MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Gnomeo & Juliet, Lemonade Mouth, I Am Number Four, Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, The Big Bang, Burning Palms …

Gnomeo & Juliet: Blu-ray

According to one of those computer-generated lists of keywords on the website, nearly 70 television specials and movies – including “Gnomeo & Juliet” — owe their very existence to William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.” (That it doesn’t include the delightful rom-com, “Letters to Juliet,” or the Soviet-era adaptation, “Romeo i Dzhulyetta,” makes me think someone there doesn’t know a keyword from a keyhole.)  Given such familiarity, along with the pun in the title, it’s probably unnecessary to point out that the star-crossed lovers in “Gnomeo & Juliet” are a perfectly matched pair of anthropomorphic lawn ornaments adorning the yards and gardens of adjacent houses in a typically British neighborhood. Here’s the rub: on Verona Drive, in suburban Stratford-upon-Avon, red and blue garden gnomes aren’t supposed to get along together, let alone wed. As long as there’s a fence between, though, the families co-exist in some semblance of calm. In fact, most of the time, they simply stand or sit in place, merely looking adorable.

When the homeowners are asleep or away, however, the bearded gnomes, plastic pink flamingos and stone frogs take the opportunity to play … and, of course, pursue their generations-old rivalry. What distinguishes this Disney/Touchstone animated feature from most other versions is the whimsy and wit that informs its screenplay, which is designed to appeal in different ways to kids and adults. Younger viewers surely will enjoy the zany characters and their slapstick antics, while grown-ups will dig the many verbal and visual references to Shakespeare’s works. (A van belongs to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Movers; tea is brewed in Tempest Teapots.)

Although “Gnomeo & Juliet” was produced by Walt Disney Animation – not Pixar, which passed on the project — the decidedly British flavor is accented by a couple of new songs by Bernie Taupin and Elton John, and such classics as “Crocodile Rock,” “Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” (John’s Rocket Pictures brought the project to Disney in 2005.) The voicing talent includes James McAvoy and Emily Blunt, in the lead roles, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Hulk Hogan, Ozzie Osbourne, Dolly Parton, Jessica Walters, Patrick Stewart and Matt Lucas. “G&J” arrives in several different formats and combinations, including Blu-ray, 3D, DVD and digital. I can’t vouch for the 3D, but the hi-def edition looks terrific. The extras include “Elton Builds a Garden,” “Frog Talk With Ashley Jensen, a “Crocodile Rock” music video, a pair of alternate endings, deleted and alternate scenes, and “The Fawn of Darkness.” – Gary Dretzka

Lemonade Mouth: Extended Edition

Any capsule description of the Disney Channel Original Movie, “Lemonade Mouth,” likely would make those unfamiliar with the cable network’s peppy tween fare assume it was piggy-backing on the “Glee” craze. Regular viewers, though, will recognize it as a possible extension of the “High School Musical,” “Hannah Montana” and “Camp Rock” franchises, with aspiring next-generation Disney superstars Bridgit Mendler, Adam Hicks, Hayley Kiyoko, Naomi Scott and Blake Michael in line to replace Miley Cyrus, Zac Efron, Ashley Tisdale and naughty Vanessa Hudgens. Like the ill-behaved teens in John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” their characters meet in detention after violating various school rules they consider to be insipid. While there, the misfits discover that the one and, possibly, only thing they have in common is a desire to rock the house down. So, naturally, they form a band. Among other things, it provides them with the self-confidence they need to find a niche in a school full of archetypal middle-class students. It also promotes all the usual Disney values, including family, honesty, integrity, the arts, self-expression and camaraderie.

“Lemonade Mouth,” adapted from a novel by Mark Peter Hughes, debuted last month on the Disney Channel. Individual songs were introduced on Radio Disney and a soundtrack album was put out by Walt Disney Records. That’s synergy in motion. Strangely, though, the movie hasn’t been made available on Blu-ray, even though the Disney Channel can be seen in hi-def. The Rock-Along feature adds subtitles lyrics to the song performances and the extended version merely adds a five-minute epilogue, in which the band is interviewed on a talk show and performs “Livin’ on a High Wire.” – Gary Dretzka

I Am Number Four: Blu-ray

Not having read the novel from which “I Am Number Four” was adapted, it took me a while to figure out what was going on in the sci-fi/horror thriller. Suffice it to say, it’s complicated. The protagonist, John Smith (a.k.a., Number Four), is an endangered Garde from the planet Lorien, hiding on Earth with nine other Loriens, all of whom possess wisdom and superpowers handed down by their ancestors. They are being pursued by Mogadorians, a race of interplanetary mercenaries and shape-shifters, although I still don’t know why, exactly.  John (Alex Pettyfer) and his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant) have been on the run ever since the death of “Number Three,” which we witness in the opening scene. (Apparently, Mogs are only allowed to kill in numerical order.) Against Henri’s advice, John decides he wants to be a real American boy and attend the local high school. Minutes after he uses his superpowers to protect the class dweeb from being harassed by jock bullies, his image is tweeted on the Internet for all the Mogs to see. In short order, he then falls in love with one of the blonds from “Glee” (Dianna Agron), befriends a telekinetic beagle, loses Henri and battles wave after wave of Mogs on the football field with Number Six, an even hotter blond number (Teresa Palmer).

