MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: The Island, Unknown, Cedar Rapids, Poison, Women in Cages, Andrei Arsenevitch …

The Island
There’s no way to adequately synopsize Michael Bay’s latest sci-fi/action/thriller without adding a half-dozen spoiler alerts, and that’s not something I enjoy doing. What I can say about “The Island” is that it involves cloning, evil corporations and humans playing God; it’s chock full of exciting stunt work and chases, most accomplished without the aid of digital actors; and critics didn’t hate the movie nearly as much as they’ve despised previous Bay popcorn epics. OK, one spoiler alert: none of it takes place on an island.

We meet co-stars Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson early in the proceedings, as they go about their daily chores – exercising, eating well and attending mandated spa sessions, among them — in a giant warehousing the facility somewhere on Earth, circa 2019. Through McGregor, mostly, we learn that facility is hermetically sealed from the outside world, ostensibly to prevent the occupants from becoming contaminated by the same toxic air we’re told destroyed humanity as we know it. Despite the threat of imminent death, the residents are surprisingly placid. That’s because they’ve been promised eternal refuge on an island that could be a suburb of the Garden of Eden. First, though, their name must be chosen in a lottery. Although romantic entanglements are strictly forbidden, McGregor and Johansson work out their sexual tension in martial-arts demonstrations. Naturally, in the midst of all this programmed placidity, a couple of discordant voices occasionally can be heard.

One belongs to a researcher played by Steve Bushemi, who sticks out here like Billy the Exterminator at a sorority tea. It is when McGregor’s Lincoln Six Echo begins asking surprisingly existential questions of Bushemi’s James McCord that “The Island” begins challenging our expectations. Could it be that this Bay product won’t be one long chase, with some pyrotechnics and loud noises thrown in for variety’s sake? Indeed, Bay maintains the intelligence of Caspian Tredwell-Owens’ thought-provoking story – close enough to the 1979 thriller, “The Clonus Horror,” to have prompted a lawsuit and payout by DreamWorks — while providing enough slam-bang action to satisfy the fans boys in the audience. There’s also a romantic through-line, involving Lincoln and Johansson’s Jordan Two Delta, which isn’t as spicy as it is genuinely humorous.

The Blu-ray’s audio/video presentation is excellent, even considering “The Island” was released originally in 2005. (This is its American debut in hi-def.) The bonus features will make Bay’s fans happy, as they focus primarily on the creation of action sequences and stunts, a couple of which didn’t turn out as expected. The director provides audio commentary, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Unknown: Blu-ray
Liam Neeson was no stranger to fans of hard-core action before he struck gold as the take-no-prisoners CIA veteran, Bryan Mills, whose daughter is kidnapped by ruthless Albanians in Pierre Morel’s “Taken.” The former Guinness employee and amateur-boxing champ for Northern Ireland had long established his manly- man credentials in such boisterous pictures as “Rob Roy,” “Darkman,” “Star Wars: Episode One,” “Batman Begins” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” It was willingness to participate, as well, in more romantic and contemplative fare — “Schindler’s List,” “Love Actually,” “Kinsley,” “Husbands and Wives,” “Nell” — that might have made genre nuts suspect his hard-guy resolve. “Unknown” is a very different movie from the hugely successful “Taken” – and far less popular “The A-Team,” which arrived in between – in that the latter is a case study of sustained violence, while the former is a smart psychological thriller. This fact didn’t prevent studio marketing geniuses from implying that “Unknown” was a sequel to “Taken,” when the films only shared European settings – Paris and Berlin – car chases, weaponry and blond actors.

“Unknown” doesn’t give up much in the way of clues during the first two-thirds of its narrative, maintaining the suspense until the balloon almost bursts. Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a respected American bio-technologist on his way to Germany for a presentation on a product that could greatly ease world hunger. Just as he’s about to check into a swank hotel with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), Harris realizes that he’s misplaced a bag and hops a cab back to the airport. Traffic being what it is in such thrillers, the drive is interrupted by some really bad drivers. The cab careens off the street and crashes into a river, requiring the driver, Gina (Diana Kruger), to rescue him from drowning. The fun begins when Harris awakens from a short coma in a hospital and isn’t able to convince the doctors of his identity. Neither can he recall precisely why he was in the cab in the first place. Gina has long since vanished and no one else has come around trying to claim him. Ever so slowly, Harris begins to remember things that he believes to be true, but others can’t confirm. They include his marriage to Elizabeth, who’s seen in the company of a different Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn), and relationship with other important scientists attending the conference.

The more Harris remembers about his past, the less the people closest to him are willing to validate his story. It’s the kind of conundrum that proves every bit as bewildering for the audience as the protagonist. Working off a screenplay adapted from Didier Van Cauwelaert’s novel, “Out of My Head,” director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan”) maintains a high level of tension throughout “Unknown.” He drops clues throughout the narrative, but only to suggest that something far more sinister awaits Harris. He also requires of viewers that they take sides when it comes to Elizabeth and Gina, and warm to a former East German spy, who, before the wall came down, probably did some awful things to good people. If, occasionally, viewers are required to suspend their disbelief to near-record levels, it doesn’t ruin much of the intrigue. The Blu-ray presentation is perfectly fine, even if the bonus package is underwhelming. – Gary Dretzka

Cedar Rapids
There’s something of the Everyman in Ed Helms, an actor who, until recently, blended into the woodwork of every film and TV show in which he appeared. It wasn’t until Andy Bernard, Helms’ ever-evolving character on “The Office,” was able to make the transition from the Dunder-Mifflin branch, in Stamford, to the Scranton office that audiences began to appreciate his subtle comedic chops. By relieving Andy of his anger-management issues and sycophantic relationship with boss Michael Scott, Helms was given the opportunity to shape the show’s first regular character not conceived originally for the BBC series. As square as can be, Helms nevertheless possessed a mischievous sense of humor and desire to be one of the gang. His breakthrough role on film came in “The Hangover,” in which he played Stu, the dentist and chronically cautious and manifestly pussy-whipped groomsman. Here, too, Helms’ character evolved from victim to hero, before our very eyes.

