MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: The King’s Speech, The Way Back, Into the Cold, Gulliver’s Travels, Kes, Sweetie, Vision …

The King’s Speech: Blu-ray
When movies are made about American presidents, including those considered among the most charismatic, they tend to be wooden, factually imprecise and uninspiring. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton may have possessed larger-than-life personalities, but their accomplishments have been deemed more worthy of treatment in small-screen mini-series and cable bio-docs than in feature films. (Oliver Stone’s star-heavy screeds, while hugely entertaining, are more about advancing conspiracy theories than profiling men in power.) Are America’s rulers that much less interesting than those assayed by British directors and screenwriters? If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists is to believed, the answer is a resounding, “yes,” and it doesn’t matter if the movies are set in the 15th or 21st Century. Ron Howard may have received an Oscar nomination for directing “Frost/Nixon,” but London native Peter Morgan wrote it. In a span of roughly six years, Morgan also drew compelling portraits of Henry VIII, Anne and Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth II, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Idi Amin.

Tom Hooper, this year’s winner of the Best Director prize, for “The King’s Speech,” collaborated with Morgan on “The Damn United” and “Longford,” while also helming the Emmy-winning mini-series “Elizabeth I” and “John Adams.” Clinton, Bush, Adams and Nixon: what do the Brits know about America’s leaders that Hollywood doesn’t? What, besides casting Helen Mirren, do they know about Oscar and Emmy voters? By anyone’s standards, “The King’s Speech” is a supremely entertaining story about a British monarch most Americans wouldn’t recognize in a lineup of the crowned heads of Europe. And, yet, unlike too many recent Best Picture winners, “The King’s Speech” was both a critical and commercial success here. Even before it claimed this year’s crown, Hooper and writer David Seidler’s juggernaut made more than $100 million at U.S. box offices, finally topping out at $138 million. If that number doesn’t resonate with you, consider “The King’s Speech” was made for an estimated $15 million. If “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” had achieved the same cost-to-revenues ratio, its domestic take would have hit $2.6 billion in the U.S. alone, instead of a measly $295 million. Out of little chestnuts, great profits grow.

Colin Firth deservedly captured Academy and BAFTA awards for his amazing portrayal of King George VI, a man who would have gone down in history as one of many Dukes of York if his brother hadn’t abdicated the British crown in the name of love. By all measures, except one, the prince formerly known as Albert Frederick Arthur George was well suited for the position, which then, as now, was mostly ceremonial. If he had remained Duke of York, George might never have sought the help of the Australian-born speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to correct a distinct and maddening stammer. As king, however, he was expected to say inspirational things in speeches and on the radio, without appearing to appear weak or self-conscious. The winds of war were blowing in from the east and it was especially crucial for George to be an enthusiastic advocate of the Allied cause, unlike the upper-crust twits who were known to harbor pro-Nazi sympathies.

As depicted in “The King’s Speech,” the king and his therapist weren’t always on the same page when it came to Logue’s unorthodox methodology, and their butting-of-heads produces several very funny disagreements. Ultimately, though, their collaboration enables “Bertie” to deliver an inspirational address to the nation. The king and his wife, Elizabeth (Helen Bonham Carter), were admired, as well, for electing to remain in harm’s way during the Blitz, instead of splitting for Canada or the Bahamas, where his brother (Guy Pearce) served as governor.

It’s interesting that Blu-ray and DVD editions of “The King’s Speech” have arrived on the eve of another royal wedding. The reigning Queen Elizabeth and her sister, the late Princess Margaret, play keys roles in the story, adding tension-breaking humor and warmth to the drama. If George VI and the future Queen Mum hadn’t endeared themselves to the British people during World War II, Parliament might have cut off the royal family’s welfare checks and relegated them to ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Moreover, Prince Charles could have married the woman he loved, instead of bowing to the pressure of attaching himself to a fairytale princess, and their children could get married in Las Vegas, if they so desired.

The Blu-ray edition adds informative commentary with Hooper; making-of featurettes, with additional material on the lasting friendship between George VI and Logue; a Q&A with the actors; a selection of speeches by the king; an interview with Logue’s grandson, who wrote “The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy”; and a PSA for the Stuttering Foundation. – Gary Dretzka

The Way Back: Blu-ray
Even if Peter Weir’s exciting escape adventure, “The Way Back,” was, indeed, adapted from a best-selling work of non-fiction that now appears to have been made out of whole cloth, it remains a hell of a yarn. The book, Slawomir Rawicz’ “The Long Walk,” came billed as a depiction of the author’s own harrowing breakout from a Siberian gulag, in the early days of World War II, and his subsequent 4,000-mile walk to freedom in India. Such ambitious escapes reportedly did occur – or, at least, were attempted – but it didn’t take long for reporters and historians to debunk Rawicz’ story. My advice is to put the controversy aside for the time being, so that you can watch “The Way Back” with an open mind and savor its many dramatic attributes.

In the movie’s opening scene, we’re introduced to a Polish political prisoner, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), whose wife is being forced to testify against him in a kangaroo court conducted by Soviet military goons. (Anticipating Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Stalin decided to move into the country, as well, so as to create a buffer zone and decimate the Poles’ military infrastructure.) For no other reason than that he’s Polish officer and a potential threat to communist rule, Janusz is transported to a labor camp in faraway Siberia. The facility is every bit as unpleasant as one could imagine. The work is dangerous, provisions are scarce and the weather is brutal. The resourceful bloke he is, though, Janusz almost immediately begins to plan an escape, and his curiosity isn’t lost on a ruthless Russian criminal, Valka (Colin Farrell); an American, “Mr. Smith” (Ed Harris), who was trapped in Moscow when the war broke out; a talented sketch artist, Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean); Kazik, a Pole who suffers from night blindness; Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard), a Latvian priest; and Zoran (Dragos Bucar), a Yugoslav accountant. They take advantage of a blinding blizzard to make their escape together, hoping their footprints and scent would be covered by the snow.