While director D.J. Caruso’s special effects are extremely loud and seemingly violent, none is terribly scary to watch in a theater. (Judging from a making-of featurette, the actors found the bungee stunts quite frightening, indeed.) That’s probably because the producers were intent a building a teen-driven franchise, like “Twilight,” that accentuates romance and fantasy, over blood and gore … although there’s plenty of that, too. Unfortunately, Mogs and Loriens aren’t nearly as seductive as vampires and, for most of “I Am Number Four,” John Smith is as bland as his name. The best-seller’s authors, Jobie Hughes and James Frey (writing as Pittacus Lore), envision six more chapters in the saga.  Unless “Number Four” made a lot more money overseas than it did domestically, I’d be surprised to see a movie sequel any time soon, however. The Blu-ray package adds several short featurettes on the characters and special effects, some of which are pretty interesting; bloopers; and six deleted scenes, with introductions by Caruso. – Gary Dretzka

Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Duel’

Those moviegoers who desperately miss the kind of lush period dramas once produced with regularity under the Merchant-Ivory banner are encouraged to drop what they’re doing and find a copy of “Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Duel.’” In addition to telling a great story, Dover Koshashvili’s adaptation is staged with precise attention to detail and a passion for great literature and ensemble acting. It’s almost possible to feel stifled by the heat and humidity “endured” by the 19th Century Russian aristocrats as they idle away their time in tidy summer cottages along the Black Sea coast. When they aren’t gossiping, sipping tea and complaining about persistent insects, the poor things plot, dine lavishly, drink strong beverages, shop and gamble. One or two of them – the dissipated cynic, Laevsky, and his married lover, Nadia – gather their strength to make love whenever and wherever the mood hits.

The talented cast of mostly Irish actors – including Fiona Glascott, Tobias Menzies, Andrew Scott and Michelle Fairley – has no trouble holding our interest, even when their characters are on their worst behavior and we’re distracted by the splendid scenery. (Croatia stands in for the Caucasus, I believe.) “The Duel” also is surprisingly sexy for such a stylish literary adaptation. It slipped under the radar upon its release in April, but serious movie lovers will find the effort to find the DVD worthwhile. – Gary Dretzka

The Big Bang

Anyone who enjoys watching a director twist genre conventions to the breaking point ought to have a field day with “The Big Bang,” a mystery that starts out noir and gets increasingly nutty as it goes along. In Tony Krantz’ atmospheric thriller, Los Angeles P.I. Ned Cruz (Antonio Banderas) has been hired by an extremely tall and powerful Russian boxer — recently released from prison — to find a stripper, Lexie Persimmon, with whom he exchanged e-mails in prison. Apparently, she’s also in possession of a valuable horde of diamonds. The trail leads to New Mexico, where Lexie is living with a mad scientist (Sam Elliot) and his effeminate aide, who are attempting to replicate the “God particle” in an underground nuclear collider. (That’s right.) A carload of villains follow the impatient boxer to the scientist’s New Mexico estate, where Cruz is attempting to sort the truth from the lies. It’s at this point that the color scheme changes from black and white, to a palette more closely resembling a box of Crayolas, with plumes of white smoke pouring out of the arroyos. Finally, just as the scientist pulls the trigger on his experiment, “The Big Bang” turns into a Michael Bay movie.

Before turning his attention to directing, Krantz produced a long and diverse list of movies and television shows, including “24,” “Sports Night,” “Mulholland Dr.” and the grotesque horror comedy, “Otis,” which he also directed from an Erik Jendresen script. So, he knows from crazy. The consistently unpredictable “The Big Bang” benefits from short appearances by James Van Der Beek, Snoop Dogg, Autumn Reeser, Jimmi Simpson, Delroy Lindo, Bill Duke, William Fichtner and Sienna Guillory. The soundtrack was provided by the Smiths’ Johnny Marr. Only the most adventurous of viewers will have a fighting chance of loving “The Big Bang,” so, for those who only know Banderas from “Zorro” and as the voice of Puss in Boots, in “Shrek,” don’t say you weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka

Burning Palms: Blu-ray

Served up between graphic-novel bumpers, the five short stories told in Christopher B. Landon’s “Burning Palms” present viewers with a decidedly sordid portrait of daily life in Los Angeles … or, at least, of the things they hide in their proverbial closets. Although the lifestyles aren’t bizarre or abhorrent, per se, the characters to whom we’re introduced are, indeed, unusual. They include a woman whose relationship with her fiancé is tested by his unusually intimate relationship to his teenage daughter; another young woman, who, after giving in to her boyfriend’s sexual whim, becomes a prisoner to it; a gay couple who treat their adopted African child as a fashion accessory; a pack of Beverly Hills kids, so spoiled they seize control of their parents’ mansion; and a lonely rape victim who tracks down her assailant and … why ruin the surprise? If you’re guessing “Burning Palms” is hybrid of “The Twilight Zone” and “Red Shoe Diaries,” you’re getting warm. Lumped together in one feature-length anthology, the chapters are far too dark and disturbing to enjoy, exactly. They’d work far better if presented individually on a premium cable channel, where nudity and twisted behavior not only are encouraged, but they’re also part of the woodwork. There’s no questioning the level of talent somehow attracted to the project, though. The game cast includes Dylan McDermott, Rosamund Pike, Shannen Doherty, Lake Bell, Zoe Saldana, Paz Vega, Emily Meade and Nick Stahl. – Gary Dretzka

