MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: The Tourist, Yogi Bear 3D, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Andy Sidaris Collection, Skyline …

The Tourist: Blu-ray
Ten months out of every year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is ignored by everyone in Hollywood, except the publicists assigned to wiping the reporters’ bottoms and keeping their bottles full of expensive wine and booze. For the better part of December and January, however, the mainstream media does its part to promote the notoriously corrupt organization, not only by trying to anticipate their Golden Globe nominations, but analyzing them as they weren’t bought and paid for with lavish junkets, tickets to gala events and extraordinary access to megastars. NBC, which broadcasts the annual awards ceremony, is the largest beneficiary of such hype and, therefore, the HFPA’s biggest cheerleader. Even with ample evidence suggesting otherwise, studios go along with charade in the desperate hope the headlines will help sell tickets during the holiday. Judging by the low box-office tallies for most Globe favorites – including, this year, “The Tourist” and “Burlesque” – audiences long ago sniffed out the ruse. Truth is, if Oscar nominations were announced simultaneously with the Globes, no would care what the 80-plus members of the HFPA thought about the season’s movies.

Strangely, “The Tourist” and “Burlesque” were required to square off against each other in the category of Best Musical or Comedy. Even Angelina Jolie, the primary reason for seeing any movie in which she’s the female lead, laughed when she heard that bit of news. Among other things it isn’t, “The Tourist” isn’t a comedy or musical, but, then, neither is it a drama. It’s a reasonably entertaining action/adventure/romance, staged in one of the world’s most amazing cities, Venice. Dressed and bejeweled to beat the band, Jolie looks dynamite at all times. Johnny Depp, in a characterization lifted from the Alfred Hitchcock playbook, is the innocent bystander drawn inexorably into the web woven by Jolie’s rogue secret agent and the various police agencies tracking her every move. The narrative requires several elaborate chases through the canals and over the rooftops of Venice, but, while fun to watch, none makes us forget any of the James Bond movies set there, or, for that matter, “Don’t Look Now,” “The Italian Job” and “La Femme Nikita.” Neither are the thriller conceits all that thrilling.

I suspect, DVD renters drawn weekly to the new-arrivals aisle won’t be overly disappointed, though. “The Tourist” demands little of viewers, so the mere presence of Jolie and Depp in Venice, where, apparently, people still attend parties in formal attire, is worth the pittance charged by video merchants. The only real loser here is German writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won an Oscar for the terrific Iron Curtain political thriller, “The Lives of Others,” but appears to have succumbed to the Hollywood sirens in his sophomore feature.

Venice, of course, looks splendid in both Blu-ray and standard-definition formats. There also are plenty of bonus features, including outtakes, a tourist map of the canal, commentary with the director and several undemanding behind-the-scenes looks at the challenges of filming in Venice, staging a lavish ball and dressing the many actors glamorously and choreographing the action scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Yogi Bear: Blu-ray 3D
Boathouse Detectives

I recently read an interview with Valerie Plame Wilson, the American spy whose cover was blown by traitors to the flag in the Bush administration, in which she said secret agents had to be “smarter than the average bear.” While it’s possible the 47-year-old Wilson was using “bear” as a pun – the Russian bear, get it? – she far more likely was recalling a line made famous by the cartoon character, Yogi Bear. For at least one generation of Baby Boomers, the catchphrase is as familiar as “What’s up, doc?,” “Sufferin’ sucatash” and “That’s all I can stands, ’cause I can’t stands no more!” Today’s kids, no doubt, are more familiar with the lyrics to “Happy Happy Joy Joy” and the SpongeBob SquarePants theme than anything said by the Looney Tunes or Hanna-Barbera gangs. The Warner Bros. execs who approved the $80 million needed to make the live-action/animation/3D update of the “Yogi Bear” franchise probably assumed that parents and grandparents of kids in the SpongeBob generation would join their young’uns to the multiplex for an afternoon of shared fun and painless nostalgia. And, they probably guessed right. Although, it was no threat to “Tangled” at the box office, “Yogi Bear” certainly didn’t embarrass itself.

