MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

DVD Wrapup: Of Gods and Men, Oblivion, Transformers Headmasters, People of Sunday, Trailers From Hell, BloodRayne …

Of Gods and Men: Blu-ray
At a time when people who believe they’ve been washed in the blood of the lamb can manipulate the words of Jesus Christ to justify blowing up abortion clinics, sexually abusing children and protecting the predators, denying marriage to same-sex couples and harassing the families of soldiers killed in combat, it’s easy to recommend a movie that understands what it truly means to be Christian. And, it has nothing to do with selling prayers on TV or denying condoms to parishioners.  That Xavier Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men” also is as intelligent and provocative a movie as one is likely to see in the season of popcorn pyrotechnics only makes it that much more worthwhile. A huge hit in France and winner of two major awards at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, “Of Gods and Men” was accorded only a limited release in the United States, and probably not within spitting distance of any Bible Belt hate-fest. More’s the pity.

“Of Gods and Men” describes what likely happened at the monastery of Tibhirine during the days and weeks before eight Trappist monks were kidnapped and killed, presumably by Islamist terrorists engaged in a nasty civil war with troops loyal to the Algerian government. I say “presumably,” because it remains unclear as to whether the monks were murdered by the Armed Islamic Group or by Algerian soldiers in a botched rescue attempt. Blessedly, the deaths aren’t shown, but the GIA has claimed responsibility, allegedly because the monks’ good works in the region indirectly qualified as proselytizing. By earlier showing the near-beheadings of Croatian migrant workers by GIA thugs, Beauvois was able to spare viewers of any further demonstration of their brutality later in the film. What’s made abundantly clear, however, is that the monks co-existed peacefully with the villagers (even the occasional wounded terrorist), without fear, favor or a desire to drag them to Christ. They considered the monks to be as much a part of their community as the bees that provided the honey the men sold in the local market.

To this end, Beauvois focuses most of his attention on the monks’ day-to-day routine of ministering to the villagers, attending to gardens and flocks, and communing with God through their prayer and chants. The first sense of dread we feel is when GIA terrorists break into the monastery and demand the doctor (Michael Lonsdale) travel with them to their outpost. Father Christian, the abbot of the monastery (Lambert Wilson), stands up to the armed men by stating unequivocally that no weapons are allowed within the walls of the complex; sick people travel to the monastery, not the other way around; and they can’t afford to hand out precious medicine. However, it is only when Christian reminds the rebel leader that they’re about to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ – the monks’ personal lord and savior, and, to Islamists, a messenger of God – that the invaders slink back into the woods. Although that storm cloud passes, there’s no question that others will soon follow. While the government encourages the monks to leave and villagers beg them to stay, the priests contemplate and debate what Jesus would want them to do.

Even though the deserted monastery continues to be maintained by villagers as if it were a shrine, “Of Gods and Men” was shot in a particularly beautiful and fertile portion of Morocco. The praying, singing and communal debate may not suit everyone’s tastes, but the ensemble cast makes the monks’ discourse sound as intellectually stimulating as anything we’re likely to see between now and awards season. The Blu-ray package includes two very good background featurettes. In one, we meet the relatives of the monks and learn more about the circumstances that led to them to Algeria in the first place, while, in the other, the author of a book about the atrocity is interviewed. – Gary Dretzka

Transformers Japanese Collection: Headmasters

While all of geekdom awaits the release of Jon Favreau’s mega-budget “Cowboys & Aliens,” a low-budget spoof of the same cinematic conceit, from 1994, is being re-released on DVD. Let’s hope for the sake of everyone involved – from fanboys to executives at Universal and DreamWorks – “Cowboys &Aliens” is at least as good-naturedly goofy and entertaining as Sam Irvin’s “Oblivion” (a.k.a., “Welcome to Oblivion”). If it isn’t, someone’s going to wish he was on a stagecoach leaving town or UFO heading to Deep Space. This isn’t to say “Oblivion” could make anyone forget “Space Balls” or, even, the more recent cowboys-vs.-ninjas epic, “The Warrior’s Way.” It is, however, several times better than the cable-originals shown on Syfy.

