MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: Fantasia/Fantasia 2000, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Knight and Day, Cairo Time, The Sicilian Girl, Vampires Suck … and more

Fantasia/Fantasia 2000: Blu-ray
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Blu-ray

According to Disney legend, Dopey the Dwarf was originally pushed for the role in Fantasia that went to Mickey Mouse. Instead, Uncle Walt went with the established star, hoping the role would maintain Mickey’s high profile in movies. Although Dopey might have been an inspired choice, there’s no questioning Mickey’s enduring appeal as the aspiring magician whose imagination nearly gets him killed.

Seventy years later, in the live-action Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Jon Turteltaub paid homage to Mickey’s conjuring of an unruly army of brooms and buckets, by creating a similar sequence for Jay Baruchel. For me, it was the highlight of the movie.

Historians have written entire books about Fantasia, so it would be difficult to add any more scholarship in the space allotted here. It was Walt Disney’s dream to advance the art of animation to a point where it would be taken as seriously by high-brows as it was by the masses. To accomplish this, he asked his stable of artists to translate great passages from the classical-music repertory into visual narratives.

It was a revolutionary concept, to be sure, and audiences failed to warm to the 125-minute, 64-speaker experiment. Some say Fantasia wasn’t accorded its due until the 1960s, when potheads embraced its unique blend of sensual stimuli. Today, of course, it’s considered to be a work of genius.

If Fantasia had succeeded commercially, Disney probably would have continued to produce such animated symphonies, although not necessary at feature length. His artists kept coming up with ideas, but it wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium for the sequel to arrive in theaters, and it took the stewardship of nephew Roy Disney to do it.

Initially limited to IMAX screens, Fantasia/2000 reprised The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, while adding Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5”; Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” with its choreographed whales; Greshwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” using imagery inspired by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld; Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro, Opus 102,” combined with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a heroic toy soldier; Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals,” with its comically confounded flamingos; Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance, Marches 1, 2, 3 and 4,” starring Donald Duck; and Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite, 1919 Version,” which harkens back to “The Rite of Spring” from the original Fantasia. Tellingly, perhaps, Fantasia/2000 was limited to 75 minutes, to fit contemporary consumers’ limited attention spans.

Both movies look and sound splendid in Blu-ray, of course. (They also beg the question as to how they’d look in HD 3D.) The supplemental features also make this package an ideal holiday gift. They include Disney’s Oscar-nominated short Destino (2003) and the feature-length documentary, Dali & Disney: A Date With Destino, which explains the film’s 50-year gestation period; The Schultheis Notebook: A Disney Treasure, with newly discovered production notes; Musicana, Walt Disney’s inspiration for a sequel; a tour of the Disney Family Museum, in San Francisco, with daughter Diane Disney-Miller; an interactive art gallery; audio commentaries; and Disney Virtual Vault, via BD Live. The DVD bonuses are limited to “Musicana,” the museum tour and audio commentaries.

Turteltaub’s live-action Sorcerer’s Apprentice seems to have been influenced as much by Ghostbusters as Fantasia, in that its Manhattan location provides an ideal backdrop for super-sized supernatural activity.

Baruchel plays Dave, the reluctant apprentice to Nic Cage’s Balthazar Blake. The madly eccentric magician is one of three seemingly immortal protégés of Merlin, who prophesized the messiah-like arrival of a sorcerer as great as he was. That person is perceived to be Dave. Also vying for control of the young man’s powers is the devious Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), who would love nothing more than to unleash the long-contained evil of Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krieg). Together, they could trump Dave and Balthazar’s intrinsic goodness and raise an army of the dead to destroy humanity.

If all one knew about Sorcerer’s Apprentice is that it’s produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, it still would be possible to imagine the kind of inspired mayhem that transpires when Balthazar, Horvath and Morgana do battle in the Big Apple. Neither would it surprise anyone to learn that the apprentice’s mission, like that of his mentor, would be complicated by a lovely and supportive young woman (Teresa Palmer and Monica Bellucci, respectively).

None of this will matter to audiences drawn to the promise of CGI legerdemain, as promised in the trailers. Fans of Fantasia will dig the homage to Mickey Mouse’s interpretation of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and placement of his starred hat among the artifacts in Balthazar’s antique shop, even if such nods sail right over the heads of younger viewers.

Turteltaub’s version cost a fortune to make, but failed to ignite much passion among audiences drawn to such special-effects extravaganzas. There’s no reason to think it won’t dominate video rentals for the next couple of weeks, though. Among the many Blu-ray supplements are the making-of featurettes, Magic in the City, The Science of Sorcery, Making Magic Real, Wolves and Puppies, Fantasia: Reinventing a Classic, The Fashionable Drake Stone and The World’s Coolest Car; backgrounders, The Grimhold: An Evil Work of Art and The Encantus; several deleted scenes; outtakes; Easter eggs; and visual-effects demos.