This time around, Dan Aykroyd supplies the voice for the smarter-than-average protagonist, while Justin Timberlake does the honors as Boo Boo. Uncharacteristically, Rangers Smith and Jones have enlisted the notorious pic-i-nic ruiners in a campaign to save Jellystone Park from being rezoned and denuded by loggers and developers. The 100-year-old park hasn’t been making much money lately, so it’s easy for land-grabbers and their political lackeys to justify such an outrage. (Republican politicians and greedy moguls have attempted to tap the riches of our National Park System ever since President Ulysses S, Grant signed the law protecting Yellowstone from such exploitation.) Unfortunately, one of Yogi’s genius ideas backfires, opening the door for the bad guys. Normally, the combination of live-action and animation doesn’t do much for me in feature-length doses. The addition of 3D helps, though.

Despite the topicality of the environmental concerns, “Yogi Bear” probably won’t interest many people over the age of 12, if that. Younger kids, however, won’t be as picky as their elders. The top-of-the line package comes in all formats, including Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, standard DVD and digital. Among the bonus features are “Spending a Day at Jellystone Park,” which allows viewers to collect picnic baskets, each one containing a making-of featurette; a “Yogi Bear Mash-Up”; the interactive memory game, “Are You Smarter Than the Average Bear?”; and, blessedly, the “Looney Tunes: Rabid Rider” cartoon, starring Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

The same kids who comprise the target audience for “Yogi Bear” should enjoy “Boathouse Detectives,” from the same director who did the popular “Clubhouse Detectives.” The pee-wee shamuses do a pretty fair imitation of their adult counterparts, as they solve a crime involving an evil stepmother. (Is there any other kind in the movies?) Here, 7-year-old Anna tries to head off her stepmother’s plan to send her dog to the pound and her off to boarding school. Anna wants to alert her grandmother to the scheme, but the helium balloon carrying the message lands near the floating clubhouse manned by the pipsqueak P.I.s. It’s a lot of fun. If your children enjoy it, make sure they experience the Little Rascals — silent or talkie versions — before they get too old for kids’ stuff. – Gary Dretzka

The Perfume of the Lady in Black
The Andy Sidaris Collection: Girls, Guns & G-Strings

Anyone seeking a prime example of Italian giallo – a pulp-derived genre that combines violence, eroticism and horror in the service of a suspenseful narrative– needs to look no further than Francesco Barilli’s “The Perfume of the Lady in Black,” which also adds apparitions and voodoo to the mix. Its writer/director, Francesco Barilli, may not be mentioned in the same breath as Mario and Lamberto Bava, or Dario Argento, but “The Perfume of the Lady in Black” is considered a classic of the form. Made in 1974, it stars American Mimsy Farmer as a workaholic chemist living in a plush neighborhood of Rome. Her troubles begin after attending a party with her much-neglected boyfriend, at which a handsome African professor goes into great detail about voodoo rituals and human sacrifices. The discussion triggers deep-seated memories of her slain mother and horrific hallucinations, including one in which a beautiful young woman in black appears in her mirror, dabbing perfume on her neck. The closer the chemist seems to get to some kind of revelation about one long-sublimated event or another, the more paranoid and unhinged she becomes. The final straw arrives in the form of a little girl in a white dress, who could be the ghost of Childhood Past. Barilli uses every trick in the book – including a black cat – to build the suspense to boiling point, while also maintaining a sleek and stylish Italian sheen. The RaroVideo restoration is quite stunning, as well. The package comes with a lengthy interview with the director and a booklet with critical analysis.

Not even remotely as stylish as the average giallo, the films of Andy Sidaris fall somewhere between grindhouse and the Little Annie Fannie comic strip in Playboy. As is implied in the title of Mill Creek’s newly released 12-movie compilation – “Girls, Gun & G-Strings” — Sidaris’ primary conceit involved putting buxom women in roles traditionally associated with male action heroes and letting them save the world from gangsters, spies, ninja warriors, smugglers and sadists by any means necessary. These gals were playing in a different league from other, more mainstream actors in law-enforcement, including Lindsay Wagner, Lynda Carter, Peggy Lipton and Angie Dickenson. These were former Playboy and Penthouse models, and B-movie scream queens, with disturbingly humongous breasts and a willingness to show them off whenever asked.

