MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: Toy Story 3, The Pacific, Please Give, Don’t Let Me Drown, V: The Complete First Season … and more

Toy Story 3: Blu-ray

The third edition of the Toy Story saga will resonate more with parents, I think, than their children. Youngsters will enjoy it, of course, but most of them won’t be able to appreciate the melancholy that informs the underlying themes: separation and loss. Now 18, Andy is about to leave for college. His parents are feeling the first pangs of empty-nest syndrome and the toys sense they’re being put out to pasture … or worse.

In Pixar’s world, toys are no less exempt from extreme anxiety than adults. Apart from Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), however, they have almost nowhere to turn for answers, and Andy has left them out of the loop as to their futures. After so many years of service, Woody expects his comrades will be packed up in bag and be moved to the attic, from which Andy someday will rescue them. Instead, the toys are packed up in a bag and mistakenly left on the curb, from which they’re picked up and donated to Sunnyside Daycare.

Only Woody is left behind, desperately confused and lonely. Where some toys would find an opportunity for a productive retirement and home away from home, Woody only sees forced imprisonment. Among the toys already enjoying life at Sunnyside are Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton). Woody’s helpful presence, while welcome, wouldn’t have been an essential part of life at the center, if it weren’t for the fact that its owners harbor several deep and dark secrets. Because of this unexpected threat, Sheriff Woody will be expected to ride to the toys’ rescue once again, with the assistance of another toy-loving human, Bonnie.

Like its predecessors, Toy Story 3 combines exceptional storytelling with cutting-edge technology in the service of a thoroughly realized family entertainment. (As was the case for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, I don’t anticipate seeing a Blu-ray edition of TS3 in 3D until the market for stereoscopic television has reached critical mass.) The Four-Disc Blu-Ray / DVD Combo & Digital Copy version adds a wonderfully imaginative animated short, Day And Night, with the commentary of director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla Anderson.

Toss in such featurettes as The Gang’s All Here, which focuses on the returning voice talent for TS3, and Toys!, which examines how all the non-human characters, along with those we meet at Sunnyside Daycare and in Bonnie’s room, were created. Also included are short pieces, Buzz Lightyear Mission Logs: The Science of Adventure, made in conjunction with NASA; Paths to Pixar, which traces the careers of key company employees; Studio Stories: Where’s Gordon?, locating a hidden room at Pixar; Studio Stories: Cereal Bar, about a Pixar confection; Studio Stories: Clean Start, in which animation team members shave their heads at the start of TS3 production; and A Toy’s Eye View: Creating a Whole New Land.


The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series

Once upon a time, broadcast and cable television were separated in the same way the NFL and AFL were throughout most of the 1960s. It wasn’t until Joe Namath and the Jets upset the heavily favored Colts, and, a year later, the Chiefs did the same to the Vikings, in Super Bowl III and IV, that anyone took the future of consolidation seriously. In the television arena, broadcast networks dominated ratings and competition for Emmy Awards for many decades. The cable industry was taken so lightly that its best shows weren’t even recognized by Emmy voters until 1988.

Nine years later, though, creative parity among the various broadcast and cable networks rendered the CableAce Awards obsolete. Still, it was only in categories limited to mini-series and specials that cable excelled. Disney’s Avonlea caught the eye of nominators, as did Lifetime’s The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, but only after being transplanted from NBC. Garry Shandling would change things forever. In 1988, Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was a finalist in four categories. In 1993, Shandling rode the first big waves of the HBO juggernaut, alongside the sexy adult comedy Dream On, with The Larry Sanders Show. It was the game-changer everyone had either been anticipating or fearing.