The Ron Howard Action Pack

Fighting Mad/Moving Violation

Grand Prix: Blu-ray

The cavalcade of “Roger Corman Cult Classics” and “Double Features” continues apace with a quartet of action pictures that kept action junkies and drive-in regulars happy in the mid-1970s. “The Ron Howard Action Pack” includes “Eat My Dust” and “Grand Theft Auto,” which, along with Charles S. Dubin’s “Moving Violation,” ushered in the era of car-wreck porn and stunt envy. Moreover, “EMD” and “GTA” offered Howard – then star of “Happy Days” – an opportunity to prove he could work behind the camera on features, as well as act in them, as he did so well in “American Graffiti” and “The Shootist.” Corman saw his chances of luring Howard to appear in movies destined for the drive-in circuit as a longshot, but, by promising him an opportunity to direct “GTA,” he was able to tap Howard’s box-office appeal. Both pictures made a lot of money for Corman, while also inspiring countless other non-stop action pictures from other producers.

In “EMD,” Howard plays the ne’er-do-well son of a Southern sheriff. To impress a beautiful blond in lime-green short-shorts, his tragically named character, Hoover Niebold, steals a stock car from a local dirt track. He and the blond, a cockteaser from minute one, spend the rest of the movie evading an army of law-enforcement officers, exchanging innuendoes and trashing property. That’s the long and short of it, anyway. Even lacking any semblance of a logical progression of events, “EMD” is quite funny and quintessentially American … in a massively destructive sort of way. Howard directs and stars in “GTA,” during which a college-age girl defies her parents by stealing their Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and making a beeline from Beverly Hills to Las Vegas to get married. It plays out as a direct homage to “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” minus the marquee stars, but loaded with chases, explosions, collisions, destruction of property and zany humor. Both DVDs arrive with plenty of extras, including interviews with Ron, Clint and writer/producer/actor/dad Rance Howard; Corman’s recollections; original marketing material; and essays.

“Moving Violation” overflowed with car crashes, as well. Here, however, they were choreographed to support a much darker series of events. Corman was interested in exploiting the then-popular trend in such redneck-revenge movies as “Walking Tall” and “Billy Jack.” In “MV,” Stephen McHattie plays a guitar-wielding drifter, who, for no good reason, is harassed by police. While enjoying an afternoon tryst with a drive-in waitress (Kay Lenz), he witnesses the murder of one of the cops by his even more dishonorable partner. This sets off a nearly non-stop chase, which results in dozens of cars being destroyed and several more deaths. Given the loss of life — cops and innocent bystanders, alike — “MV” isn’t all that much fun to watch, especially from the distance of 35 years. It does benefit, though, from appearances by Eddie Albert, Will Geer and Dick Miller.

Fighting Mad,” on the other hand, remains one of the finest representatives of the revenge genre, a category that’s never really gone away. Most of the credit for the artistic success of “FM” naturally belongs to writer/director Jonathan Demme, whose visual experimentation and outdoor montages elevate it above most other action flicks. Peter Fonda plays an Arkansas family man who exacts revenge on the developers who terrorize his father for not selling his farm to them. One of the film’s other selling points is an atmospheric musical score provided by the great Bruce Langhorn. If you can spare a few more minutes, watch “FM” with the commentary track, which adds the wisdom of Corman, Demme, Fonda and co-star Lynn Lowry.

Also newly re-released on Blu-ray is John Frankenheimer’s Formula 1 epic, “Grand Prix,” which was shot in 70mm and featured some the period’s most innovative, immersive and exciting cinematography. Included in the stellar international cast are such luminaries as James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Toshiro Mifune, Yves Montand, Francoise Hardy, Adolfo Celi and real life Grand Prix drivers Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Lorenzo Bandini, Jack Brabham and Jim Clark. (Reportedly, of the 32 drivers who participated or were seen in the film, five died in racing accidents in the next two years and another five in the following 10 years.) The traditional melodrama is greatly enhanced on Blu-ray by the top-notch camera work, split-screen images and Frankenheimer’s rapid-fire editing. Hell, there’s even an overture. It includes five informative featurettes and a theatrical trailer. – Gary Dretzka

Platoon: Blu-ray

Gods and Generals: Extended Director’s Cut

Gettysburg: Director’s Cut: Blu-ray

The Unknown War: WWII and the Epic Battles of the Russian Front

Lest we forget … DVDs released during the week leading to Memorial Day help us remember the sacrifices made by the men and women who’ve worn the uniforms of their respective military branches, in defense of our liberty. Sadly, as long as rich old men continue to send young people to war for reasons other than preserving freedom and self-determination, the patriotic speeches that accompany the laying of wreaths and waving of flags will ring hollow. Thought-provoking movies about war help viewers identify the source of the discomfort we feel when cemeteries are used as platforms for rhetoric and the promotion of such less-noble American obsessions as greed, self-aggrandizement, bigotry and intolerance. When the ego-maniacal Florida pastor, Terry Jones, exercised his First Amendment right to burn the Koran in a publicity stunt, he inadvertently sentenced 20 United Nations workers to die, just as surely as any military officer forced to assign soldiers to a suicide mission. Until the names of slain volunteers, relief workers, unarmed peacekeepers and clergy are added to the rolls of those read annually at military cemeteries – or given a monument of their own on the mall in Washington – something very important will be missing in Memorial Day ceremonies.