“Oblivion” opens with a duel between the frontier town’s human sheriff and a lizard-like creature, Redeye (Andrew Divoff, of “Wishmaster”), in front of a saloon/brothel run by Miss Kitty (Julie Newmar). When the lawman bites the dust, the aliens begin terrorizing the populace. His cyborg deputy (Meg Foster) is unable to prevent it from happening. The town’s undertaker, Gaunt (Carel Struycken, “The Addams Family”) demands that the sheriff’s pacifist son, Zack (Richard Joseph Paul), and his Native American sidekick, Buteo (Jimmy F. Skaggs), return to Oblivion to make things right. Extending the sci-fi/“Gunsmoke” conceit, George Takai plays the town’s bespectacled Doc Valentine. We know the town survives because a sequel was released two years later.

I suppose there are some people out there who believe that the “Transformers” franchise emerged fully formed from the brow of Michael Bay, but it didn’t. Others might logically assume that “Transformers” began as a Japanese television series, which was re-voiced by American actors and prompted an unprecedented rush on toy stores. In fact, the Transformers craze was the brainstorm of the American toy company, Hasbro, which had purchased the rights to the Car-Robots and Microman “Micro-Change” lines from Takara. Hasbro would build a synergistic universe around the rebranded toy technology, resulting in amusements ranging from an animated “Transformer” series and movie, to comic books and crossovers with other Hasbro lines. After the TV show was put on hiatus here, Japanese animators picked up the baton, presenting “Headmasters” as a bridge between American and Japanese storyline.  The Headmasters represent a new breed of Transformers. Bay would only enter the picture a decade or so later.

The DVD includes 35 episodes of the first segment of the rarely seen post-G1 Japanese trilogy, “Headmasters,” in the original Japanese audio and new English subtitles. There also are art galleries. – Gary Dretzka

America: The Story of Us
Any mini-series that attempts to encapsulate 420 years of history in a 12-part, 552-minute package is asking for professional and amateur scholars to criticize it for taking shortcuts and not being all-inclusive. Because the detractors generally aren’t interested in a mini-series’ entertainment value, however, their opinions tend to be ignored. Hollywood doesn’t mind playing fast and loose with facts, so when a cable-television project avoids confusing Sacagawea with Mary Todd Lincoln – or Henry Fonda with her husband – it’s a moral victory for viewers, at least. History Channel’s “America: The Story of Us” is just such a mini-series. While skimming over some important chapters in our nation’s story, it compensates by going deep on other people, places and events. The segments being released individually in July and August – all narrated by Liev Schreiber — are self-explanatory: “Boom,” “Rise of a Superpower” and “Millennium,” on July 5, with “Civil War,” “Westward” and “Rebels” to follow on August 19. It begins about 100 years after Columbus’ accidental discovery of an already populated land mass between Spain and India, and finishes with such recent developments as 9/11 and the Challenger disaster. The series also finds time to discuss such American-as-apple-pie issues as slavery and racism, the treatment of Native Americans and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

“The Story of Us” is told through re-enactments, photographs and other archival material, CGI effects, models and celebrity interviews, which don’t serve much of a purpose, besides adding some marquee value. The mini-series was previously packaged in a three-disc boxed set. These chapters now are being released a la carte. – Gary Dretzka

Max Manus: Man of War
Things have improved a bit since “Schindler’s List,” but, for the most part, men and women considered to be heroes in non-English-speaking countries exist, if at all, as footnotes in American history books. In the case of World War II heroics, we probably are most familiar with the French resistance movement, if only because it was on the way to Berlin and Charles DeGaulle was an important ally … until he wasn’t. But, in fact, groups of loosely organized freedom fighters could be found in all of the countries dominated by Axis powers. The importation of foreign-language DVDs has made it much easier to understand things that otherwise would never have been taught in American schools, especially about operations spearheaded by communists and other anti-fascist groups. One thing we do know is that the Gestapo was merciless when it came to avenging acts of sabotage and armed rebellion. Entire villages were required to pay the ultimate price for the heroism of individuals, many of whom lived and died anonymously.