For those who missed it the first time around, all 89 original episodes of The Larry Sanders Show are available in a 17-disc gift box, along with as generous a bonus package as I’ve seen outside the Blu-ray arena. The state-of-the-art presentation from Shout! Factory could hardly be any more entertaining, informative and provocative. First and foremost, the show itself holds up extremely well, even 17 years after Episode One. Indeed, given what’s happened in the talk-show arena – from the retirement of Johnny Carson to NBC’s Conan O’Brien debacle – the show’s depiction of what happens behind the scenes and around the edges of a late-night talk show could be mistaken for a documentary. When Larry Sanders isn’t being bitingly funny, it’s as sad a representation of the forces governing personal and commercial success in show business as anything since Network.

Like every other late-night talk show launched after Carson joined the Tonight Show, Larry Sanders” is dominated by its gracious star, a congenial sidekick and a closely observant producer. Here, though, the host is chronically neurotic, self-absorbed and often oblivious to the concerns of everyone around him, with the exception of his duplicitous producer, Arthur, and venal sidekick, Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley (marvelously rendered by Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor). “Larry Sanders” also devoted large chunks of time to the concerns of Sanders’ many writers, assistants, post-show hook-ups, bookers, and his always-problematic domestic relations.

Nearly 190 actual celebrities appeared on show, as guests of the show primarily, with some receiving substantial storylines of their own. It’s a delicate balance, but one that was maintained for six increasingly dark and complex seasons, thanks to such gifted writers as Shandling, Peter Tolan and Judd Apatow, series regulars Linda Doucett (Shandling’s former fiancé), Janeane Garofalo (24), Penny Johnson (24), Wallace Langham (CSI), Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), Jeremy Piven (Entourage), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), Sarah Silverman, Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall”) and Kathryn Harold (Chicago Hope).

The boxed set adds deleted scenes and commentaries; an introduction to the DVDs, with Shandling; The Making of the ‘Larry Sanders Show,’ hosted by Greg Kinnear; a discussion with Shandling and Apatow, on the writer’s process; extended cast interviews; Shandling’s personal visits with guest stars Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Carol Burnett, David Duchovny, Sharon Stone, Tom Petty, John Stewart and Ellen DeGeneres; a 60-page booklet; and a discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Howard Rosenberg’s class at USC.

Some of the personal visits are as revealing as a printout from one of Shandling’s psychotherapy sessions. I was reminded of two other things while watching the DVDs: 1) how Shandling’s experience as Carson’s guest host, and friendship with Jay Leno and David Letterman, informed the show, and 2) how none of today’s generation of hosts is likely to share their desks with someone as savvy and self-assured as Shandling, again.


The Sound of Music: 45th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray

There’s something decidedly un-musical about the distinction, 45th Anniversary Edition. Sapphire Edition” doesn’t sound much better, though, and Limited Edition Collector’s Set was reserved for another gala presentation. 45th Anniversary Edition begs the question, “Why couldn’t they wait for 50?” I suppose the same could be said of Sapphire Edition, though: “Why couldn’t they wait for gold?” If nothing else, 45th Anniversary Edition distinguishes it from the 40th Anniversary Edition (ruby) and two previous editions (coral, alabaster).

Fact is, all one needs to know going into the video store is that this much beloved musical has made the transition into Blu-ray with nearly all of the charm and magic that made the movie so wonderful. The larger the home-theater screen, of course, the more genuine the experience will seem.

In anticipation of the new hi-def release, sing-along concerts were staged in 500 theaters around the country and the cast was reunited for an Oprah special. The re-mastered Blu-ray edition takes full advantage of that tradition, which began in 1988 at London’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, by adding a Music Machine Sing-Along and on-screen lyrics on both the hi-def and conventional DVD discs. Besides 7.1 DTS-HD Sound, the anniversary package includes Your Favorite Things: An Interactive Celebration, a new immersive viewing experience with behind-the-scenes images, lyrics, trivia track and location quiz; commentaries with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and director Robert Wise; Musical Stages: Creating ‘The Sound of Music, with a new interactive Backlot Tour and featurettes on the songs, stage show, movie, restoration and the real-life Von Trapp family; A City of Song, a virtual map of filming locations in Salzburg, Austria; vintage Rodgers & Hammerstein and The Sound of Music programs; screen tests, interviews and photo galleries; and DVD, with its own extras.