The movies shared other qualities: all were set in exotic warm-weather locations, which allowed the women to save the world in bikinis and wet suits; the men and women of L.E.T.H.A.L. Force all rode motorcycles, sports cars and swamp buggies, or piloted helicopters, light planes and submarines; the guns displayed a noticeable absence of recoil, and an inordinate number of people were killed with spears, swords, poison darts and bombs delivered by remote-control toys; strategy sessions tended to take place in strip clubs and beachside bars; and the men all looked as if they were recruited from Playgirl magazine. It’s worth remembering that Sidaris, a former director of network sports shows, worked in a post-Roger Corman media environment. Drive-in theaters had become an endangered species and newly born cable networks were in desperate need of something sexy to show in the wee hours. The short attention spans of cable subscribers demanded a lot more gratuitous nudity, but no one was quite sure if they could get away with showing pubes and penises. (HBO would break that taboo in the early 1990s, with its racy newsmagazine, “Real Sex”). In addition to such familiar male actors as Pat Morita, Erik Estrada, Darby Hinton, Bruce Penhall, Steve Bond and Danny Trejo, Sidaris’ casts often included such L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies as Dona Speir, Julie K. Smith, Hope Marie Carlton, Sybil Danning, Roberta Vasquez, Julie Strain, Cynthia Brimhall, Shae Marks, and Wendy Hamilton. – Gary Dretzka

Skyline: Blu-ray
Alien 2: On Earth: Midnight Legacy Collection: Blu-ray
Galaxina/Crater Lake Monster: Double Feature: Blu-ray

Sooner or later, an effects-laden thriller was going to come along and ramble through 90 minutes of explosions and CGI monsters, without even the semblance of a story. Colin and Greg Strause’s “Skyline” is just such a film. The Brothers Strause, as they’re sometimes known, have worked as visual-effects specialists on dozen of pictures, mostly action features but also several comedies. “Skyline” immediately recalls such alien-invasion opuses as “Alien,” “District 9,” “Independence Day” and “War of the Worlds,” all of which used dialogue as a secondary device to advance the exciting CGI sequences. Here, though, a couple in a Marina Del Rey penthouse is rousted from sleep by bright blue columns of light and the sound of spacecraft from some faraway corner of the universe. There’s no warning, no explanation and no negotiations, just destruction. The rest of “Skyline” is taken up with the attempts of the couple (Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson), along with other residents of the apartment building, to avoid being sucked into squid-like attack pods or stomped flat by giant land-based marauders. There’s no deeper meaning beyond that, I’m afraid. The special effects are pretty good, though, even if none breaks new ground. The bonus package is more interesting than the movie itself, in that the featurettes demonstrate how the directors pulled off the magic.

“Alien 2: On Earth,” at least, benefits from an awareness on the part of its Italian filmmaker that his brainstorm is nothing more than a campy, micro-budgeted rip-off of “Alien.” Not just bad, but laughably bad, “Alien 2” seems to have been created specifically for inclusion on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Made in 1980, largely in the Mojave Desert and what appears to be Death Valley, “Alien 2” somehow manages to combine the importation of deadly, flesh-eating creatures from space, with NASA missions, bowling, spelunking and the occasional boob flash. The bloodbath doesn’t kick in until the explorers encounter the vicious critters – living rocks, if you will — in one of the chambers of an elaborate subterranean cave system (the best thing about the movie). Who will survive the wrath of the alien? Who cares? Newly released for the first time in the United States – intact or otherwise — Ciro Ippolito’s messterpiece is truly a movie so bad that it’s fun to watch, especially in groups. And, yes, the restored movie is available in Blu-ray, too, which automatically makes it much better looking than it has any right to be.

“Galaxina” and “Crater Lake Monster” are prime examples of exploitation films released in the waning years of the drive-in craze and in advance of the CGI era. The silly sci-fi caper, “Galaxina,” would, by now, be long forgotten if it weren’t for the presence of Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy centerfold whose tragic story was told in Bob Fosse’s “Star 80.” Throughout most of the movie, Stratten plays a gorgeous blond android who does a Pinocchio turn after falling for one of the lawmen on the Starship Infinity. Not that it matters much in the long run, but the crew is attempting to retrieve a mysterious blue-crystal star from an Old West town populated by dozens of crazily designed aliens. Otherwise, “Galaxina” remains just one of many parodies of “Star Wars” and “Alien.” Stratten’s next and last film, “They All Laughed,” directed by then-boyfriend Peter Bogdanovich, would allow her to showcase her burgeoning acting skills, alongside old pros Ben Gazzara and Audrey Hepburn. By then, however, the former Dorothy Ruth Hoogstraten, of Vancouver, B.C., would be dead.

