MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: Inception, Restrepo, Videodrome, Cronos, Strictly Ballroom … and more

Inception: Blu-ray

Normally, I wouldn’t recommend watching a background featurette before checking out the main attraction first. The summer smash, Inception, demands a bit more work on the part of the viewer than most movies, though, and to fully enjoy the experience, some preparation is advised.

This isn’t to imply the only people capable of fully grasping what’s happening in Christopher Nolan’s multilayered thriller are those already acquainted with the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, only that some appreciation of the psychology of dreams is advisable. Otherwise, why bother trying to make sense of the often confounding array of chases, dizzying shifts in time and dimension, precisely timed break-ins, brilliant escapes and amazing visual effects? Sit back and enjoy the mayhem. Inception is a movie that asks more questions than it can possibly answer in one sitting.

I recommend starting with the featurette, Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious, in which several learned doctors, psychologists, theorists, authors and professors describe various theories pertaining to dreams and the brain’s capacity to process memories and other visual impulses. None of the movie’s secrets are revealed in the discussion and no one’s fun will be spoiled. Even those who aced Introduction to Psychology: 101 in college meet find value in the refresher course. That’s because most of what takes place in Inception plays out like a dream experienced during REM sleep.

Just when you think you can predict what’s going to happen next to characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Ken Watanabe, Lukas Haas, Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page, Nolan’s abruptly pulls the rug out from under them … and, by extension, us. Their mission is to enter the sub-conscious mind of a powerful energy magnate (Cillian Murphy) and plant an idea that will bear fruit at another time and in another dimension. DiCaprio’s crew may be able to anticipate shifts in their target’s brain activity, but a stray impulse could propel them into unknown territory and imprison them in his subconscious mind forever. And, as if this mission weren’t delicate enough, DiCaprio’s master thief is struggling to keep his own sub-conscious from imploding, along with memories of his seemingly doomed family in a previous, present or future life … take your pick. All of this action occurs at breakneck speed and against a background of constantly evolving natural disasters.

In addition to the primer on dreams, the Blu-ray’s bonus package offers fans much grist for the intellectual mill. Viewers who’ve already watched Inception in theaters may want to slow things down a bit, so they can study individual scenes in the interactive “Extraction Mode.” It provides immediate, full-screen access to making-of shorts and backgrounders. Other supplementary material includes “Inception: The Cobol Job,” a prequel to “Inception” in the form of Motion Comic. It explains how the dream-travelers were enlisted by Cobol Engineering for the mission. “Project Somnacin: Confidential Files” introduces “highly secure” tech files and schematics for the dream-share technology (requires BD-Live compatibility). There’s also a Conceptual Art Gallery, Promotional Art Archive, trailers and TV Spots.



It’s always interesting to learn the titles of movies screened by our presidents in theaters at the White House and Camp David, or on DVD. Indeed, a 2003 documentary All the President’s Movies addressed that very question. Richard Nixon was partial to Patton, we’re told, while Bill Clinton favored American Beauty. (Insert your own joke here.) Before being elected to his current job, Barack Obama cited the first two installments of The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia as his faves. Typically, our leaders have favored movies that promise to be highly entertaining or inspirational, rather than polemical and downbeat. In this, they’re not much different than the people who voted for them.

Considering how deeply the incumbent Commander in Chief has committed himself to the never-ending “war against terrorism” in Afghanistan, I would hope that he’s reserved time to view Restrepo, a documentary that not only honors the soldiers fighting there, but also suggests the futility of trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghans for whom the Taliban represent less a threat than errant Hellfire missiles. (Made in 2005, Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 9th Companytells almost the same story, except from the point of view of Russian occupiers, 20 years earlier.)

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo is a feature-length documentary that chronicles the 15-month deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in the hotly contested Korengal Valley, adjacent to the border with Pakistan. The outpost carved into a mountainous ledge overlooking the valley was named in honor of a platoon medic who was killed in action. In total, the filmmakers spent a year imbedded with Second Platoon, Battle Company, often following them on patrols and public-relations meetings with local elders. That the men (and filmmakers) were subject to daily attack by insurgents hardly qualifies as news. Indeed, they took it for granted.