Looking ahead to the holidays, true fans might enjoy finding the Limited Edition Collector’s Set under their tree, instead. It holds a 100-Page “My Favorite Things” scrapbook; snapshots from Salzburg; a reproduction of the original 1965 souvenir program; and “My Favorite Things” music box.


He Who Hits First, Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Alvarez

Mainstream American media outlets take it in the chops from both sides. Right-wing radio hosts have convinced their listeners that the television networks and newspaper editorial boards are composed of communists and terrorist sympathizers. Progressives on the other side of the political spectrum accuse the MSM of being only interested in profit margins and maintaining the status quo. Nowhere is the ineffectiveness of the American media more pronounced than when it’s attempting to deal with war.

Historically, editors and publishers have stumbled all over themselves in the rush to support the President and avoid images that might spoil the breakfasts of sensitive suburbanites. They simply can’t help themselves. Being labeled unpatriotic is a far more frightening prospect than being proven wrong or complicit five months or five years down the road. The other aspect of war seldom revealed is the stiff toll paid by civilians and infrastructure of our so-called enemies when the bombs fall. During the war in Vietnam, American audiences rarely were asked to consider the effects of a blanket bombing campaign on non-combatants. Reporters blindly accepted the statistics handed out to them by military brass, until the numbers stopped adding up.

If the leaked WikiLeaks data has demonstrated anything, it’s that no one in our government wants the public to know the true cost of war.

Nearly 40 years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, “He Who Hits First, Hits Twice” offers visible evidence that the North Vietnamese people had faces, raised children, swept the streets outside their homes, despaired of seeing their sons and fathers come home in one piece, and went hungry when American bombs destroyed paddies, gardens and supply routes. Another film shows us a Ho Chi Minh who wasn’t a cold-blooded killer or megalomaniac.

Santiago Alvarez was an American-born documentary maker of Cuban descent, who was handed the keys to the island’s cinematic kingdom by Fidel Castro. Indeed, thanks to the American blockade, he was one of the few Cuban filmmakers who had access to cameras and film stock. Even then, Alvarez was constantly required to improvise, especially in his attempts to cover the American civil rights movement via borrowed journalistic material.

Unlike previous generations of documentary and newsreel makers, Alvarez refused to adhere to strict guidelines when it came to editing and soundtracks. I was completely taken aback when strands of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” “Surfing Bird,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!” and “Hava Nagila” accompanied video of American POWs, guerrilla fighters and civil-rights marches. Also striking was copious footage of a dynamically charismatic Che Guevara working the crowds in Bolivia and Cuba. Alvarez’ techniques anticipated MTV by 20 years. The Facets Video package also includes a film portrait of the filmmaker by Travis Wilkerson.

Also new from Facets Video are double-feature packages of Hu Sang’s New Year Sacrifice and Feng Xiaoning’s Red River Valley, both of which focus on the plight of women in different historical eras, and The Haunting Cinema of Frantisek Vlacil, which is comprised of the Czech director’s Adelheid and The White Dove.


The Pacific: Blu-ray
V: The Complete First Season
Commish: The Complete Series
Renegade: Complete Series
TapouT: The Complete Series

In addition to the participation of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and/or Clint Eastwood, several things connect HBO’s The Pacific to Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Letters From Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and, to a lesser degree, Schindler’s List, Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon.

Primary among them is an overriding awareness of the fact that great sacrifices and great heroism, in war and peace, aren’t limited to Medal of Honor winners or military-academy graduates. Nor is it necessary for an officer to resemble John Wayne or Robert Mitchum to command the respect of his troops. These may seem like obvious points, today, but, for most of the 20th Century, Hollywood demanded that larger-than-life characters win our wars, almost single-handedly. Until the opening 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, Americans who died in battle did so in ways not likely to offend mainstream audiences.

