MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: Elsewhere, And Soon the Darkness, Twelve, The Jesus Guy … and more


Oddly enough, the best line of dialogue I’ve heard in a long time comes in Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s amazing documentary, Elsewhere. After shooting a large seal with a harpoon gun, an Inuit hunter quips, “I hope I didn’t hit the white people.” The “white people” were sitting directly behind the man, chronicling the first hunt of the spring thaw in the frigid waters off Siorapaluk, Greenland. The tiny village, one of the world’s most northernmost inhabited settlements, is among the dozen remote communities Geyrhalter surveys in Elsewhere. As far as I know, no white people were killed or wounded in the making of this film.

It was 2000, and, while people in more populated regions were being bombarded with dire predictions for the new millennium, the people we meet in this IDFA Special Jury Award-winning doc were going about their business much in the same way as they’d done throughout the previous millennium and the one before that. Geyrhalter’s team spent the better part of a month among villagers in rarely visited sections of Finland, Canada, Indonesian, India, Sardinia, China, Siberia, Micronesia and Namibia, some places literally carved from rain forests, frozen tundra, crocodile-infested countryside, oxygen-deprived mountain ranges, thick snow pack and rugged coastlines.

It wasn’t the filmmaker’s intention to demonstrate how natives survive without such modern conveniences as electricity, gas-powered vehicles, packaged food, college-educated physicians and television. Some do, while others enjoy the occasional modern convenience. All, however, live far enough away from cities and government agencies that they rely almost exclusively on traditional methods of hunting, building shelters, adjudicating disputes, educating their children, feeding and clothing themselves.

From one rain-forest tribesman, we learn it’s still OK to cannibalize the body of a neighbor, but only if he’s admitted to being a sorcerer. In Namibia, women describe their feelings about polygamy and being asked to recruit new wives for their husband. Aboriginal women in Australia discuss how the circumcision ritual for newborn sons has changed in their lifetimes and what it’s meant to them. The Inuit hunters blame otherwise well-meaning Greenpeace propagandists for their being tarred with the same brush used to condemn the slaughter of those cute baby seals in Canada. Inuits in Siberia, meanwhile, complain that their skies and rivers have been poisoned by oil and gas drillers, refineries and mines owned by conglomerates in Moscow.

The challenges and hardships described in Elsewhere aren’t powerful enough to overwhelm the natural beauty of the landscapes and terrain in the background. Still, it’s clear the greatest danger to individual freedom doesn’t come in the form of hurricanes, floods and frigid temperatures, but from the demands of more regimented communities to conform and sacrifice for the convenience of the majority. Even at four hours in length, Elsewhere is a remarkably engaging and inspiring document.


And Soon the Darkness: Blu-ray

In thrillers, it’s never a good idea for American tourists to stray too far off the beaten path, whether they’re in the Ozarks, Alps or Andes. American women prone to sunbathing in bikinis and hitting on locals in bars are especially likely to be terrorized by hillbillies, white-slavers and inbred psychopaths. In And Soon the Darkness, a pair of beautiful bicyclists breaks away from their tour group to spend some time in a remote Argentine village, where, unbeknownst to them, other young women have begun vanishing with regularity.

Stephanie (Amber Heard) has recently broken up with her boyfriend and would prefer to lick her wounds in peace back in their motel room than party with the homeboys. Ellie (Odette Yustman), on the other, is hot to trot. She accepts shots of booze from the local bad boys and dances suggestively to the jukebox tunes. Sure enough, the ladies decide to work off their hangovers by peddling out of town and spending a few hours in the sun alongside a scenic river. Stephanie decides to split early, leaving Ellie alone in her two-piece suit, listening to her MP3. Almost immediately, Ellie is snatched by one of the men she enchanted the night before and taken to a deserted lakeside village.

There’s no scarcity of creepy guys in the vicinity, so Stephanie is fortunate to recruit an American lad whose girlfriend has disappeared under similar circumstances. (Actually, he’s kind of creepy, too.) Together, they piece together a few obvious clues and are able to pick up Ellie’s trail, which promises to grow cold when darkness falls. Marcos Efron’s freshman feature, adapted from the 1970 British thriller, benefits greatly from the interesting mountain setting. It suffers, however, from a lack of thrills and too great a reliance on violence to resolve narrative snarls.



