MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: Sex and the City 2, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Kisses, Alien Anthology, Back to the Future 25th Anniversary Trilogy

Sex and the City 2: Blu-ray

After scoring a direct financial hit with the first feature-length adaptation of HBO’s Sex and the City, its producers naturally elected to push their luck with this sequel, which adds yet another 150 minutes to the saga. What, on television, could easily be digested in tidy 30-minute portions, now amounted to a week’s worth of Denny’s breakfast specials at every meal.

Even more than the first feature, SATC2 feels bloated and in need of a whalebone corset … less a fully realized movie than a really long infomercial for conspicuous consumption. Not that any of the franchise’s devoted fans will object to another ode to shopping and sexual innuendo, because it’s there in spades. (Samantha labels a Danish hunk “Lawrence of My Labia,” while a trek through the desert opens the door for a camel-toe joke at Charlotte’s expense.) This time around, the BFFs are experiencing all the usual anxieties related to sexist bosses, marriage fatigue, an insanely sexy nanny and encroaching menopause.

To relieve the pressure, Samantha invites the ladies to join her on an all-expenses-paid trip to Abu Dhabi, one the world capitals of excessive spending. (Even though the emirate is portrayed as a tourist mecca, the government feared that opening its doors to such a sexually obsessed production would send the wrong message. The location shots were done in less opulent Morocco.) In between camel rides and spa treatments, Carrie runs into old flame Aidan (John Corbett), with whom she shares a kiss, while Samantha gets arrested for a tryst on the beach. And, so it goes. As a guy, I found SATC2 far easier to take at home, where you can hit the pause button every 30 minutes or so, talk out loud or amuse yourself with the disc’s interactive features.

The gags seem to fit the small screen better, as well. Look for cameos by Miley Cyrus, Tim Gunn, and Penélope Cruz, and Liza Minnelli officiating at the fab wedding of Stanford and Anthony. Other extras include, “So Much Can Happen in Two Years,” “Styling ‘Sex and the City 2’,” “Marry Me Liza!,” “Revisiting the ’80s,” “The Men of ‘Sex and the City,’” “SATC2 Soundtrack: Behind the Scenes with Alicia Keys” and commentary with producer Michael Patrick King. And, yes, the splashy colors and wild fashions look terrific in Blu-ray.


The Girl Who Played With Fire

Those of us obsessed with the novels in Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium Trilogy have been blessed with screen adaptations that feature brilliant acting, crisp direction and faithful interpretations of the source material. It’s also nice to know that all three of the Swedish-language versions will be available to American audiences by December. (They’ve already been shown in European theaters and transferred to DVD for home viewing.)

The Hollywood editions won’t start rolling out until December, 2011, by which time it’s possible the Swedish TV mini-series will be available on DVD here, as well. In Part 2, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Noomi Rapace delivers another smashing portrayal of Lisbeth Salander, the extremely complex and exceedingly angry young woman who assists journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) in his investigations.

Here, Salander becomes the prime suspect in a series of murders, which might be related to a story being prepared about sex trafficking. Blomkvist, though, considers her to be a potential victim of unknown perpetrators. Once this is established, the movie kicks into another, more forceful gear. Director Daniel Alfredson dials up the violence, adding a villain so monstrous he wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond movie. Naturally, he answers only to a cabal of powerful businessmen and politicians. It’s hugely entertaining and the action easily translates into any language known to man. The only notable bonus feature is an English dub track for those allergic to subtitles.



Clocking in at a mere 72 minutes, Kisses feels shorter than most of the commercial breaks during the Academy Awards broadcast. Even so, Irish writer/director Lance Daly’s highly compelling teen romance doesn’t feel a minute too short. Its characters do what Daly wants them to do and they never threaten to overstay their welcome.

Brilliant newcomers Kelly O’Neill and Shane Curry play Kylie and Dylan, next-door neighbors in a beleaguered working-class section of Dublin. Christmas is right around the corner, but holiday cheer is in short supply at home. Their parents have hair-trigger tempers and little patience for the idiosyncrasies of kids emerging from puberty. Instead of waiting around to be further abused, Kylie and Dylan decide to embark on an urban adventure, during which they hope to find Dylan’s derelict older brother.