Waking Sleeping Beauty
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story
Walt & El Grupo

Admirers of all things Disney will find a cornucopia of unexpected riches in these three fine documentaries, which are as entertaining as they are informative. The title with the most across-the-board appeal is probably Waking Sleeping Beauty, which describes how Hollywood’s premier animation studio was rescued from the brink of irrelevancy in the early 1980s and re-established in its familiar position of dominance within a decade.

Artistically, the time period covered in Don Hahn and Patrick Pacheco’s film spans the crushing disappointment over critical and commercial returns for The Black Cauldron – a movie that still has its champions — and elation over the stunning success of The Lion King. From a corporate point of view, however, Waking Sleeping Beauty is bookended by the arrival of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the famously acrimonious departure of Katzenberg, who, in 1994, would found DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

In between, of course, would come a string of successes that would include The Little Mermaid, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Lion King. None of these films would have seen the light of day if the studio had been lost in a hostile takeover, as feared, and Roy Disney hadn’t committed to restoring Disney’s prominence in the Hollywood Pantheon. Among other things, it kept the company’s stable of artists and innovators intact and cautiously optimistic, at least.

That family spirit is palpable in “home movies” and other material shot during the development of the ambitious new projects. Interviews with all the key players describe an atmosphere, first, of corporate pride and joy, but, before long, intrigue and back-stabbing. It’s a fascinating story, to be sure, but viewers only interested in the final product might prefer not knowing how the moguls behaved during this tumultuous period. Added material includes the overview featurette, Why Wake Sleeping Beauty?; deleted scenes; The Sailor, the Mountain Climber, the Artist and the Poet, commemorating Roy Disney, Frank Wells, animator Joe Ranft and lyricist Howard Ashman; studio tours; a directors’ reunion with Rob Minkoff and Kirk Wise; a discussion of how the studio operated before and after the death of Walt Disney; webisode shorts; and a gallery of photos, caricatures and art from the period covered in the documentary.

Anyone who’s had the misfortune of having “It’s a Small World (After All)” echo through their brain cavity for hours at a time can blame Disney tunesmiths Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman, subjects of The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story. The same could be said of such irresistible numbers as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocous,” “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and “I Wanna Be Like You.” Even though the feature-length documentary was conceived, produced and directed by two of the songwriters’ sons,

The Boys isn’t all sugar. There’s some strong medicine in the mix, as well. For example, the brothers remained personally estranged throughout much of their 50-year-plus partnership and tenure with Disney. Among the bonus material is a look at the Disney Studios in the 1960s; the casting of “Mary Poppins”; writing songs for theme-park attractions; a profile of animator Roy Williams, a.k.a. the Big Mooseketeer; Bob Sherman’s artwork; testimonials from celebrities; and a “Sherman Brother’s Jukebox,” with such songs as “Tall Paul,” “Chim Chim Cheree,” “Feed the Birds,” “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” as well as the stories behind them.

Walt & El Grupo describes a time in history when the world was a much larger place and Mickey Mouse may have been our country’s most popular and effective ambassador. It was 1941, before the declaration of global war, when Walt Disney was asked to make a goodwill tour of Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Snow White and Pinocchio and had already demonstrated their viability as stand-alone features, but the studio’s health had been threatened by an industry-wide strike.

Uncle Sam agreed to pick up the expenses for the 10-week trip, though, so Disney decided to bring along a coterie of 16 artists, who the boss hoped would collect ideas for such future projects as Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Moreover, it was believed that Disney’s estimable presence could counter inroads made in South American by Nazis and other fascist propagandists.

Like The Boys, El Grupo was made by the son of a Disney stalwart: Frank Thomas, one of The Nine Old Men. Theodore Thomas mined studio archives for source material, interviewed the relatives of participants, borrowed their memorabilia and re-traced the animators’ steps in Brazil and Argentina. In addition to watching Disney and el grupo interact with the locals, it’s fun to watch artists going about the business of recording their experiences on paper. The DVD adds commentary by Thomas and historian J.B. Kaufman; “Photos In Motion,” which described how photos came to life in motion pictures; three extended sequences; the theatrical version of Saludos Amigos and original trailers for Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.


Knight and Day: Blu-ray

If there’s one thing we know for sure about Tom Cruise, it’s that he enjoys performing his own stunts. Last week, for example, photos of the 48-year-old actor dangling from the observation deck of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world’s tallest, were published in newspapers and magazines around the world. The act of dare-deviltry was performed for the fourth installment of “Mission:Impossible,” movies that often use elaborate stunts to advance a recognizable narrative.

As far as I can tell, Knight and Day is a romantic thriller with no plot, discernible or otherwise. It’s one long stunt in search of a grand finale. Considering that most popcorn movies wouldn’t recognize a narrative if it rose from the pages of a screenplay and bit them in the rear end, that remark sounds a bit more dismissive than it’s intended to be. The stunts are very good, indeed, and Cruise’s insistence on performing some of them, at least, make Knight and Day that much more interesting.