Just as the war in the Pacific Theater was fought in a completely different way than the Allied advance in Europe was conducted, the follow-up to Band of Brothers would necessarily be a different breed of cat. The Pacific devotes far more time to the home lives of its characters, if only because the nature of island-to-island combat precluded the kinds of bonds that developed among soldiers marching together to Berlin.

The 10-part The Pacific was based on the wartime memoirs Helmet for My Pillow, Red Blood, Black Sand: With John Basilone on Iwo Jima, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa and China Marine: An Infantryman’s Life after World War II. The key players were Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), Leckie (James Badge Dale) and Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone (Jon Seda), who fought at Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, none of which resembled the battlefields of Europe. The mini-series won Emmys in 8 of the 24 categories in which it was nominated.

The splendid Blu-ray package, contained in a tin ammo box, includes a battleship full bonus features. All 10 episodes offer picture-in-picture tracks, comprised of interviews with surviving veterans or family members of deceased soldiers, analysis by historians, first-hand accounts of the conditions and wartime oddities the Marines endured, pop-up factoids, bios and photographs. There also is an interactive Field Guide, with animated maps, historical information, interviews, archival footage and photographs; Profiles of ‘The Pacific, in which six of the men who inspired the mini-series are introduced; a 30-minute making-of featurette; and the documentary, Anatomy of the Pacific War.

ABC’s hugely hyped sci-fi series V, a re-imagining of the 1983 TV movie and mini-series on NBC, describes what happens when an alien horde of Visitors suddenly appears on Earth, ostensibly to promote peace and interplanetary cooperation. They resemble humans in the same way as local TV news anchors resemble their viewers … like eerily synthetic facsimiles. Before long, the newcomers’ real motives are revealed to be sinister.

The DVD package includes The Actor’s Journey from Human to V, An Alien in Human Skin: The Makeup FX of V, Breaking Story: The World of V, The Visual FX of V, commentary by executive producers Scott Rosenbaum and Steve Pearlman, bloopers and deleted scenes. The second season is scheduled to begin in early January.

The release of the complete-series collections of The Commish and Renegade reminds us of the recent passing of Stephen J. Cannell, who created as many programs as anyone in the history of television. In the dark-horse hit The Commish, Michael Chiklis plays a small-town police commissioner required to use his wits, instead of weapons, to keep the peace. The 17-DVD package completes the DVD presentation of the show’s 94-episode run.

Cannell also produced Renegade for USA Network, from 1992 to 1997. The action series featured Lorenzo Lamas as a bounty hunter framed by a crooked cop (Cannell) in the murder of his girlfriend. After escaping from jail, Lamas’ hunky Reno joins a pair of friends (Branscombe Richmond, Kathleen Kinmot) in the bounty-hunting trade. Like Richard Kimble, in The Fugitive, Reno is desperately seeking the only person who knows the truth. The new 20-disc box contains all 110 episodes from the series’ five-year run.

TapouT: The Complete Series follows “Mask,” “Punkass” “SkySkrape” as they scour the cornfields and ghettos of America, looking for future MMA champs and chumps. Each episode gives fans a chance to hear the fighters’ stories and watch their bouts in the cage. Also appearing are MMA superstar Chuck Liddell and UFC President Dana White.


Van Gogh: A Brush with Genius: IMAX

If it’s OK to diminish the size of a great painting for re-production in a scholarly journal, coffee-table book or travel brochure, is it also kosher to blow the image up to the size of a four-story condominium? The original IMAX version of Van Gogh: A Brush With Greatness must have begged that question in France, which, as far as I can tell, is the only place where Francois Bertrand’s film was shown on the jumbo screen.

The rest of us have been reduced to watching the dazzling film in high-definition on Blu-ray. Given the wonders of hi-def, it’s not a bad compromise, really. The 40-minute documentary follows the same footsteps as those who’ve previously profiled Van Gogh. The focus here, though, is less on the artist’s descent into madness – productive, though it may have been – but on the architecture, colors and textures of his paintings.