It’s what we see the soldiers do when they aren’t returning enemy fire – besides doing chores, calisthenics and ragging on each other — that makes Restrepo seem, at times, otherworldly. Even as deeply dug in as these men were, they had access to video games, satellite telephones for calls home and a canteen that would make veterans of previous wars green with envy. As connected to the outside world as they were technologically, however, the soldiers knew that they were surrounded by an environment made hostile by the elements, a deeply committed enemy and traumatized locals.

As for their priorities, making Afghanistan a safe place for democracy and the antics of corrupt politicians is pretty far down a list that begins with staying alive, intact and relatively sane. In other wars, these young men could have expected occasional days of relief behind the front lines, in the company of other off-duty GIs and with access to modern plumbing and USO shows. Not so, these guys, and not so, this war. Hetherington and Junger have produced a document that is as politically neutral as The Hurt Locker, and demonstrates admiration for the courage of the enlisted men. Viewers are left to make what they will of a postscript that says Restrepo was abandoned by the army after Second Platoon left it, in 2007. The DVD adds extended interviews, deleted scenes and an update on the soldiers’ current whereabouts.


Videodrome: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Cronos: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

In the movies of David Cronenberg, horror takes many forms. A few have been populated with recognizable monsters, whose appearance alone is sufficient cause for fright. Typically, though, the Canadian filmmaker has found terror in places overlooked by most other artists. While his early projects merged science fact and science fiction with large dollops of paranoid speculation, the monsters in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence were decidedly human. Released in 1981, at the dawn of the video age, Videodrome prophesied a world in which certain forms of recorded entertainment literally would suck viewers into a subliminal realm dominated by predatory capitalists, religious zealots, sexual deviants and despots of all stripe.

By controlling the visual media, these criminals, clowns and charlatans could control large segments of society. Horrific images of a television programmer (James Woods) being turned into a human VCR were as unsettling as the film’s premise, which also anticipated the coming age of nanotechnology. Cronenberg would re-visit the human-hardware concept in eXistenZ, in which gameports were embedded organically in bodies. Any sequel to Videodrome would be hard-pressed to imagine something more horrifying than the current confluence of social media, reality television, celebrity worship, cyber-voyeurism and tweet-speak.

Made without the benefit of CGI, Videodrome effectively mimicked the low-tech appearance of underfinanced indie stations and local-access cable shows. Wood’s programmer is desperate to air something dramatically different than reruns of Gilligan’s Island and the rants of televangelists. He finds it in a mysterious cable transmission, which features the apparent torture and murder of women at the hands of masked sadists. If that weren’t shocking enough, the programmer discovers that the irresistibly nasty images mask subliminal messages that could influence the actions and opinions of viewers.

The more he learns about the conspiracy, the further Woods is sucked into its evil vortex. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition boasts a restored high-definition digital transfer of the unrated version; commentary by Cronenberg, DP Mark Irwin, Woods and co-star Deborah Harry; an extended version of the bootleg “Samurai Dreams” video shown in the movie; the featurette, “Forging the New Flesh,” with FX genius Rick Baker; “Fear on Film,” a 1982 roundtable discussion with Cronenberg, John Landis and John Carpenter; a booklet of essays; and the 2000 short, Camera.

The 1993 horror-fantasy Cronos introduced Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro to genre enthusiasts crying out for something different that slashers, splatter and increasingly more grotesque cyber-villains. At 29, Del Toro was the consummate genre geek, with his own effects emporium, Necropia, and a resume that included several short films and television productions, an executive-producer nod for Dona Herlinda and Her Son (1986), and 10 years worth of makeup and effects credits.

As a boy, he was so enraptured of monsters and fantasy that his deeply religious grandmother attempted to have him exorcised … twice. Cronos opens in 1535, inside the shop of an alchemist and tinkerer who’s putting the finishing touches on a scarab-like time piece. Flash ahead 400-plus years and we’re told that Mexican antiques dealer Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) has come into possession of certain items salvaged from the alchemist’s lab, which was destroyed in a landslide. The scarab is hidden inside a statue of a cherub, infested with giant cockroaches.

After an impromptu inquiry about the cherub, Gris finds the scarab inside the carving and, under the watchful eye of his granddaughter, restores the timepiece’s gold ectoplasm to its former luster. After winding the mechanism, however, Gris finds his hand grasped by the scarab’s hidden claws and his palm pierced by a metallic stinger. Soon thereafter, the old man’s wrinkles have disappeared and he looks 20 years younger. Clearly, the scarab possesses magical powers. It is about this time, as well, that Angel, the American nephew (Ron Perlman) of a filthy rich Mexican gentleman, arrives on the scene. The geezer is aware of the scarab’s provenance and desperately wants to live forever, if only to cheat Angel from his inheritance. In the ensuing test of wills between the old men, the one who’s beginning to understand the true cost of living forever tries to discourage the other from finding it out for himself. That never works, though, does it?