No one could have accused Oliver Stone of being a bleeding-heart liberal when “Platoon” was released 25 years ago. Instead of finding a way to use his family’s wealth and influence to avoid conscription, the Yale dropout enlisted in the U.S. Army and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. When he described the war as he saw it, in “Platoon,” he was criticized by some for not portraying American fighting men as Boy Scouts with automatic weapons. Instead, he forced his audience to consider the ambiguities of a war in which there were no front lines and American soldiers with no real stake in the war’s outcome – besides survival, of course – were pitted against a nearly invisible army of highly motivated guerrillas. Our troops had never fought in such a conflagration, in which the Geneva Conventions and common decency often were rendered meaningless by all combatants.  Stone’s alter ego is “Platoon” was Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), who, likewise, had dropped out of college and enlisted. After a rude introduction to reality at the airport, Taylor is assigned to a company operating near the Cambodian border.  The allegiance of the men in the battle-weary platoon is divided between two very different sergeants and cultures: the compassionate pot-smoker Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and gung-ho boozer, Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). Although both of these men would fight to the death for their country and men, Elias seems to consider the possibility, at least, that he is on a fool’s errand and the pursuit of survival did give his troops license to commit atrocities. By contrast, Barnes seemed not to possess an ounce of compassion for those caught in the war’s middle ground and those whose ethics and moral code wouldn’t allow them to conceal the truth. These were dilemmas addressed previously in only a handful of American war movies. Finally, though, it was Stone’s depiction of the ordinary horrors of combat that had the greatest impact on audiences. When an American or NVA soldier came to the realization that the mission they were on was suicidal, they used every means available to them to survive, however barbaric. With the benefit of 45 years of hindsight working in his favor, Stone address the military issues raised in “Platoon.” Given the 25-year distance between the release of “Platoon” in theaters and its launch in a special Blu-ray edition, the writer/director also is free to add his perspective on controversies surrounding the picture in audio commentaries (Stone and military advisor Dale Dye); deleted and extended scenes; “Flashback to ‘Platoon,’” which put the movie into the context of its time; a pair of documentaries, “One War, Many Stories” and “Preparing for ’Nam”; marketing material; and the “vignettes,” “Caputo & the 7th Fleet,” “Dye Training Method” and “Gordon Gekko.”

Not only did media mogul and Civil War buff Ted Turner take on “Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg” as pet projects for his highly synergized entertainment empire, but he also appeared in both epic films. A 254-minute version of “Gettysburg” was first released – on TV and in 248 theaters – in 1993. “Gods and Generals” came out as a prequel, 10 years later, at 220 minutes. Depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line one sat, the pictures were alternately described as painstakingly accurate or decidedly pro-Confederate. Based on Michael Shaara’s novel,  “The Killer Angels,” “Gettyburg: Director’s Cut” adds 17 minutes of additional footage to Ronald F. Maxwell’s dramatization of the Civil War’s most decisive and arguably most fascinating battle. Even at the new length, “Gettysburg” is accessible both to novices and historians, amateur and professional. The bonus material in the commemorative 48-page Digi-Book edition includes commentary by Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum, Pulitzer Prize-winning Author James M. McPherson and military historian Craig Symonds; two featurettes, “Making Gettysburg” and “The Battle of Gettysburg”; cast and director interviews; a PSA for the Hallowed Ground Partnership; and battlefield maps.

The extended cut of “Gods and Generals” also is adapted from a book of the same title, this one written by Jeff Schaara, son of the aforementioned John Shaara. It adds another 60 minutes of material clipped from the original version, which examined the battles and strategizing that led to the confrontation at Gettysburg, with separate storylines being given to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Gen. Robert E. Lee, Union Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Wilkes Booth. (Scenes in which the future presidential assassin appeared were cut from the original.) The Blu-ray, which also arrives in a Digi-Book package, adds an introduction by Turner and Maxwell; new commentary from Maxwell; scene-specific audio commentary; the music video to “Cross the Green Mountain,” by Bob Dylan; a piece on the “authenticities” of the film; a bio of Jackson; and cast interviews.

If “The Unknown War” doesn’t ring any bells for you, it’s probably because the sprawling 20-part documentary series on Soviet efforts to stop the Nazi war machine in World War II pretty much disappeared from view after the 1980 invasion of Afghanistan. (Did the Reds retaliate by pulling reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” and “My Mother, the Car” off the air in Iron Curtain countries?) Narrated by Burt Lancaster, the U.S./U.S.S.R. co-production was constructed from largely unseen newsreel and military footage borrowed from the country’s archives. It followed the war on the Eastern Front from the June 22, 1941, invasion of the Soviet Union to the bloody march into Berlin in 1945. Camera crews captured dramatic footage from the front lines, as well as battles waged in the air and sea.  The project originated after Soviet authorities accused the British producers of “The World at War” of shortchanging their military’s contributions to the Allied cause. If “The Unknown War” sometimes feels overly propagandist and not completely accurate, imagine what Russian historians think of our Cold War docs and depictions of the brave Muslim “freedom fighters” in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Writer/poet/musician Rod McKuen wrote the screenplay and musical score, with an assist from composers and orchestras in London and Moscow. Analysis is provided by Willard Sunderland, associate professor of Russian history at the University of Cincinnati. – Gary Dretzka


The Scenesters

Fertile Ground/Seconds Apart: After Dark Originals

Forget Me Not

Mad World

Despite the implied promise of its title, there’s a distinct lack of nudity in “Stripperland!” Although the revealing of the occasional nipple or pubic forest is pretty much de rigueur in such unrated fare, the filmmakers probably thought it would be like bring coal to Newcastle. Either that or they feared the women cast would hold them up for more money if actually forced to strip. It’s not as if the folks behind this Cheezy Flicks production were committed to bringing it in PG-13 or hoped it would be shown at the local mega-plex. Indeed, any rating at all would have limited this occasionally very funny horror/comedy’s appeal to teenage boys and ripped-stocking fetishists.