It will be interesting to see if Helms can make the leap from comedy to drama or romance, and back again, as such previous Everyman types as Jack Lemmon, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart repeatedly were able to do. In “Cedar Rapids,” anyway, the Atlanta native deftly proves he can handle the lead role in a comedy that flirts with serious issues. His Tim Lippe is an insurance salesman for a successful agency in Brown Valley, Wisconsin, the kind of town residents don’t leave for very long, except during deer-hunting season or a grandchild has been born and mom needs a little help. The agency has repeatedly been accorded top honors in regional competition, thanks primarily to one salesman’s gregarious personality and enthusiasm for the insurance game. When he’s found hanging from the ceiling of his home, with a rope around his neck and pants around his ankles, Tim is enlisted to take his place at the convention and bring home the bacon. As usual, the annual convention is being held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a quintessentially Midwestern city that’s nearly as generic as Tim. For someone who’s never been on a plane and thinks the hotel’s indoor pool is a reasonable facsimile of a Caribbean beach, Cedar Rapids might as well be Paris.

The twist in Miguel Arteta’s comedy is that the convention’s mystique — in Tim’s eyes, at least — is founded on several completely false presumptions. Primary among them is that the participants are there to conduct business, not act like unchaperoned frat boys, and that organization’s officers aren’t susceptible to bribery. Almost immediately, Tim falls in with the wrong crowd, including a randy redhead (Anne Heche) and a ne’er-do-well screwball (John C. Reilly). He also befriends the town prostitute (Alia Shawkat) – could she be the only one? – he mistakes for a representative of the chamber of commerce. Tim eventually succumbs to most of the temptations presented him, including skinny-dipping in the pool, sleeping with another man’s wife, getting blotto on booze and crystal meth, and paying off the same judge as his predecessor did. What’s that about crystal meth? It’s one of the kinks Arteta and writer Phil Johnson built into “Cedar Rapids,” demonstrating a willingness to probe some of the same dark territory as “The Hangover.” Another has Tim involved in an affair with his former 7th Grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver), which she considers strictly sexual and he thinks could lead to marriage. Not surprisingly, all the kinks finally work themselves out and Cheesehead Nation can get back to normal. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a gag reel; the featurettes, “Mike O’Malley: Urban Clogger,” “Tweaking in the USA,” “Wedding Belle: Crashing a Lesbian Wedding,” “Convention Connection”; a Fox Movie Channel profile of Arteta; BD-Live functionality; and a digital copy. – Gary Dretzka

Poison: 20th Anniversary Edition
I must have been dozing when, in 1991, Todd Haynes’ debut feature caused such conservative grandstanders as Donald Wildmon, Dick Armey, Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell to threaten to hold their breaths and turn blue, if the government didn’t stop funding such homoerotic films as “Poison.” At the time, the American Family Association had already condemned “Three’s Company,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “Dallas,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” while also calling for boycotts of Disney theme parks, Sears and Blockbuster. So, the campaign against “Poison” hardly registered as news. Even so, politicians paid lip service, at least, to the rabid right and its spokespersons, causing grief for curators and gallery owners. Haynes had already made a bit of noise among indie buffs for his short film, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” which used Barbie dolls to describe the singer’s battle with anorexia. After the release of “Poison,” he would go on to write and direct “Safe,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Far From Heaven,” “I’m Not There” and “Mildred Pierce.” With an Oscar nomination and a pair of Indie Spirit trophies to his credit, Haynes’ position on the A-list couldn’t be any more secure.

Even viewed from a distance of 20 years, it’s easy to see what might have gotten a few blue noses out of joint. “Poison” made no attempt to disguise its gay-positive intentions and the love scenes pushed boundaries established by most ratings boards. Overtly transgressive in tone, the triptych is comprised of stories – “Hero,” “Horror,” “Homo” – inspired by Jean Genet. All are informed by distinctly different visual style and genre conventions. “Hero” unspools as a parody of television news coverage of tragic events, in which bubble-headed correspondents make snap psychological judgments, based solely on the testimony of neighbors, teachers and acquaintances with scant knowledge of the facts. Here, the conjecture follows the murder of a suburban man, who, while physically abusing his wife, was shot by their 7-year-old son. The reporter is most perplexed by the mom’s admission that the boy then walked to an open window and was carried into the sky by a blast of wind, disappearing in midair.