William R. Stromberg’s Saturday-matinee adventure, “The Crater Lake Monster,” would have benefited from an appearance by Stratten, or anyone else capable of holding the interest of anyone over 14 for more than 20 minutes. Set in Crater Lake, Oregon, but shot at Huntington Lake and Palomar Mountain, in California, “Monster” describes what happens after a flaming meteorite crashes into the huge lake, causing the resurrection of a long-dormant dinosaur. A cross between a brontosaurus and the Loch Ness Monster, it’s plenty hungry. Both movies appear on Blu-ray for the first time. – Gary Dretzka

Although Nick Stahl has starred in several high-profile movies and TV shows – “Terminator 3,” “Sin City,” “Carnivale,” “The Thin Red Line” – the 31-year-old Texan’s yet to achieve the breakout success he deserves. Like so many young actors these days, he owes a great deal to James Dean, Paul Newman and Sean Penn. From certain angles, Stahl also bears a resemblance to Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner, Ewan McGregor, Russell Crowe and Heath Ledger. Sometimes, no matter how good the actor, standing out in a crowded movie marketplace isn’t as easy a task as it might seem. In the often intriguing procedural “Meskada,” Stahl plays a police detective, Noah, assigned to a case in which a messy burglary results in the death of a child. Although clues are practically non-existent, one leads Noah back to his hometown, which he hasn’t visited for quite some time. Writer/director Josh Sternfeld’s screenplay adds a level of tension, based on the rivalry between the affluent town in which now lives and the working-class community in which he was raised. It makes the cop feels like an outsider in both places. The victim’s mother senses he’s dragging his heels on the investigation because old friends might be involved, while acquaintances of the suspects feel as if he’s merely looking for convenient scapegoats.

There’s a lot going on in Sternfeld’s story, including the pairing of Noah with a female sheriff’s deputy (Rachel Nichols), and the added weight stalls the narrative at key points. Still, Sternfeld makes good use of the rural Catskills location and the acting is very good. If the rednecks seem a bit too clichéd, it’s not because we’re supposed to think less of them than their more affluent counterparts. It’s simply time-honored cinematic shorthand. – Gary Dretzka

Sugar Boxx
Jackson County Jail/Caged Heat: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics

One of the most enduring clichés of low-budget filmmaking is the women-in-prison movie. Thanks to Roger Corman, who made a bunch of them, such easily conceived grindhouse and drive-in fare served as a stepping stone for a generation of up-and-coming directors. Jonathan Demme’s “Caged Heat” may be the most well-known example, but they all share several common elements. Typically, a woman found unjustly guilty of a crime is sent to a penitentiary, ruled by sadists and populated with a motley crew of butch and femme lesbians, convicted prostitutes, take-charge bitches and unfortunate waifs. Any WiP movie worth its salt also contains strip searches, shower scenes, cat fights, beat-downs, rapes, riots and escape attempts. Gratuitous nudity is also a given. “Caged Heat” has all of that and countless homages to exploitation epics of the past, including the casting of Barbara Steele as the robotic, wheelchair-bound warden, and genre faves Roberta Collins and Rainbeaux Smith. Don’t miss Demme’s commentary and discussion with cult favorite Erica Gavin and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto.

Paired with “Caged Heat” is “Jackson County Jail,” both of which were released in the mid-1970s. In Michael Miller’s picture, a successful advertising executive, Dinah, played by the exquisite Yvette Mimieux, discovers hell on Earth while driving from Los Angeles to New York. Her troubles start after she picks up a pair of evil hippie hitchhikers, who steal her money and car, beat her up and leave her stranded in the middle of Nowhereville. Dinah is then arrested for vagrancy and thrown into small-town jail, where she’s raped by a depraved guard. No sooner has the fiend zipped up his pants than Dinah musters the strength to bludgeon him to death. Observing from the next cell is a ne’er-do-well felon played by Tommy Lee Jones. Knowing that Dinah wouldn’t last a week in a real prison, Coley gets Dinah to pass him the keys and, together, they make a break for freedom. After a couple of wild car chases, Coley and Dinah hook up with a band of radicals, who probably were modeled after the SLA. Before his inevitable death-by-cop, Coley insists that Dinah blame him for the beating of the guard and dragging her along in his escape. In addition to the nearly non-stop mayhem, “Jackson County Jail” carries a powerful indictment of police abuse of prisoners and the ugliness of rape. In most WiP flicks, rape merely provides an excuse for more nudity. Here, it’s clearly an atrocity. “Jackson County Jail” also stars Robert Carradine, Howard Hesseman, Betty Thomas and Mary Woronov. Like other titles in the “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series, these movies can be played in “Grindhouse Mode,” which aligns both films back-to-back, interspersed with trailers, old theater ads and other intermission treats. Commentary is provided by Miller, producer Jeff Begun and cinematographer Bruce Logan, and Corman also appears in interviews with critic Leonard Maltin. Believe me, he’s one smart cookie.