Instead, they undergo more emotional upheaval in one exciting night on the town than most people do in a lifetime. For the first time, as well, Dylan will feel the weight of being named after a cultural icon. Daly’s Dublin is small enough to accommodate the dreams of a pair of confused kids, yet sufficiently gritty to scare the crap out of them when things don’t go as planned. (Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher came to mind when Kylie and Dylan hitched a ride into town on a barge.)

Kisses is full of wonderful surprises, not the least of which are performances by previously untested actors. The bonus package adds a commentary track, featuring Curry and O’Neill, outtakes and a behind-the-scenes piece.


Alien Anthology: Blu-ray
Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy: Blu-ray
Mad Max: Blu-ray

I’ll leave it to purists to decide whether the new, gargantuan Alien and Back to the Future Blu-ray packages should be paired in the sci-fi ghetto at the local video store or housed separately on the horror and comedy shelves.

Like so many other post-Stars Wars blockbusters, no single genre can define their appeal. Both franchises have also stood the test of time in a half-dozen different video formats and their legions of fans probably already own all of theatrical releases in VHS, laserdisc and DVD, individually and packaged with all the sequels. Each new entry was better than the one that preceded it.

So, why invest in yet another compilation? Among other reasons, the Blu-ray presentation is far superior to previous versions in all the technical departments that matter to collectors and fans. More to the point, however, Blu-ray allows for such an abundance of new and previously added bonus features that it would take an entire weekend’s viewing to sample all of them. Alien Anthology, alone, contains more than 60 hours of special features and two bonus discs. Many of them are unique to Blu-ray, which allows fully interactive and immersive options.

The most exciting addition to the hi-def Alien Anthology package is Fox’s MU-TH-UR mode feature, which provides a digital key to unlocking the full gallery of interviews, deleted scenes, trivia and documentaries throughout the collection. To “tag” a particular scene for further study, viewers first ask the player to display an interactive index of all the supplemental material that pertains to it. After tagging a specific option, it’s collected in the unit’s memory bank. When the features disc is subsequently inserted, the computer automatically retrieves that material. (For the uninitiated, MU-TH-UR is the name of the ship’s computer in Alien.)

Besides the original theatrical and director’s cut versions of each of the four films, and bonus features available on earlier laserdisc and DVD the package, special “Enhancement Pods” contain extended behind-the-scenes footage, raw dailies, the restored version of David Fincher’s “Wreckage and Rage: The Making of Alien 3,” memorabilia collections, parodies and comic books. You’d be hard-pressed to think of an aspect of the production that isn’t covered somewhere in the six-disc package. It will be the standard against which all future anthology collections are measured.

Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s time-travel trilogy is given similarly royal treatment in the “25th Anniversary” edition. In addition to the many extras already available to collectors, the Blu-ray edition of Back to the Future adds BDLive functionality and “U Control,” from which viewers can readily access sections dedicated to “setups and payoffs,” storyboard comparisons and trivia. Tales From the Future is a six-part hi-def documentary that follows the production process from development through filming and release.

The Physics of ‘Back to the Future is a discussion with physicist Michio Kaku about the scientific accuracy of the movies. Nuclear Test Site Ending Storyboard Sequence examines the original ending of the film, with an optional commentary by Gale. Back to the Future Night is an archival featurette, hosted by Leslie Nielsen, which aired on NBC prior to the televised broadcast of the first film.

Other techie gadgets are the “Pocket BLU” app for smart phones and hand-held computers, and “My Scenes,” bookmarking favorite scenes. It’s interesting to recall that the two sequels were shot back-to-back – establishing a precedent, perhaps — four years after the release of the first BTTF.

When the original Mad Max arrived on these shores in 1980, a year after its release in Australia, it looked very much like a movie Roger Corman might have produced, only cheaper. It cost $300,000 to make and every penny was visible on the screen, in the form of souped-up vehicles and costumes inspired by Sydney chapter of the Hell’s Angels. The gritty, bordering-on-wacky characterizations, violence and chases were of a piece with earlier Oz-ploitation flicks. It developed a cult following even before it opened in L.A.