If successful, their route to freedom would take them through Mongolia, then closely aligned with the USSR; China, which was at war with its Japanese occupiers; politically embattled Tibet; and over the Himalayan “roof of the world” to India, where British troops conceivably would welcome them with open arms and astonished faces. While still in Russia, the escapees also were joined by a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan), whose courage and strength inspires the men. If the dense forests, snow-capped mountains, forbidding deserts and icy bodies of water weren’t sufficiently challenging, the escapees also risked starvation, dehydration, wolves and disease. How Weir is able to convince us that this collection of undernourished, if highly motivated outcasts is capable of surviving such a miraculous journey is a story best reserved for the excellent making-of featurette. It’s unlikely many directors would have found the courage, gumption and financial backing to attempt such a project and, then, achieve a look that often bears comparison to “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “The Sheltering Sky,” “Into the Wild” and Weir’s own “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (also with cinematographer Russell Boyd). – Gary Dretzka

Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul
Like tens of thousands of other Californians, I migrated west largely to escape the ferocity of winters back east. I grew up in Wisconsin and lived in Chicago for many years. I distinctly recall going outside to attempt to start my car on the coldest day in memory, 25-below, without the dreaded wind-chill factor. It didn’t work and I decided that I wouldn’t, either. The documentary “Into the Cold” couldn’t be more accurately named, as it is a record of a modern mission to commemorate the centennial of American naval engineer Richard Peary’s initial, oft-disputed trek to the North Pole, in 1909. Sebastian Copeland and Keith Heger would attempt to accomplish the same thing on foot, documenting every step with a video camera and some new-fangled telecommunications devices. It took Peary 37 days to reach the pole, so the adventurers knew going into it they were facing one long, cold schlep.

Copeland and Heger also intended to use the journey to see for themselves the impact of global warming on the polar ice cap. It’s one thing to report on the diminishment of a glacier from the safety of a plane or boat, but quite another to walk over ice whose strength hasn’t previously been tested and risk falling through a hole, into the frigid water. And, sure enough, this is exactly what happened at one point in the journey.

The icy expanses of the Arctic are as desolate as any desert on Earth, yet as hauntingly beautiful as the sand dunes of Namibia. “Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul” is a testament to the determination of those explorers who risk everything for reasons most of us can’t fathom. If the film convinces one politician or corporate executive of the need to protect the environment, their mission will have been accomplished twice over. – Gary Dretzka

Gulliver’s Travels: Blu-ray 3D
While it’s accurate to say the recent 3D version of “Gulliver’s Travels,” starring Jack Black, was one of the most critically abused and commercially anemic movies of 2010, it’s only fair to point out, as well, that Rob Letterman’s CGI-enhanced comedy was a big hit overseas. Apparently, international audiences were far more willing to forgive screenwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller for abandoning most of the literary qualities that endeared generations of English-lit majors to Jonathan Swift’s 18th Century satire. Of the $221.9 million it made around the world, only $42.8 million could be traced back to domestic box-office tallies. I’m guessing that the movie’s popularity can be attributed more to its much-larger-than-life special effects and lower-than-lowbrow humor, than any Swiftian asides. Caveat emptor.

Black plays Lemuel Gulliver, who, this time around, is an aspiring travel writer stuck in the mail room of a New York newspaper. Gulliver is smitten with travel editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), but can barely muster the courage to ask her for an assignment, let alone a date. The article requires him to sail into the Bermuda Triangle, where, after being shipwrecked in a fierce storm, the teeny-tiny natives of the island of Lilliput rescue him. Gulliver, who stands several lengths taller than the tallest Lilliputian, awakes to find himself entwined in a harness and incarcerated, awaiting an inquiry. He convinces the residents of his benevolent nature by putting out a threatening blaze in a manner usually reserved for 13-year-olds no longer in need of a campfire.

After saving the king, Gulliver is treated like a visiting potentate, free to watch all the movies and play all the video games he desires. He maintains the pretense by telling whopping lies about himself, inspired by scenes from his favorite flicks, and offering advice to the lovelorn (princess Emily Blunt, commoner Jason Segel). Gulliver uses rock ’n’ roll songs to advance his strategies and, later, in a nod to the “Transformers” franchise, does battle with a robotic Blefuscian, etc. etc. etc.

“Gulliver’s Travels” arrives in all of the usual permutations, plus 3D. The Blu-ray comes with several deleted scenes; a discourse on the Bermuda Triangle by Black; some down-time frivolity; a making-of featurette; an interactive Foosball game; “In Character” interviews with Black and Segel; an interview with Letterman, conducted by film students; and BD-Live exclusive : “Jack & Jason’s Dance Class.” The screener I received also contained an “Ice Age” cartoon, “Scrat’s Continental Crack-up.” – Gary Dretzka

Kes: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Sweetie: Criterion: Blu-ray
Vision: From the Life of Hildegard Von Bingen
How I Won the War: Special Edition

Ken Loach has given us several inarguably brilliant films in a career that has spanned nearly 50 years. Made in 1969, but accorded no formal release in the United States, “Kes” is one of the best. Not only was it nominated for five BAFTA awards, winning two, but it also was picked by the British Film Institute as one of the nation’s 10 best films of the century. It is the story of a directionless teenager, who’s facing a bleak future in a South Yorkshire town that’s soon to lose its industrial foundation. Billy is small for his age, but plucky when challenged by his older brother and school bullies. He has no idea what might lie ahead after his school days, but, to be fair, it isn’t likely that many of his classmates will be employed by the time Maggie Thatcher takes office, anyway.