According to a featurette in the bonus package, co-star Cameron Diaz also agreed to do some of her own fighting and driving stunts. Knight and Day opens with Cruise’s Roy Miller literally bumping into Diaz’ June Havens in a Kansas City airport. They will find themselves on the same flight, which is nearly devoid of passengers. While June is in the lavatory adjusting her makeup and trying to decide whether or not to hit on Roy, their fellow passengers and crew reveal themselves as assassins bent on killing him.

Before she can even say, “Huh?,” June joins Roy in the ensuing skirmish and behind the wheel of the plane, which he crash lands in the middle of a corn field. It takes nearly the entire length of the movie for June to figure out for which agency Roy works and why two different groups of assassins, minimum, are chasing them around the globe. Viewers are pretty much left in the dark, as well. The good news, though, is that it hardly matters, especially as the action moves from Boston to Kankakee to Jamaica, Salzburg, Sevilla, Point Magu and the Little Europe backlot at Universal City.

Director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) keeps everything moving at break-neck speed, while a budget estimated to be in the neighborhood of $120 million (imagine if Cruise and Diaz hadn’t done their own stunts) allows for much lovely scenery and a re-creation of the running of the bulls at Pamplona. And, yes, it’s fun to watch. Making-of featurettes demonstrate how some of the larger set pieces were accomplished, with much bright banter between Cruise and Diaz. There’s also a music video for “Someday,” starring Cruise and the Black Eyed Peas; humorous viral videos; and BD Live extras.


Cairo Time

I’m terrible at predicting Oscar nominees, but I’d be very surprised if Patricia Clarkson’s name wasn’t among those announced as a finalist in the Best Actress category for her work in Cairo Time. Few actors are as predictably excellent as Clarkson, who, after first gaining attention as the German junkie in High Art, turned in stellar performances in Far From Heaven, Pieces of April, The Station Agent, Good Night, and Good Luck, Elegy and Married Life, among other pictures.

In Ruba Nadda’s heady romantic drama, she plays an American magazine writer in Cairo to reconnect with her husband, a United Nations relief worker in Gaza. If the splendid hotel digs are any indication, it promises to be a wonderful reunion. Unfortunately, Juliette Grant’s husband has been delayed by a disturbance in the occupied territory and there’s no telling how long it will be before he can make the short hop to Egypt.

He’s asked a former co-worker to help Juliette find her bearings in the city of 18 million people, a duty Tareq (Alexander Siddig) takes extremely seriously. From that short description, anyone who’s seen more than a dozen indie romances should be able to guess what happens if not next, then close to it. Juliette and Tariq spend so much time together, in so many exotic places, that it’s inevitable some sort of intimacy should develop between them. Whether it should blossom into something sexual – or lasting — is the question Nadda asks viewers to consider. Not being a Hollywood product, Cairo Time provides its characters with sufficient time to mull and re-mull their emotional impulses, privately, without the input of a Dr. Ruth surrogate.

Tareq is far too loyal and polite to act impulsively, while Juliette seems willing to believe her husband will join her any minute now. What’s wonderful about Cairo Time is summed up distinctly in its title. Nadda, a Canadian of Syrian descent, captures the rhythm and other sensual stimuli of the Egyptian capital and their pull on two emotionally vulnerable, if distinctly different people. Such decisions should not be made in haste, even if lust is a more powerful force than patience.

In the interviews included in the supplementary material, Nadda says she was especially interested in introducing audiences to the kind of Arab man rarely, if ever seen in western films. As portrayed by Siddig (Syriana, 24), Tareq is every bit that person and, through him, we experience Cairo and Egypt – from the casbahs, cafes and congested streets, to the pyramids, White Desert and Alexandria – as if we had a native making sense of it all for us.

The making-of featurette describes how difficult it was to make a movie in the teeming streets of Cairo, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees and setup points that are here today and gone tomorrow. There’s also a Q&A from a press conference at the Toronto Film Festival and some of Nadda’s earlier short films.


The Sicilian Girl

As we learned in the second and third chapters of The Godfather, the Sicilian Mafia is a very different creature than its American iteration. Besides the fact that its soldiers tend not to dress as snappily as their counterparts here, vendettas are carried from generation to generation to generation, ad nausea. Both, though, are governed by the code of omerta, which demands a level of secrecy few other organizations can maintain.

In Marco Amenta’s The Sicilian Girl, we’re introduced to a 17-year-old girl who risks everything to exact revenge on the men who killed her father – himself a Mafia don – and her older brother. Because there are no men in her family left to do the deed in the traditional way, Rita Atria decides to do the unthinkable: turn state’s evidence against men once considered to be as close as family members.