Bertrand was given exceptional access to the treasures found in the vaults of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, where he was able to photograph them under ideal circumstances. The filmmakers then compared the subject matter, rendered in oils and charcoal, to actual locations in Arles, Saint Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise, also on high-resolution IMAX film. In an interview, Bertrand says he quite literally wanted to immerse audiences in the paintings, allowing them to study the ridges of Van Gogh’s brush strokes from a completely different angle.

The Blu-ray version doesn’t quite deliver the same aesthetic punch, but what’s there is wonderful. Anyone familiar with Van Gogh’s work probably will want to turn down the sound on the narrative, which is intended to enlighten newcomers, not aficionados.


Not of This Earth: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics
Terror Within/Dead Space: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics
Scream Queens/Scream Dream

Two years after it was revealed that porn superstar Traci Lords, then 17, had used a fake birth certificate to enter the adult film business, Roger Corman sensed an opportunity to exploit her 15 minutes of fame. After all, any teenage capable of faking as many orgasms as Lords (newly 20) probably could play a damsel-in-distress in one of his drive-in confections. And, indeed, she was well up to the task.

Corman had produced and directed the original alien-vampire thriller, Not of This Earth,” way back in 1957, so he had a proprietary interest in making it work … without spending a fortune, of course. The 1988 re-make never was intended to make anyone forget Alien or Blade Runner, simply to turn a profit by allowing punters to witness the magnificence of Lords’ bosom in the service of a thread-bare sci-fi premise. Arthur Roberts played an alien who arrives in L.A. in search of a ready supply of blood, a substance desperate lacking on his home planet.

After killing a couple of horny teenagers for no good reason, the alien locates a doctor sufficiently intrigued by his condition to provide transfusions. Lords’ Nurse Nadine is hired to perform the procedures. To do this, she’s required to move into his creepy mansion and work alongside his unctuous chauffer. Before long, all sorts of innocent civilians – prostitutes, vacuum-cleaner salesmen – are invited into the house, where they’re drained of their blood and thrown into the furnace.

Jim Wynorski, who would go on to make such immortal films as Blair Wench Project and The Return of the Swamp Thing, directed Not of This Earth with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Miraculously, it somehow manages to hold up 22 years later, in this upgraded DVDs. Lord, who also would enjoy a productive mainstream career in films and on TV, adds a lengthy interview to the package.

It would be nice to say that this week’s other Corman Cult Classic release, a double-bill of The Terror Within and Dead Space, provides the same campy kicks. Apart from appearances by George Kennedy and Andrew Stevens, however, the former title is little more than an Alien rip-off, staged in an underground research facility in the Mojave Desert, post-Apocalypse. Fans of Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) may want to check out its companion scientists-in-jeopardy flick, Dead Space, set on a faraway planet. Even in 1992, this one was destined to go straight-to-video. The package adds a reel of grindhouse previews.

Scream Queens Double Feature and Scream Dream aren’t even as entertaining as those two features. In Scream Dream, flash-in-the-pan Carol Carr plays heavy-metal singer Michelle Shocked (no relation to the folk singer), who’s apparently sold her soul to the devil. After fans beginning disappearing, she’s fired by the band’s image-conscious manager. It isn’t long before Shocked’s replacement joins the coven, as well. That’s about it. The cinematography stinks and the music isn’t much better.

Legitimate scream queens Melissa Moore, Veronica Carothers and Jasae star in the Double Feature: Swimsuit Sensations and Knockout Workout. Neither amounts to anything more than a compendium of the women’s favorite exercises and swimsuit designs. The ladies also tell their life stories, which aren’t terribly interesting, either.


Please Give
Don’t Let Me Drown
The Hungry Ghosts
Passenger Side

In the media, New York and Los Angeles represent opposite sides of the same American coin. We drive, they walk; we obsess over traffic jams and earthquakes, they agonize about how much to tip rude cab drivers and lazy doormen; we see illegal immigrants behind every palm tree, they cringe every time a plane flies too closely over the skyline.