Loach and writer Barry Hines are kind enough, however, to afford Billy at least one good reason to get out of bed in the morning. Quite by accident, Billy (David Bradley) develops a fondness for kestrels – smallish members of the falcon family – and, after uncharacteristically reading up on them, steals one from a nest in the wall of an abandoned structure. He trains Kes to eat from his hand and perform midair disciplines. His success with the kestrel doesn’t translate into better grades at school, as it might in a Hollywood remake, but it instills in Billy a sense of pride he might not otherwise have achieved. Sadly, as a social realist, Loach knows better than to grease Billy’s path with any contrived cure-alls or reasons for false hope. The Blu-ray package adds an original theatrical trailer; the 1967 short, “Cathy Come Home”; a profile that aired in 1993 on “The South Bank Show”; a making-of featurette; and illustrated booklet, featuring an essay by Graham Fuller.

If Jane Campion is known outside the arthouse crowd for any single film, it would be for the intensely erotic, visually stunning and deeply mysterious period romance, “The Piano.” It’s the rare movie that demands we immediately go to Netflix or Facets to experience everything the director made before and since its release. Newly out in Blu-ray, “Sweetie” represents Campion’s debut as a writer/director of feature films, and it’s a very good place to begin. It’s the story of an Australian family, not unlike thousands of other families who live in the suburbs of a major city, anywhere. The more Campion scratches at the surface of the polished veneer of the family in “Sweetie,” however, the closer it begins to resemble a flesh-and-blood version of the “The Simpsons.” Mom, dad and their two daughters, Kay and Sweetie, display quirks that would slowly drive a shrink into considering a new career. Sweetie has always demanded she be allowed to act out her various fantasies in the center ring of the family circus, and there’s hell to pay whenever she’s ignored or admonished. She has moved into the cramped home of Kay, who seems normal enough, until you remember that she chose her husband on the advice of a fortune teller. She also demands they live like “brother and sister,” forgoing sex, simply because he planted a tree where she usually hangs the wash. Sweetie’s in the company of her “manager,” a junkie who can’t even manage to stay awake through dinner. Tired of her husband’s acquiescing to Sweetie’s every whim, Mom picks up her gear and moves to the Outback, where she’s taken a job as a cook at a cattle station. Dad lets Sweetie bathe him, but mostly wants everyone to get along, no matter their oddball characteristics. We spend most of the second half of the movie wondering where, when and how Sweetie will self-destruct, and she doesn’t disappoint. That we care even a lick about these nut jobs is a credit to Campion’s career-long ability to convince actors to invest so much emotional currency into their roles. The Criterion edition offers audio commentary featuring Campion, cinematographer Sally Bongers and co-writer Gerard Lee; a video conversation between the daughters, Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston; three of Campion’s very interesting early shorts; a1989 video conversation between Campion and critic Peter Thompson; a photo gallery; and booklet featuring an essay by Dana Polan.

Before watching, “Vision,” I had no knowledge of Hildegard von Bingen and what she was able to accomplish as a nun in a cloistered patriarchal community and as a Christian mystic, composer, philosopher, playwright, poet, naturalist, scientist, physician, herbalist and ecological activist. She was as far from ordinary as any woman could be in the 12th Century and still not be considered a heretic, witch or threat to society. German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta provides viewers with a pretty good example of what life must have been like for nuns at a time when church leaders were as powerful as noblemen and generals, and vows of poverty were for chumps. Barbara Sukowa gives as dynamic and impassioned a performance in the lead role as any turned in by this year’s Oscar nominees, including Natalie Portman.

Unfortunately, “Vision” went virtually unseen here and abroad. Movie buffs who consider themselves to be people of faith should do themselves a favor and find this film. It comes with coverage of a von Trotta tribute at the Telluride Film Festival Tribute and Q&A with the director by Sukowa and educator Annette Insdorf; writer Gary Giddins’ Telluride interview with von Trotta; a conversation at the Goethe-Institut New York, with von Trotta and writer Robert Boyers, editor of humanities journal Salmagundi; and a booklet
with a historical timeline and interviews.

In “How I Won the War,” John Lennon made his first appearance in a feature film as someone other than a Beatle. It also marked the first time Lennon wore his grannie glasses in public and, as his character, Gripweed, on the cover of several major magazines. Or, so we’re told. Just for the record, it wasn’t Lennon who won the war here and his presence, alone, couldn’t ensure critical and commercial success for the movie. Reviewers focused primarily on director Richard Lester, who already had scored big with “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!” and “The Knack … and How to Get It.” Michael Crawford also was accorded a great deal of attention. Mostly, though, critics of the film zeroed in what was perceived to be a lack of compassion and sensitivity on Lester’s part, in the creation of what was loudly billed as an antiwar film. In fact, “How I Won the War” was intended as a parody of war-movie conventions, clichés and manufactured patriotism. It intentionally broke the rules that governed the genre by repeatedly flashing backward and forward in time, without warning; breaking the fourth wall; interspersing newsreel footage of actual carnage with the make-believe effects of extreme violence; and color-coding dead characters. Lester demanded a lot from his audience at a time when the ongoing war in Vietnam wasn’t at all funny. The 40th anniversary package comes with a photo album and a re-mastered edition of the DVD, made under the supervision of Lester and editor John Victor-Smith. – Gary Dretzka

American Jihadist
Early in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, much was made of the capture of American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh by Northern Alliance forces. There was no mistaking his allegiance to the radical Islamic cause or his willingness to bear arms in defense of radical Taliban and Al Qaeda principles. A plea bargain resulted in a 20-year sentence for the Marin native, now 30. The documentary “American Jihadist” introduces us to Isa Abdullah Ali, a former American soldier who fought alongside the Amal militia and Hezbollah in Lebanon, backed Iranian-supported insurgencies in Iraq and Russia, and trained Muslim combatants in Bosnia. In that conflict, he was able to smuggle into the embattled country a small arsenal of weapons, including grenades and anti-tank armaments. By his own admission, Ali has 175 confirmed kills. And, yet, he was allowed to cross through American lines without interference and, today, lives openly in Sarajevo with his wife and children. Considering that Ali was fighting alongside the same terrorists who killed dozens of Americans in catastrophic suicide attacks in Beirut – and was taking orders from the same people who commandeered our embassy in Teheran — I wonder what John Walker Lindh’s lawyer would make of the findings in “American Jihadist.”

