitable by the network’s fiddling with its prime-time schedule. The final-season package adds deleted scenes, bloopers and a featurette with Becki Newton and Michael Urie in the Bahamas

Friday Night Lights has spent most of its life on NBC and DirecTV on life-support. Critically praised, but an underperformer in the ratings, “FNL” chronicles life in football-crazy Dillon, Texas, whose problems are supposed to mirror those experienced in countless other cities in fly-over country. This season, compounding the usual dilemmas, Dillon’s school district has been split, resulting in new rivalries and a dilution of athletic talent.

The fourth season of Showtime’s original series, Dexter, may have been the best one, yet. Not only did it feature stunning guest appearances by John Lithgow, playing a brilliant serial killer, but it chronicled Dexter’s efforts to balance his work and avocation with family life. It takes all of the blood-splatter expert’s energy to stay awake, let alone remember where he might have lost a corpse while performing daddy duties for his equally tired wife. Lithgow’s Trinity Killer also is a family man, whose horrific secret life may be buried even deeper than Dexter’s. The final scene may be one of the most shocking in recent television history.

The three-part Final Crisis Trilogy, which capped season one of Niktoons’ Wolverine and the X-Men, has been sent out on DVD. As usual, our heroes are required to save the planet from extinction, this time in the wake of Jean Grey’s abduction by the Inner Circle. If that weren’t enough, Wolverine has been warned by Xavier of impending mutant genocide sometime in the far future. Super Friends!: Season One, Vol. Two completes the first installment of the early-‘70s ABC series on DVD. In addition to such DC Comics heroes asSuperman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the show added trainees Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog. It arrives in a two-disc collector’s edition. – Gary Dretzka

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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