Clearly made to reference “Zombieland,” “Zombie Strippers,” “The Book of Eli” and “Shaun of the Dead,” Sean Skelding’s micro-budget follow-up to “I Am Virgin” isn’t a world-beater by any means. It does, however, offer enough hilarious sight gags to recommend it to genre completists. I’m not ashamed to admit that I laughed out loud watching the zombie strippers attempt to catch up to their human prey, while stumbling along on platform heels, and when they tried to use their decaying arms to climb a stripper’s pole. Among the performances by several Portand- and Vancouver-based dancers and wannabes are appearances by cult favorites Linnea Quigley, Boyd Banks and Lloyd Kaufman, Thom Bray and Daniel Baldwin, who provides one of the movie’s best line, “They won’t eat me, because they have to stop and strip.” (He also delivers a passable rap song.)  The only thing missing is a repeat cameo by Ron Jeremy, whose furry presence graced “I Am Virgin.”

The Scenesters” is a no-budget noir mystery that, like “The Big Bang,” is set in Los Angeles and couldn’t exist if Raymond Chandler hadn’t already laid the groundwork for the filmmakers. It, too, is likely to appeal primarily to those in the hipper-than-thou demographic. (You know who you are.) Here, the action is set in the trendy, if still marginally affordable neighborhoods of Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Echo Park and Atwater Village, as well as nearby Griffith Park and the Los Angeles River. Someone is killing local hipsters and a blasé crime-scene cleaner named Charlie takes it upon himself to find the cur. As such, he’s competing against some inept L.A. cops and a Danish film crew also on the bloody trail. Todd Berger’s film has a few interesting moments, but they’re so location-specific that audiences outside a few zip codes on Los Angeles’ east side probably will miss them. Like “Stripperland!,” “The Scenesters” benefits from a rockin’ soundtrack comprised of music apropos to the cultures represented.

The latest releases from Lionsgate/After Dark Originals can best be described as unnerving. Even if one is familiar with the narrative and visual conceits – evil twins, ghostly ancestors – it would be difficult not to be shocked by the combination of copious blood-letting, extreme violence and wrenching sound effects. In “Seconds Apart,” murderous twins Seth and Jonah employ their telekinetic powers to make the people around them commit suicide or otherwise put themselves in harm’s way. They reserve some of their best tricks for the police investigator who is hot on their trail. “Seconds Apart” is different than most such flick in that the twins’ parents are every bit as creepy as the kids.

The first thing that surprised me in “Fertile Ground” was the presence of Gale Harold and Leisha Hailey in the lead roles. That’s because Harold played the charismatic gay hustler in “Queer as Folk,” while Hailey was the ditzy lesbian reporter on “The L Word,” both of which enjoyed long runs on Showtime. Here, they portray a heterosexual yuppie couple trying desperately to have a baby. After experiencing an extremely gruesome miscarriage, Alice agrees to relocate with her husband to his family’s ancestral home in the country. Not surprisingly, the house has a sordid history of death and torture, previously unknown to both of them. To report that one of them experiences a frightening transformation is to spoil none of the fun. (Speaking of gratuitous nudity, if Hailey doesn’t possess the best body in indie-films, it’s certainly in the Top Ten.)

Teenagers are disappearing in “Forget Me Not” and class president Sandy Channing is about to find out why. While playfully reciting a ditty rumored to possess the power to raise the dead from their final resting place, a group of girls are cursed by just such a miracle. In addition to conjuring a bunch of zombies, though, Sandy manages to tap into the psyche of a childhood friend who vanished years earlier and is currently lying comatose in a convent hospital. I doubt that anyone older than 18 will find much to hold their interest in “Forget Me Not,” but teens should find something to like in it.

Cory Cotaldo’s freshman feature, “Mad World,” imagines the events that could lead to a Columbine-like massacre in Anywhere USA. Like magnets to metal, four teenage misfits join forces to defend themselves against bullies at school and psycho parents at home. The school they attend puts jocks on a pedestal, blaming and punishing the victims for the abuse and ridicule heaped on them in and out of class. Mostly, the boys accept the bullying as a daily fact of life and numb themselves to it with pot and booze. By the time they decide to stand up for their rights, it’s too late to prevent a disaster. Apparently, Cataldo wants us to see the dark humor in some of the boys’ antics, but there’s nothing very funny anymore about the bullying of students and the results of their revenge. That said, the best gags arrive in the form of caustic observations about the world in which the boys are stuck and some anti-social stoner behavior. Otherwise, the characters’ negative traits are blown so far out of proportion that they turn everyone into candidates for inclusion in an anti-drug PSA.  The DVD adds commentary and music videos. – Gary Dretzka

Violet Tendencies

“Facts of Life” graduate Mindy Cohn bravely assumes the role of a chubby, self-proclaimed “fag hag,” in Casper Andreas’ wildly uneven rom-com, “Violet Tendencies.” Her character, Violet, is straight and looking for love in the one place she’s least likely to find it: the friendly neighborhood gay bar. This is OK with Violet’s many male buddies, as she’s always been there for them with a shoulder upon which to cry and the glue they need to keep their own untidy relationships alive. Her ballsy sense of humor and candid observations also serve her well in the bars and cafes favored by her friends.