Mad Max would do even better business when it was re-released three years later, after Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior stormed American box offices. The far slicker Beyond Thunderdome arrived in 1986. The Blu-ray version of Mad Max comes with a commentary track and making-of featurette. Don’t make the mistake of judging this wonderful movie by the low standards set by Mel Gibson 30 years later.


Wild Grass

In the early 1960s, Alain ResnaisLast Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour defined for American audiences what it meant to be an arthouse movie. If I recall, they also provide fodder for Mad magazine and other hip satirists. Only Michaelangelo Antonioni demanded more of his viewers.

By comparison, the films of Jean-Paul Godard, Francois Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman were walks in the park. If his later compositions have been more accessible to those lacking a French sensibility, they are no less surprising. Now 88, Resnais shows few outward signs of slowing down. His romantic drama Wild Grass was nominated for a Golden Palm at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It may not be an easy film to like, but it’s extremely easy on the eyes and the story becomes more compelling the longer one stays with it.

Sabine Azéma, who plays the female protagonist, has a wild mane of flaming-red hair that’s practically a character in and of itself. Her tres tres flaky Marguerite is a dentist and pilot of small planes. She’s momentarily discombobulated by the theft of her purse, but doesn’t seem in any great hurry to have it returned by the older gentleman, Georges (André Dussollier), who finds her emptied billfold in a garage. After seeing the photograph on her pilot’s license, George becomes obsessed with connecting with her. He’s married to a lovely young woman, so there’s something pervy about his actions. Marguerite senses the same thing, but is perversely drawn to George’s advances.

Just when you’d expect things to turn nasty, though, Marguerite begins stalking him. Finally, the story leaves us in the clouds, both literally and figuratively. A making-of featurette describes the lengths to which Resnais will go to re-create his version of reality, including a singular color palette and costume design.


The Infidel

Most renters are experienced enough to know that the plot synapses for movies listed on IMDB, Netflix and Amazon, and printed on the back of DVD packages, often don’t match what actually takes place on screen. The blurbs are written in such a way as to convince potential viewers they’ll enjoy the product and it’s worth the price of a purchase or rental. They aren’t meant as critiques, even when surrounded by the quotes and thumbs of critics familiar and obscure. Once burned, though, twice smart.

Here, for example, are two movies whose descriptions normally would make me steer clear of them. The Infidel describes what happens when a middle-age Muslim gentleman learns he was adopted, and his birth parents were Jewish. In another British export, Skeletons, follows a mismatched pair of itinerant exorcists as they wander the countryside, cleansing homeowners of the ghosts in their closets, both literally and figuratively. If made by a major Hollywood studio, these movies would have been unwatchable. Knowing they weren’t gave me the incentive to take a chance on them.

In The Infidel, the rotund British-Iranian comedian and actor Omid Djalili (Sex and the City 2) plays Mahmud Nasir, who, before being adopted by his Muslim parents, came into the world as Solly Shimshillewitz.

This news, alone, would be sufficient cause for late-onset schizophrenia. In Mahmud’s case, the revelation is complicated by the fact that his adult son hopes to marry the daughter of a prominent mullah. To gain his blessing, the young man had earlier convinced his father to pretend he’s as devout a Muslim as anyone else in their mosque. By the time the mullah arrives in town to meet the future in-laws and rouse the rabble, Mahmud’s nearly paralyzed by an identity crisis. Richard Schiff (The West Wing), a drunken Jewish cabbie who lives next-door to Mahmud’s recently deceased mother, volunteers to serve as his guide to Jew-dom, while he attempts to figure out who he is. Naturally, the people marketing The Infidel want browsers to think of it as a blend of British farce and Woody Allen neurosis. Amazingly, much of Josh Appignanesi’s movie did remind me of Allen’s early comedies, even factoring in the obligatory cultural and religious stereotypes.