Born Clevin Raphael Holt, in the nation’s capital, was traumatized as a youth by neighborhood bullies and gang-bangers who blackened his eyes and stole his lunch money. At 15, he lied his way into the army, where he was taught the skills of war and face-to-face combat. After being discharged, he returned to Washington, where the mean streets hadn’t gotten any nicer and he discovered Islam. Although he now saw himself as a man of peace, a fire within him demanded he pick up his gun and fight the enemies of his adopted religion. Ali clearly articulates his beliefs, even as they contradict each other in mid-thought. Filmmakers Mark Claywell and Jody Jenkins also make the mistake of ignoring atrocities committed by Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the roles played by Syria and Iran in destabilizing Lebanon, thus inadvertently bolstering Ali’s argument for violence. Such lapses make “American Jihadist” as maddening as it is fascinating.—Gary Dretzka

Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story
By now, everyone’s heard how African-Americans would cling to their radios whenever Joe Louis was defending his heavyweight boxing crown or fighting to get it back. Victory would result in widespread jubilation, even among those who couldn’t tell the difference between a left hook and a fish hook. It meant that much to have a champion to call one’s own, especially at a time when blacks were excluded from other professional sports activities. More recently, fans in Japan and China have paid the same close attention whenever Hideo Nomo pitched for the Dodgers or Yao Ming was in a playoff game for the Houston Rockets. Less well known, though, is how much the success of Major Leaguers Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen and Sandy Koufax meant to Jews, or that the New York Giants specifically recruited Jewish ballplayers in the 1920s, as a way to attract larger crowds to the Polo Grounds.

Peter Miller and Ira Berkow’s entertaining and informative documentary, “Jews in Baseball,” traces the history of professional baseball in America through the exploits of several dozen talented ballplayers, who just happened to be Jewish. As the sport’s first Jewish superstar, Greenberg was forced to endure much of the same venom later reserved for Jackie Robinson, but his perseverance was such that it made him a hero among Jews, many of whom were fresh off the boat and desired a shortcut to the American mainstream. Koufax became a hero not only for his pitching exploits, which were legion, but also for observing Yom Kippur at time when a missed game could have meant the difference between making or missing the playoffs. “Jews and Baseball” also explains how deeply Jews were involved in the integration of the Major Leagues and the birth of free agency and unionization. The film is intricately researched and stuffed with archival newsreel footage and interviews. Frankly, I was surprised by the large number of Jewish players who enjoyed pro careers. But, then, I grew up at a time when most of those battles had already been fought and forgotten. The most shocking thing I learned from “Jews and Baseball” was that Kevin Youkilis wasn’t Greek. Bonus material includes deleted scenes; extended interviews; newsreels; and Sophie Milman’s rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” –Gary Dretzka

Ip Man 2: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Born to Raise Hell

Not being a true aficionado of martial-arts movies, it’s somewhat difficult for me to separate the wheat from the chaff, especially when it comes to the many genre flicks that have seen limited release in the U.S. I am, however, old enough to remember the first wave of kung-fu movies hitting our shores and Bruce Lee’s rise in popularity. I enjoyed watching Lee’s movies, then, and I really like “Ip Man” and “IpMan 2.” Maybe that’s because Lee was trained by Ip Man, a true legend in the Wing Chun discipline. Loosely based on Ip’s move to Hong Kong after the communist takeover of China, “2” opens with the master attempting to open a martial-arts academy in his new home. Not surprisingly, Ip is harassed by already established teachers who fear the competition for students and remain unconvinced of the worthiness of Wing Chun. Ip, again played by Donnie Yen, quickly dispels any concerns that he won’t measure up to other masters by kicking their butts in a staged competition. What distinguishes “2” from “1” and a million other such flicks, though, is the addition of a formidable opponent from the ranks of the island’s British occupiers. Tall, handsome Darren Shahlavi plays Twister, a brutal bare-knuckles boxer who taunts his Chinese opponents with racist barbs. Inevitably, Ip and Twister must meet, if only to allow the Chinese master to avenge the pasting taken by Sammo Hung’s character. The various showdowns, choreographed by Hung and directed by Wilson Yip, are nothing short of thrilling. The bonus package includes deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, a piece on set design, a shooting diary, interviews and an optional English-language track.