The attempts by Violet’s straight friends to set her up tend to end up disastrously. When one suggests she dress “catty” for an informal gathering of likely dating candidates, Violet arrives in what only can be described as Felix the Cat’s laundry. A gentleman she likes a bit encourages her to move with him to Idaho, but, as a dedicated “fruit fly,” she refuses to live in a state with “only one gay bar.” As it must in all American rom-coms, “Violet Tendencies” ends with the protagonist eventually getting her man … into the sack, at least.– Gary Dretzka

William & Kate: Planning a Royal Wedding

British Royal Weddings of the 20th Century

Yanks who haven’t already gotten their fill of William and Kate’s royal nuptials can grab another slice of the wedding cake in these two documentaries. “Planning a Royal Wedding” doesn’t add much to the vast amount of conjecture and journalism already dispensed by the army of reporters who gathered last month outside Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. It does, however, offer access to friends, former schoolmates and staff members, as well as the couple’s favorite designers, chefs and stylists.

Even if it lacks the immediacy of the endless coverage of the most-recent royal wedding, “British Royal Weddings of the 20th Century” benefits from not having to extend the premise to the events of April, 2011. Primarily, it’s comprised of newsreel footage, ranging from Princess Mary’s marriage to Viscount Henry Lascelles in 1922 to Prince Andrew’s marriage to Sarah Ferguson in 1986. More-recent ceremonies include commentary by journalist observers. The DVD adds material from the wedding of Lady Pamela Mountbatten to David Nightingale Hicks and additional silent footage of the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. – Gary Dretzka

Glenn Tilbrook: Live In New York City

Fans of the veteran British power-pop band, Squeeze, surely will want to pick up a copy of Glenn Tillbrook’s new concert DVD, which combines nine new songs and an equal number of earlier hits. Among the classics are “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Black Coffee in Bed,” “Tempted,” “Slap and Tickle” and “Up the Junction.” The show was recorded digitally in 2006, at New York’s cozy Canal Rooms, where the singer/songwriter/guitarist was backed in lively fashion by the Fluffers. Although “Live in New York City” isn’t available on Blu-ray, the DVD’s audio and visual presentations are excellent. Also included is a behind-the-scenes documentary with Tilbrook and his band. – Gary Dretzka

Long Live Pakistan

Produced for the 60th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence from Britain, in 1947, Pascale Lamche and Amelie Blom’s informative documentary offers westerners a glimpse into the often chaotic history and consistently mystifying politics of the Islamic Republic. Facets Multimedia is using the occasion of Osama Bin Laden’s recent date with destiny to re-promote the “Long Live Pakistan,” which helps explain the many forces working against a cohesive understanding of what America needs to do to ensure a continuing relationship with a country that holds the key to either lasting peace in the region or a nuclear holocaust. The filmmakers were able to interview a diverse array of political and religious leaders, western analysts, historians and such interlopers as Joanne Herring, the Houston socialite who encouraged Charlie Wilson to help Afghan rebels resist the Soviet army. It’s a decision that, as noted in the doc, has come back to haunt us. Most compelling, though, is the interview with former leader Benazir Bhutto, who would be assassinated a few months later. – Gary Dretzka

Ice Road Truckers: Deadliest Roads, Season 1

Childrens Hospital: Complete First & Second Seasons

Kids In The Hall, The: Complete Series DVD Megaset

Capadocia: Season 1

The Best of the Dean Martin Variety Show

History: Reagan

PBS Explorer Collection: Brain Fitness: Volume 1

To very loosely paraphrase Andy Warhol, “In the future, every job will be made to appear interesting and fulfilling for15 minutes.” Warhol couldn’t possibly have imagined TV shows as weirdly compelling as “Swamp People,” “Pawn Stars,” “Billy the Exterminator” and “Ice Road Truckers,” from which  “IRT: Deadliest Roads” was spun off last year. Even so, he’d probably find something in them to enjoy … for a quarter of an hour, at least. In “Deadliest Roads,” cast members from “Ice Road Truckers” take on several of the world’s most challenging highways in vehicles that probably couldn’t pass an inspection back home. The series’ first season opened with Rick Yemm, Alex Debogorski and Lisa Kelly traveling to India to navigate the treacherous mountain roads lead from Delhi to Shimla, then up to a hydroelectric dam construction site in the Himalayas. Later, they would test their skills in the Rohtang Pass and by delivering fuel to helicopter crews waiting to rescue people stranded in the mountains by the storms.  Only one North American trucker was able to complete the entire season, without bailing out on an assignment. According to the promotional material, someone dies on these same roads every 4.5 minutes. Unfortunately, they’re rarely the right people.