Once antagonistic to each other, Mahmud and Schiff’s Lenny Goldberg become the voices of moderation in communities dominated by bitter rivalries and rigid fundamentalists. The Infidel may be a fairy tale, but, at least, it’s one in which adults can believe. Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife) and Matt Lucas (Little Britain) also contribute nice performances.

In Skeletons, Davis (Ed Gaughan) and Bennett (Andrew Buckley) play an unmatched pair of wandering diviners, who take their jobs seriously without actually understanding what it is they do. In a sense, the men provide the same service as a priest in the confessional, relieving parishioners of their guilt over sins real and imagined. Here, a tricked-out metal box is used to accomplish the same task. At one stop, however, they meet their match in a girl who actually does possess such a gift and causes one of them to “go Bulgarian.” Skeletons is kooky, eccentric and humane in the same way as many of the better comedies seen on BBC America. If it were to be re-made here, it probably would more closely resemble a Ghostbusters knock-off. Both DVDs include interviews and making-of material.


The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia
Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

These fine new documentaries shine a light on corners of America most people would prefer remained in the dark. Not that that’s anything unusual or unexpected. It’s what documentarians do for a living … such as it is. What The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia and Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo share is a deeply personal approach to the stories of the societal rejects we meet in them. Watching both films, back to back, is like looking at opposites of the same tarnished and scratched coin.

Wild and Wonderful Whites profiles an extended family of reprobates that’s nearly as notorious in Appalachia as the Hatfields and McCoys. Indeed, if members of those famously feuding families had intermarried, the Whites could very well have been their malevolent offspring. If a crime occurs in Boone County, West Virginia, the odds are very good that one of the Whites is responsible. By their own admission, family members are complicit in countless shootouts, murders, robberies, drug abuse and dealing, public drunkenness and corrupting their children.

And yet, most of them are capable of telling interesting stories and several tap dance very well to their hillbilly hip-hop. That the whole lot of them isn’t in prison or reform school is a question that hangs over the entirety of Julian Nitzberg’s fascinating, if highly disturbing documentary. Nitzberg had become familiar with the Whites in the early 1990s, during production of the TV documentary Dancing Outlaw, about mountain dancer Jesco White.

This time, Nitzberg and his crew spend a chaotic year among the other Whites, who weren’t the least bit reluctant to extol the virtues of the outlaw lifestyle. At its core, Wild and Wonderful Whites is about living free in America, avoiding hourly wages and pissant bosses at all costs. If the Whites weren’t so dangerous and unpredictable, the A&E cable network might have considered giving them the timeslot once reserved for the detestable reality show, Growing Up Gotti.

Unlike that series, Wild and Wonderful Whites doesn’t ignore the cost of unfettered freedom. The family plot overflows with the gravestones of prematurely deceased Whites. Livening up the proceedings are interviews with a tap-dancing, Elvis impersonating White and Hank Williams III, who’s rhapsodized about and partied with the Whites, yet lived to tell about it. The bonus package adds commentary with Nitzberg and producer Johnny Knoxville; featurettes, “The Woes of the Whites” and “Do the White Thing: The Making of ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia”; “The Original Jesco Tapes”; an interview with Hank III; and deleted scenes.

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo follows preparations by residents of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary System for the 2007 edition of the annual prison rodeo. Women convicts had only one year earlier been allowed to participate in the competition, which is taken very seriously by the administration, prisoners and civilian guests, alike. For many, it provides the only tangible proof that the system recognizes them as human being, as well as a brief taste of freedom.

Bradley Beesley’s documentary isn’t all that different from a dozen other prison-based films, in that it follows a manageable number of convicts and guards who are trying to make the best of their surroundings. His cameras follow one woman as she makes her case for parole, and then is caught wearing contraband makeup. Another is shown writing letters to her estranged family, which has disappeared from the face of the Earth.

It’s the joy and dedication Beesley captures in the faces of the cowboys and cowgirls – before, during and after the rodeo – that convinces us that rehabilitation is worth pursuing, even as politicians continue to demand endless punishment for convicts not born with white collars around their necks.