Even today, no better example of the show-biz schism can be found than in reruns of I Love Lucy, before and after the Ricardos’ two-season migration from Manhattan to Beverly Hills. It was the same show, but the vibe could hardly be more dissonant. The Mertz’s, especially, looked as if they’d stepped out of an entirely different sitcom. Law & Order: Los Angeles is trying to make the same conversion. Good luck.

These three new films are New York to the core. Any resemblance to Los Angeles, or anywhere else west of Ground Zero, is strictly coincidental.

In Nicole Holofcener’s ensemble dramedy, Please Give, Catherine Keener plays a Manhattan wife, mother and entrepreneur with an overriding guilt complex. Her Kate frets over buying used furniture from the families of recently deceased people and re-selling items at exponentially higher prices. She and her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), can hardly wait for the woman next-door to die, so they purchase her apartment and connect it to their unit.

Their daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), can’t stand watching Kate hand out $20 bills, leftover food and cosmetics to anyone she sees who looks poor or homeless (mom even approaches a casually dressed black gentleman waiting outside a restaurant for a table to open). And, if that weren’t enough mishigas, we’re introduced to two other families in Kate’s orbit, with problems of their own that need fixing. Among their lot are Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet and Ann Guilbert. All of the actors are given plenty to do and the space to do it. They respond with energetic performances. If their characters aren’t always likable, neither is anyone else in the city.

Don’t Let Me Drown is a terrific indie drama that did well on the festival circuit, but failed to find a distributor. I’m guessing that this oversight had a lot to do with the fact that most of New Yorkers we meet are of Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican descent. All live on the razor’s edge separating abject poverty from mere subsistence. Before 9/11, the families we meet were able to dream of climbing out of their respective holes. Now, however, one is mourning the loss of daughter/sister lost in the terrorist attack, while the bread-winner in the other family likely has developed a terminal illness from sifting through the debris at Ground Zero.

The two youngest members of the families, teenagers Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa) and Lalo (E.J. Bonilla), have several things in common, besides 9/11, but the clouds from that day continue to hover over them, as well. After several false starts, the teens finally give themselves permission to fall in love and look beyond Ground Zero. Director Cruz Angeles elicits splendid performances from a cast full of fresh faces, while also taking full advantage of the gritty Brooklyn settings. Somehow, too, Cruz manages to carve a ray of light out of those ashen clouds.

Michael Imperioli wrote and directed The Hungry Ghosts, a slice of New York life in which five people of different ages, races, backgrounds spend the better part of the film’s 105 minutes searching for spiritual healing and refuge from the urban malaise. If the title refers to the Buddhist concept of hungry ghosts not being able to bid farewell to the living, the faces and accents are 100 percent Big Apple.

The stories don’t overlap in the same way as in Crash, but the characters eventually do arrive at common intersections. Hungry Ghosts was developed at Imperioli’s off-Broadway Studio Dante. Its ensemble cast includes Steve Schirippa (The Sopranos), Aunjanue Ellis (The Caveman’s Valentine), Sharon Angela (City Island), Nick Sandow (How to Make It in America) and Tina Benko (Brotherhood). The acting is excellent, but the story definitely will appeal primarily to New Yorkers.

By comparison, Passenger Side couldn’t have been set anywhere but Los Angeles. On the morning of his 37th birthday, dissipated author Michael (Adam Scott), receives a telephone call from his estranged brother, Tobey (Joel Bissonnette), a recovering junkie. Tobey begs his brother to chauffeur him around L.A. for the day, in search of something he avoids revealing. The choices are pretty much limited to money, drugs or a woman, though.

It’s safe to assume that the lads were once close, but, at some point, Michael stopped putting up with Tobey’s shit and that of their mother. Their banter is comparable to the bobbing and weaving that takes place between boxers in the first round of a fight. Occasionally, one or the other connects with a jab, but writer/director Matt Bissonnette doesn’t push either his characters toward a knockout. Instead, their long and winding road-trip allows plenty of space for long periods of silence and vacant stares through the windshield of life.