“Horror” is modeled after a B-movie horror flick from the 1950s, in which a scientist becomes horribly deformed after consuming a vial of the substance upon which he had been experimenting. Normally, the man wouldn’t have been stupid to make such a mistake, but, momentarily distracted by the sashaying butt of a female admirer, he accidentally gulps it down. It causes a horrific skin condition, resembling leprosy, which terrifies and sickens everyone he meets. Finally, it turns him into a sociopathic monster. Haynes compares the hysteria to that which accompanied early news reports about AIDS, which blamed the victims as much as the disease, itself, for the epidemic. “Homo,” the story most clearly influenced by Genet, described an obsessive sexual relationship between two prison inmates and the occasionally grotesque initiation rites conducted by other convicts. The newly restored and digitally transferred edition of “Poison” adds a Q&A with Haynes, producer Christine Vachon and executive producer James Schamus, held after a retrospective screening at Sundance; a 1999 audio commentary by Haynes, Vachon, and star/editor James Lyons; original poster concepts and collages by Haynes; behind-the-scenes Polaroids by Kelly Reichardt; Ira Sachs’ “Last Address,” a homage to New York artists taken before their time by AIDS; an original 1991 U.S. theatrical trailer; English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired; and a 16-page booklet. – Gary Dretzka

The Women in Cages Collection: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics
Blood Bath
Mega Python vs. Gatoroid
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Hamlet/Gunslinger

Before Pam Grier became the first lady of blaxploitation films, she was a receptionist at American International Pictures. While there, the strikingly attractive and impressively built young woman was discovered by Jack Hill, who would direct “The Big Doll House” and “The Big Bird Cage” for Roger Corman’s fledgling New World Pictures. As the maestro explains in the one of the featurettes contained in “The Women in Cages Collection,” he had just split from AIP and needed a sure-fire hit to launch his company. Women-in-prison pictures had been a B-movie staple for decades, but none had been released in a while and restrictions on nudity had eased greatly in the interim. Corman gave Hill a $125,000 budget and sent him to the Philippines, with Grier in tow, to bring one back alive. “The Big Doll House” returned $10 million, a huge sum in 1971. Grier might as well have bought a condo in Manila, as she would return twice in the next two years, for Gerardo De Leon’s “Women in Cages” and Hill’s “The Big Bird Cage.”

Made specifically for the drive-in crowd, the trilogy gave audiences all the gunplay, sadistic guards, hardened cons, torture, breasts flopping out of shirts, mud fights, shower scenes and hell-hole conditions they could stand, while also providing interludes for viewers to neck and make sprints to the concession stand. Grier plays different roles in all three of movies and looks terrific whether she’s getting whipped or doing the whipping herself. Budgetary limitations required the directors to employ a largely Filipino cast, with the local women mostly in subsidiary roles and native men in key positions. (In one story, all of the male prison guards are gay.) A handful of beautiful American actresses accompanied Grier to the remote locations, several of which would be used nearly a decade later by Francis Ford Coppola for “Apocalypse Now.” Among them were Judy Brown, Roberta Collins, Carol Jeffries, Anitra Ford and Carol Speed. Sid Haig, already well on his way to becoming a cult favorite, appeared in both of the Hill productions. To say they’re a hoot to watch is only to state the obvious.

Released in 1966, through AIP, “Blood Bath” (a.k.a., “Track of the Vampire”) retains something of a legendary status in the Corman canon, and is noteworthy here for its links to Hill, Haig and, tangentially, Coppola. It began life as a Yugoslavian production, “Operation Titian,” a movie to which Coppola contributed some ideas but Corman deemed unreleasable. Not one to waste footage, Corman asked Hill to shoot new scenes in California. They would be combined with some location and background material cribbed from the Yugoslavian shoot. (AIP would release “Titian” as “Portrait in Terror.”) Still too short for theatrical release, Stephanie Rothman was hired to add more scenes, including the vampire hook. What began as an art-theft mystery, eventually was transformed into a women-in-jeopardy thriller, with the killer (William Campbell) mutating from an artist who tortured his models to a vampire who couldn’t dial down his bloodlust. If the vampire and the painter don’t look as if they’re related, it’s because Rothman brought in an uncredited actor to stand in for the killer.

Somehow, miraculously, the movie holds together, but only in a distinctly campy sort of way. The black-and-white cinematography really pops on DVD, bringing out all of the directors’ noir and German Expressionist conceits, as well as some sunnier tableaux inspired, no doubt, by Dali. More amusing are characters added by Hill — including Haig, as Abdul the Arab – who could serve as the missing ancestral link between beatniks and hippies. Trivia freaks might recognize two of the damsels in distress as onetime Playboy centerfold Marissa Mathes and Lori Saunders, who would become a regular on “Petticoat Junction” and “Dusty’s Trail,” while also contributing her world-class good looks and physique to “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet,” “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” For his part, Campbell would forever be known – outside of Hollywood, anyway – as the first husband of Judith Campbell Exner, who, thanks to former lover Frank Sinatra, would become President John F. Kennedy and mobster Sam Giacona’s mistress, thus altering the course of world history. (MGM is making the DVD available on a manufacturing-on-demand basis.)

The story behind Syfy’s made-for-cable “Mega Python vs. Gatoroid” is of the ripped-from-the-headlines variety. The offspring of imported pythons really are competing for swamp space with native alligators and some of the critters are of imposing size. The point where truth collides with fiction, though, is the pairing of 1980s pop icons Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, whose long-ago rivalry is reflected in the nonsensical actions of their activist and park ranger characters in the Everglades (actually the Los Angeles County Arboretum, in Arcadia). Beyond that gimmick, “MPvG” is no better constructed than previous bargain-basement Syfy gems. If only the producers could have convinced the stars to take a cue from Grier and have the gargantuan reptiles shred their tops during a catfight, the picture might have amounted to something. A Martinez and Mickey Dolenz – yes, that one – also star in the picture.

The latest chew toys for the crew of MST3000’s Satellite of Love arrive in the form of a pair of movies with one-word titles, “Gunslinger” and “Hamlet.” Produced and directed by Roger Corman, “Gunslinger” stars Beverly Garland as the widow of a marshal murdered in the line of duty. Undeterred, the feisty blond Texan picks up her husband’s badge and pistol, pulls on some britches and goes after both the varmint who shot her man and the saloon floozies who egged him on in the 1956 non-classic.