Hotel Terminus: The Life & Times of Klaus Barbie
Paths of Glory: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

The second release of secret Pentagon documents, via Wikileaks, adds an unexpected sense of relevancy to the launch on DVD of Hotel Terminus: The Life & Times of Klaus Barbie.” No matter that the events described in Max Ophuls‘ brilliant documentary stopped evolving more than 20 years ago, when the Nazi “Butcher of Lyon” and Gestapo fiend was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, or that the film has been part of the public record since 1988.

What still resonates today is the level of deceit employed by American intelligence officers – and those of all our Allies – to convince people back home that justice was served at Nuremberg and the Nazi scourge was erased forever from the face of the Earth. In fact, known war criminals not only were spared, but they also were protected and supported by the CIA and its forerunner (i.e., your tax dollars).

After the war, Barbie and other Gestapo leaders were employed as an informants, spies and interrogators. When the French government began breathing down Barbie’s neck, American spooks helped spirit him out of Germany and relocate him to South America. The perceived threat, of course, was the spread of communism throughout the free world, effectively rendering the systemic annihilation of millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, resistance fighters and, in Barbie’s case, innocent children old news.

Hotel Terminus goes into exhaustive detail on the openly acknowledged policy of protecting leaders of our former enemy, while using them to subvert our former ally. Ophuls personally interviewed dozens of knowledgeable American, German, French and Bolivan authorities, reporters, witnesses to war crimes and veterans of the French resistance. He demonstrates how Barbie and others made their way from post-war Germany to North and South America, following a “rat line” secured by Roman Catholic priest in Italy, and were stashed in locations unknown to Israeli and French pursuers. In Bolivia, the CIA used Barbie’s expertise in the crackdown on left guerrillas, including Che Guevara.

American intelligence officers involved in the subterfuge confirmed the operations and defended them, even while admitting that competing American intelligence agencies were left ignorant of the others’ activities. It’s an amazing document and, even at 267 minutes, not at all difficult to watch. The angry reaction to the release of the Pentagon documents by Wikileaks attests to the fact that, while our government still isn’t comfortable with the truth, it has no problem putting American men and women in harm’s way to defend lies.

The Criterion Collection upgrade of Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 antiwar masterpiece, Paths of Glory, demonstrates several things, not the least of which is the absurdity of allowing pompous assholes to dictate when, how and why soldiers will die in combat. This practice didn’t begin or end with World War I, of course. It’s as true today as it ever was.

In “Paths of Glory,” self-aggrandizing French officers order their troops to move against a German stronghold, on the slim chance the enemy might be caught napping and a slaughter could be averted. Meanwhile, the brass could survey the carnage from the safety of their hilltop mansion headquarters. Kirk Douglas played Colonel Dax, whose troops were ordered to slog their way through the mud, barb wire and machine-gun fire. The mission failed, of course, so the officers needed someone to blame for the misguided effort.

They rounded up a few survivors of the action and charged them with cowardice. Dax is chosen to defend the men in the kangaroo court martial. In his defense of the soldiers, the colonel raises questions that applied to all wars and warriors. The Criterion Collection restoration fairly sparkles in glorious black-and-white, even the mud feels excruciatingly real. The DVD package also features new commentary with critic Gary Giddins; an audio interview with Kubrick, conducted in 1966 by author Jeremy Bernstein; an archival interview with Douglas; new video interviews with producer James B. Harris and artist/actress Christiane Kubrick; a segment from the French news program “JT Basse Normandie”; the film’s original theatrical trailer; and a 20-page illustrated booklet.


Last Day of Summer

The best reasons to watch the teen-angst drama Last Day of Summer are the performances turned in by D.J. Qualls (Memphis Beat) and Nikki Reed (Twilight). You might recognize Qualls’ loser character, Joe, as the kind of kid who decides that the only way to stop being bullied is to buy a gun and shoot the first classmate or teacher who dares look at him funny.