Cronos is a wonderfully inventive entertainment and it looks superb in Blu-ray. It also was omen of good things to come from Del Toro, who would go on to make The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II, Pan’s Labyrinth and a pair of Hellboy installments. (Mimic, his first foray into Hollywood, was more like a nightmare.)

The Criterion edition adds a newly restored high-def digital transfer, audio commentary with Del Toro and the producers; new interviews with Del Toro, Perlman and producer Bertha Navarro; a separate interview with Luppi; “Geometria,” an unreleased 1987 short horror film; Welcome to Bleak House, a tour by del Toro of his memorabilia-filled office; a stills gallery; and booklet featuring an essay by critic Maitland McDonagh.


Strictly Ballroom: Special Edition
Dancing Across Borders

Given the recent release of Moulin Rouge! and “Romeo + Juliet” on Blu-ray, I was surprised to see Miramax’s Special Edition of the similarly wonderful Strictly Ballroom arrive in standard DVD, albeit with a stack of neat extras. The colorful costumes, especially, would have lent themselves to hi-def, as would the delightfully eccentric musical presentation.

In it, a rising star in the world of ballroom dance meets a plain-looking young novice, Fran – a Gypsy, perhaps — who convinces the young man, Scott (Paul Mercurio), to listen to his heart and break some rules in his pursuit of glory. Holding Scott back is a domineering mother, herself a ballroom champion, who demands of her son that he stay on the straight-and-narrow path with his approved partner (Gia Carides), a frosty blond hoofer. She knows how reluctant the establishment is to change and fear the young man will ruin the opportunity for her to bask in his reflected glory.

Naturally, in Luhrmann’s inventive hands, Scott and Fran are able to silence the naysayers with a spectacular blend of traditional and interpretive dance routines. In the end, of course, everyone’s a winner. This was Luhrmann’s first feature and a limited budget precluded much experimentation. Besides the appeal of the dancing, Luhrmann was helped greatly by the ensemble work of veteran Aussie actors who could play it straight and campy with equal dexterity. The bonus package includes a deleted scene, the featurettes “‘Strictly Ballroom’: From Stage to Screen” and “Samba to Slow Fox,” a design gallery and commentary. Anyone who’s taken a fancy to the broadcast networks’ prime-time dance competitions will especially love Strictly Ballroom.

Anne Bass’ fine cross-cultural documentary, Dancing Across Borders, also cautions against too narrowly defining what constitutes High Art. A prominent patron of American and European ballet companies, Bass also devotes much of her abundant energy to organizations promoting Khmer culture.

It was on a visit to Angkor Wat that the Ft. Worth socialite discovered a young dancer, Sokvannara Sar, who was performing with other students of the Wat Bo School of Traditional Dance at Preah Khan. Something in his makeup convinced Bass that Sar might be able to excel at Western ballet, which requires turns and leaps unknown to Cambodia dance. The teen’s re-education would require that he leave his family, which depended on his contributions of money and labor.

If he weren’t so determined to succeed on his own terms as a dancer, Sar might have stayed home to work the rice paddies. The gamble paid off, though. Bass brought Sar to New York, where he auditioned for the School of the American Ballet and studied under ballet mistress Olga Kostritzky. Sar never abandoned the traditions of Cambodia, but the time he spent away from home weighted heavily on him. Sar’s commitment inspired Bass to pick up a camera, herself, to document what it took to become a professional dancer in America these days.

Dancing Across Borders represents an accomplished cinematic debut, especially for someone whose philanthropic time is so much in demand. The scenes shot in Cambodia, still reeling from the excesses of the Khmer Rouge, are quite beautiful. The DVD adds performance footage, an interview with the director and photo gallery.


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
Lennon NYC

Apart from being iconic 20th Century personalities, publisher Hugh Hefner and musician John Lennon shared several noteworthy characteristics. Most notably, perhaps, both men were targets of repression under the Nixon administration for their political views and lifestyles. They also were fabulously rich and hugely influential outside their chosen professions. Although they often courted the media, Hefner and Lennon would contribute time and resources to progressive causes, without first consulting with publicists. At some point, both men were condemned – and admired – for their choice of female companionship.