In doing so, Rita turns to Judge Paolo Borsellino, one of the few law-enforcement officials willing to stand up to her father in a forthright manner and remain incorruptible, even when threatened with assassination. Rita’s no pussycat, however. Even after she enters the country’s witness-protection program, she proves herself to be very much her father’s daughter. When prosecutors don’t appear to be moving fast enough, she confronts them with angry diatribes and ignores their common-sense advice. Neither does she endear herself to the magistrate assigned to the trial of dozens of her father and uncle’s former lieutenants.

Yet, at great personal cost, she delivers the goods. Atria’s direction isn’t always fluid, but Veronica D’Agostino’s gripping portrayal of Rita rarely wavers. It’s a portrait in courage to which the families of American Mafiosi ought to aspire, instead of agreeing to play themselves in hideous reality-TV shows.


Going the Distance: Blu-ray

For all its profanity and horndog dialogue, Going the Distance is about as provocative as a sketch in the final third of Saturday Night Live. Like most rom-coms about long-distance relationships, Geoff LaTulippe’s script demands of its lovers that they meet-cute and spend the rest of the movie conceiving new and increasingly flimsy reasons why they shouldn’t find a way to be together.

Before the advent of the Internet and unlimited long-distance calls, filmmakers dealt with the futility of such relationships by showing generic jetliners transverse the continent, their nose cones pointing in opposite directions, sometimes on the same day. Today, the same effect can be derived by having lovers converse via Skype or text messaging, although such technologies are rarely exploited correctly.

Devoid of originality or realistic human interaction, Going the Distance plays very much like an episode of Friends, during which the characters chat inarticulately about inconsequential subjects and wonder why they spend more time drinking coffee than making new friends. Here, Drew Barrymore and Justin Long play the couple stuck in the long-distance relationship. They seem extremely comfortable together in person, but devoid of passion when separated, even in de rigueur long-distance masturbation scenes.

The sidekicks who provide Long’s Garrett with bad advice are played by Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, while Barrymore’s Erin receives hers from Christine Applegate, as the humorless sister, and Jim Gaffigan, as her lumpen brother-in-law. The bonus features are dominated by deleted scenes and self-congratulatory interviews with cast and crew.


Vampires Suck: Extended Bite Me Edition

Given a resume that includes Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie, it was only a matter of time before parodists Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer would tackle the recent epidemic of vampire movies. Their formula is simple, really. They break down a currently popular genre according to stock characters, narrative clichés, experiences shared by protagonists and common background elements, with an eye to lampooning archetypes and ridiculous plot devices.

In Vampires Suck, for example, the bloodsuckers that live in a rainy town in the Pacific Northwest tend to be young, attractive and prone to exposing large patches of skin, just like their counterparts in Twilight. Here, though, the teens appear to be practicing for the same quarter-finals as the ones in Glee.

There also are plenty of references to True Blood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries. When those gags run dry, Friedberg and Seltzer turn to gay, shirtless werewolves and such non-generic pop-cultural touchstones as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Tiger Woods, the Kardashians, Lady Gaga and blow-up sex dolls. If one joke or sight gag doesn’t work, another will surely follow 30 seconds later.

And, speaking of clichés, the ubiquitous Ken Jeong has been assigned the task of parodying himself. The further one is removed from their sophomore year in high school, the less fresh and amusing “Vampire Sucks” will be. The DVD comes with both theatrical and unrated editions, deleted scenes and a gag reel.


Greaser’s Palace

Made in 1972, in and around Santa Fe, Greaser’s Palace is a wildly eccentric re-telling of the life of Jesus Christ, if He had chosen to make a return engagement in a dumpy desert town in the Old West. As conceived by underground auteur Robert Downey Sr. – yes, Junior, makes a brief appearance as, what else, a 7-year-boy – Greaser’s Palace is an equal-opportunity blasphemer, which, of course, should have made it must-viewing for the midnight-movie crowd.

Here, Jesus is portrayed by a zoot-suited Allan Arbus, who returns to Earth, via parachute, somewhere north of the Mexican border (“to get it right this time,” Downey argues in an interview). In addition to healing the sick and raising the dead, as he makes his way to Jerusalem, the dapper drifter will break into song and dance a mean soft shoe to impress potential disciples. The closer Jesse gets to the dancehall saloon run by Seaweedhead Greaser, the greater the number of followers he accumulates.

Anyone who’s read the New Testament should be able to guess what happens to Jesse next. Critics have openly despised Greaser’s Palace since its brief run in New York City, in 1972. Downey was coming off the success of the anti-establishment comedy Putney Swope and his admirers could hardly wait to see what he could accomplish with the relatively large budget of $1 million. To say they were disappointed would be a huge understatement.