Here, he’s a well-intentioned dweeb who’s forced to endure the shit ladled out on a daily basis by the owner of the restaurant at which he toils. Being at the lowest rung of the ladder, Joe is assigned the most unpleasant tasks and forced to endure ridicule after not meeting his boss’ ridiculously high standards. Among the straws that finally break his back is being dissed by a pretty teenager he thinks is flirting with him. After buying the gun, Joe decides he’ll kidnap the girl and, then, exact his revenge on the boss. Naturally, things don’t go precisely as planned. Kidnaper and kidnapee share elements of their lives that serve to make everyone feel more human, even the bully boss.


Cannibal Girls
Aaah! Zombies!!
Lake Placid 3
The Haunting of Sorority Row

The two most interesting titles on this week’s list of horror/thrillers are the two oldest – Cannibal Girls and Psychomania – although they’re noteworthy primarily for their value as historical artifacts.

Six years before Ivan Reitman would score his first hit, with Meatballs, he made a nasty horror flick about flesh-eating undead hotties, Cannibal Girls. Although this exceedingly goofy gore-fest has its scary moments, what makes the 1973 relic a must-see DVD is the appearance of future SCTV cast members Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. (They also appeared in Reitman’s 1971 debut feature, Foxy Lady.)

They play the generic clueless couple, who, while on a drive through the Canadian countryside, decide to stay overnight at an inn populated with, you guessed it, cannibal girls. Martin looks very much like she always has, only younger, while Levy is made practically unrecognizable with a wild Jew-fro hairdo, Fu Manchu mustache, bushy sideburns and giant glasses. They mostly are required to play it straight, while everyone else is being taken apart by axes and shovels, and the guests at the inn devour the meat on human bones.

Nearly four decades later, Cannibal Girls is as entertaining as most of the straight-to-DVD thrillers that pass this way every day. An entertaining contemporary interview with Levy is included in the package. Viewers can choose to watch an optional track, with a warning-bell feature that alerted audiences to upcoming violence.

Also released in 1973, Psychomania (a.k.a., Death Wheelers) chronicled the adventures of a gang of motorcycle-riding zombies, who terrorized the English highways and shopping districts. While tame-looking by Hells Angels standards, Living Dead members aren’t afraid to engage other bikers in combat or attack harmless villagers. Initiation to the gang requires committing suicide and returning from the afterlife, a process that involves the intercession of a village matron and a bullfrog.

British stage veteran Nicky Henson stars as the handsome leader of the pack, who eats a frog but eventually has second thoughts about his undead status. What Psychomania has working in its favor, besides outstanding camp value, are some excellent riding scenes, a rocking score and a neat sense of the absurd. Hopkins is one of remaining cast and crew members interviewed in the bonus package, along with Mary Larkin, Roy Holder, stuntman/actor Dennis Gilmore, composer John Cameron and Fangoria editor Chris Alexander.

Trivia nuts may already be aware of the fact that Psychomania was the last film in which the great British screen star George Sanders would appear. He committed suicide during post-production, leaving behind a note that read, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”

Made in 2007, as Wasting Away, Aaah! Zombies!! is a deliciously bizarre combination of zombie clichés and teen-angst parody. The movie opens in a lab at a top-secret military installation, where army researchers are testing chemical cocktails that could lead to the creation of a super-soldier. Instead, they manage to create a super-strong zombie.

Disappointed, team leaders decide to thwart local environmentalists by tossing the remaining canisters into Monterey Bay. Along the way, one of the barrels falls from the truck, eventually coming to a halt outside a bowling alley. A bright-green toxic substance leaks into some boxes of ice cream destined to be mixed with beer to create a frozen treat for the bowlers.

Instead, it will turn anyone who drinks it into zombies. The operative gag is that the zombies don’t recognize themselves as monsters, although everyone else they meet does. When the POV shifts, the old-fashioned black-and-white images emerge in color. This comically gory and exceedingly silly movie can be enjoyed fans of the genre and newcomers, alike.

All one really needs to know about Lake Placid 3 is that the crocodiles from the first two installments have multiplied and originator David E. Kelley apparently has disowned himself from the SyFy production. (He was credited with creating the original concept, at least, in the first sequel.) Otherwise, it’s the same old story as the dozens of other misplaced-species franchises over-populating video-store shelves these days.