The “Hamlet” skewered by Mike, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot originated on German television in 1960 and starred Maximilian Schell in the title role. It may not make anyone forget the versions starring Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, but even bad “Hamlet” is better than 90 percent of the decidedly dreadful dreck shown on “MST3000.” The Bard wins this round, though. – Gary Dretzka

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch
Film buffs and arthouse patrons would do well to track down the new Icarus Films release, “One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch,” Chris Marker’s homage to the life and work of the great Russian director/writer/actor, Andrei Tarkovsky. The documentary was originally shown on French television in 1988, I believe, two years after the filmmaker’s death. It would re-surface in 2000, at festivals and in New York. It has been newly re-packaged on DVD, with short films by Sergei Dvortsevoy and Marina Goldovskaya. Marker’s is the most interesting, by far.

At the time of his death, to cancer, Tarkovsky was widely considered to be the most important Soviet filmmaker since Sergei Eisenstein. Still is, probably, even by some of the same bureaucrats who censored his films and drove the director into exile. Although his directorial output was limited to less than a dozen movies – “Solaris” being the most recognized, here — they are so masterfully constructed, beautifully shot and metaphysically deep as to be instant classics. Marker’s film covers three separate aspects of Tarkovsky’s life: his evolution as an artist, his life in exile and his creative process. Being a friend, Marker had access to the filmmaker on location, while shooting “The Sacrifice,” and at his deathbed, where he finally was able to reunite with family members he left behind in Russia. Marker’s narration also delves into Tarkovsky’s influences – including Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman – and impact on the international cinema. Rare glimpses into his early work as a director and actor – an adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Killers” among them – and later stage productions. It’s a fascinating documentary, easily accessible to cineastes, students and buffs, alike.

Dvortsevoy’s “In the Dark” tells the story of an elderly blind man, living alone in the suburbs of Moscow, where he hand crafts string bags and gives them away to pedestrians … or attempts to, anyway. Among the obstacles in his way to an easily measured existence is his beloved white cat, who finds it difficult to maneuver within the cluttered apartment without knocking over stacks of paper and other objects.

Marina Goldovskaya’s “Three Songs About the Motherland” tackles distinctly different aspects of life in the post-Soviet Russia. Each segment could have been introduced by Dickensian apparitions, for what they say about the emergence of a new society. The Ghosts of Russia Past arrive in the form of men and women who helped build Stalin’s “city of communist dreams,” Komsomolsk-on-Amur, in what was then the middle of nowhere. They also survived various ideological and political purges, World War II, the Soviet-era economic doldrums and Vladimir Putin’s interpretation of democracy. Sadly, the Ghost of Russia Present is represented by interviews with Anna Politkovskaya, a extremely personable journalist and fervent human-rights activist, who, soon after, would be assassinated. The Ghost of Russia Yet to Come is found in Khanty-Mansijsk, one of the main centers of Siberia’s now-booming oil industry. It is as far from Moscow and the once-glorious Marxist dream state as one can get and still be in Russia. – Gary Dretzka

Park Row
The Big Boodle

Each month, Fox’s manufacturing-on-demand program offers a dozen or so titles from the MGM vault, which it controls. They look good on DVD, but don’t offer much, if anything in the way of bonus features. The primary thing they have in common is the studios’ belief that following traditional distribution routes, when combined with the costs of marketing and creating featurettes, would make the program a losing proposition. And, it’s difficult to argue against that notion. Another thing they share is niche appeal, whether it springs from specific actors or directors involved, or the popularity of the genres, including crime, sci-fi, horror, tragic romance or exploitation. Besides the aforementioned “Blood Beach,” the new movies that interested me most from this month’s crop are Sam Fuller’s ode to the days when newspapers mattered, “Park Row,” and the Errol Flynn vehicle, “The Big Boodle,” which was shot in Cuba, at about the same time as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were setting up camp in the Sierra Maestra.

Fuller, who spent much of his youth in the tabloid dodge, set “Park Row” in New York in the 1880s, when newspapers were plentiful and they served as the social network of their day. The movie opens where most newspaper sagas originate: at the bar of a tavern where ink-stained wretches gather to swap lies and complain about their employers. A reporter (Gene Evans) is drowning his sorrow over his newspaper’s complicity in the execution of an innocent man, when he’s approached by his former publisher (Mary Welch), who looks as if she had just left a dress rehearsal for “Hello Dolly.” Her callous attitude about the executed man and working people, in general, prompts a group of the sots to start their own crusading broadsheet. Its early success ignites a messy newspaper war. What makes “Park Row” special is the palpable degree of enthusiasm Fuller invests in the story and his belief in journalism’s essential role in our democracy. It’s also clear that Fuller’s working at the top his game here, without the encumbrance of several layers of industry suits telling him what to do.