“Sugar Boxx” may have been made in 2009, but it doesn’t look a day younger than 35 years old, which is meant as a compliment. After all, writer/director Cody Jarrett conceived the project as homage to Jack Hill’s “The Big Bird Cage” and “The Big Doll House,” and Russ Meyer’s bigger-boobs-are-better classics. To that end, Hill is included in the cast of “Sugar Boxx,” alongside Meyer regulars Kitten Natividad and Tura Satana, Here, a pretty blond investigative reporter gets wind of a scheme perpetrated by local cops, a judge and warden of the Sugar State Woman’s Prison, in which female convicts are forced to participate in a prostitution ring. Finally, the prisoners are able to turn the table on their captors. For a movie made so recently, “Sugar Boxx” is surprisingly entertaining. – Gary Dretzka

The People I’ve Slept With
If anyone associated with the offbeat rom-com, “The People I’ve Slept With,” had remembered their 8th Grade grammar lessons, they might have changed the title to “The People With Whom I’ve Slept.” It may not sound jarring to anyone not employed as a teacher or copy editor, but, at least, it would be correct. That’s the kind of stuff I think about when the action in a movie begins to lag. Sue me.

The charming Karin Anna Cheung plays an Asian-American yuppie, Angela Yang, with a seemingly insatiable appetite for sex. She takes pictures of the men and women with whom she’s slept, pulling them out occasionally and re-arranging them as if they were baseball cards. Angela shouldn’t be mistaken for your basic Hollywood-movie slut, if only because she doesn’t require large volumes of alcohol to go home with someone she’s just met and she doesn’t feel guilty for or ashamed of her desires. The baseball cards come in handy when Angela discovers she’s pregnant and needs to narrow down the potential candidates for fatherhood to those with whom she slept in a month’s time and without protection. (She weighs having an abortion, but decides against it.) Not wanting to frighten any of her past lovers needlessly, Angela narrows her search for DNA samples to four or five likely candidates – including the now-mandatory gay BFF — and a couple of them are real keepers. The rest of the movie is full of surprises, so we’ll leave the summary at that.

There are a couple of things that elevate “Slept With” above the usual oh-shit-I’m-pregnant sub-genre and into the realm of such crowd-pleasers as “Amy’s Orgasm,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and the less-rowdy parts of “Knocked Up.” For one thing, Angela’s father doesn’t freak out when she tells him that she’s pregnant. (He’s dating a much younger woman, who’s American and a bit of an airhead.) Then, too, according to people interviewed in the bonus features, including director Quentin Lee and screenwriter Koji Steven Sakai, it’s extremely rare to find a “normal” Asian-American woman portrayed with such openness to the joys of sex. “Slept With” is far from perfect, but its fresh approach to a time-worn theme is welcome. – Gary Dretzka

The Quiet Arrangement
Any movie that’s compared to “Fargo” and “Memento” on the cover of its DVD package immediately begs such questions as, “Says who?” and “Wanna bet?” That’s especially true of titles that bypass theaters and surface a couple of years later in video. It’s nice to report that David C. Snyder’s “The Quiet Arrangement” is interesting enough not only to warrant praise, but also a willingness on my part to rewind the movie to see if the comparison to “Memento” truly holds water. For the most part, it does. “The Quiet Arrangement” chronicles the disintegration of a simple kidnapping into a horrible series of interrelated murders. It opens with a lawyer being informed of his wife’s abduction by thugs in search of a million-dollar ransom. At first, the lawyer denies being able to raise the cash, but the kidnappers seem to know better. While the lawyer plots to double-cross the thugs, the kidnappers are playing a game of cat-and-mouse with undercover detectives, who apparently were setting up the lawyer’s wife – a drug addict – for a bust when she was snatched. None of this plays out in straight linear time, so it not only requires patience on the part of viewers, but also a compelling reason to stick with it. The only person in the cast who looks familiar is rapper Chuck D, who became acquainted with Snyder through some sort of Internet fan club. Any lack of experience in the other actors, though, is compensated for by Snyder and cinematographer Christopher Michael’s propensity for shooting in various shades of gray and from dozens of different angles. It takes a lot of pressure off everyone involved. The making-of material is worth watching for anyone intrigued by the conceits of “The Quiet Arrangement.” It’s not for everyone, but adventurous viewers might find a lot to like here. – Gary Dretzka