Not having seen either of two earlier installments, I can’t attest to the superiority or inferiority of Lake Placid 3. I do know that it has more T&A and outright gore than the made-for-cable version and that Yancy Butler could play a cleaning lady and still be sexy. Here, she’s a hunting guide who inadvertently leads her clients into a nest of crocs, while biologist Nathan Bickerman (Colin Ferguson) ponders what’s decimating the elk population. The more stoned you are, the more likely you’ll enjoy Lake Placid 3.

Altitude is a claustrophobic thriller, set on a small airplane, in which a group of teenagers get increasingly freaked out by the possibility that they’ll never return to Mother Earth. It’s not an uncommon premise, to be sure, but there’s a Twilight Zone subplot that distinguishes Altitude from your garden-variety teens-in-peril thriller.

Unfortunately, it takes far too long to get to the point where the supernatural stuff kicks in and clichés disappear. None of the teenagers appear to like each other very much and the plane barely clears the runway before they start bickering. It is until the female pilot realizes that she shares a tragic past with a passenger that things get interesting. For fans of such thrillers, patience will be rewarded. There’s a decent making-of feature that explains how the more interesting flying scenes were accomplished.

Meanwhile, Lifetime has gotten into the Halloween spirit by releasing a quintet of its sorta-kinda-scary original titles and a mini-series: Hush Little Baby, about a demonic delivery; The Gathering, a three-hour mini-series, starring Peter Gallagher, Peter Fonda and Jamie-Lynn Sigler; The Haunting of Sorority Row, featuring gossip-gal Leighton Meester; Devil’s Diary, in which Satan returns to high school; and Still Small Voices, in which the world’s most beautiful 911 operator, Catherine Bell, starts hearing mysterious voices.


Harrison Montgomery

At 82, Martin Landau still knows how to make a small movie look big. He plays the title character, Harrison Montgomery, a reclusive geezer living in a rundown apartment in San Francisco’s sleazy Tenderloin district. Although he appears to communicate best with invisible forces in the metaphysical universe, Montgomery’s mysterious behavior is grounded in a very concrete reality. Meanwhile, everyone else in the building is coping with serious problems of their own.

Among them is a young drug dealer who shows great promise as an artist. On the run from his supplier, to whom he owes lots of money, Ricardo (Octavio Gomez Berrios) can’t keep his problems from overlapping those of his neighbors: a precocious 13-year-old girl and her gentle-natured mother (Melora Walters), who’s trapped in an abusive relationship. One of the things Harrison Montgomery gets right is the seedy environment and desperation of a drug dealer who suddenly discovers that he’s in way over his head.

Although director/co-writer Daniel Davila occasionally loses control of the film’s disparate elements, he elicits some excellent performances from the cast and does a nice job capturing aspects of life on skid row.


Surviving the Holidays With Lewis Black
Live in Concert: Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Acerbic comedian Lewis Black wouldn’t be my first choice to play Ebenezer Scrooge in a community-theater production of A Christmas Carol, but he does a nice imitation of the old goat in Surviving the Holidays. No one bursts bubbles with more acidic conviction than Black, a polemicist who sometimes gets so wrapped up in his words that he begins sounding like Daffy Duck.

More often than not, however, what he says makes perfect sense. Here, Black examines the myths surrounding the origins of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, New Year’s Eve and one holiday invented specifically to make Christians and Jews feel good about spending way too much money on gifts. Along the way, he’s supported by the notions and recollections of a widely diverse collection of his fellow comics.

The familiar ones include Bob Saget, Craig Ferguson, Joy Behar, Shelley Berman, Franklyn Ajaye, David Alan Grier, Rip Taylor, Ron White and Ron Pinette, as well as a psychologist and priest. All are terribly funny, delightfully irreverent and more than a little bit thought-provoking.

And, now, from the ridiculous to the sublime: Natalie Cole, performing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra in its 2009 Christmas pageant, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. It goes without saying, I suppose, that there’s nothing in this family-friendly production that’s remotely controversial or revisionist, but that’s surely OK with fans of choral and holiday music.