In 1957, Flynn wasn’t the same swashbuckling matinee idol he’d been in decades past. In fact, he looks downright haggard, as a seen-it-all croupier whose trail likely will end in a Havana casino. Things get interesting for him – in the worst sort of way – when he spots a delicious dame slipping him a counterfeit bill to cover a bet. Because dealers are liable for any phony bills that pass through their hands, Flynn tracks down the woman who left it. Within seconds, he’s being attacked by thugs for no discernible reason and arrested for trying to conceal the whereabouts of printing plates he has no idea existed, previously. To clear himself, Flynn is required to solve the mystery himself, while avoiding the knives, clubs and bullets of thugs hired by God-knows-who. If there’s nothing particularly special about the story, the scenes shot in the streets of Old Havana are a real treat. They include an elaborate chase staged at the historic La Cabaña fortress, which doubled as a prison for several generations of despots, including the one soon to take power. – Gary Dretzka

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
There’s a huge difference, I think, between so-called family films and PG-rated pictures that ’tweens and kids in their early teens would enjoy a whole lot more if mom, dad and their younger siblings weren’t in the same room. Naturally, the most self-conscious moments come during the mushy scenes, when adult filmmakers recreate the awkwardness that accompanies the onset of puberty. The second installment of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” – Greg Heffley’s illustrated journal, as conceived by best-selling author Jeff Kinney — is full of such potentially embarrassing moments. It’s also pretty much critic-proof. “Rodrick Rules” follows the Heffley boys as they learn to love each other, instead of compete for the attention of their parents, classmates and girls. Wimpy Greg is at that weird place in the life of every boy, when he realizes that he’s attracted to girls, but they’re all tall enough to look over the top of his head at older boys. Rodrick is a drummer in a rock band, with aspirations of becoming a party animal. Mom and dad try to keep things in order, but are always the last to know when calamitous things are about to happen. The extras include commentary by Kinney and director David Bowers. – Gary Dretzka

For those Americans who like their porn on the arty side – harder than soft core, softer than hand core, and with a bit of a story on the side – very few options are available. With the exception of Andrew Blake and the studios with a stable of contract stars, the choices tend to come down to XXX parodies of popular television shows and movies or gonzo. Radley Metzger may have been the first director to import European sensibilities about erotica to American arthouses, but it wouldn’t be long before a line was drawn between the sex on exhibit in “Deep Throat” and that in “Emmanuelle,” neither of which were particularly arty but made lots of money. Thereafter, anyone willing to accept minimal returns, in return for realizing an artistic vision, would be left in the dust. This included some attempts by major studios seeking middle ground. If anything, the graphic nudity and explicit dialogue in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” kept most viewers from appreciating a story that raised interesting questions about communication, neediness and the barriers between men and women. (In 1976, Nagisa Oshima’s even more graphic “In the Realm of the Senses” would take sexual obsession to a more discomfiting place, entirely.) It would be a long time before such risk-takers as directors Catherine Breillat, Pedro Almodovar, Larry Clark, Mira Nair, Peter Greenaway, Patrice Chereau and Michael Winterbottom – actors Tilda Swinton and Isabelle Huppert, too — attempted to portray sexuality from a woman’s point of view. If any of their films made money here, it would have been more shocking than anything on screen.

Thus, it’s been left to niche distributors, including Strand Releasing, to make available independently financed American and foreign-language titles – straight and gay – that push the limits on depictions of sex on film. They’ve ranged recently from the sweetly risqué comedy “Irina Palm” to far more explicit films, like “Bedways.” In R.P. Kahl’s erotic drama, a Berlin-based director attempts to make a movie that says something meaningful about the blurring of lines separating love, sex and acting. In her pursuit of honest depictions of sex, Nina invites her actor friends, Hans and Marie, to her large flat for screen tests. These tests quickly evolve into something more closely resembling group experimentation, which, of course, sets other dynamics into motion. Before going much further, Nina decides that the boundaries are insurmountable, but the intoxication that comes with passion and power may be something worth pursuing, if only for her own sake. “Bedways” is interesting, as well, for Kahl’s decision to cast women who are neither movie-star perfect nor classically sensuous, in or out of their clothes. (The male actor is no prize, either, but men’s flaws are more easily forgiven.) The film isn’t likely to enter the pantheon of erotica, but it feels genuine throughout. It did well on the European festival circuit, garnering positive notices. – Gary Dretzka

Neil Young’s Music Box: Here We Are in the Years
One Night Only: The A.I.M.S. Gala/Willie and the Poor Boys
Spectacle: Elvis Costello With …
Yes: Yesspeak: 35th Anniversary
Rick Wakeman: Made In Cuba
Radiohead: Arms & Legs: The Story So Far

By now, I’ve watched so many Neil Young bio-docs that they’ve all become something of a blur. There are times when I’m able to anticipate the expert testimony of friends, colleagues, historians and critics before it’s delivered, as if the quotes were on a tape loop. One of things that distinguish “Here We Are in the Years” is the tight focus on the pioneers of rock ’n’ roll who’ve influenced Young’s music throughout his entire 50-year career. They include such disparate artists as Little Richard, Elvis, the Shadows, the Fireballs, Dick Dale, the Guess Who, Bob Dylan and Bert Jansch. Growing up in Toronto and Winnipeg, the teenage “guitar nerd” was able to study touring bands from the United States, Canada and Great Britain, several of which recorded instrumentals exclusively. After the first wave of the British Invasion hit American and Canadian shores, Young adopted a mop-top hairdo and the irreverent air of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Then, it was on to Los Angeles, where superstardom awaited him and unprofitable experimentation was rewarded with derision. “Here We Are in the Years” is rescued from PhD-thesis territory by the inclusion of dozens of archival clips of young people dancing and making music — kept short to avoid licensing problems — and easily translatable analysis of down-to-earth witnesses. Remarkably, Young has been able to keep his older fans happy, while continuing to add new ones, thanks to endorsements from prominent members of the new generation of rockers. I suppose Young’s cross-generational appeal could potentially qualify “Here We Are in the Years” as a family picture.