Duke Ellington: Reminiscing In Tempo
Count Basie: Then As Now, Count’s the King
James Brown: Body Heat: Live In Monterey 1979

Gary Keys’ loving portraits of the late, great Count Basie and Duke Ellington may not win any prizes for their craftsmanship, but the music and anecdotes told by friends, fellow musicians, historians and family members are terrific. That no one has come along to replace the legendary band leaders, composers and pianists in the 36 and 26 years since they passed on to Jazz Heaven says volumes about what they meant to American culture. (OK, there’s Wynton Marsalis, but how much of his music springs immediately to mind when comparisons are made?) “Take the ‘A’Train” and “One O’Clock Jump” are only two of the masterpieces that will be reprised as long as people listen to music. The kinds of stories told by the participants in Keys’ documentaries probably won’t be told about any popular musicians now or yet to be born, either. The times, tempos and technology have all conspired to flatten out the scenes behind the scenes. I’m grateful there enough people still around to add to the legends. (He also adds pantomime sketches from old Jerry Lewis films, in which his characters hilariously imagine themselves conducting the Basie band.)

“Body Heat” is a no-frills concert film, significant primarily because it represents James Brown’s return to touring after a four-year hiatus, which began in 1975. Apart from its length, there’s nothing to distinguish it from a dozen different concert films featuring the Godfather of Soul, including the epochal “T.A.M.I. Show” and “Soul Power” (shot in Zaire at the same time as “When We Were Kings”). He is in top form, however. Reportedly, the videotapes made at the 1979 comeback concert were locked in a vault for 12 years and kept from public view, until being assembled for the “Lost Tapes” VHS. The sound has been improved from that release and the performance is inspired. Among the songs are “Papas Got a Brand New Bag,” “Try Me,” “Sex Machine” and the title number. – Gary Dretzka

History Lesson Part 1: Punk Rock in Los Angeles In 1984
Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer

One of the problems caused by bad acoustics and inadequate sound engineering is that, when they’re combined, any rock musician can appear to be demented. On DVD, these deficiencies often require viewers to continually turn down the sound of live performances and increase the volume of interviews. Otherwise, you’ll wake the baby and the neighbors will think you’re demented.

To untrained eyes and ears, expressions of anger often resemble the ravings of a lunatic (hence, Glenn Beck) and punk rockers were nothing, if not angry. Los Angeles cult icon Larry “Wild Man” Fischer is angry, too, but his rage has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, mixed with a bipolar disorder. Constructed largely from material recorded a quarter-century ago, or more, “History Lesson Part 1” and “Derailroaded” both suffer from the inadequacy of then-available technology. Watched today, extreme patience is required to fully appreciate the intentions of the documentaries’ makers. It is rewarded, though.

With all due regard for London, Detroit and New York, L.A. proved as comforting an incubator for punk rock as the scenes from which sprung the Sex Pistols, Ramones and Stooges. X, the Germs and Black Flag may be the most fondly recalled of L.A. ensembles, but, in 1984, the Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Twisted Roots and Redd Kross also were making names for themselves. The genre had also been subdivided to include “psychedelic punk rock,” a form favored by musicians in SoCal and Phoenix. “History Lesson Part 1” is comprised of performance videos made by Dave Travis in 1984 and interviews conducted a dozen years later, with Mike Watt (Minutemen), Jeff and Steve McDonald (Redd Kross), Cris and Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets), Paul Roessler (Screamers, Twisted Roots, DC3) and Hellin “Killer” Roessler. They’re interesting, but keep a tight grip on the volume control.