Max Manus: Man of War” chronicles the deeds of Norway’s most famous freedom fighter, who, after volunteering for Finland in the Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, returned home on the day of the German invasion of Norway, in April, 1940.  A year later, after helping to launch the Norwegian underground movement, Manus was captured by the Gestapo. He was hospitalized under somewhat exaggerated pretenses, and escaped captivity. Manus was required to take the southern route to South Africa, where he linked up with Allied officials, who sent him to the U.S. and England for further training and, then, to England and Scotland, for a one-way ticket back to Norway. Once there, he became an expert at targeting German warships. “Man of War” also describes Manus as a man acutely aware of the consequences of his acts and the toll paid by otherwise peaceful people. – Gary Dretzka

People on Sunday: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Made in 1929, before the German people had fallen completely under the spell of fascism, “People on Sunday” told a simple story about life in Weimar-era Berlin. Instead of actors, it starred everyday people — a taxi driver, model, movie extra, shop assistant and wine dealer — who essentially were playing themselves. In the “city symphony,” romance and friendship were explored according to the mores of the time, through five interlocking storylines. We follow the characters from Berlin to the lakeside of Nikolassee, where people gather to enjoy a day off from work. Knowing how much Berlin would change in the next few years, the poignancy of the vignettes is enhanced by the documentary approach taken by the team of directors. What further distinguishes “People on Sunday” is what we know of the filmmakers who collaborated on the project. Although largely unknown at the time, the crew included Robert and Curt Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Eugene Schüfftan and Fred Zinneman, all of whom would find refuge from the Nazis in Hollywood, as well as great success. In addition to a new high-definition digital restoration, created in collaboration with the Filmmuseum Amsterdam, the Blu-ray adds a pair of scores, one vintage and the other modern; Gerald Koll’s 2000 documentary about the film, “Weekend am Wannsee”; “Ins Blaue Hinein,” a 36 -minute short by cinematographer Schüfftan; new English subtitle translation; and a booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Noah Isenberg and reprints by scriptwriter Wilder and director Robert Siodmak. – Gary Dretzka

Trailers From Hell! Vol. 2/Little Shop of Horrors
Today’s movie trailers are scientifically engineered to make viewers in target demographics salivate at the prospect of spending $10 to watch the completed product at the local megaplex. More often than not, lately, they do this by showcasing most of the film’s highpoints, regardless of spoilers, and turning up the volume. “Trailers From Hell” reminds us of a time when trailers merely teased audiences, while also attempting to wow them with hyperbole. Few, if any secrets were revealed and even the most predictably awful titles were made to sound unusual, at least.

In some ways, “Trailers From Hell” is the baby brother of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Instead of commenting on a full-length film, however, a filmmaker will expand on a trailer of his or her choosing. Not all of them are “from Hell,” as the cliché goes. Some even qualify as classics. The concept was originated by director Joe Dante, new-media entrepreneur Jonas Hudson, graphic artist Charlie Largent and producer Elizabeth Stanley, all of whom have probably howled at their share of nutty trailers. The content is syndicated across web and mobile partners including AOL Video, AT&T, Sprint, You Tube, Babelgum, Shorts TV, Yahoo and on cable television, as well as at

Among the trailers showcased on “Volume 2” are those for “Donovan’s Brain,” “The Invisible Ghost,” “Fire Maidens From Outer Space,” “Flesh Gordon,” “Gorgo,” “Ski Troop Attack” and “Deep Red.” The DVD also adds a new anamorphic widescreen transfer of Roger Corman’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” which is real hoot. – Gary Dretzka

BloodRayne: The Third Reich: Director’s Cut
Strangers Online
Bloodlust Zombies
Anniversary at Shallow Creek
The Frankenstein Syndrome

For reasons I can’t quite understand, Uwe Boll has become the whipping boy of critics and Internet commentators. The German-born director, who seems to specialize in adapting video games, may be a pompous ass at times, but his movies look like world-beaters, compared to most of the direct-to-video titles I’ve seen. Even given certain pretentions of greatness, Boll doesn’t push them on his audiences or critics. If anything, he seems more interested in emulating the success of Roger Corman, whose early fame came by producing movies that came in on time and under budget, and provided enough gratuitous skin, violence and car crashes to satisfy any action buff. “BloodRayne: The Third Reich” finds the sexy half-human, half-vampire protagonist, Rayne – technically she’s a dhampir – doing battle with a mad Nazi scientist (Clint Howard) and a Gestapo commandant (Michael Pare) who hope to synthesize her immortal blood and give it to Adolph Hitler. Because everyone who touches her blood becomes infected with the day-walker virus, Rayne and her band of resistance fighters face a seemingly endless surge of undead Nazis.