Today, though, much of Downey’s folly looks inspired, at least by comparison to what passes for sacrilegious underground humor these days. (Jesse wows the crowd at the Palace not with his vaudeville shtick, but by falling back on the time-honored stigmata gag.) Among other things to look for: a pre-Fantasy Island appearance by Hervé Villechaize, whose Mr. Spitunia is married to a bearded transvestite, and Toni Basil (Easy Rider, the hit song “Mickey”) as a topless Indian maiden. The DVD includes an interview with Downey Sr.


The Bing Crosby Collection

The closer we get to Christmas, the more we’re reminded of Bing Crosby, whose image and songs are practically synonymous with the holiday. If we see Going My Way, Holiday Inn and its color remake, White Christmas, once, we’re likely to encounter it a dozen more times before New Year’s Day. That hardly qualifies as a crime, however, considering the wonderful songs and warmth of the screenplays.

The crooner became a Hollywood staple at the dawn of the talkie era and continued to be active in films and television until the 1970s, as a variety-show host and actor adept at drama, comedy and playing singers, like himself. More than 30 years after his death, it’s the odd season when one of his songs, at least, doesn’t appear on a soundtrack.

The rarely seen films collected in Universal’s highly entertaining The Bing Crosby Collection are distinguished by the Tacoma native’s truly splendid singing voice, leading-man good looks and participation of some of the most popular performers of his day. In College Humor (1933), Crosby plays a singing professor at a college where football is king. The instructor falls for the same beautiful blond coed (Mary Carlisle) as the team’s star (Richard Arlen). Among the delightfully goofy things in College Humor is the depiction of collegians – the male students, including Jack Oakie, all look as if they’re over 30 – who wear beanies and letter-sweaters to class and slinky gowns and tuxes to parties. George Burns and Gracie Allen add to the fun.

George and Gracie also appear in We’re Not Dressing (1934), alongside Carole Lombard, Ethel Merman, Ray Milland and Leon Errol. Crosby plays a deckhand on a yacht that is shipwrecked on a seemingly deserted island. Lombard plays the snobbish heiress who ultimately succumbs to the sailor’s charms. Also released that year, Here Is My Heart imagines a rich radio crooner posing as a hotel waiter to warm the heart of an icy Russian princess, played by Kitty Carlisle. Also on hand are William Frawley and Akim Tamiroff.

Mississippi (1935) pairs Crosby with W.C. Fields, as a Yankee gentleman who loses face when he refuses to duel a Southern military officer, who covets his fiancé. Disgraced, he takes a singing job on a riverboat captained by Fields. The songs are by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. In Sing You Sinners (1938), Crosby, Fred MacMurray and Donald O’Connor play the singing Beebe Brothers, who seek their fortune in Los Angeles but are distracted by the temptations of horse racing. (Crosby was a co-founder of the Del Mar race track.)

In Welcome Stranger (1947), Crosby plays an upstart doctor assigned to cover patients of a cranky old physician (Barry Fitzgerald) while he’s on vacation. Joan Caulfield plays the local girl who makes waves with her financee by befriending the singing sawbones, at least until he requires emergency medical care.

These titles were made by Paramount Productions, between 1929 and 1949. In 1958, they were part of a 700-film transaction, through which MCA/Universal acquired the rights, ostensibly for television distribution. They movies have all been upgraded and look and sound terrific.


Death of a Snowman

A few months back, a nasty crime thriller titled Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema emerged from the truly mean streets of Johannesburg, South Africa, chronicling the ascendency of a pair of poor township teens from common thieves to well-connected urban ganglords.

In 2005, Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi took home a Foreign Language Oscar for its grim depiction of thug life in post-apartheid Jo’berg. Released in 1978, Death of a Snowman also describes a city beset with crime and vigilante violence. Clearly a product of its time, Christopher Rowley and Bima Stagg’s crudely made thriller was informed by the same action, rhythms and fashions that distinguished such American blaxploitation classics as Super Fly and Shaft.

In it, Steve Chaka (Ken Gampu) plays an ambitious news reporter, who’s handed the scoop of the year by an all-black vigilante group known only as War on Crime. Chaka’s anxious to cleanse the streets of the capital of the same scum targeted by the killers, so he ignores any potential conflicts. Seeking the verification of official sources, the reporter enters into an uneasy alliance with a cynical white police detective. Together, they get drawn into the mayhem created by War on Crime in their bloody feud with various facsimiles of “The Man.”

Death of a Snowman is a far from perfect movie … hell, it’s not even that close to being good. Still, I found it interesting for a couple of reasons, unrelated to its violent storyline: 1) the absence of apartheid references and positive representation of middle-class black professionals; and 2) the inclusion of Trevor Rabin’s name on the credits. At the time, the Johannesburg native was something of a local musical phenom and the funky R&B/disco sound of Snowman was right up his alley.