Joel Schumacher’s latest exercise in teen angst doesn’t merely beg comparison with Gossip Girl, it demands it. Indeed, the situations and characters depicted in Twelve – not the least being the drug-dealing protagonist, “White Mike,” played by the show’s Chace Crawford – suggest that GG was adapted from the same source material: the 2002 novel, Twelve, written by Nick McDonell, then 18. Although the rich and spoiled kids in the movie behave, dress and talk in the same way as their small-screen peers, the R-rated movie version is fun in a way that the television series can’t be.

The teens in GG generally are limited to imbibing cocktails in hotel bars where their social status trumps having to carry a photo ID. They get stoned off-camera or when someone slips a roofie into their drink. In the R-rated Twelve, Schumacher is allowed to display the teens in all their debauched glory. There’s even a studly negro … er, black guy (Curtis Jackson) … who supplies White Mike with the most potent drug and agrees to deflower one debutante in exchange for it.

The drug, 12, is as addictive as crack, as trippy as LSD and as sensual as ecstasy. For the purposes of the story, which is advanced through Keifer Sutherland’s narration, it’s also something of a red herring. The real evil here manifests itself in the malfeasance of absentee parents, stupid parents, ghosts of parents past and cops who blame a white kid for a murder they should have assumed was committed by a black project resident.

As silly as it is, Schumacher demonstrates far more empathy for the kids in Twelve than do the producers of Gossip Girl, who treat their entitled characters as if they were 18-going-on-40. The ridiculously attractive cast also includes Rory Culkin, Philip Ettinger, Esti Ginzburg, Zoe Kravitz, Billy Magnussen, Emma Roberts and Emily Meade.


America’s Music Legacy: Dixieland Jazz

The latest addition to MVD Visual’s “America’s Musical Legacy” series offers a sampling of jazz with its roots planted firmly in the rich soil of New Orleans. Nearly a century ago, Dixieland musicians combined aspects of already popular ragtime, blues, brass-band marches and French quadrilles, with polyphonic improvisation from a front line of brass and wind instruments – one of which would advance a melody — and a rhythm section comprised of at least two subordinate instruments (banjo, piano, tuba or drums).

Genre boundaries ultimately would become flexible enough to accommodate traditional New Orleans bawdy-house styles and “hot jazz,” as well as the peppy ditties now used to entertainment crowds at theme parks and baseball games. Dixieland would evolve, as well, as its influence spread to such places as Kansas City, Chicago, California, New York and Europe. The music included in the “America’s Music Legacy” series was recorded in the mid-1980s by 20TH Century Home Entertainment, and, as such, was limited to pioneers still active. The artists represented in “Dixieland Jazz” include host Al Hirt, Woody Herman, Irma Thomas, Della Reese, Teddy Buckner, Bob Crosby, the New Orleans Jazz All-Star Band and Scatman Cruthers. There are archival clips of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.


Sister Smile
The Jesus Guy

Few songs in the history of Top 40 radio have been as irritating – after the first 1,000 or so listens, anyway – as the Singing Nun’s exceedingly cheerful “Dominque,” which, in 1963, topped the Billboard charts. Even if almost no one in America, apart from nuns of the Dominican Order, knew what the words meant, the Belgian novice’s chirpy ode to St. Dominic was put into heavy rotation alongside “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Louie Louie” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

She went on tour and appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show, a month ahead of the Beatles. Three years later, Debbie Reynolds would play a singing nun in a highly fictionalized movie based on Sister Smile’s life. The real Singing Nun, Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers, would dismiss it as “fiction.”

Without Vatican censors standing in the way of the truth, two biographical movies about Deckers’ tumultuous life have been released in the last 10 years: Roger Deutsch’s Italian-language Sister Smile (2001), starring Ginevra Colonna, and Stijn Coninx’s Soeur Sourire (2009), with Cecile De France in the lead role.