I wasn’t aware of the existence of the Adult Swim series “Childrens Hospital” – a hospital and show named after the mythical Dr. Arthur Childrens – until a compilation DVD arrived in my mail one recent day. Turns out, the often hilarious parody of such hospital dramas as “ER,” “Private Practice,” “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” began its life as a series of five-minute webisodes on It since has moved to the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim bloc, which can accommodate shows that are 15 minutes in length. The show is populated by recognizable stars from mainstream cable and broadcast sitcoms, all of whom appear to have roots in sketch comedy and troupes such as the Groundlings. There’s nothing remotely subtle in the humor found in “Childrens Hospital” as the running gags tend to involve improper sexual behavior, bizarre surgical procedures and invented maladies. One of the surgeons wears clown makeup and another is unable to get around without using a pair of crutches. Among the cast members are series creator Rob Corddry, Lake Bell, Megan Mullally, Michael Cera, Henry Winkler and Malin Akerman.

The sketch comedy group, Kids in the Hall, is comprised of comedians Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson. After honing their material in the Canadian bush, as it were, the lads who often dressed as ladies caught the attention of “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels, who found them a home for five years on the CBC and HBO. After that stretch, the individual comics would find plenty of work in movies and sitcoms. The “Kids” were different than other TV troupes in that their material didn’t rely primarily on spoofs of television shows and movies, or doing impressions. Instead, like Monty Python, the troupe was more anarchic in its approach to exploitable material. The 22-disc “The Kids in the Hall: The Complete Series Megaset” is comprised of nearly 800 sketches; oral histories and interviews with cast members; a chat with Michaels; audio commentaries; 10 best-of compilations; more than 90 minutes of original performances from the Rivoli Theater; rarely seen archival footage; a complete sketch listing; poster gallery; and cast bios.

Last year, the “Kids” reunited for “Death Comes to Town,” an eight-episode mini-series set in the small town of Shuckton, Ontario, whose leaders consider it to be in the running to host the 2028 Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, it also is enmeshed in a pair of related mysteries, involving the murder of the mayor and subsequent disappearance of his corpse. Everyone in town, including the man’s wife, is considered a suspect at one time or another. Meanwhile, the human manifestation of Death (looking slightly warmed over) has moved into the No Tell Motel and frequents a tavern, where he seduces women by nibbling on their toes. Because the show is linear and not sketch-based, mainstream viewers could find a lot to their liking in “Death Comes to Town.”

Made in Mexico for presentation on HBO’s various Spanish-language channels, “Capadocia” is a non-traditional telenovella in which a diverse group of women suddenly find themselves sharing space in an experimental prison complex in Mexico City. The prisoners get caught up, as well, in a scheme to provide cheap forced labor to businesses in exchange for the financial maintenance of the facility. The show’s atypically gritty texture recalls an earlier HBO prison-based series, “Oz,” and is available now with subtitled dialogue.

The week’s best news, perhaps, arrives in the long-awaited release of “The Best of the Dean Martin Variety Show,” previously only available directly through Time-Life ads and program-length infomercials. As host, the co-founder of the Rat Pack endeared himself to audiences by coming off as someone completely detached from the day-to-day workings of the show, which he was. Contractually, he was allowed to skip rehearsals and other such preparatory nonsense. Dino often arrived at the studio with only enough time to spare to change into his tuxedo and finish his cocktail. It gave the long-running show an air of unpolished spontaneity uncommon for its day and welcomed by his fans. When Martin slid down the fireman’s pole and opened the door next to the bar on the set, even he didn’t know who might be standing behind it. Among the great stars recalled in the set are Jack Benny, George Burns, Jonathan Winters, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Orson Welles, Don Rickles, Dom DeLuise, Don Adams, Rodney Dangerfield, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Griffith, Paul Lynde, Lou Jacobi, Nipsey Russell, Dinah Shore, Michael Landon, Peggy Lee, Jack Jones, Juliet Prowse and Joel Grey. Martin would perform duets with visiting singers and dance when the occasion arose, and, despite the lack of rehearsals, they always looked pretty good. Each new DVD release comes with an extra hour of interviews with the stars. It’s truly a welcome addition to my DVD library.

Considering that Ronald Reagan’s long list of achievements doesn’t include being commander-in-chief during a period of prolonged war, it remains a mystery to many Americans as to how his mythic status continues to grow. He did many swell things, but, let’s face it, it’s become painfully obvious that his laissez faire approach to economics and undercutting of regulatory agencies led inevitably to our current financial malaise. Reagan and members of his GOP fan club accepted most of the credit for lifting the Iron Curtain, even though Pope John Paul II and programmers at MTV Europe probably did more for the cause of freedom there than any of the president’s speechwriters. Still, in the absence of anyone better to rally behind, Republicans continue to invoke Reagan’s name whenever they’re asked about their own non-existent solutions. To mark the centennial of the 40th U.S. president’s birth, History contributed the 90-minute bio-doc “Reagan,” which chronicles his career milestones and explains his great appeal as a movie star and politician.  It employs archival footage and personal interviews in an attempt to look behind the mythic façade. Any more detailed analysis of his political legacy probably would take the form of long, boring mini-series. I’m not holding my breath.