Shahlavi also plays a villain in “Born to Raise Hell,” a balls-to-the-wall action picture that Steven Seagal-haters will love to hate. Like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michael Madsen, Danny Trejo, Dolph Lundgren and other professional hard-guys, Seagal has become a key player in the straight-to-DVD sandbox, where production costs are lower, marketing is based exclusively on the star’s brand name, screenwriters aren’t penalized for the holes in their scripts and fans are loyal. “Born to Raise Hell” is pretty typical of the genre. Segal plays Samuel Axel, the head of a roving police task force, currently in Romania to take down a major drug-smuggling operation. What Axel discovers in Bucharest, in addition to a target-rich environment, is a turf war between Shahlavi’s insanely evil Costel and Dan Badarau’s only slightly less insane Dimitri, an old-school Russian gangster who looks a lot like Marlon Brando. Not able to crack the infrastructure of either thug’s gang, Axel aligns himself with the lesser of the two evils and, of course, mayhem ensues. Fortunately, the gratuitous violence is relieved by plenty of gratuitous nudity and pole-dancing. Hey, if I could make it through “Born to Raise Hell” – an all-purpose title that could be applied to a thousand other DVD originals – his fans won’t have problems with it, either, critics be damned. If nothing else, when it comes to villainy, Shahlavi proves once again that he’s the real deal. – Gary Dretzka

Christian Carion’s very good espionage thriller, “Farewell,” found far too little traction in American theaters. Despite its French roots, the movie described a very real threat to American interests, even as the first tears in the Iron Curtain were beginning to show in Poland’s Gdansk shipyard. Willem Dafoe, David Soul and Fred Ward represent the Yanks in an international cast that also includes actor/directors Emir Kusturica (“Black Cat, White Cat”) and Guillaume Canet (“Tell No One”), Alexandra Maria Lara, Dina Korzun, Niels Arestrup and Benno Furmann. All that’s missing are countless unnecessary chases, explosions, shootouts and Angelina Jolie. I think I just answered my own question.

Kusturica is terrific as the flamboyant KGB double-agent, Sergei Gregoriev, based on the real-life Vladimir Vetrov, while Canet plays the French engineer/spook upon whom the Russian lays thousands of pages of top-secret files. Pierre Froment is as withdrawn and cautious as Gregoriev is outgoing and reckless. His willingness to rat out spies working in American, French and British defense labs – remember President Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile shield? – made Froment suspicious from Day One. That and the Russian’s demand that he be paid in French consumer goods and Queen cassettes for his son, in lieu of great sums of blood money. The drama is enhanced by the knowledge everyone working in Froment’s home and Gregoriev’s office is a potential snitch, and the Russian has compounded the difficulty of his mission by engaging in an affair with a co-worker. Halfway through the movie, it becomes clear that time is running out on Operation Farewell and both of its principals will have to get out of Dodge or risk imprisonment and/or execution. It’s at this point that Carion’s chess match becomes a tick-tock thriller, and both men’s families are put at risk, as well. “Farewell” is a genuinely exciting entertainment and fans of the genre shouldn’t miss it. – Gary Dretzka

Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words
I wonder what Ayn Rand would make of our nation’s ongoing economic disaster, which was engineered by business executives and politicians whose personal ethics codes (or lack thereof) reflected the tenets of her Objectivist belief, rational egoism and laissez-faire capitalism. Former Federal Reserve czar Alan Greenspan, who did little to prevent the collapse, was a member of Rand’s inner circle in the early 1950s and a longtime friend. Certainly, anyone who sought to understand Greenspan, or emulate the success of other titans of industry and commerce in the last 30 years, would have read “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” at least. I wonder if Bernie Madoff was a fan.

Rand probably would have blamed communists, Native Americans, gays or welfare moms for the malaise. It’s unlikely she would indict herself for any misinterpretation of her belief that “an individual should exist for his own sake … neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself (italics added).” The release of “Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words” coincides with the limited theatrical launch of “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1,” a contemporized adaptation directed by freshman filmmaker Paul Johansson. The documentary represents a straight-ahead blend of taped interviews with autobiographical recollections, archival photographs, newsreel footage and appearances opposite newsmen Tom Snyder, Phil Donahue and Mike Wallace. It works pretty well as a primer on Objectivism, without clouding the picture with personal idiosyncrasies and other perceived blemishes. – Gary Dretzka

Chicago Overcoat
Street Kings 2: Motor City

Here are two crime thrillers that make excellent use of their grim urban settings, the talents of veteran actors and storylines that don’t rely on clichés to get the job done. They also represent movies that deserve some kind of a shot at success, even though they failed to achieve theatrical distribution. In “Chicago Overcoat,” Frank Vincent plays a once-feared mob assassin, 20 years past his last hit. He’s called back into action after a union leader is arrested and the Chicago Outfit’s boss (Armand Assante) begins to fear that a conviction might lead to revelations about all manner of mob influence in labor, civic and law-enforcement concerns. Vincent’s Lou Marazano is bitter over perceived slights by a new generation of crimelords, so he jumps at the chance to prove himself, by wiping out several potential witnesses. Old habits die hard, however, and Marazano can’t resist leaving clues that are familiar to a pair of old-school police detectives. It’s fun, if a bit disconcerting to watch the hitman interact with his grandson and other kids that age, who are enlisted in his scheme. Far from perfect, Brian Caunter’s “Chicago Overcoat” is thriller for AARP set.

Detroit provides the background for “Street Kings 2: Motor City,” a sequel to the well-received “Street Kings,” which was set in L.A. and featured a big-name cast. Warhorse Ray Liotta is asked to carry most of the weight in “Motor City,” as a cop who’s sinking in a sea of corruption and takes drastic measures to avoid drowning. After his partner is cut down in a drug sting, Liotta’s Marty Kingston is paired with a straight-arrow detective, played by a game Shawn Hatosy. The narrative follows a path tricked out with several switch-backs, and it wouldn’t benefit anyone to reveal any more of the plot devices here. Chris Fisher keeps things moving in a forwardly direction, making “Motor City” a far less unpleasant experience than it might have been. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a murder-scene deconstruction and a trio of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

I didn’t listen to AM radio much in the 1980s, when Falco was kickin’ it and German-language rock ’n’ roll was worthy of parody on “Saturday Night Live.” I do remember hearing “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Der Kommissar,”though, because of their great hooks. Other than that, I had no idea what Falco looked like or what made him tick. Neither did I expect much from Thomas Roth’s new biopic, which dramatizes key events in the singer’s personal life and roller-coaster career. I was wrong.