Neither found distribution in the United States, so most Americans familiar with the song probably think the Singing Nun is either dead, by now, or opening for the Pope on his pastoral missions. In fact, Deckers was never comfortable with life in the spotlight. Neither did she enjoy having to justify her progressive beliefs, including the need for the Church to allow birth control, to her superiors. Without another hit to promote, the Dominican sisters waved goodbye to Sister Smile in 1967, knowing her original vow of poverty would keep residual checks flowing to the order.

In Deutsch’s film, Deckers finds companionship among hippies and other denizens of the Belgian underground. Still seeking personal redemption, she gets hooked on drugs and is tormented by demons that could be traced back to her father and early sexual issues. Finally, she accepts her romantic feelings toward other women, specifically longtime companion Anna Pécher, with whom she founded a school for autistic children. Tortured by the demands of tax collectors, who refused to accept that Deckers’ share of music revenues were kept by the Church, both women committed suicide in 1985. Only 51 at the time of her death, Deckers was buried alongside Pecher in a Wavre cemetery. Colonna’s portrayal is very powerful. The DVD set includes two of Deutsch’s shorts, Dead People and Mario Makes a Movie.

Also from MVD Visual comes The Jesus Guy, Sean Tracey’s documentary portrait of an American evangelist who walks the planet barefoot, preaching the word of God and looking very much like holy-card images of Jesus Christ. Citing the bible, Brother James Joseph (a.k.a., the Jesus Guy, Whats Your Name? and Carl) accepts no money, carries no food or personal belongs, and owns only one tunic. He doesn’t claim to be the reincarnation of Jesus or anything but a messenger for His teachings.

In the 1960s, Brother Joseph would have been greeted with signs that read, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Although some people still consider him to be a kook, the Barefoot Evangelist has enjoyed generally warm receptions on his spiritual mission. He has appeared on 20/20 and in dozens of publications, including Time and the Wall Street Journal. For the past 16 years, Joseph has wandered through 47 states – last month, he was spotted in Tampa, Florida — and 13 countries. In the film, a Catholic priest compares his mission to that of St. Francis of Assisi. The religion correspondent of the Washington Post attests to the genuineness of his appeal before townspeople she’s interviewed. Indeed, the worst thing said about him is that he’s “only human” or a “normal guy,” not the deity they wanted him to be.

As is to demonstrate his affinity with Jesus Christ, Tracey films bonehead cops demanding of Joseph that he obtain a permit for exercising his constitutional right to chat with Americans – not proselytize or beg – on the streets of their home towns. That local officials probably wouldn’t give such an oddity a permit, even if such a thing were available, is as immaterial to cops today as it was in the ’60s or in Jerusalem, 2011 years ago.

He’s far more welcome in nursing homes, at church groups and halfway houses. I’ve run into men who’ve looked like Joseph and spouted scripture to beat the band. None have listened to the people to whom they’re preaching, as the Jesus Guy does, or debate doctrine. I’ve never encountered a televangelist who’s gone an hour without asking for money or offering to trade prayers for donations. Typically, Joseph refuses such offers.

Does Joseph have foibles? Yes. Does he lose patience with skeptics? Occasionally. Is he a slave to the media? Probably. Does he appear to be more genuine about his religious beliefs than most American politicians and bible-banging religious leaders? Undeniably, yes. The DVD adds Q&As and panel discussions with Tracey and the Jesus Guy at early screenings.


Baseball’s Greatest Games: 1960 World Series Game

Baseball fans now take it for granted that games of importance will be available not only for their future enjoyment, but also that of their children and grandchildren. As recently as the late 1960s, when networks routinely recorded over used video tapes, kinescope recordings were the only complete historical documents available, however.

Historians have been forced to rely on newspaper box scores and radio broadcasts, some of which were dramatized by announcers from information passed along by telegraph. We’re reminded of this by the arrival on DVD of “Baseball’s Greatest Games: 1960 World Series Game 7,” which includes a grainy copy of one of the most exciting games in baseball history.

The image of Pittsburgh Pirate infielder Bill Mazeroski rounding the bases after hitting the series-ending home run is so engrained in the minds of older fans that it was easy to forget almost none of the events preceding it were available for repeat viewing. In fact, it wasn’t until very recently that anyone knew a full kinescope copy of Game 7 even existed. It was found among the effects of Bing Crosby — one of the Pirates’ former owners — by family archivist Robert Bader (reportedly in the singer’s wine cellar). It was made available to Major League Baseball in time for last year’s 50th anniversary celebration of the game.