“Wild Man” Fischer may seem to be completely off his rocker most of the time, but he easily qualifies as a survivor of the various 1960s scenes. Committed to a mental institution as a teenager, Fischer was discovered on the streets of Hollywood by Frank Zappa, who would record his first album of “outsider” music. He had been making a fragile living, performing impromptu songs, which he would conceive on the spot for dimes. When they made sense at all, the lyrics reflected an overriding dissatisfaction with the status quo, parents and capitalism that was shared by tens of thousands of other long-haired “freaks.” And, when he wasn’t angry, Fischer was capable of writing the kind of “peppy” novelty songs that, years later, might have found a place on Pee-wee Herman’s TV shows. He appeared on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and collaborated with Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Rosemary Clooney and Mark Mothersbaugh, of Devo. “Derailroaded” first hit the festival circuit in 2005 and contains much archival footage and interviews, as well as fresh material shot in the early 2000s. Because of the Fischer’s condition(s), the documentary isn’t always a pleasant experience. It is, though, a reminder of time when eccentrics were respected for what they brought to the table, not what they were worth in the marketplace. – Gary Dretzka

Looking for Palladin
Andrzej Krakowski’s “Looking for Palladin” has so many good things going for it, you wish someone besides the writer/director had taken over and made the cuts other and editorial decisions that might have given a broader audience a chance to enjoy it. As it is, the overly complicated reunion drama played some film festivals and disappeared for a couple of years, awaiting DVD distribution. On the plus side, “Palladin” features a veteran cast that includes Ben Gazzara, Talia Shire, Vincent Pastore (a.k.a., Big Pussy) and Pedro Armendariz Jr. It is set in the gorgeous city of La Antigua, Guatemala, which, in the 1500s, served as Spain’s colonial capital of Central America, and still retains its historic charm. It also sits in the shadow of a magnificent volcano. So, there’s always something interesting to look at when the action lags.

New York-based actor David Moscow plays Josh, a prototypically self-absorbed and obnoxious Hollywood agent who’s sent to Guatemala to sign Oscar-winning actor Jack Palladin (Gazzara) to a lucrative contract for a cameo gig. Jack disappeared from the radar screen years earlier, choosing to live among the many ex-patriots and friendly natives who call Antigua home. The raspy-voiced retired actor is well known by the locals, who enjoy playing dumb when Josh asks them if know Jack. Things take a somber tone when we learn that Jack once was married to Josh’s late mother and is holding several unpleasant secrets of their life together. Once that’s revealed, the film’s climax is pretty much pre-ordained, which would be OK if there weren’t other loose ends to tie together. Even so, it’s a treat to watch Gazzara hold court in something other than a supporting role and Shire has never looked better. The scenery is an unexpected bonus. – Gary Dretzka

Scandalous Impressionists
The racy title, “Scandalous Impressionists,” exaggerates the overall tone of what essentially is a documentary designed for sale in museum shops around the world. Impressionism may have scandalized the fuddy-duddies at the French Academy, but almost everyone else with an opinion to share dismissed it as an example of what can happen when an artist consumes too much absinthe or needs glasses. It took a while for that prejudice to disappear. Today, of course, the only thing startling about Impressionist art are the prices collectors are willing to pay for the few extant paintings of Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley and such then-upstart talents as Gauguin, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Vuillard and Cassatt. Francois Levy-Kuentz’ film focuses on the former group of artists and the 30-year revolt they staged to break the hold of the academy on critical opinion. “Scandalous Impressionists” benefits not only from the wonderful art on display, but also the easily digested history lesson. The bonus package adds a gallery of related artworks and photos. The easily swayed night be tempted to catch the next plane to Paris or, failing that, a bus to the local art museum. – Gary Dretzka

It would be a shame if this very accomplished European export was listed solely among the gay and lesbian titles at your favorite purveyor of DVDs. Yes, “Sasha,” written and directed by Dennis Todorovic, exposes the emotional ordeal of a gay teenager about to make a much-dreaded escape from the closet. For the most part, though, “Sasha” is an emotionally charged family drama – relieved occasionally by some amusing bits – in which everyone is forced to come to grips with serious issues. Like so many immigrants, the Petrovices live in a country in which they’ll never feel completely welcome, but can’t afford to return home until their sons realize success on their own terms.

When we’re first introduced to the Petrovic family, they’re squeezed in a tiny car that’s returning to their adopted hometown of Cologne, Germany, from the ancestral homeland of Montenegro. At the border separating Slovenia and Austria, the guards have a field day extracting all the contraband cigarettes and homemade Slivovitz from the truck of the car. It recalls the hilarious scene in Dusan Makavejev’s “Montenegro,” in which a young Yugoslavian woman is held at the Stockholm Airport for trying to smuggle several bottles of moonshine whiskey and a side of recently butchered pig into Sweden. Both scenes establish the characters as amiable hayseeds attempting to make a living among the tight-ass snobs of northern Europe. In “Sasha,” the father is a scruffy looking ex-basketball player who runs a pub and flies into a tantrum when he sees a tattoo on one son’s shoulder and fears the other is gay. The mother works her fingers to the bone making connectors for soon-to-be-obsolete CD players. They do it so their sons have the freedom to excel, one as an athlete and the other a concert pianist.