Had they met, and I’m not sure they didn’t, the Playboy and the Beatle probably would enjoyed each others’ company. That much, at least, can be inferred from this pair of enlightening bio-docs.

Without ignoring the opinions of his detractors, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel argues that the Playboy founder – who’s still very much alive, thank you — ultimately will be remembered as much as an outspoken advocate of human and civil rights as for any of his centerfolds or girlfriends. Besides giving money and space in Playboy to controversial causes, Hefner consciously used his syndicated television shows as weapons against racism, not only by inviting celebrities of all racial and political stripe to share his “penthouse” parties, but also for treating them as welcome guests, not merely entertainers.

Although such liberality cost the show broadcast outlets in the South, it also gave jazz musicians, comics, political figures and blacklisted entertainers a forum that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. More to the point of the magazine, however, Hef never backed down from challenges presented by those who would deny the right of free sexual expression to consenting adults. For example, Hef once helped to free a Georgia man serving a 10-year prison sentence for the crime of (wait for the drumroll) … fellatio. If the man had been caught doing the same thing in any of the other 49 American states, the worst penalty he might have gotten was a citation for disorderly conduct.

The vocal opposition is represented in Brigitte Berman’s film by feminist and longtime detractor Susan Brownmiller, singer Pat Boone and talk-show host Dennis Prager. Among those testifying in Hefner’s defense are Tony Bennett, Jim Brown, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson, Jenny McCarthy, George Lucas, David Steinberg, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Shannon Tweed and Gene Simmons. The film also offers vintage performances, from “Playboy After Dark,” by Pete Seeger, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez and blacklisted harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler. Actors Tony Curtis, Robert Culp and James Caan are there to remind us of the fact that the Playboy mansions have been used for other reasons than promoting liberal causes and most involved scantily clad Bunnies.

If the film seems at times to resemble a premature obituary for the 84-year-old sybarite, I say, better now than later.

The title of Michael Epstein’s LennonNYC is a bit of a misnomer. Although most of the events chronicled in the biodoc take place in Manhattan, the tragically short resurrection of the former Beatles’ career and marriage wouldn’t have been nearly so dramatic if it weren’t for the time he spend in Los Angeles. It was where he went for shelter after the breakup with Ono, recorded with Phil Specter (among others) and came close to drinking himself to death. It made his return to productivity and sobriety in New York that much more significant.

Much of the material here will be familiar from the more tightly focused documentaries, Imagine and The U.S. vs. John Lennon. The nearly 10-year arc of LennonNYC combines artistic elements of his life with corresponding personal, political and social concerns. It opens with Lennon championing the cause of jailed Michigan White Panther leader John Sinclair, who was imprisoned for possession of two joints. His ability to draw a huge crowd to a Detroit rally, and impact Sinclair’s almost immediate release, caught the attention of both left-leaning political strategists and Nixon administration officials who feared his charismatic appeal.

This led the Nixon/Ford Justice Department to actively pursue his deportation. It was during this four-year nightmare that Lennon compounded the agony of his appeals by separating from Ono and moving with May Pang to Los Angeles, where he spent more time partying than making music. His time spent wandering in the wilderness came to an abrupt and welcome end in 1975, with several high-profile musical collaborations, his reuniting with Ono and the nearly simultaneous birth of second son Sean and cessation of deportation proceedings.

For the next several years, Lennon divided his time between raising Sean and quietly returning to his music. The tragedy of his murder, in 1980, nearly coincided with the release of the album, “Double Fantasy,” which signaled his return to the musical limelight. In addition to archival footage of Lennon in concert and with Ono, LennonNYC is distinguished by the insightful recollections of fellow musicians, producers, friends and lovers. The film appeared first as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series, in the lead-up to the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death at 40, on December 8.


Big Bad Mama/Big Bad Mama II: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics
Lady in Red/Crazy Mama: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics

The titles included in the latest installment of Shout!Factory’s Roger Corman’s Cult Classics series could hardly be more representative of the impresario’s overriding principles of American cinema. The only things missing here are rocket ships, murderous critters and Barbarian women wearing animal skins. Otherwise, the movies overflow with car chases and explosive crashes, machine-gun fire, vengeful women, gratuitous nudity, B-list stars, rockin’ soundtracks and borrowed plots. All were shot on absurdly short schedules and suffocatingly tight budgets, by young filmmakers who would go on to make their marks in mainstream Hollywood.