An ardent opponent of apartheid (one of his cousins wrote Biko, while another represented the slain activist’s family in a wrongful-death suit), Rabin had yet to move to London and Los Angeles, where he would join the reunited prog-rock ensemble, Yes, and compose several of the group’s later hits. Obviously, though, Rabin had caught the composing bug. After leaving Yes, he would go on to provide scores for such high-profile movies as Con Air, Armageddon, Enemy of the People, Remember the Titans, National Treasure, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and, yes, Snakes on a Plane.

For my money, that’s sufficient justification for rental of Snowman.


The Possession of David O’Reilly

It takes a lot of skimming to separate the gold from the dross among movies that arrive on these shores virtually unseen by critics here and are immediately relegated to video-store shelves. Unreleased American films that end up in the same place generally can boast of one recognizable star or director, at least, while others have benefitted from screenings at festivals. Blurbs from critics are the most unreliable of references, probably. At best, they might lead adventurous viewers to websites devoted to niche films or compiling reviews from other sources.

It’s an inexact science, to be sure, but sometimes the rewards are worth the effort. Here are three imported thrillers that lack most of the usual credentials, yet could find an audience among fans of psycho-dramas.

Exam is being pitched as a twisted spinoff of “Apprentice,” in which eight ambitious men and women compete for a vaguely articulated job with an unknown company, and are accorded a mere 80 minutes to demonstrate their worthiness to an unseen observer. Given only the barest of clues as to the single question that requires an answer, the participants must work as a team, knowing only one of them is likely to survive the challenge.

As soon as any one of them breaks a rule, they’re dragged from the room by a guard, never to return again. This gives the proceedings an Agatha Christie feel, although her scenarios didn’t include anything this sadistic. In another conundrum, the more participants learn about each other, the easier it is for them to target foibles and eliminate potential allies.

At 101 minutes, the winnowing process takes place in real time, so viewers theoretically have no greater advantage than the individual contestants. Exam is an entertaining diversion, but patience is required.

In Alarm, a traumatized Irish woman trades the mayhem of Dublin, for what she expects to be a more sedate existence in the countryside. Director Gerard Stembridge doesn’t give Molly (Ruth Bradley) much time to enjoy her new digs, before he assigns unknown forces to break into her home at night and deprive her of sleep. Even after Molly has an alarm system installed and gets a dog to protect her, the intrusions continue.

There are plenty of people who have the means to torment the pretty young woman, but hardly any reasonable motives. This leaves, of course, the distinct possibility that Molly is completely nuts and she enjoys the attention. For most of its 105-minute length, however, Alarm is full of a lot noise that signifies almost nothing.

The Possession of David O’Reilly imagines a scenario in which a shell-shocked young man arrives at the house of friends, bringing a world of hurt along with him. No sooner does David O’Reilly settle in for the night than he conjures visions of bogeymen and blood-soaked demons. At first, the welcoming couple attempts to comfort their pal by insisting he’s still in mourning over a lost love. Before long, however, David begins wielding a butcher knife around the house, threatening everyone and everything in his path.

Again, the question becomes: is David bonkers or is the house truly haunted? The distributors would love for us to find parallels between their movie and Paranormal Activity. Not having seen the latter title, I wouldn’t know. If you do want to find out if that’s the case, I suggest watching Possession with the lights out.


David Bowie: Rare and Unseen

This DVD, the latest entry in MVD/Wienerworld’s excellent Rare and Unseen Collection, arrived after my review of The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou ran here, so there’s really no reason in rehashing Bowie’s contributions to rock music over the last 40 years. Films in the Rare and Unseen are particularly worthwhile for their presentation of archival interviews from non-mainstream sources, as well as largely unseen concert footage and newsreel clips. The same holds true for the Bowie DVD.

It is enhanced by film borrowed from the archives of Britain’s Independent Television News and restored television interviews, in which he discusses his drug use, alter egos and Berlin period. Another rarity is a backstage visit paid Bowie by celebrity journalist Janet Street-Porter and an interview with the late talk-show host, Russell Harty.


Monk: Complete Series Limited Edition Box Set
The Bionic Woman: Season One

Movie stars will tell you that portraying evil characters generally is a more satisfying experience than playing virtuous ones. In television and novels, the opposite is almost always the case. Dexter Morgan may be a serial killer, but what keeps viewers tuning in each week is his insistence that some criminals shouldn’t be given an opportunity to escape justice on a legal technicality.

Tony Soprano was responsible for the deaths of quite a few people, almost all of them killers in their own right. We identified with him, because, at home, he couldn’t cope with the moods of his teenage children any better than we can. The writers of serial mysteries and series television not only are required to create protagonists who are smarter than the average bear, but also possess quirks and idiosyncrasies that endear them to viewers.

More than 130 years after readers were introduced to Sherlock Holmes, you’d think writers would have exhausted all possible idiosyncrasies.