So much for the plot, though. What’s really swell about Parts II and III in the “BloodRayne” saga is Natassia Malthe, who’s played Rayne in the last two films in the series. Equal parts Norwegian and Malaysian, the 5-foot-5 professional model and onetime ballet dancer has played more than her fair share of vampires in a 15-year acting career, and now appears to be hopelessly pigeon-holed. Still, dressed as Elvira’s younger sister, she could be on my Nazi-ass-kicking team any day. Howard isn’t anyone’s idea of a leading man, but he nicely fills the bill here as a scientist who’s only slightly demented. Otherwise, “The Third Reich” is a boilerplate action-thriller. It includes a boastful interview with Boll and a funny discussion with Malthe.

Strangers Online” reportedly was made on a budget of $75,000 and, judging from the final product, I suspect there was plenty of money left for a wrap party. It’s the story of an Internet talk-show host, Hollis Parker, whose on-line audience makes Glenn Beck’s seem reserved and contemplative. The subject matter tends to focus on kinky sex, even though the host’s still haunted by the inexplicable murder of his lover four years earlier. Hollis is a personable enough fellow, but he’s surrounded by characters – including an exhibitionist wife, a nutso blond groupie and pervy neighbor – who pop in and out of the narrative with all the grace of a walrus sliding off an ice floe. There’s a very good twist at the end of the movie, but only the most patient of slasher buffs likely will be around to see it. The DVD adds deleted scenes, bloopers and commentary.

Bloodlust Zombies” has exactly one reason to exist: the presence of porn priestess Alexis Texas, in a role that doesn’t even require her to put her most marketable asset on display. She plays the secretary/plaything of a weapons-lab executive, whose researchers have just discovered a mutant virus capable of turning enemy soldiers against each other. No sooner have the employees finished popping the cork on the last bottle of celebratory champagne, than a scientist drops a vial of the substance on the floor, within licking distance of a test cat. A plague spreads with alarming speed from lab to lab, cubicle to cubicle, causing the workers to turn unconvincingly into monsters. A lockdown forces employees to pair up for safety, but they split when they get bored with their partner. None of it makes any sense, and Ms. Texas isn’t on-screen long enough to keep things interesting.

Another thriller that doesn’t quite make the grade, but makes up for any incoherence with an extremely loud soundtrack, is “The Anniversary at Shallow Creek.” The setup is as familiar as a line of cars outside an In-N-Out Burger, with yet another group of young tourists threatened by a serial killer when they stray into his territory. This time around, the villain is a sniper who’s killed before and in the same remote mountain location. Before very long, most of the young people are dead and a couple of others are being tortured. That’s it, really. Anyone who stays with the movie long enough to get to the surprise ending will find it to be satisfying, though. The DVD adds commentary and a making-of featurette.

In “Frankenstein Syndrome,” scream queen Tiffany Shepis plays a stem-cell researcher involved in a top-secret experiment. Her team has developed a stem-cell based universal healing serum, which not only can bring the dead back to life, but also stimulate the growth of brain cells at an accelerated rate. All too conveniently, the murder of a security guard provides the team with a corpse ripe for re-animation.  All the usual problems inherent with bringing the dead back to life apply in “Frankenstein Syndrome,” and then some. – Gary Dretzka

The FBI: Season One, Part 1
Victorious: Season One, Volume One
Southland: The Complete Second Season: Uncensored
Best of Sesame Street: Spoofs 1&2
Marvin Hamlisch Presents: The 70’s – The Way We Were