What sets the Big Bad Mama epics, Lady in Red and Crazy Mama apart from lesser Corman efforts is the cohesiveness of their narratives. They don’t rely on the audience’s willingness to forgive cheesy production values and cornball dialogue for their commercial success. If you were 17 in the 1970s, watching a double-bill Big Bad Mama and Crazy Mama at the local drive-in, you might have been tempted to stop necking long enough to enjoy the pictures.

It would be impossible to address the appeal of the first Big Bad Mama without also mentioning the fact that Angie Dickinson – among the most beautiful and classy women ever to appear on the silver screen – sheds her clothes in the service of a plot that reads very much like a white-trash version of Bonnie and Clyde.

As the bank-robbing Wilma McClatchie, she makes love to a fellow crook, played by Tom Skerritt, and a sharp-dressed huckster, played by William Shatner. Normally, that would be sufficient cause to recommend a Roger Corman movie, but “Big Mama” is enhanced, as well, by the bluegrass music of David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, and some of the coolest vintage automobiles ever to be assembled for a demolition derby. Thirteen years later, in Jim Wynorski’s Big Bad Mama II, Dickinson would return in the similarly entertaining shoot-‘em-up, but a newspaper reporter played by Robert Culp is only allowed the pleasure of making love to Angie’s body-double.

Here, Wilma and her two jailbait daughters exact revenge on the politician who killed their husband/father and stole their farm. Danielle Brisebois and Playboy Playmate Julie McCullough supply the celebrity skin.

A drop-dead sexy Cloris Leachman plays the title character in Crazy Mama, a rare PG action comedy directed by Jonathan Demme. Leachman plays Melba Stokes, who, as a child, was driven from her family’s Arkansas farm by a greedy capitalist. Now living in SoCal, circa the late-1950s, with her mother, Sheba (Ann Sothern), and randy teenage daughter, Cheryl (Linda Purl), Wilma decides she wants to re-appropriate the property. She’ll finance the cross-country excursion by stealing unattended cash boxes at fairs and racetracks, and robbing businesses.

Donny Most (Happy Days) plays Wilma’s future son-in-law. Jim Backus and Stuart Whitman also play prominent roles. Dennis Quaid, John Milius, Bill Paxton, Will Sampson appear in small parts, as well. The rock classics on the soundtrack are as expressive and delightful as any of the dialogue.

John Sayles wrote the screenplay for The Lady in Red, a far less humorous re-telling of the FBI manhunt for John Dillinger (Robert Conrad), from the point of view of the prostitute falsely accused of setting up the gangster for the feds. Here, too, the female protagonist — Polly Franklin, played by a fetching Pamela Sue Martin — rises from the dust of poverty and parental abuse to impact events in the big city.

Besides her role as Dillinger’s lover, Franklin labored in a sweatshop and as a taxi dancer, for which she served time in jail, and would graduate to work in a brothel and diner. The story follows Franklin beyond the cowardly excessive assassination of Dillinger outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater, to her ill-fated attempt at making a name for herself as a criminal. The cast also includes Louise Fletcher, Robert Forster, Christopher Lloyd and Kitten Natividad. All of the movies are accompanied by an entertaining and informative commentary tracks and interviews with, among others, Dickinson, Corman, Sayles, Demme and Wynorski. The easy rapport between the producer and the artists makes the commentary tracks highly recommendable.


The Year of Getting to Know Us

It’s taken almost three years for this not terribly convincing dramedy about a garden-variety dysfunctional family to make the journey from Sundance to the direct-to-video marketplace. It’s not for lack of star power, certainly: Jimmy Fallon stars opposite Sharon Stone, Lucy Liu, Tom Arnold and Illeana Douglas. Hundreds of DVDs get released each year with lesser fire-power and worse scripts.

In his feature debut, co-writer/director Patrick Sisam makes the fatal mistake of casting SNL alum Fallon in a role that diminishes his naturally buoyant personality in the service of a character so morose that he’d even be a bummer at a funeral. In The Year of Getting to Know Us, Fallon plays commitment-phobic New York freelance writer, Christopher Rocket, with the nicest and most supportive girlfriend (Lucy Liu) in the world. Nevertheless, he treats her as if her lingerie is woven from poison ivy.