Cole adds her Grammy-winning voice to those of 375 other singers, a symphony orchestra comprised of 100-plus musicians, 200 dancers and bell ringers, and an audience of 21,000. The songs are traditional and largely familiar, with Cole participating in “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Grown-Up Christmas List” and “Caroling, Caroling.” She also engages in a backstage chat with David McCullough.


You Don’t Know Jack
Evening Primrose
Dog the Bounty Hunter: Wild Ride Megaset
How the Earth Was Made: Complete Season 1
Earth and Space
World War II: 360

HBO has a knack for creating biodocs that put fresh spins on overly familiar public figures. In You Don’t Know Jack, Al Pacino and director Barry Levinson show us a different side of Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. Dr. Death, a macabre newsmaker whose 15 minutes of fame lasted several years longer than they should have.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say Kevorkian’s crusade to legalize assisted suicides divided the nation, but it definitely made people ponder a subject they’d rather not consider until it’s almost too late. He was a magnet for media outlets looking for a loudmouth willing to sacrifice his freedom to further his agenda. As played by Pacino, Kevorkian is able to control a rabid press corps that would prefer to focus on his celebrity-hood than the terminally ill people he helps “die with dignity.” In his manipulative hands, though, they deliver the message, anyway.

This is the nature of celebrity journalism in America. Levinson uses actual footage from the trial and Kevorkian’s self-publicity campaign, while also eliciting excellent performances from Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro, James Urbaniak, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman and Danny Huston. Finally, the doctor wound up in prison, one of the few places the media spotlight couldn’t reach and he exited a more humble, if no less dedicated man.

It’s unclear whether the DVD release of Evening Primrose was prompted by the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of Psycho, but what would be the crime if that was the case? Any new opportunity to watch Tony Perkins working at the top of his game is welcome. James Goldman’s teleplay, from short story by John Collier, was staged by ABC’s Stage 67 in 1966 and then, apparently, shelved for the next 40 years.

Perkins plays a poet who hides in a department store by day and polishes his artistic voice at night. To his great surprise, Perkins’ Charles Snell discovers that other disaffected people have formed a like-minded nocturnal community and it’s among them that he finds his muse. Besides Perkins’s performance, the film boasts a Stephen Sondheim score, with such songs as “If You Find Me, I’m Here” and “Take Me to the World.”

Evening Primrose has been restored and re-mastered from a kinescope print. The DVD includes a newly recorded interviews with director Paul Bogart and co-star Charmian Carr; color test footage with Perkins; and booklet with contributions by Sondheim and Jane Klain of the Paley Center for Media.

Although I doubt Dog the Bounty Hunter: Wild Ride Megaset captures the spirit of the Christmas season, its large enough to qualify as gift material … and wouldn’t Dog make a cool Santa? The box contains 45 top-rated episodes of “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” as well as “The Wedding,” “The Arrest,” additional footage, “Year of the Dog” special, featurettes “The Drama of Dogs Wedding Ring,” “Dance Lessons,” “Shopping with Beth” and “The Bow Wow Vow: A Tribute to Dog and Beth,” the “Catch Em If You Can” episode From A&E’s “Take This Job,” on-air promos, cast biographies, a pop quiz and photo gallery.”

This week’s bounty of History Blu-ray packages include How the Earth Was Made: Complete Season 1, Earth and Space and World War II: 360. Each series combines scientific and historical research with computer-enhanced re-creations, interviews and on-location or archival footage. How the Earth Was Made probably is as violent as World War II: 360, except that the explosive action was the result of dramatic geological events, including those along the San Andreas Fault, Krakatoa, Loch Ness, Yellowstone, Iceland and Hawaii.

Earth and Space literally combines the premiere seasons of History’s The Universe and How the Earth Was Made. The former employs CGI and NASA footage to take viewers on a voyage through the cosmos. It adds feature-length documentary, Beyond the Big Bang.

CGI technology also gives World War II: 360 an immersive texture not available in documentaries constructed from archival material alone. This set follows the campaigns waged by the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and Gen. George S. Patton Jr. It adds additional footage to previously released material. If you already are a fan of History on DVD, be careful not to purchase the compilation of packages you may already own.

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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