The Pirates were considered underdogs to the mighty New York Yankees, who were led by Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Bobby Richardson, Elston Howard, Bobby Shantz, Bill Skowron, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. Pittsburgh countered with Robert Clemente, Don Hoak, Bob Friend, Dick Groat, Bill Virdon, Vern Law, Elroy Face and Harvey Haddix. In addition to the game itself, the two-disc set includes the previously available highlights package; a season highlights film; material from the 50th anniversary gala, narrated by Bob Costas; interviews with guest speakers Virdon, Groat and Richardson; and a separate interview with Mazeroski, who was unable to attend the celebration.


Seeing Heaven

I’m no expert in the area of queer cinema, but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad sign when the most interesting characters are played by members of the opposite sex, who haven’t appeared in a movie in decades. Such is the case with Pooltime, a chatty romantic comedy about a 40-year-old guy who can’t understand why he hasn’t yet met Mr. Right. More precisely, the guy frets over the possibility he has met Mr. Right, but was too pre-occupied with more frivolous matters to recognize him. To this end, Paul invites several of his former lovers to a pool party at his West Hollywood home, where they talk endlessly about their feelings. (Yawn.)

In addition to the male characters, the cast of Pooltime includes Inga Jaklyn, a former model and Miss Austria who hasn’t been seen on a screen of any size since an episode of “It Takes a Thief” 40 years ago. She’s a spring chicken, though, compared to 101-year-old Carla Laemmle, who hasn’t appeared in a movie since 1939. It’s also peculiar that nothing even remotely explicit – unless one is aroused by screen kisses and randy dialogue – takes place during the movie. No one even sheds their swimming trucks. If the MPAA weren’t so resolutely homophobic, Pooltime could easily qualify as PG-13.

In Ian Powell’s psycho-thriller Seeing Heaven, Paul (Alexander Braq) plays an in-demand escort who experiences intensely scary visions while servicing his clients. They relate to Paul’s anxiety over the fate of a twin brother, who hasn’t seen since they were both children. In an attempt to find more clues as to his brother’s whereabouts, as well as work out his own personal kinks, Paul agrees to star in a XXX film being made by a producer of dubious reputation. (Caution, this form of therapy only works in gay and straight porn.) The more dangerous the encounter, the closer Paul thinks he’s getting to the truth. Although the mind-blowing sex does shake loose some of the bats in his belfry, it comes at a price.


Archer: The Complete Season 1
Jersey Shore: Uncensored: Season 2

In a world already overflowing with spies and secret agents, there always seems to be room for one more. The FX Network’s animated series, Archer, is built around Sterling Mallory Archer, who works for his sex-starved mom at the ISIS international spy agency. Impeccably dressed, Archer looks the part of super spy. Cursed with the code name “Duchess,” though, he isn’t always in command of his own domain.

His mini-skirted ex-girlfriend, Lana Kane, shoves her sexual conquests in his face and his mother/boss cuts him no slack whatsoever. His fellow agents conspire against each other, employing tactics that ought to be reserved for the enemy. Even if Archer doesn’t pretend to be family entertainment, it’s less snarky than Austin Powers and less violent than recent James Bond entries. The characters are cool, without being terminally hip. Among the voice actors are H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler and Jessica Walter. Besides the first-season episodes, the set includes the show’s unaired pilot and an unaired network promo, deleted scenes, several making-of featurettes, and pilot episodes of FX’s “The League” and “Louie.” Season 2 begins airing at the end of January.

Every parent should watch at least one episode of Jersey Shore, if only so they can identify signs of terminal stupidity in their children. In the Season 2 package, the inexplicably popular MTV series follows the New Jersey crew – and an equally moronic Staten Island girl – as they get drunk, laid, dissed and artificially tanned in Miami’s top nightclubs and beaches. All seven live together in a Miami Beach pad, snug enough to cause problems for anyone desiring privacy or more than their fair share of mirror time. The package claims to be “uncensored,” but that only applies to some language, not skin. Too bad.

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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