The blame for such inexplicable behavior is placed directly on the shoulders of his distance, golf-addicted father (Tom Arnold) and a hippy-dippy mom (Sharon Stone, in a bright-red wig), both of whom were too self-centered to notice he existed most of the time. When his dad suffers a stroke, Rocket elects to return to his Florida home, where he’ll be reminded of every emotional wound suffered at their hands. At the same time, he’s reunited with an old pal who knows too many of the writer’s secrets, a female classmate for whom he’s carried a torch, a too-caring neighbor and other reminders of a failed youth.

Things get even more complicated when his girlfriend decides to join him in Florida. What this picture needed was a far greater balance of comedy and drama, and a lot more room for Fallon to demonstrate why we should care about such a mope. The DVD adds footage from a panel discussion held after the movie debuted at Sundance. Typically, cast and crew behave as if the crowd had just watched Citizen Kane.


The Stranger in Us

In his freshman feature, writer/director Scott Boswell demonstrates a technical sophistication uncommon not only in so-called Queer Cinema, but most other indie products, as well. The Stranger in Us is a character-driven story about an aspiring poet, Anthony, who follows his lover, Stephen, a therapist, across the country to San Francisco. Once there, Anthony discovers that Stephen isn’t at all reluctant to work out his anger issues on him.

The situation forces Anthony to find solace and companionship in the streets, where he’s a decided outsider. He’s forced to make new friends and embark on adventures he might not have considered if things were better at home. Boswell’s camera is never more than a few feet from the characters, whether they’re walking down the street or having sex. The lighting is naturalistic, almost to a fault, and the love-making occurs as it might in real life. On the other hand, Boswell’s decision to experiment with narrative flow makes viewers work too hard. All things considered, though, an impressive debut.


Dennis Hopper: The Early Works

When Dennis Hopper died last May 29, at 74, obituary writers had more than a half-century of movie titles from which to choose career highlights. As far as I know, none of the articles mentioned his appearances in the productions included in the interesting retrospective, The Early Works. Like most stars whose careers began after 1950, Hopper’s earliest credits represented appearances on the small screen. The shows represented here are Medic (1955), in which Hopper played an epileptic; Public Defender (1955), in which he assumed the familiar role of juvenile delinquent; The Loretta Young Show, opposite the pig-tailed diva (1955); and, believe it or not, the 1964 “Bobbie Jo and the Beatnik” episode of Petticoat Junction.

The set also includes Hopper’s first feature lead, in Night Tide (1961), a supernatural romance inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s Annabelle Lee. In the psycho-thriller, he played a sailor in love with a possibly murderous mermaid. There also are previews of Key Witness, another teen-crime drama, and Night Tide. In every role, Hopper’s trademark mix of intensity and vulnerability is on full display. The shows probably were recorded from kinescope copies, so they aren’t of the highest visual quality. They are fun to watch, though.


Caged Animal

Originally titled “The Wrath of Cain,” the straight-to-DVD prison drama Caged Animal almost certainly will be confused with two previous Ving Rhames prison flicks, Animal and Animal 2, in which he plays a jailed gangsta’ named James “Animal” Allen. All’s fair in love, war and genre movies, I suppose, but there ought to be a MPAA rule against such ruses.

I’d hate to think that someone, somewhere, felt one Ving Rhames prison movie is indistinguishable from all other Ving Rhames prison movies. Here, the scariest looking guy in Hollywood plays, what else?, a former gang-banger who’s become nearly as powerful a presence in prison as in the streets of L.A. Cain’s top-dog status is threatened by the arrival of an old nemesis, Redfoot, who’s played by Robert LaSardo, the richly inked Hispanic actor who’s played more homeboys and convicts than any actor alive. Caged Animal also co-stars Nipsey Hussle, Robert Patrick, and Jeanette Branch.


Hunter Prey
Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray

Comics and superhero geeks might know writer/director Sandy Collara best for his nifty short, Batman: Dead End, in which a confrontation between the Caped Crusader and Joker is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a gang of Predators. Hunter Prey provides a wonderful example of what an imaginative FX specialist can do with a minute budget.