As portrayed by look-alike, sound-alike Manuel Rubey, who also sings in the Austrian band Mondscheiner, Johann “Hans” Hölzel was a lifelong momma’s boy and former child prodigy who dreamt of becoming a pop star. He gave up classical music to join a hair band known more for its outlandish costumes than its music, but sought a career as a solo act. He decided to cut his hair, slick it back (a la David Bowie, Robert Palmer and Pat Riley) and write songs that were a hybrid of early hip-hop and annoying Europop. He cut a fine figure in his Kid Creole-influenced threads and fledgling MTV ate him up. He also became addicted to sexy women, cocaine, hard liquor and other trappings of diva-hood. Although his star would fade in America, Falco remained a marquee attraction in Europe and Japan, until his untimely death in an automobile accident at the relatively tender ago of 40.

If that career trajectory sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve all heard it before. Roth, though, balances the disparate elements of the musician’s life, rarely allowing one to dominate the others. If it isn’t on a par with “The Buddy Holly Story” and “Ray,” it’s not for lack of trying. Now-graying Falco fans, who may still have his LPs in the basement, will certainly enjoy it.

Anyone who still has room for some German food might want to sample “Das wilde Leben” (a.k.a., “Eight Miles High!”). It is Achim Bornhak’s spicy biography of Uschi Obermaier, the 1960s “It Girl” who dropped out of the mainstream at 16 to pursue life as a party monster, supermodel, communard, leftist radical and groupie. Those were the days. – Gary Dretzka

Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure: Blu-ray
Talented Ashley Tisdale was already an adult when she took on the role of Sharpay in the Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” series. She’s been trying to grow up ever since then, but doesn’t want to kill the goose laying golden eggs for her. Tisdale’s 25, now, and Sharpay’s been allowed to graduate from high school, finally. Multi-talented, if a total snob, Sharpay is about to get her comeuppance in New York, where she’s been asked to audition for a part in a Broadway musical. The producers are looking for a bright young thing willing to be upstaged by a dog, if necessary. Sharpay’s purse-dog, Boi, has conveniently made the trip with her, and is given a storyline of his own to pursue. Sharpay gets some stiff competition from a snooty teenage boy with a hot female spaniel, whose attraction to Boi is immediate. Meanwhile, Sharpay is being played by the show’s leading lady, who even manages to convince the debutante to scrub her toilet. The rest of the story may be altogether predictable, but it’s well done … in a Disney sort of way. The Blu-ray package adds a blooper package, a piece on the evolution of the character of Sharpay and the student film shot by the film’s heartthrob, played by Austin Butler.

It’s entirely possible that this portrayal of Sharpay will be Tisdale’s last. She recently posed nude – tastefully so, of course – for a photo spread in Allure magazine. It’s one way of convincing casting directors that an actor is ready for adult roles. – Gary Dretzka

The Ernie Kovacs Collection
Ask any of today’s late-night talk-show hosts to whom they owe the largest debt of gratitude and most will say Johnny Carson. If they’re old enough to remember Steve Allen – and most aren’t – he might get a kudo or two. I’d be willing to bet none mentions Ernie Kovacs, without whom Carson and possibly even Allen wouldn’t have been allowed to be as innovative as they were. Indeed, “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” is a nightly homage to Kovacs.

In the dozen years before his untimely death, in 1962, as the result of an automobile accident, Kovacs was fixture on television. In the early days of the medium, the only rules that existed were those based on common sense, common decency and the whims of advertisers. No one knew how camera tricks would play on TV or if viewers would buy into wacky characters, who occasionally spoke in gibberish. If successful, the audience presumably might also accept a trio of gorilla percussionists, who, wearing derby hats and overcoats, hit each over the head with sticks while performing “Solfeggio.” Even today, comedians and musical acts are reprising bits popularized by the Nairobi Trio. Back then, however, Kovacs was making it up as he went along.

If a bit didn’t work the first time, Kovacs & Co. had the luxury of knowing that not a whole lot of people were watching and those who were probably couldn’t tell good from bad television, anyway. Most early adopters were content to have a clear picture and something to occupy their time. It’s also worth noting, perhaps, that Kovacs was an admirer and occasional contributor to Mad magazine, and its irreverent tone was reflected in the show’s sketches and title cards.

The term, “visionary,” is overused, especially when it comes to television, but that was Kovacs in a nutshell. At a time when most comedy and variety shows – sitcoms, too – were mere extensions of vaudeville and radio favorites, Kovacs was laying the foundation for “Saturday Night Live,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and Johnny Carson’s version of “The Tonight Show” (Carnac the Magnificent, Art Fern, etc.). The new Shout! Factory box is a must-buy for anyone interested in the history of television and evolution of visual comedy. “The Ernie Kovacs Collection” includes six DVDs, containing more than 15 hours of programs. The remarkable thing is how good they look, sometimes 60 years after they were first aired and recorded via kinescope. The material represents examples of Kovac’s earliest local morning shows in Philadelphia, as well as prime-time shows and specials on NBC and ABC. Bonus features include “Kovacs on Music”; the color version of his silent show, “Eugene”; commercials for Dutch Masters cigars, some starring wife and troupe member, Edie Adams; short films, tributes and rarities; and a 44-Page booklet, with rare photos, program notes and an essay by Jonathan Lethem. – Gary Dretzka

If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise
Glee: Encore
The LXD: Seasons One and Two