The connecting tissue in the “One Night Only” collections, “The A.I.M.S. Gala” and “Willie and the Poor Boys,” belongs to longtime Rolling Stone bass player Bill Wyman. Both concert films, rescued from the dust gathering in Wyman’s archives, represent collaborative efforts to benefit up-and-coming British ensembles (Ambitions, Ideas, Motivation, Success) and Ronnie Lane’s Appeal for A.R.M.S. (Action for Research Into Muscular Sclerosis). A.I.M.S. gave young bands a chance to record and perform alongside established acts, including Wyman, Wood, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde, Chris Rea, Phil Collins, Ian Dury and Terence Trent D’Arby. A Europe-wide series of “Battle of the Bands” auditions was staged, with the finalists going on to Royal Albert Hall at the 1988 AIMS Gala. The DVD takes an all-access approach, with backstage footage, comedians and fresh acts.

Willie and the Poor Boys is an on-going side project associated, at various times, with Wyman, Charlie Watts, Kenney Jones, Jimmy Page, Paul Rodgers, Chris Rea, Andy Fairweather-Low, Geraint Watkins, Mickey Gee, and Henry Spinetti. In March 1985, the core members of the band and such additional guests as Ringo Starr turned up at London’s Fulham Town Hall to make a benefit concert film. A making-of documentary accompanies footage of the digitally remastered show.

The Sundance Channel has a winner in “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With …,” a weekly hourlong show during which the English singer/songwriter listens to, chats with and performs alongside some of the biggest names in popular music. It’s refreshing, because everyone looks as if they’re happy to be on the set – even without product to push — and the conversations speak to some of the same questions asked by knowledgeable fans. The list of second-season guests include Bono and the Edge, Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, Ron Sexsmith, Bruce Springsteen, Jesse Winchester, Allen Toussaint, Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe, Levon Helm, John Prine, Ray LaMontagne and Mary-Louise Parker.

Back in the 1970s, progressive-rock was to blues-based rock ’n’ roll what margarine is to butter. It looked, tasted and spread like the real thing, but there was something missing … and it wasn’t the cow. Prog-rock emerged from the rotting corpse of psychedelia, forgoing the flowers, beads and drum solos, while adding literary references, synthesizers and orchestration Elvis Presley and Big Mama Thornton wouldn’t serve to their hound dogs. Nonetheless, prog rock had its admirers – millions of them – and if it didn’t rock, exactly, it rolled along rhythmically at lengths ranging from 10 to 60 minutes per cut. Some lyrics have stuck to the sides of my cranial cavity, like barnacles on an abandoned freighter. Yes inarguably was one of the best and most popular of its purveyors and, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of its birth, the “classic lineup” reunited for this three-hour film, narrated by Roger Daltrey. Each of the members – Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White, Rick Wakeman – is given a generous showcase for their contributions. Wakeman also is represented in “Made in Cuba,” which chronicles his musical mission to Havana, in 2005, in the company of the English Rock Ensemble. They performed a series of concerts, including the one shown here, at the Karl Marx Theatre. The playlist includes songs from “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” “Journey to the Centre of the Earth,” “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table” and “Out There,” as well as Yes favorites “Starship Trooper” and “Wurm.”

One generation’s progressive-rock is another’s alternative or experimental rock. Radiohead has been lumped into the ladder two categories, but isn’t averse to changing directions on it fans and critics every so often. The new two-disc DVD documents both the development, recording, release and aftermath of “OK Computer” and biographical examination of Radiohead’s journey from obscurity to global popularity. – Gary Dretzka

Just Write
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

In his debut feature, “Happythankyoumoreplease,” writer/director/star Josh Radnor plays a reasonably successful writer of short stories who tries to juggle his writer’s block with the pursuit of lovers and plans to adopt a black child he finds wandering around the subway, alone. This being an extension of Radnor’s hit sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” the boy is the only person of color in the movie with a role larger than “extra.” The writer falls in love with a pretty redhead named Mississippi (Kate Mara), who he meets-cute on a New York street and nearly suffocates with his neuroses. He has surrounded himself with other sitcom-ready yuppies with commitment phobias and hang-ups of their own. Indeed, as representatives of the workaholic generation, the characters do precious little actual work and way too much talking about their individual problems, which, of course, include an unplanned pregnancy, possibly having to move to L.A. for a job, dealing with a persistent doofus at the office and avoiding arrest for kidnapping a child. None is insurmountable, so it’s difficult to empathize with the characters. Naturally, “Happythankyoumoreplease” begs comparison with Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” a movie that’s far less claustrophobic and predictable. This isn’t to say Radnor’s film is without merit, though. There are several beautifully rendered exchanges of meaningful dialogue – for example, when Malin Akerman’s Annie realizes Tony Hale’s nerdy Mr. Wrong could be Mr. Right – and the actors can hardly be faulted for their enthusiastic performances. It’s also fun to listen to Mara belt out Jaymay songs that bridge pop, cabaret and show-tune idioms. The Blu-ray comes with a making-of piece that focuses on the singer-songwriter’s original music.