Here, the answer derives from going Old School, relying more on prosthetics, costumes and a unique setting than CGI effects. After an alien spacecraft crash-lands on a rocky and arid planet somewhere in the cosmos, its crew of bounty hunters is instructed to re-capture a prisoner the ship was carrying. The first half-hour of Hunter Prey doesn’t promise much in the way of adult thrills, as all but one of the four characters resemble Ninja Turtles in Iron Man costume and their weapons and shields look as if they were purchased at toy store.

The action, which mostly involves hiding behind rocks and firing off the occasional shot, seems to be confined to a giant sandbox. Before long, though, the Baja California location takes on a sinister personality of its own and the aliens’ cat-and-mouse game becomes a battle of wits. One doesn’t expect to encounter such spare entertainment in 2010, so Hunter Prey requires no small degree of patience on the viewer’s part. Their patience is rewarded with a film that’s more of throwback to Twilight Zone or Outer Limits than Star Wars, and some old-fashioned fun.

A product of Iceland, Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre describes what happens when a boatload of stranded eco-tourists is rescued by a family of degenerate sailors from Satan’s merchant marine. The confrontation between whale huggers and whale muggers isn’t nearly as one-sided as one might imagine, really. The whalers may have all the weapons, but they’re also as dumb as rocks, which leaves them vulnerable to booby traps and sloppy mistakes.

The result is a bloodbath the equal of any butchering that occurs on a Japanese whaler. Gore fanciers won’t even have to understand Icelandic to enjoy the slaughter in Whale Watching Massacre, as half of the dialogue, at least, is in English. True genre fanatics will appreciate the brief, but unforgettably gruesome appearance by native Icelander Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Stranger in Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Daddy in Chainsaw Sally and Krenshaw in Brutal Massacre: A Comedy.


Across the Line: Blu-ray

Writer/director R. Ellis Frazier says that the inspiration for Across the Line (a.k.a., “The Exodus of Charlie Wright”) came from Bernie Madoff, who elected to face prosecution for his crimes, rather than put his family at risk from potentially dangerous creditors. Mob banker Charlie Wright has no such scruples and splits town moments before he’s about to arrested by the FBI.

Although Wright is believed to have more than a billion dollars stashed away in foreign bank accounts, he heads directly for a dumpy apartment in Tijuana. Normally, T.J.’s one of the last places on Earth a rich hoodlum would go to avoid arrest. There probably are more kidnapers, U.S. and Mexican drug agents, desperados and federalis there than anywhere else in Mexico, and a wealthy hoodlum would be fair game for all of them.

Among other parties interested in capturing Wright are the Russian mobsters who entrusted him with their funds. The only person not armed to the teeth and desperate for revenge is Wright, who is searching for the daughter of a woman he loved and left behind many years ago. That pretty much sums up the appeal of Across the Line, except to point out that one of the parties interested in capturing the fugitive is an overextended Tijuana crimelord, played by Andy Garcia, and that the lovely Claudia Ferri plays a hooker of a certain age who volunteers to help Wright in his mysterious quest.

After a certain point, it becomes clear that Frazier’s film is as much a meditation on growing old in a cruel business as it us about the chase, itself. I doubt the likely audience for “Across the Line” will embrace such a subtle conclusion, but Tijuana provides enough visual diversions to disguise the subtext until near the film’s gentle climax. Also featured in the cast are Mario Van Peebles, Danny Pino, Gina Gershon, Luke Goss, Raymond J. Barry and Elya Baskin. There’s a bonus making-of featurette.


A Dog Year

Earlier this year, Jeff Bridges won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in Crazy Heart, a movie that very nearly went straight to DVD. It wasn’t so much that the film wasn’t ready for prime-time, as for the lack of imagination and financial courage on the part of it original backers, Country Music Television and Paramount Vantage. Fox Searchlight saw a potential hit in Crazy Heart, as well as possible award contention for Bridges, at least.

In addition to roles in such high-profile pictures as Iron Man and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and the upcoming True Grit and TRON: Legacy, Bridges had also logged time in a bunch of underachievers and charity cases. Among these titles were The Open Road, in which he played a former baseball star who could have been Bad Blake’s twin brother, and the HBO original, A Dog Year, as a writer also nearing over-the-hill status.