No crime fighter in memory has more ticks, endearing and otherwise, than freelance San Francisco detective Adrian Monk, and, after eight seasons, it would be difficult to imagine such an obsessive-compulsive character being portrayed by anyone except Tony Shalhoub. (ABC originally wanted Michael Richards and passed on the show when he turned them down.) Normally, you’d think anyone as tightly wound and germ-phobic as Monk would be the last person you’d want to see entering a crime scene in his paper booties. Even if the gag worked once or twice, how long could any actor keep it rolling for a whole season, let alone eight?

Shalhoub, a veteran character actor with established comic chops, crafted performances that somehow kept Monk’s inarguably annoying traits from overwhelming the intricacies of detection. To this end, the show’s writers gave Monk devoted a sidekick, alternately Sharona Fleming and Natalie Teeger (Bitty Schram was replaced by Traylor Howard in the third season), and a cautious ally in the police department in Captain Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine). It’s formulaic, but good scripts trump clichés every night of the week.

Beyond all the obvious reasons for coveting Monk: Complete Series Limited Edition Box Set, its release corrects a problem inherent in the show’s rise to mainstream acceptance. After ABC realized it might have misjudged the popularity of the USA Network show, it scheduled prime-time reruns in the summers of 2002 and 2004. Anticipating a writers’ strike in 2008, NBC picked up second-run airings of Monk and Psyche.

While this exposed the show to countless new viewers, it was difficult for them to keep track of what happened, when, and what might have been missed in the interim. This box corrects any such confusion. Additionally, it offers such special features as “Mr. Monk and His Origins,” “Mr. Monk and His O.C.D.,” “Mr. Monk and His Fellow Sufferers,” “The Minds Behind the Monk,” character profiles, “Life Before Monk,” episode commentaries, a treatise on the writing process, the 32-page “Defective Detective Handbook” and “Mr. Monk Says Goodbye,” which helps tie up ends loosened in Episode One. Look for such guest stars as John Turturro, Howie Mandell, Virginia Madsen Sarah Silverman and Stanley Tucci, Shalhoub’s co-star in “Big Night.”

Last week’s big news in the TV-to-DVD arena was the arrival of The Six Million Dollar Man collector’s box. I’ve subsequently been reminded of the recent release of the first season of The Bionic Woman, the spinoff series that starred Lindsay Wagner.

Initially, Jaime Sommers was introduced as a love interest for Col. Steve Austin (Lee Majors), but viewers demanded more of her. So, she was accorded a bionic future of her own, as a top-secret agent for the Office of Scientific Investigations. The box set includes the five original episodes featured in Six Million Dollar Man and new “Bionic Beginnings” featurette.


The Special Relationship
Marvel Knights: Iron Man: Extremis
Sid & Marty Krofft’s Saturday Morning Hits

Americans should be excused if they can’t tell the difference between actor Michael Sheen and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Sheen has performed dead-on impressions of Blair in The Queen, The Deal and The Special Relationship, an HBO original movie whose title not only describes the enduring alliance between England and the United States, but also Blair’s friendship with President Bill Clinton.

We’ve come to know Blair as a strong ally of America during periods of conflict and an astute domestic politician. He shared with Bill Clinton an aggressive approach to diplomacy and a broad smile, which often disguised shark’s teeth. Here, Clinton (Dennis Quaid) is the more experienced leader and Blair would love to hitch his star to the president’s wagon.

When the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupts and the U.S. is accused of waffling on human rights in the former Yugoslavia, Blair must decide if Clinton’s friendship is worth the aggravation. Once again, screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen) has been asked to imagine what might have been said in conversations between the two world leaders, between the men and their wives and their reactions to embarrassing revelations.

Quaid is very good as the shiftless American president, who’s as difficult to pin down as mercury, and Hope Davis is spot-on as the occasionally clueless Hillary Clinton. Once again, Helen McCrory plays Blair’s wife, Cherie. Movies like these make history fun, even if the circumstances that inspired them were anything but that.

Apparently, some superheroes share a body chemistry that includes a substance that, when synthesized through nanotechnology, allows them to heal themselves at an accelerated rate. Who knew, right? In the latest edition of Marvel Knights, this serum is called Extremis and an arch-enemy of Iron Man has used it to his benefit in a battle supreme. It leaves billionaire Tony Stark at the mercy of a militia headed by Mallen, who wants to avenge the deaths of close family members.

Can the substance be used by the good guys to counter impending doom? Stay tuned.

The set includes a “conversation” with artist Adi Granov, a behind-the-scenes look at the “Marvel Knights” animation process, “Marvel Super Heroes: What the–?,” a visual history of Iron Man and a music video.

Sid & Marty Krofft’s Saturday Morning Hits is just that: a compilation of classic episodes from such beloved kiddie (and early-rising stoner) shows as H.R Pufnstuf, Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Bugaloos, Electra Woman & Dyna Girl, Wonderbug and Bigfoot & Wild Boy. The shows featured colorfully decorated puppets and live-action characters, who battled evil in highly unusual situations and distant lands.