Made in 1997 and released on DVD a couple of times since then, “Just Write” is a modest little rom-com whose unpretentiousness belies its Hollywood-centric story and jabs at the pomposity of the movie business. It stars Sherilyn Fenn and Jeremy Piven, the former attempting to recover past glory and the ladder in desperate need of a breakthrough role. Neither would find what they were looking for in flash-in-a-pan director Andrew Gallerani’s debut film, but their performances didn’t do them any harm, either. Piven plays Harold McMurphy, a tour-bus driver who insinuates himself into the life of Fenn’s leading lady, Amanda Clark, by pretending to be a screenwriter. It never pays to fib in a romantic comedy, because it’s guaranteed to come back to kick the perpetrator in the ass. As personalities go, though, McMurphy’s is the polar opposite of Ari Gold, which keeps hope alive. Perhaps the most interesting thing about “Just Write” is the large of number of B- and C-list stars who make appearances. They include JoBeth Williams, Wallace Shawn, Alex Rocco, Jeffrey D. Sams, Costas Mandylor, Yeardley Smith, Holland Taylor, Nancy McKeon, Jay Leno and, God bless his pickled soul, Ed McMahon. That might sound like the lineup for a “very special episode” of “The Love Boat,” but Gallerani somehow makes it work.

If there’s anything about a movie that sends up a red flare for me, it’s a title that for no good reason has been borrowed from a hit pop song. As far as I can tell, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” has only been used twice, once by Hong Kong legend Johnnie To and, a decade earlier, by the producers of a British rom-com starring Anthony Edwards, Jenny Seagrave, Charles Dance and Jane Leeves. This one had the decency, at least, to include Elton John and Kiki Dee’s No. 1 hit in the movie. Not that it helped sales any. Willi Patterson’s often endearing rom-com found almost no traction outside England, despite the presence of “ER” regular, Edwards. He plays a failed American athletic trainer who becomes the inadvertent beneficiary of a hypnotic spell cast on an attractive British widow by her admiring, oddly pony-tailed dentist (the usually very proper Dance). The usual confusion about methods and motives threatens to derail the widow’s hopes for happiness. Her inability to see the forest through the trees becomes irritating after a while, but a subplot involving the trainer and her non-athletic son seals the deal. — Gary Dretzka

Playing House
Ding Dong Dead

Can a movie be considered to be a claustrophobic thriller if the action takes place in a car, travelling along hundreds of miles of backroads? In the case of J.M. Logan’s “Family,” it’s certainly more precise a description than “road movie” or “cross-country whodunit.” The occupants of the automobile – desperate characters, all – are being chased, alright, but there’s rarely a cop or adversary in sight. Jean (Renee Humphrey) is a con artist who escapes from prison and, after exchanging clothes with a hostage taken at a farmhouse, hitches a ride with a slick-looking motorist and his clearly traumatized little boy. The driver irritates Jean by asking her a lot of questions about her background and treating the boy as if he needed constant supervision and affirmation. He telegraphs deep-seeded emotional problems by putting the pedal to the metal whenever Jean questions him about the family he’s left behind and the boy’s strange behavior. Just before Jean plans to take a powder, she discovers a bagful of money, a gun and a lawman’s badge in the car’s trunk. It makes her wonder even more what might happen to the boy, who’s begged her to stay, if she escapes. The driver requires the presence of both of his hostages, so as to keep his fantasy about being a family unit alive. There’s not much in “Family” we haven’t seen before, but it manages to hold our attention and make us care deeply about the boy’s fate, if not that of the adults, both of whom we know to be hardened criminals … one more so than the other. As such, it’s one of the better straight-to-DVD movies I’ve seen in a while.

The biggest problem with some horror movies – especially those written and directed by first-timers – is the introduction of lead characters who act as if they’ve never watched anything resembling a slasher or woman-in-jeopardy flick. Otherwise, they couldn’t possibly be as clueless to the threat of imminent danger as they seem to be. “Playing House” is caught in the same trap. In Tom Vaughan’s reasonably sexy thriller, a pair of newlyweds agrees to rent out space in their new house to a dorky friend. They are surprised when he comes home one night in the company of a red-hot brunette, who’s admittedly out of his league. Even so, she seems sufficiently friendly and respectful toward the owners, whose lot in life in she clearly admires. The husband and wife don’t spend much time at home together, anyway, so they don’t object when their friends asks if she can move in with him. Why not? He’s paying rent. Anyone who can’t guess what happens in the next hour probably hasn’t watched a horror film since the first installment of “Halloween.” It’s telegraphed that far in advance. Still, the actors are attractive enough to hold our attention, so the experience is relatively painless.

The latest addition to the Creep Creepersin canon is a wildly offbeat comic thriller (sort of), in which his slacker protagonist turns the table on a gang of a goth girls terrorizing his quiet suburban neighborhood. Doug, who has just lost his job, spends most of his waking hours fantasizing about the woman across the street and watching porn. The Ding Dong Ditchers make a lot of noise, but don’t seem all that dangerous. They are annoying, however. When Doug snaps, the girls raise the ante by meeting his threats with threats of their own. They picked the wrong slacker to mess with, though, as Doug actually is willing to deliver on his promise with some wildly misogynistic violence. “Ding Dong Dead” is nuts, but of a piece with other Creepersin films I’ve seen. To its credit, it’s noticeably more coherent. – Gary Dretzka

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
If there’s something the “Ghost in the Shell” franchise can’t do – despite the title, “Stand Alone Complex” — it is to stand alone in a marketplace overflowing with anime, manga and other cartoon series targeted at adults and fanboys. The Japanese multimedia franchise began as a manga, published in 1989, in Young magazine. It wasn’t 2002 that another manga was published, followed the next year by a third installment. It also spawned two anime films, a pair of television series, novels and several video games. Coming to grips with any new installment requires a comprehensive knowledge of the events that preceded it, because very little else is revealed in the titles. Fans, however, need little encouragement when it comes jumping into the deep end.