Every so often, an old acquaintance of Tobey will appear, adding several minutes of comedy, drama or discomfort to the proceedings. Lots of seemingly aimless driving takes place in Passenger Side, so the great physical diversity of Los Angeles County naturally also serves as a character. So do the songs on the soundtrack, which punctuate and comment on what’s happening to the brothers.


Fade to Black

Orson Welles was a larger-than-life character, who commanded the spotlight wherever he went. In Fade to Black, Danny Huston plays the great filmmaker and raconteur at a particularly delicate point in his life and career. His marriage to Rita Hayworth had just evaporated and no one was beating down the doors to finance his pet projects. In 1949, Welles traveled to Italy to play a devious hypnotist in King Louis XV’s court in Black Magic. While there, Fade to Black posits, Welles becomes involved in an on-set murder mystery with political overtones.

The movie is on the weak side, but performances by Huston, Diego Luna, Paz Vega, Christopher Walken and Violante Placido are well worth the price of a rental. Anyone who enjoyed Orson and Me might want to shop and compare the two.



Heather Graham, Jennifer Coolidge and Amber Heard play a trio of women with rage issues in this uneven straight-to-DVD dramedy. They meet at a court-ordered group-therapy session, where women with similar problems reveal the conditions that led to their crimes and arrests. After one of them (Joey Lauren Adams) describes the abuse meted out by her meathead husband. After the slob punches his wife out in a bar, the ladies decide they’ll exact revenge for their friend.

This, of course, inspires the women to form an “extermination” crew, based in Coolidge pest-control warehouse. It may not be a novel idea, but, for an hour or so, the interplay reminded me of Desperate Housewives. The rest, not so much. I’ve seen a lot worse.


Attack on Darfur

Uwe Boll, a director who critics love to hate, has been so moved by accounts of the daily horror faced by villagers and refugees in Darfur that he made a movie about it. It follows on the heels of several excellent documentaries about the war in Sudan, as well as well as the broader tragedy of genocide in Africa.

In Attack on Darfur, Boll’s dramatization of a particularly vicious attack on unarmed villagers by the Jangaweed raiders definitely tests viewers’ ability to stomach simulated violence. Here, the writer/director raises the question, again, as to when it is ethical for a journalist to step into a situation with the intention of changing its foreseeable outcome. The reporters and photographers are driven to the remote village by a UN “peacekeeper,” who’s not allowed to protect the villagers with armed response.

A couple of the journalists demand he allow them to borrow weapons and return to the assault. This ain’t Rambo, however, and the Jangaweed fighters aren’t Hollywood stunt men. The confrontation is exciting to watch, but terribly graphic. The reporters are played by Billy Zane, Edward Furlong, Noad Danby, Matt Frewer, David O’Hara and Kristanna Loken, and they do a fine job. It’s the work of African actors, some of them novices, that is most impressive, though. I think it can be fairly argued that Boll takes the slaughter past its logical extreme.

While it’s correct to say most viewers won’t respond to a serious problem viscerally until its shoved directly in their face, it’s also worth pointing out that no distributor is likely to touch a movie that enrages and sickens its audience in equal measure. That appears to have been the fate of Attack on Darfur, which arrives on DVD virtually unscreened.


The Adonis Factor

Showtime’s The L Word and The Real L Word helped popularize the term, “lipstick lesbian.” Christopher Hines’ enlightening documentary, The Adonis Factor, examines why some gay men spend endless hours (and lots of money) in the gym and salons, so as to fit the mold of a body builder “pretty” enough to be the cover-boy of prominent gay and straight lifestyle magazines. It’s an obsession that begins in a neighborhood health club and sometimes ends in a rehab clinic.