If the death of photographer and co-director of “Restrepo,” Tim Hetherington, while covering the war in Libya, teaches us anything, it’s that making documentaries can be a high-risk business. Compared to churning out such junk as “Jackass,” “Birdemic” and “Burlesque,” it’s God’s work. I’m not sure Spike Lee would agree with that assessment, but he’s certainly poked his cameras into places where thousands of poor souls have faced death and witnessed unspeakable horrors. “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise” is a sequel to Lee’s Emmy-winning documentary, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” shot in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The film revisits people and places seen in the 2006 HBO presentation, with an eye to showing examples of recovery or continued neglect. It begins with scenes of the citywide jubilation that followed the Saints’ victory in the Super Bowl, then acknowledges the parallel tragedy of last year’s BP oil spill. Lee spends a great deal of time in wards devastated by the hurricane and collapse of the sea walls built to protect the citizenry. He also allows residents to share their opinions on such issues as school reform; the decisions that led to the closing of Charity Hospital and destruction of housing projects left standing after the flood; the police department’s abysmal performance in the storm’s wake; FEMA’s shameful performance; and President Bush’s playing politics with recovery funds. Lee adds some star power by following Brad Pitt around the Lower 9th Ward, where his foundation is building homes designed to withstand nature’s fury, and to Haiti, where Sean Penn is working tirelessly to improve conditions for earthquake victims in New Orleans’ sister city. At four hours, “If God Is Willing …” often threatens to spill over its own banks, by lingering on some topics for too long a time and not long enough on other issues. Still, it’s an impressive film by any reckoning and as balanced a documentary as one is likely to find on the subject. If the penalty for making feature films that don’t meet studio expectations is being forced to make documentaries, then we can only hope Lee knows how much some of us appreciate his sacrifice.

Insatiable fans of “Glee” will have their cravings met, at least, with “Glee: Encore.” The full-length DVD contains 17 production numbers from Season One, minus the pesky dialogue that tends to slow down the fun. In addition to peppy renditions of Queen’s “Somebody to Love, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” Lady GaGa’s “Bad Romance” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself!,” “Vogue,” “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer,” the set list includes “On My Own,” “Gold Digger,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Alone,” “It’s My Life/Confessions Part II,” “No Air,” “You Keep Me Hanging On,” “Defying Gravity,” “I’ll Stand by You,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me/Young Girl,” “Lean on Me,” “Imagine,” “True Colors,” “Smile,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Gives You Hell,” “Hello,” “Fire,” “One Less Bell to Answer/A House is Not a Home,” “Beautiful,” “Run Joey Run,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Jessie’s Girl,” “Rose’s Turn,” “Beth” and “Faithfully.”

The Hulu and Internet series, “The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers,” is like no other dance show on television. Not only can viewers enjoy extraordinary dancing, but they can also get their fill of superheroes at the same time. The agile, young crime fighters have come by their superpowers through dance, which, you have to admit, is a novel concept. “The LXD” is the brainstorm idea of writer/director Jon M. Chu, director of the last two “Step Up” musicals and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.” The set contains the first two seasons. — Gary Dretzka

A Cold Wind in August
Queen of Blood
The Black Sleep
Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday

Every couple of months or so, the folks at MGM pick through their archives to find pictures that might be of value to collectors or fans of a particular genre or star. They save money by sending the DVDs out in no-frills editions and by manufacturing them on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. Most importantly, though, the audio and video presentations are surprisingly good.

A Cold Wind in August” is the real find here. Six years before “The Graduate” and 40 before the word, “cougar,” would be attached to middle-age women who seduce much younger men, Alexander Singer and Burton Wohl’s pulp romance introduced Lola Albright as a prime example of the species. Albright plays a veteran striptease artist and escort who breaks the cherry of the building supervisor’s teenage son, then makes the mistake of falling in love with him. For a movie that was made while the Production Code was still in effect, “A Cold Wind in August” is undeniably hot and sexy, and Albright, who would go on to do some interesting work in better films, is every bit as seductive as Ann Bancroft.

Made in 1966, “Queen of Blood” (a.k.a., “Planet of Blood”) is a cheeseball sci-fi thriller that’s interesting for reasons other than the story, itself. As was the practice of producers looking for new ways to cut corners, “Queen of Blood” was half American and half Russian. The original material was adapted from a short story called “The Veiled Woman,” and it starred John Saxon, Judi Meredith, Florence Marley, Basil Rathbone and Dennis Hopper, who had yet to make “Easy Rider” and was doing lots of TV guest-star roles. Instead of spending money on special effects, however, writer/director Curtis Harrington purchased the Russian movie, “Mechte Navstrechu” (“Encounter in Space”) and repurposed its special effects. The final product was set largely in a NASA-like control room and a space station on the far side of the moon, where an alien queen was planting eggs for a future disaster.

Horror movies don’t get much campier than “The Black Sleep,” an old school genre flick from 1956, informed by the Universal classics of the 1930s. It was made by Austrian-born contract director Reginald LeBorg and starred Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Tor Johnson, Basil Rathbone and Akim Tamiroff, That’s a heck of a cast for a movie shot in 12 days and for not a lot of money. If the studio had poured a few more dollars into the script, however, it might not have been so hopelessly convoluted. “Black Sleep” references so many genre conventions that it might actually have been intended as a parody, minus the humor. Chaney’s interpretation of Mungo, a once brilliant scientist now deranged because of Rathbone’s cruel experiments has to be seen to be believed.

“Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday” is one of those mid-’70s group gropes that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a parody of a thousand earlier westerns, a homage to such revisionist fare as “Cat Ballou” and “Blazing Saddles,” or simply a slapstick shoot-’em-up. The actors, including such top pros as Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed, Kay Lenz, Strother Martin, Robert Culp, Sylvia Miles and Liz Ashley, looked as if they were having a blast and the director and producers had simply surrendered to the reality that everyone on the set was drunk, stoned or hung over. At times, it seemed as if Marvin, Reed and Culp were making one movie “Great Scout,” and everyone else was working off a completely different script, “Cathouse Thursday.” That’s not to say it isn’t fun to watch, though.