ABC’s law-and-order series “The FBI” was launched in 1965, when the bureau still was viewed as positive force in our democracy and not a rogue agency specializing in harassing political activists, instigating violence in groups already prone to violence, eavesdropping on politicians and civil-rights leaders, and protecting J. Edgar Hoover from embarrassment. It bore all the earmarks of other Quinn Martin productions, in that it followed a segmented program format, featured protagonists only slightly less wooden than Jack Webb, advanced the art of product placement (everyone drove Fords) and made liberals furious with the frequent suspension of due process. This QM Production had the distinction, however, of being personally endorsed by the FBI director and supervised by his trusted lieutenants (“Deep Throat” W. Mark Felt, for one), almost certainly on the tax-payers’ dime. The show’s primary asset was the weekly appearance of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as agent Lewis Erskine, who, after losing his wife to enemy fire, devotes his life to the bureau. It causes him to insist that his daughter (Lynn Loring) not marry his sidekick, special agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks), who isn’t nearly as set in his ways as the old man. QM also benefitted from not having to invent storylines out of whole cloth, as each new episode was informed by an actual bureau case. After nearly 45 years, “The FBI” looks its age and then some. Among other things, the agency’s reputation has been tarnished by revelations about its role in various political scandals, including Watergate and the Kennedy assassinations; eavesdropping on the pillow talk of Martin Luther King Jr.; misreading the signals that pointed toward 9/11; and colluding with mobsters, such as Whitey Bulger. Still, as TV history, the show remains highly watchable and vaguely entertaining. “The FBI: Season One, Part One” presents 16 episodes spread across four discs.

Victorious” not only is Nickelodeon’s answer to Disney’s “High School Musical” and “Hannah Montana,” but the network’s attempt at creating a signature star in Victoria Justice. Raised in Hollywood, Florida, before making the cross-country leap to Hollywood, California, the talented brunette made her first big splash in “Zoey 101,” before appearing on “iCarly” and a dozen other Nickelodeon shows and movies. “Victorious” follows Tori Vega and other students at the prestigious performing arts high school, Hollywood Arts. The show is filled with dancing, music and teen romance.

Southland” began its life on NBC, before becoming a victim of the network’s ill-fated prime-time experiment with Jay Leno. The series was picked up by TNT, when NBC decided its dark, gritty tone wouldn’t fit a timeslot earlier than 10 p.m., which Leno had carved out for himself.  I’m not sure it’s any darker than it was during first half-season, but it’s certainly no less raw and emotionally uncompromising. “Southland” doesn’t even bother to pretend that the lives of its fictional LAPD officers aren’t as messy at home as they are at work, where the chemistry between partners is tested at every turn and the perps aren’t fooling around, either. Any fan of police dramas who hasn’t picked up on “Southland” is hereby encouraged to tackle Season One, first, and then rush out to grab Season Two. It includes deleted scene and a couple of neat production featurettes.

When it comes to spoofing popular culture, Sesame Street serves the same purpose for kids as “Saturday Night Life” does for their parents. The “Spoofs 1& 2” set mixes child-friendly interpretations of “Grey’s Anatomy” (“A’s Anatomy”), “Mad Men” and “The Closer” with such standards as “Hill Street Two’s,” “Born to Add” and “Miami Mice.”

The next round of PBS Pledge Month begathons is just around the corner, with frequent airings of “Marvin Hamlisch Presents: The ’70s — The Way We Were,” a concert shot in spring 2010. Undoubtedly, the DVD and companion CD will be used to entice viewers to make donations, which is OK by me. Hamlisch relives a decade’s worth of pop classics with performances by B.J. Thomas, Three Dog Night, Debby Boone, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., Ray Stevens, Freda Payne, Guy and Raina (who?), Bobby Goldsboro, Billy Joe Royal, Peaches and Herb, Jonathan Edwards and Gloria Gaynor. The DVD includes nine performances not seen in the original broadcast. – Gary Dretzka

The Royal Wedding Collection
Stop the madness! “The Royal Wedding Collection” represents yet another attempt to commemorate an event already seared into the memory of tens of millions of non-Brits, few of whom have a good reason to give a crap about the nuptials. And, yet, we care. Now that William and Kate have embarked on their North American tour, fans of all things royal can feast again on the wedding, even as they’re probably cooking up a little princelette. The DVD “embraces the reaction of the public, the arrival of Kate at the Abbey, the reveal of her dress, Pippa and the bridesmaids, Prince Harry as Best Man” and yadda, yadda, yadda. It’s narrated by Sir Trevor McDonald and includes the Official ITN Royal Engagement Interview, with Tom Bradby. If this is your thing,  this commemoration is one of the best. – 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