That’s because looking ultra-buff and eternally young often requires mass amounts of steroids and botox, and crystal meth too often fuels revelry in the nightclubs, bars and pool parties where “A-list” studs gather. Hines has assembled a wide cross-section of witnesses, including quite a few Adonis types from L.A. and Atlanta; models; doctors and shrinks; and social observers. The film even breaks out rival clans within the Adonis crowd, among them “bears” with beer bellies.

The conceit behind Unfaithful is as undemanding and frivolous as a one-night stand. In it, real-life writer-director Claude Peres (a.k.a., Director) invites German porn star Marcel Schlutt (a.k.a., Actor) to join him in an overnight tryst, to be recorded as a work of performance art. Actor is under no obligation to participate if he gets turned off by the sex or the scent of Director’s cologne. There’s no contract and they can stop whenever one wishes.

That’s nice work, if you can get it. Unfaithful is shot in natural light, which sometimes means the glowing tip of a cigarette is all that’s illuminated. The dialogue probably wouldn’t win any screenwriting prizes, either. Fans of hard-core boy/boy action probably won’t find enough sex here to float their boats, but those attracted to artsy erotica might consider giving it a try.


I Am

The chapter breaks in this Crash-inspired drama are provided by the 10 Commandments. Key characters bump into each other during the course of the narrative and tests of faith are laid before them like so many hurdles at a track meet. The film is populated by 10 key characters, all of whom have broken one of the Lord’s strictures. The breaches cause their lives to go completely off-kilter, filling them with pain and loss.

Before it’s too late, though, the sinners are given an opportunity to become re-acquainted with their savior. (It’s set in the City of Angels for a good reason, we’re told.) I Am may be a Christian film, but its production values are up to industry standards and the message is delivered home without the need of a sledge hammer. A Katherine McPhee music video is part of the presentation.


Kylie Minogue: Rare & Unseen

I’ve been a big fan of the rock-history lessons dispensed in Wienerworld/MVD’s “Rare & Unseen” series of DVDs. They’re thoroughly researched, as musical as they can be without spending a fortune on licensing fees and often quite provocative. By comparison to previous subjects, Kylie Minogue is something of a featherweight.

The Aussie pop star has sold a lot of CDs, but the songs heard here are no more interesting than your average ditty by Britney Spears, whose career path was similar to that of Minogue. The interviews appear to have been taken from Australian television newsmagazines and reveal nothing the singer might consider embarrassing. Fans might want to check out the singer’s early appearances, once thought erased, on the children’s show, Ghost Train.


Christmas in the Clouds

Made in 2001 and given a tentative release in 2005, Christmas in the Clouds finally has made its way to DVD. As holiday rom-coms go, it’s an especially agreeable confection. The film’s greatest selling-point is its many Native American actors – Graham Greene and Wes Studi, playing against type, among them – and the picturesque Utah mountain background.

It’s nearing Christmas and the staff of a Native American-owned ski resort is expecting two noteworthy arrivals. One is a hotel/restaurant critic from a fancy magazine and the other is a blinding snow storm. Somehow, the manager confuses the arrival of a pretty Mohican woman with that of the real columnist (E. Emmet Walsh), and goes overboard to make her cozy.

In fact, the woman (Mariana Tosca) is the pen pal of a much older former chief, who she mistakes for the much younger manager (Timothy Vahle). The large number of mistaken identities adds a slapstick element to what so far has been a rather gentle ride. The best bits are provided by Greene, as the vegetarian head chef who tries to make his meat and poultry dishes look as unappetizing as possible, and hard-guy Studi, who, here, calls numbers at a resort bingo tournament.


Los Angeles Lakers: 2010 NBA Finals Series: Blu-ray

The rings already have been handed out to members of the Lakers championship team and the banners lowered from the ceiling of Staples Center. The new season is officially upon us. For those who still haven’t had their fill of the exciting seven-game finals against the hated Boston Celtics, NBA Entertainment and Image have just released the Blu-ray and DVD packages wrapping everything up with a tidy purple-and-gold bow. This “Collector’s Edition” contains all seven games in their entirety, with locker-room material and post-game press conferences.

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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