Queen of Hearts” is an offbeat romance that received some positive critical attention upon its release in 1989, but didn’t have enough recognizably American or British stars to disabuse potential viewers of the notion that it might be Italian and subtitled. Roger Ebert compared it favorably to “Moonstruck.”

Directed by Larry Cohen, “The Ambulance” stars a young Eric Roberts as a comic-book illustrator who tries to locate the girl of his dreams (Janine Turner) after she faints and is carried away by a rogue ambulance. The same thing happens to another young woman, while she’s distributing flyers for him. One thing they have in common is diabetes and it offers a clue as to what the ambulance driver is doing. “Ambulance” also stars Red Buttons, Megan Gallagher and James Earl Jones. – Gary Dretzka

The Real Cannibal Holocaust
Sex and Black Magic
Sexy Pirates

Of the many distributers of DVDs whose products reach my door, One 7 Movies is the only one that causes my mailman to cross himself before delivering the goods. It’s as if he can sense the pure demonic horror contained inside each package and is offering one last blessing to the damned. One 7 makes Troma look like Scholastic Films and Roger Corman a piker. Here are some recent examples of movies, which, were it not for One 7, might not have reached our shores.

Several films pop up when an Internet search is made for “The Read Cannibal Holocaust,” most of them unrelated to the new One 7 release. One, “Cannibal Holocaust,” was made several years after this one and is set in the jungles of South America, not the south Pacific. Others combine elements of horror with sexploitation. One 7’s version was released originally as “Nuova Guinea, Isola dei Cannibali,” and is representative of a sub-genre of documentaries, “mondo,” in which Italian filmmakers scoured the Third World to record rituals, ceremonies and sexual practices previously unseen by western audiences, and tack on a bossa nova or similarly peppy or romantic soundtrack. “Mondo Cane” was among the first and arguably the best of the bunch.

Nuova Guinea, Isola dei Cannibali” was shot in Papua New Guinea, in the mid-1970s, around the time the island nation split from the British Empire. Its jungles were so thick and dangerous, documentary teams wielding bulky equipment generally found shooting there to be impossible. Even, today, Papau New Guinea is one of the few places on Earth where scientists can expect to discover new species. Its reputation as a preserve for cannibals was enhanced after the death of explorer Michael Rockefeller, an heir to the Rockefeller fortune and son of the New York governor. In 1961, while living among and studying the Asmat tribe, Rockefeller disappeared. It became popular to suspect he was killed and eaten by cannibals or had simply gone native, like Kurtz in “The Heart of Darkness.” Nothing’s been proven either way.

“The Real Cannibal Holocaust” purportedly was shot for the purpose of informing Queen Elizabeth, who was about to visit the island in her prim outfits and carrying a Brownie camera, to better understand native customs. Not satisfied with the pre-arranged, tourist-friendly stuff, the crew ventured into the jungle to find evidence of cannibalism, bizarre sexual and burial rituals, and tribal warfare. Even if only half of the images are genuine – and some clearly are not — “The Real Cannibal Holocaust” can only be recommended to viewers with cast-iron stomachs and open minds. The tattooing and piercings – yes, bones through the nose and earlobes — are enough to put most people off their feed, and the post-death stuff defies description. But, hey, modern embalming techniques and burial rituals must seem pretty strange and wasteful to people living off the land, too. It’s provided much fodder for horror movies, anyway.

Never one to turn down an opportunity to exploit a hot trend, Italian director Joe D’Amato found in “Sex and Black Magic” (a.k.a., “Orgasmo Nero” / “Voodoo Baby”) a way to combine cannibalism, exotic rituals, soft-core porn and modeling. The 1982 picture inserts a European couple into a tropical paradise where black magic is practiced and one copper-skinned beauty, at least, is ready to go prime-time. After some canoodling on the beach, Haini (Lucia Ramirez) is invited to join the white bwana lady, Helen (Nieves Navarro), to the big city, where she blossoms into a real fashion plate, enjoys the pleasures of bourgeois lesbianism and plots the death of Helen’s husband. It’s when they return to the island that Haini’s old wicked ways truly come into play, though. Bonus features include alternate scenes, hard-core inserts and a photo gallery.

D’Amato is also responsible for “Sexy Pirates” (a.k.a., “I predatori delle Antille”), a soft-core nautical adventure, which, if I didn’t know better, looks as if it might have inspired “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the hit hard-core feature, “Pirates.” In it, pirates hijack a ship carrying the British ambassador and attempt to exact a kingly ransom for his return. The king says he won’t bargain with terrorists, er, pirates, and leaves the man to rot. His wife, though, raises a mercenary army of her own and attempts to save the ambassador. It helps that she’s willing to sacrifice her modesty to win him back.

Transgression” is a psychological thriller, in which an angst-ridden college student ingests a mind-altering drug and goes on a killing spree, accompanied by the nympho daughter of a man who opens his beachfront home to the kid. No good deed goes unpunished in this Italian restaging of “Badlands.” Finally, though, viewers are left to decide if what they just witnessed was real or a hallucination. As nutty as it sounds, “Transgression” actually is pretty good. – Gary Dretzka

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One Response to “The DVD Wrapup: The King’s Speech, The Way Back, Into the Cold, Gulliver’s Travels, Kes, Sweetie, Vision …”

  1. MarilynM says:

    I liked The Way Back far more than I ever anticipated. It was a beautifully filmed and inspiring movie with an excellent cast. I am sorry it was not promoted in the USA, but seeing great actors and real nature can’t trump watching mindless celebrities and computer-generated effects at the megaplexes, I guess. It is WELL worth renting on DVD.

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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