“Ghost in the Shell” (a.k.a., “Mobile Armored Riot Police”) is set 20 or 30 years in the future, depending on when one got involved with story. It follows the activities of the counter-terrorist organization, Public Security Section 9, which is based in a cyberpunk incarnation of modern Japan. The new Blu-ray editions, “Individual Eleven,” “Solid State Economy” and “Laughing Man,” take place between 2030 and 2034, several years after the unresolved kidnapping of the president of Sereno Genomics and the end of World War IV. Ultranationalist forces are beginning to attack refugee groups brought in to help re-built the Japanese economy, and the newcomers have decided to fight back. The Blu-ray presentation is terrific, but most of the bonus features are limited to the “Solid State Economy” package. – Gary Dretzka

Louie: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Lifetime: William & Kate
Bad Blood: A Cautionary Tale
PBS: Football High/New York Street Games
Nickelodeon Favorites
Big Time Rush: Season One, Volume Two

Louis CK has been a regular on the nation’s comedy circuit for more than 20 years, opening for Jerry Seinfeld and other established comics, while also hosting at clubs and beating the bushes for stage time in the boonies. He wrote bits for Chris Rock and Conan O’Brien and began making regular appearances on the late-night talk shows and HBO specials. CK’s rough-hewn personality and edgy material found an audience among young men, especially, whose ears didn’t bleed when it drifted into rawer territory. In his first comedy series, HBO’s “Lucky Louie,” he played an adult slacker whose life resembled an X-rated version of “The Honeymooners.” Last year, FX gave him another opportunity, this time as a recently divorced father and nightclub host, who wanted to get back on the horse and ride away with a woman who made him happy, again. This time, “Louie” worked a lot better, probably because it more closely mirrored CK’s personal life. Although the material occasionally strayed into dark corners, his kids allowed him to display a softer, more vulnerable side, as well. The show’s new season begins on Thursday, so the first-season package would be a perfect place to catch up with “Louie.” The Blu-ray set adds commentary, deleted scenes and unaired and unrated standup material.

Just for the record, the Lifetime Original Movie “William & Kate” is now available on DVD, in time for the royal couple’s visit to the U.S. If there’s any justice at all, it will be the last film released on the subject until the royal pregnancy is announced and Kate’s sonograms wind up on the Internet. The Lifetime movie describes the friendship that began in college and eventually led to courtship. It stars Nico Evers-Swindell, Camilla Luddington, Ben Cross, Serena Scott-Thomas, Carole Middleton, Richard Reid and Victoria Tennant.

Shown earlier this month on PBS stations, “Bad Blood” documents how the FDA and major pharmaceutical concerns failed America’s hemophilia community by not sounding the whistle earlier on drawbacks associated with Factor concentrates. Once considered a miracle drug, it was approved by the FDA despite known risks of viral contamination, including the near-certainty of infection with hepatitis. Moreover, because each dose of Factor concentrate was made by pooling 60,000 individual blood donations, it opened the vulnerable patients to an enormous contamination risk. The bill came due in the early 1980s, when HIV found its way into the nation’s blood supply through donations by people who may or may not have known they were infected. Indeed, by the time the medication was pulled from the market, in 1985, 10,000 hemophiliacs had been infected with HIV, and 15,000 with hepatitis C. Marilyn Ness’ documentary traces the debacle, while also suggesting that the FDA has continued to keep the supply of dangerous drugs flowing, even in the face of evidence it causes more harm than good. “Bad Blood” states its case by focusing on the experiences of six families affected by this tragedy and the doctors, nurses, and scientists who cared for them.

Two sports-related documentaries from PBS have also been released this weel on DVD. “Frontline: Football High” examines how high school football has not only become commercialized, but also treated in some quarters as an adjunct to the NFL. This, of course, includes the imitation of college and pro systems, and the willingness of players to risk their well-being – while enhancing their chances for scholarships at major colleges – by taking steroids. Among other things, this means high school players are outgrowing the ability of manufacturers to provide affordable safety equipment. “New York Street Games” recalls a time and place where any kid with a stick could compete in games designed specifically for the concrete byways of the big city. Stickball is the most familiar example of makeshift sports entertainment, but other games included boxball, ringoleavio, skully and kick the can. Narrated by Hector Elizondo, Matt Levy’s film also addresses the social and cultural importance of these games and the sense of community they engendered. The DVD comes with a set of rules for the various games.

From Nickelodeon’s collection of favorite shows comes “Big Box of Play Dates 2” and “Summer Vacation.” The “Big Box” contains a whopping 417 minutes worth of material from such shows as “Dora the Explorer,” “Go, Diego, Go!,” “The Wonder Pets!,” “Blue’s Clues,” “Yo Gabba Gabba!” and “Ni Hao, Kai-lan.” In “Summer Vacation,” several of the same characters show up in episodes with summer themes.

Arriving next week, Nickelodeon’s “Team Umizoomi” is a collection of episodes in which pre-schoolers are introduced to mathematical concepts, through numbers, patterns and other key learning tools. The DVD contains four episodes, special features, a Math Mission card for on-the-go math problem solving and an appearance by singer Jordin Sparks. In addition, buyers can take advantage of a one-year free subscription to Parents Magazine.

The second volume of first-season episode from Nickelodeon’s music-filled “Big Time Rush” has also been made newly available. In addition to six episodes of the show, the set includes a making-of featurette and the pilot episode of “House of Anubis.” – Gary Dretzka

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4 Responses to “The DVD Wrapup: The Island, Unknown, Cedar Rapids, Poison, Women in Cages, Andrei Arsenevitch …”

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Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Ophelia, Ambition, Werewolf in Girls' Dorm, Byleth, Humble Pie, Good Omens, Yellowstone …More

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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