Besides 154 minutes’ worth of vintage entertainment, the set adds fresh interviews with Marty Krofft and stars of the most popular shows, as well as a never-before-seen pilot episode of an early Krofft production.


Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement

When individual states began recognizing same-sex marriages, less than a decade ago, media outlets treated the collective rush to the figurative altar as if it were just another sideshow in the American circus. Photos of gays and lesbians kissing on Page One of local newspapers caused controversy and controversy sells papers – and raises ratings – at a time when consumers are looking elsewhere for their news.

After a few days, gay marriage became as commonplace in those states as ribbon-cuttings at the local mall, only less likely to rate a headline outside the weekly announcements page. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, half of all Americans probably will weep and wail for the next 24 hours, then another crusade to champion or decry.

Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement chronicles the exclusive 40-year-plus partnership and eventual marriage two years ago, in Canada, of Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer. The non-polemical documentary showcases the evolution of their relationship through the most mundane medium known to man: home movies and slide shows.

Together, the New Yorkers reminisce about vacations, parties, friends and other shared experiences, and how their lives changed after Stonewall. For Thea, who died last year of complications associated with MS, recollections of nights spent dancing are, at once, painful and joyous. They appear to be wealthy, so most of the memories are pleasant, especially those sparked by cheesecake photos of themselves in bikinis, during summer breaks at their home in the Hamptons. That’s it, really.

A Very Long Engagement is a portrait of two people – who happen to be lesbians – in love, and the complications associated with growing old. Their marriage was far less a political statement than an affirmation of their love and dependence on each other. One is free, however, to find the political in the personal, but only so far as it pertains to legalizing something already validated by mutual commitment.

The DVD, from Breaking Glass, includes an interview with Judge Harvey Brownstone, who presided over their nuptials; coverage of Edie, as she accompanied filmmakers Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir (The Brandon Teena Story) on the festival circuit; the featurette, “Coping With Disability”; a photo gallery; and link to the segment pertaining to Edie and Thea, in “In the Life.”

The official condemnation of homosexuality by the Roman Catholic Church and its reigning pontiff, the former Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, hangs over Anotherworld like a storm cloud threatening a downpour. Pope Benedict XVI may not carry much weight in the gay ghettos of the United States, but, in Italy, the Vatican’s mind police are never very far away from home.

In Fabiomassimo Lozzi’s deeply affecting film, actors dramatize monologues taken from the works of Antonio Venetians and Ricardo Reim. They represent the heaven, hell and purgatory of homosexual culture in Italy. Along with tales dominated by fear and self-loathing are sequences filled with self-discovery and love. At times, their intimacy is overwhelming. Naturally, there is plenty of nudity and rough talk, but Anotherworld shouldn’t be confused with pornography.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.


Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Ophelia, Ambition, Werewolf in Girls' Dorm, Byleth, Humble Pie, Good Omens, Yellowstone …More

rohit aggarwal on: The DVD Wrapup: Ophelia, Ambition, Werewolf in Girls' Dorm, Byleth, Humble Pie, Good Omens, Yellowstone …More on: The DVD Wrapup: Diamonds of the Night, School of Life, Red Room, Witch/Hagazussa, Tito & the Birds, Keoma, Andre’s Gospel, Noir

Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Sleep With Anger, Ralph Wrecks Internet, Liz & Blue Bird, Hannah Grace, Unseen, Jupiter's Moon, Legally Blonde, Willard, Bang … More

Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Bumblebee, Ginsburg, Buster, Silent Voice, Nazi Junkies, Prisoner, Golden Vampires, Highway Rat, Terra Formars, No Alternative … More

GDA on: The DVD Wrapup: Bumblebee, Ginsburg, Buster, Silent Voice, Nazi Junkies, Prisoner, Golden Vampires, Highway Rat, Terra Formars, No Alternative … More

Larry K on: The DVD Wrapup: Sleep With Anger, Ralph Wrecks Internet, Liz & Blue Bird, Hannah Grace, Unseen, Jupiter's Moon, Legally Blonde, Willard, Bang … More

Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Shoplifters, Front Runner, Nobody’s Fool, Peppermint Soda, Haunted Hospital, Valentine, Possum, Mermaid, Guilty, Antonio Lopez, 4 Weddings … More

gwehan on: The DVD Wrapup: Shoplifters, Front Runner, Nobody’s Fool, Peppermint Soda, Haunted Hospital, Valentine, Possum, Mermaid, Guilty, Antonio Lopez, 4 Weddings … More

Gary J Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Peppermint, Wild Boys, Un Traductor, Await Instructions, Lizzie, Coby, Afghan Love Story, Elizabeth Harvest, Brutal, Holiday Horror, Sound & Fury … More

Quote Unquotesee all »

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