In the latter, Bridges’ Jon Katz is an author in his mid-50s who’s grown weary of banging his head against a writer’s block the size of a Rhode Island. For reasons that aren’t made entirely clear, Katz agrees to take in a border collie with ADD. It had been abused by its former owner and was celebrating its newfound freedom by bowing to no man. Katz already owns two extremely obedient golden retrievers, Stanley and Julius, who try very hard to ignore the intruder, Devon. Nearly at wit’s end, Katz decides to move into a dilapidated farm house, where he and Devon can flake out as much as they want.

A neighbor suggests Katz turn Devon over to the local dog-whisperer (Lois Smith), who senses that the primary thing the dog needs in his life is to be re-introduced to a flock of sheep that need herding. Without giving anything away that couldn’t already be guessed, Devon’s redemption inspires Katz to get back to his word processor and write. A Dog Year is a decidedly small film, but it plays extremely well on the small screen. Bridges seems content to play second fiddle to the unruly pup and the result is a film that dog lovers of any age can enjoy. The DVD includes a making-of featurette.


The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer

This light-hearted animated feature was distributed to theaters throughout South America, Central America and Mexico, by Fox, before landing in DVD on American shores. Nationality plays far less a role in enjoyment of cartoons than live-action pictures, of course, but The Dolphin is informed by a distinctly Hispanic vibe. In it, a dolphin named Daniel defies the elders in his pod by embarking a journey of discovery and adventure with a small coterie of friends.

I doubt that its producers would discourage comparisons with Finding Nemo, even if its budget is far smaller than the one allotted The Dolphin. In the period between the two movies’ release, software costs have diminished to the point where smaller studios can afford to capture magic that looked revolutionary and prohibitively expensive only a few years earlier. The movie’s rated PG, for “mild scary action and brief rude humor,” but I can’t imagine children being any more scared by The Dolphin than the G-rated Bambi and Old Yeller. The disc offers English and Spanish audio tracks.


Space: 1999: The Complete Season One: Blu-ray
Space Precinct: The Complete Series
Hoarders Season Two: Part One

Thirty-five years ago, it must have seemed entirely reasonable to think men and women would be living on our moon, if not other planets, by now. Who could have imagined that future lunar missions would be scrapped in cost-cutting campaigns or that Americans would lose interest in a program that had yet to reveal the presence of life or edible green cheese? It was with that original flash of optimism in mind that Britain’s ITC studio launched an expensive sci-fi series that took seriously the notion that a research facility, housing more than 300 people, would be built on the moon.

Unfortunately, the space station and everyone on it would be hurled into Deep Space after the moon broke away from Earth’s orbit, following a series of nuclear explosions. Among the well-known actors populating the Moonbase Alpha were Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (Mission:Impossible), Barry Morse, who played the police detective assigned to tracking down David Janssen on The Fugitive.

The American presence of Space 1999 was limited to independent stations that could afford the money and time for the syndicated show. (Today, the producers would have their pick of a dozen different cable stations.) The A&E Blu-ray package adds 5.1 surround-sound audio, along with the original mono; audio commentaries; music-only tracks, behind-the-scenes featurettes; image galleries for all episodes; trailers; textless titles; Barry Gray’s theme music demo; alternate opening/closing titles; Landau and Bain’s intro and outro for the U.S. premiere; SFX plates and deleted SFX scenes with music tracks.

Gerry Anderson, who exec-produced Space 1999, Thunderbirds and Supercar, also was responsible for the exceedingly goofy Space Precinct, a 1994 series that merged elements of sci-fi shows with police dramas. Although shot in the U.K., it featured a pair of veteran New York cops entrusted with the pursuit of alien and human criminals on the planet Altor. The detectives were played by Ted Shackelford and Rob Youngblood.

When A&E debuted the reality-based series, Hoarders, it was difficult for me to imagine the show lasting two weeks, let alone two seasons. If there’s one thing Americans love to do, however, it’s watching people nuttier than themselves on television. Before long, fictional hoarders would start being murdered by their piles of junk on such shows as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and local TV news shows would beat the bushes for hoarders of their own.

As we learned, hoarders risked nervous breakdowns if forced to eliminate even the most insignificant-seeming item from their archives. This show helped them endure the ordeal. The DVD set includes the first seven episodes of the second season and additional footage.

Other new TV-to-DVD packages include, SpongeBob SquarePants: Season Six, Volume 2, which offers more of the same undersea nonsense, and Touch of Frost: Season 15, which purports to be the final year for the venerable series. An alternate ending is included.

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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