Ever wonder how the brain works? So have countless other generations of human beings who use and misuse the wondrous organ every day to perform tasks menial and extraordinary. The fascinating PBS series “Brain Fitness” provides an update in four chapters on research that could allow us to maximize our sensory inputs and help our central computer adapt to changing conditions and stimuli. The primary source here is Dr. Michael Merzenich, of the University of California, and his colleagues in the expanding field of neuroscience.  – Gary Dretzka

Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies

If this brainy documentary teaches us anything, it’s that several of the greatest artists of our time not only enjoyed going to the movies – like everyone else on the planet — but that their work was influenced by what they saw on the big screen, as well. The birth of the cinema corresponded roughly with the emergence of cubism as an influential avant-garde art movement and the opening of the skies to mankind, through advances in the science of aerodynamics. Although Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque didn’t rush to pick up a camera and invent new genres to explore, they were sufficiently inspired by the moving images to test the limits of painting in similar ways. Photography already had forced painters to consider how the illusion of movement could be conveyed on canvas, or if such a concept was even worth pursuing. The motion-picture camera allowed newly christened filmmakers to capture movement through time and, if desired, manipulate the images they recorded. This could be accomplished by applying color directly to the celluloid, speeding up or slowing down the frame rate, or, like George Méliès, play tricks on viewers. Painters were now free to study how body parts, fabrics and other objects responded as they moved through space. Flight, of course, freed humans from the chains of gravity, and that opened new visual opportunities, as well. Since Picasso and Braque already were pushing the limits of cubism, it was natural for them to attempt to simulate movement in their paintings, while also experimenting with texture, mixed materials and the assemblage of independent pieces.

Produced by Martin Scorsese and Robert Greenhut, and directed by Arne Glimcher, “Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies” uses archival newsreel footage to demonstrate how cubism evolved and how the work of the masters influenced other artists. The wisdom of scholars and curators is juxtaposed with the input of such contemporary artists as Chuck Close, Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel, who’s excelled in both mediums. The DVD arrives with the classic

short films, “Slippery Jim” (1910), “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and “Frankenstein” (1910), as well as an hour’s worth of early experimental pieces. – Gary Dretzka

A Thousand Clowns

Patty Hearst

Stolen Hours

The Ceremony

Much has been written about how studios might attempt to maximize their revenues by taking the middle man out of the financial equation. One way of doing this is to offer customers and distributors, such as Amazon, direct access to an ever-growing library of classic DVDs and manufacture product on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. Typically, the titles offer few, if any frills beyond the visual and audio presentation. It limits marketing and production costs, while also controlling the number of discs that otherwise would be relegated to remainder bins in supermarkets and truck stops. This serves to maintain the true value of the product.

This month’s selection from MGM includes “A Thousand Clowns” and “Patty Hearst,” both long-awaited on DVD; the Susan Hayward three-tissue weepie, “Stolen Hours”; and Laurence Harvey’s darker-than-noir crime drama, “The Ceremony.” Anyone who came of age in mid-1960s will remember Fred Coe and Herb Gardner’s delightful New York-set comedy, “A Thousand Clowns,” which, like “King of Hearts,” extolled the virtues of individualism and ridiculed Eisenhower-era complacency and conformity. Jason Robards is wonderful as a writer on a network kids’ show, who, one day, decides he’s through with working and will henceforth fill his days celebrating life. This would be fine and dandy if he only had himself to support. Instead, he’s raising a nephew, who pretty much adopts his uncle’s philosophies toward life. Child-welfare officials determine that the boy’s genius-level mind is being ill-served by his guardian’s iconoclastic behavior and try to place him in a more “appropriate” foster home. A test of wills and wit ensues.

I’m surprised that Paul Schrader’s “Patty Hearst” is only now arriving in DVD. All aspects of the abduction, pursuit and trial of the newspaper heiress – as the 19-year-old Hearst was most commonly identified in the media – were followed obsessively by the media and her culpability in a series of bank robberies still is debated … although far less fervently, today.  If the movie seems to favor Hearst’s interpretation of her ordeal, post-arrest and trial, it’s because Schrader adapted her memoirs, from a screenplay by Nicholas Kazan. Even so, it’s difficult to say with any certainty that Hearst was successfully brainwashed or, for her own reasons, went over to the dark side. The director eliminates all of the usual flourishes that come with true-crime dramas made in Hollywood, by sticking to the unvarnished details revealed in the memoirs. Anyone who wants to understand what happened to the American dream of Flower Power and clenched-fist politics in the 1970s shouldn’t miss “Patty Hearst.” Or, watch it simply to admire Natasha Richardson’s brilliant portrayal. – Gary Dretzka

Prime 9: MLB Heroics

MLB Bloopers: Deluxe Doubleheader

Attend a baseball game at any Major League stadium, then, between innings, resist the urge to rush to the lavatory or concession stand. Scan the faces of the fans who remain seated and you’d think the only reason most of them purchased a ticket was to see themselves on the Jumbotron and enjoy the highlight and blooper reels. Thanks to the synergistic folks at MLB, the same packages of clips can be purchased for viewing between innings of the games you watch on TV.

“Prime 9: MLB Heroics” contains three hours of plays, hits, pitches and games considered to be among the most significant in the sport’s history. Feel free to argue amongst yourselves about the feats that made the cut and those snubbed, because that’s what baseball is all about, too.  “MLB Bloopers” overflows with moments that will never see the light of day in Cooperstown, N.Y. Also included are “MLB Bloopers: The Funny Side of Baseball” and “MLB Bloopers: Baseball’s Best Blunders.” Among the chapters are “Mascot Mayhem,” “Fun With Gum,” “Fandemonium,” “Tarp Troubles” and “Blooper Stories.” Need I point out that these MLB packages practically scream, “Family entertainment!”? – Gary Dretzka

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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