Sasha has a crush on his piano teacher, Gebhard, who soon will move to Vienna to pursue his studies. The news upsets the teenager to such a degree, he blows the audition for which he’s been rehearsing for months. It pushes up the timetable he’s set to come out of the closet and risk destroying his relationship with his parents. Meanwhile, his brother has fallen in love with the Chinese girl Sasha’s been using as a beard, and the mother has been offered a lucrative job in another German city. Everything comes to a head when Sasha’s slacker uncle spies the piano teacher kissing another gentleman on the street and, oblivious to the consequences, reports his discovery to the teenager’s father, who easily puts two and two together. A dramatic confrontation tests the ability of the Petrovic clan to put aside their prejudices and continue as a family or splinter like so many pick-up sticks.

Sasha’s homosexuality is less an issue at the end than a device to test the will of the family members to survive as a unit. If the poignancy of Sasha’s ordeal is a constant throughout the movie, Todorovic proves adept at balancing the drama with humor and tender displays of familial and romantic love. – Gary Dretzka

Dark Fields
Usually, when an actor dies unexpectedly of something other than natural causes, he or she leaves behind a couple of uncompleted projects that studio publicists can milk for all the sympathy they can muster. Unless, however, one knew that David Carradine had died nearly two years ago of accidental asphyxiation, while in Thailand, it would be impossible to tell from his list of credits that he was no longer acting. As many as 20 movies and TV shows have been released, or are still awaiting release, since his untimely death, including one entitled “My Suicide.” “Dark Fields” (a.k.a., “The Rain”) is a prime example of a movie that might never have been released, at all, if Carradine hadn’t died.
In it, he plays a farmer from the long-age past whose crops are decimated by a seemingly endless drought. Fearful of what might lie in store for his family and neighbors, the farmer allows a child to be sacrificed to a local shaman, who promises a deluge. Although the cruel ploy appears to pay dividends in the form of rain, it puts a curse on the community for generations to come. Everything comes to a head when a college student attempts to escape her fate by attending a distant college, but is required to return home when her skin literally starts crawling due to lack of moisture. The healing rains relieve her pain but at no small cost to the similarly afflicted villagers. The DVD arrives with a decent making-of featurette and description of Carradine’s contributions to the project. – Gary Dretzka

The Big I Am
Nic Auerbach’s freshman feature, “The Big I Am,” is another one of those ultra-violent British crime movies that owe nearly everything to Guy Ritchie, including a dialogue track that is nearly indecipherable to American ears. Fans of Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake”) will go the extra mile to make sense of the slang, but an emerging director shouldn’t rely on a viewer’s patience for the success of his film. In “The Big I Am,” which arrives here on DVD, a small-time hoodlum does a favor for a mob boss and is catapulted to a lofty position within a gang hoping to score big in a human-trafficking deal. The only actor likely to be recognized by American audiences in Michael Madsen, who appears in more movies than nearly every other English-speaking actor and is capable of phoning in most of his roles, which he does here. “The Big I Am” isn’t a bad movie, but it requires far too much energy to absorb it fully. I recommend to anyone watching it on DVD that they keep their finger on the rewind button, so they don’t miss any turns in the plot. – Gary Dretzka

Paul D. Hannah’s freshman feature, which, as far as I can tell, has only been shown at the American Black Film Festival, reportedly was made on a budget of $50,000, and the best thing I can say about “Consinsual” (or, if you will, “ConSINsual”) is that the finished product looks as if five times that much money had been invested in its production. In other words, it looks better than it has any right to be. The story involves a husband who strives to satisfy his oversexed wife’s every perverse quirk. Once he makes the mistake of turning in a poor performance, though, she conspires to have him arrested on a trumped-up charge. The scheme turns out to be just another trick, opening the door for more psycho-sexual chicanery. “Consinsual” doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but, for $50,000, one can’t logically expect a Spike Lee Joint. – Gary Dretzka

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Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon