MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Mars Needs Moms, The Final Destination 3D, The Clinic, Super, Jumping the Broom, Battle of Algiers …

Mars Needs Moms: Blu-ray
Judging simply from the negative press generated after the release of “Mars Needs Moms,” you’d have thought Disney was attempting to sell out-of-date produce to needy children, instead of a very decent family picture. The fact it underperformed so badly at the box office prompted more than one pundit to predict the imminent demise of 3D animation as a cash cow for studios and shouts of “Off with their heads …” from investors at Disney. To appease the whiners, Disney cut its ties to Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers Digital studio and postponed its 3D reimagining of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” Cooler heads have since prevailed, apparently. Zemeckis’ motion-capture technology has found new life at Universal and Disney has yet to call all of its battleship projects back to port. Fact is, such animated features cost a fortune to make and market, and unrealistic expectations caused deals to be made that were suicidal. The marketplace has been overwhelmed by 3D titles and — guess what? — kids’ tastes aren’t necessarily dictated by Pavlovian conditioning strategies.

If “Mars Needs Moms” didn’t carry a $150-million price tag, it might have run its two-week course and done better-than-expected business in DVD and Blu-ray. As it is, however, any picture adapted from a children’s book by Berkeley Breathed (“Bloom County”), overseen by Zemeckis and launched on 3,117 screens is going to call undue attention to itself and critics are going to treat it as if Disney had chosen to re-make “Citizen Kane,” using cartoon characters.

The first thing to know about “Mars Needs Moms” is that it’s a reasonably entertaining picture, very competently executed and based on an imaginative sci-fi premise. Apparently, Mars is experiencing a population burst not unlike the one that occurred on Earth after World War II. Alas, there’s a distinct shortage of maternal supervision for the unruly young’uns and, of all the mothers in the universe, a suburban American Mom (voiced by Joan Cusack) is judged by Martian astro-sociologists to be the one best suited for the task. One night, they send a spaceship to the home “Mom” shares with her son, Milo (Seth Green), and a largely absentee Dad (Tom Everett Scott). Uncharacteristically, Mom and Milo have just engaged in one of those ridiculous spats in which a child invariably tells the parent, “I hate you.” When an apologetic Milo notices that Mom is missing from her room and a spacecraft is hovering outside her bedroom, he barely manages to grab hold of a landing skid and pull himself aboard the rapidly ascending vehicle. Once on Mars, Mom is moved to a laboratory where the scientists can upload her pedagogical knowledge onto a central computer and use it to control the Martian sproutlings. Meanwhile, Milo must fend for himself, escaping robotic soldiers and making friends with Martians not under the direct control of Supervisor (Mindy Sterling). Among them is a rotund, childlike humanoid, Gribble (Dan Fogler), and the strangely hippy-dippy Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), who appears to have been force-fed transmissions of “Woodstock” and “The Mod Squad” as a child (How this psychedelic conceit was supposed to appeal to kids born after 2000 is a mystery to me.) Anyway, they all embark on a mission to rescue Mom and bring her back home.

Again, I didn’t find anything not to like in “Mars Needs Moms.” It looks swell and the story is compelling. Whoever expected it to make back a nut of $150 million, though, either was delusional or doesn’t have kids. Given its PG rating, the movie’s demographic reach was limited, at best, to children ranging in age from 6 to 13, tops. Unlike Disney’s live-action “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” there was little reason for parents to accompany their pre-teens to the theater, either. All of that said, though, “Mars Needs Moms” deserves to be given a second shot at success in the DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray3D, the tech platform that finally will make or break the format. I like the fact that director/co-writer Simon Wells – great-grandson of H.G. Wells – included making-of snippets in the final credits roll, but ambitious sorts will want to check out the bonus package, anyway. It adds a short deleted 3D scene and another 29 minutes worth of deleted 2D scenes, as well as the informative and entertaining featurettes “Life on Mars: The Full Motion-Capture Experience”; “Martian 101,” in which Wells and his cast discuss creating the Martians’ language; and silly “Fun with Seth.” – Gary Dretzka

The Final Destination: Blu-ray 3D
The high-concept conceit behind all four films in the “Final Destination” series –with a fifth installment due this Friday — boils down to one thing: attractive young people attempt to cheat their pre-ordained deaths, with mixed results. The 2009 edition differs in that it was filmed in 3D, allowing director David R. Ellis to stage the gory killings in a way that appears to put viewers at risk, as well. For example, in the opening scene, the clairvoyant Nick O’Bannon (Bobby Campo) conjures a vision of NASCAR enthusiasts being mutilated by wayward tires and other easily identifiable flying objects, gasoline explosions, a collapsed grandstand and a human stampede. Ellis puts audience members on the same collision course with the fiery debris and sharp metallic objects as the fans in the movie’s grandstand. He warns the people sitting around his, but, of course, they require proof of impending doom. Later, Nick attempts to cheat the Grim Reaper in other locations, including a swimming pool (death by suction), construction site (death by nail gun) and hair salon (death by ceiling fan). In 2D, the impalements, beheadings and fatal burns are merely gruesome, bordering on stupid. In 3D, while still predictable, they represent a clear and present danger not only to the characters but also to viewers wearing stereoscopic glasses. The same applies for the Blu-ray edition, which is only as credible as the special effects are hellish.

The good news for 3D enthusiasts is that this edition of “The Final Destination” upgrades the previous release, which arrived in the traditional anaglyphic format and only required cardboard glasses to view. This one re-creates the theatrical experience, based on the same technology created by James Cameron for “Avatar.” It also means, sadly, that viewers of the Blu-ray must possess a still-expensive 3D playback unit and proprietary glasses. The hi-def volume includes “Body Count: The Deaths of ‘The Final Destination,’” which dissects the death scenes; a piece that focuses on the conception and execution of the racetrack and shopping-mall conflagrations; nine alternate scenes; a body-count register; and two alternate endings. – Gary Dretzka

The Clinic: Unrated
Horror and exploitation flicks set in Australia’s Outback are informed by the region’s vast emptiness, unrelenting sun, deserted warehouses and freakazoid locals. Anything can happen when an unsuspecting motorist seeks a night’s rest in one of the Outback’s isolated enclaves or sheep and cattle stations. In the hands of an Aussie genre specialist, the intended respite invariably turns into a battle for survival with some alcoholic cretin or twisted post-Nazi fiend. Here, Cameron (Andy Whitfield) and his pregnant fiancé, Beth (Tabrett Bethell), stop at a motel even Norman Bates might have found intimidating. Beth has a craving for Chinese food, but, when Cameron returns from the local chop-suey dive, she’s gone. The motel manager knows something, but an obviously corrupt sheriff arrests Cameron for trying to beat the truth out of the ignorant boozehound. While Cameron struggles to escape from captivity, Beth awakens in bathtub full of ice, with stitches on her belly. In short order, we learn that Beth is only one of several formerly pregnant women being held against their will in an abandoned meat-packing plant by unseen criminals. Giving up any more information than that would compromise the surprises to come in James Rabbitt’s “The Clinic,” which, for all its narrative flaws, keeps viewers guessing throughout its 94-minute length. – Gary Dretzka

Super: Blu-ray
Writer/director James Gunn had the great misfortune to finish his dark comedy about a wannabe superhero at approximately the same time as “Kick-Ass” began kicking ass in theaters last year. Despite a terrific cast and some delightfully macabre humor, “Super” opened on a mere dozen screens and quickly disappeared. Its release on video will reward those whose tastes in sci-fi/action thrillers and genre parodies is broad enough to include a picture that always threatens to jump the rails and take out everything in its path. Rainn Wilson plays an angry short-order cook, Frank, whose Christian values are challenged by the bad habits of his drug-addled ex-wife (Liv Tyler). When he learns of her abduction by a sleazy drug dealer pal (Kevin Bacon), Frank becomes determined to rescue her in the guise of a superhero, not unlike the animated character he follows on an evangelical television network. It doesn’t take long for Frank to figure out that a uniform doth not a superhero make. It also requires superpowers, none of which he possesses. In order to vanquish evil-doers — including people who cut in front of him in lines – he arms himself with a monkey wrench. The tool works perfectly well on unarmed miscreants, but not so terrific against gun-wielding thugs. Neither can Spandex can impede a bullet’s flight for more than a millisecond.

Nevertheless, Frank (a.k.a., the Crimson Bolt) does manage to find a sufficient number of criminals – and some people who simply piss him off – to make headlines for his willingness to bludgeon his victims to a bloody pulp. On his way to rescue his ex-wife, Frank is joined by another aspiring superhero, played by a video-store clerk, Libby (Ellen Page), desperate to make a name for herself, as well. (Having two sadistic superheroes in the same movie opens the door to unlimited narrative options.) At first, Frank/Bolt can’t be bothered with this annoying superhero groupie. When in need of her first-aid skills, however, the clerk is allowed to tag along with him as the similarly uniformed “Boltie.” If anything, Libby is more hilariously reckless and foolhardy than the Crimson Bolt. Their bond is fully tested during the confrontation at the dealer’s mansion, but even those viewers with strong stomachs are advised not to expect any clichéd or sentimental conclusions. The role of the Crimson Bolt is one Wilson was born to play and Page is typically impish as his partner. The DVD’s bonus material includes lots of interesting making-of footage and a discussion with Gunn about his uncompromising re-interpretation of genre conventions. Parents should know that the movie’s R-rating is fairly earned and they shouldn’t expect to see the Wilson and Page they recognize from TV appearances. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Godfather
Twenty-one years after the release of Andrew Bergman’s vastly underappreciated mob comedy, “The Freshman,” the last thing I thought I’d see was a ham-handed parody starring the clown prince of South Korea. Bergman, at least, benefitted from Marlon Brando, himself, portraying a Mafioso who looked exactly like Don Corleone, only a few links down the food chain. Through a series of unlikely events, a film-school freshman played by Matthew Broderick becomes the mobster’s intern-in-crime and the boyfriend of his flirtatious daughter (Penelope Ann Miller). The greatest crime committed in the movie involves the importation of endangered species for clandestine banquets, for which Bert Parks and Was (Not Was) provide the entertainment. It’s sweet, funny and respectful of the source material.

In “The Last Godfather,” Hyung-rae Shim plays the intellectually retarded son of a New York crime boss (Harvey Keitel), who’s never publically acknowledged that he has any children of his own. Apparently, though, Young-gu was born to a Korean woman Don Carini met when he was lying low in Korea. Carini felt it necessary for the boy to be raised in an orphanage, which he supported with generous donations. Now that he’s ready to retire, Carini wants his natural-born son to ascend to the throne. Naturally, while the bizarre decision doesn’t sit well with the don’s adopted son and underlings, it invigorates his rivals. Complicating matters for the feuding Italians is a blossoming friendship between Young-gu and a rival boss’ daughter, who he accidentally rescued from an attack in the park. His unconscious heroism endears him permanently to the girl, while also infuriating one of her father’s henchmen (Jason Mewes).

Immensely popular and well-regarded in Korea, Shim had previously crafted the Young-gu character in the mold of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean and any number of Jerry Lewis’ comic protagonists. He’s blessed with a generous heart, but no other talents an adult would need to survive in the real world. In this, he’s not unlike a circus clown or silent-era movie comedian. I don’t know how “The Last Godfather” performed in South Korea, but Shim’s overtly slapsticky approach to the material hasn’t worked here since Lewis’ heyday. If the movie had been shot in black-in-white, it could easily have passed for as homage to Mack Sennett and Hal Roach. Otherwise, it’s mostly an inexplicable waste of time for Keitel, Mewes, Jon Polito, Michael Rispoli and Fatty Arbuckle look-alike John Pinette, the only actor who looks remotely at home here. – Gary Dretzka

The Fox and the Hound/The Fox and the Hound 2: Blu-ray
The first animated Disney feature to be made in the post-Don Bluth and, therefore, pre-Jeffrey Katzenberg era, “The Fox and the Hound” is a genuinely engaging family entertainment. At the time, however, studio bosses were debating whether an animation division made any financial sense, and the story’s low profile worked against it. By the time Katzenberg began churning out triumphs like “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Fox and the Hound” was a distant memory. In video, however, the movie was given a second lease on life, even prompting a sequel, 25-years later. “The Fox and the Hound” tells the familiar Disney story of natural adversaries, who, when they meet as wee forest critters, not only display no natural animosity toward each another, but also become fast friends. Naturally, as the fox and hound mature, forces beyond their control spark antagonistic behavior that’s been bred in the bone. As such, the movie’s predominantly comic tone is supplanted by the specter of imminent disaster and the intolerance that comes too often with adulthood. (The source material was even darker.) This makes it consistent with most other titles in the Disney canon of life-affirming fables. “Fox and the Hound,” now is available in a “30th Anniversary Edition” along with its 2006 video-original follow-up.

If the colors in “TFATH2” — neither a sequel, nor a prequel, exactly — aren’t nearly as vibrant as those in the original, the forest backgrounds in both films look as if they might have originated with “Bambi.” Neither will the youngest viewers be disappointed by the more playful approach to the material in the sequel. The songs and score hold up very well, even though none is particularly memorable. The bonus features in the Blu-ray edition include the making-of “Passing the Baton”; a “Best of Friends” sing-along; “Making of the Music”; and “You Know I Will” music video. – Gary Dretzka

Jumping the Broom
It’s so refreshing to watch a movie about African-American families that doesn’t also include a primary character cavorting around in drag or a fat suit. Although certain other melodramatic conventions are recycled in “Jumping the Broom,” an appearance by Madea would be as out of place as a cameo by the first Mayor Richard Daley in “The Jeffersons.” Movies about getting married haven’t changed much in the last 100 years, so we know what to expect whenever we approach new ones. Moreover, if reality-based wedding shows, such as “Bridezillas,” have taught us anything, it’s that meltdowns aren’t limited to any single ethnic group or nationality. Weddings are nightmares waiting to happen. What’s nice about Salim Akil’s relationship dramedy is that it assumes the worst, but maintains the sympathy of viewers through clever portrayals by members of the supporting cast. Here, the tension is supplied by the parents of the bride and groom — Jason (Laz Alonso) and Sabrina (Paula Patton) — whose personal problems and hang-ups impact negatively on everyone else’s good will toward the couple. The fact that one of the African-American families is filthy rich, while the other is strictly working class, doesn’t bother the kids and well-wishers as much as the parents, who are stuck in the mire of defending stereotypes and ancient prejudices. Sabrina’s grumpy mother (Angela Bassett) suspects Jason may not be refined enough to hang with her friends on Martha’s Vineyard, and, after only five months of dating, her daughter may be rushing into a quagmire not unlike her marriage to the debonair and possibly philandering Mr. Watson (Brian Stokes Mitchell). Jason’s mother is singularly unimpressed with the Watson family’s oceanfront mansion and other trappings of wealth. Mrs. Taylor (Loretta Devine) is so nasty she makes Sabrina’s family look sympathetic. Indeed, she actively campaigns to break the couple up before they’re able to jump the broom, a traditional that itself is a bone of contention. There are other complications, but none remotely insurmountable.

Far more level-headed are the less engaged guests, including characters played by Mike Epps, Romeo, Gary Dourdan, Meagan Good, Tasha Smith, Valerie Pettiford, DeRay Davis, Tasha Smith and Julie Bowen, as the token white wedding planner. They’re given almost all of the best comic lines and very little of the nonsense, which, I suppose, is the case at any wedding worth its salt. A nod to African-American spiritual clichés is provided by the Reverend James (T.D. Jakes), who somehow knows everything will be settled before the end of the movie and he’ll preside over a wedding, one way or another. – Gary Dretzka

The Battle of Algiers: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Last week, while heaping praise on the new French historical drama about the liberation of Algeria, “Outside the Law,” I suggested it should be viewed as a companion piece to “The Battle of Algiers,” made more than four decades earlier. While Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece chronicles the struggle in the streets and casbah of Algiers, Rachid Bouchareb’s film focuses on what was happening simultaneously in Paris. If I had bothered to do a little research, I’d have known that Criterion Collection was releasing “The Battle of Algiers” in Blu-ray at about the same time as “Outside the Law.” If nothing else, I could have saved myself some time and verbiage.

Pontecorvo’s groundbreaking political drama is as relevant today as it was upon its release in 1966, a mere four years after the end of the war of independence. Anyone who wants to understand what’s happening today in the streets of Cairo, Tangiers and Syria needs to study what happened in the 17-year struggle against French colonial rule documented here. The copious bonus features help explain how the revolution was moved from the countryside to the city and how police repression kept the flame lit for so long a time. They also describe how lessons not learned in Vietnam by the French came back to haunt them in Algeria and, later, American forces in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Criterion’s Blu-ray edition adds a hi-def digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Marcello Gatti, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; interviews with Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone on the film’s influence, style and importance; the documentaries “Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth,” narrated by literary critic Edward Said; “Marxist Poetry: The Making of “The Battle of Algiers,” with contributions by Pontecorvo, Gatti and composer Ennio Morricone; “Remembering History,” on the Algerian experience of the battle for independence;“États d’armes,” in which senior French military officers and Algerian combatants recall the use of torture and execution to combat the rebellion; “The Battle of Algiers”: A Case Study,” a roundtable discussion with U.S. counterterrorism experts; and “Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers,” in which the filmmaker revisits the country after three decades of independence and is introduced to Islamic fundamentalism. There’s also a production gallery and a booklet with an essay by film scholar Peter Matthews, excerpts from Algeria’s and National Liberation Front leader Saadi Yacef’s original account of his arrest, excerpts from the screenplay, a reprinted interview with co-writer Franco Solinas and biographical sketches of key figures in the French-Algerian War. – Gary Dretzka

Hey Arnold!: Season One
Top Gear: The Complete Season 16: Blu-ray

Shout! Factory has repackaged the opening season of “Hey Arnold!,” one of Nickelodeon’s signature shows from the mid-1990s and a program that helped convince kids with football-shaped heads they weren’t freaks. Arnold is an otherwise normal 4th Grader, who lives with his paternal grandparents — proprietors of the Sunset Arms boarding house — and Arnold the pig, in metropolitan Hillwood. Despite the fact that Arnold is a good-natured and helpful youth, he’s tormented and bullied by his reverse love interest, Helga. Another friend, Gerald, provides fodder for several episodes with his urban legends. Other material was generated from creator Craig Bartlett’s recollections of growing up in Seattle and time spent in Portland, New York City and Nashville. The set includes all 20 original episodes from the first season. The voicing cast includes Toran Caudell, Dan Castellaneta, Francesca Smith and Jamil Walker Smith.

Now in its 17th season on the BBC and BBC America, “Top Gear” is the ultimate show for boys of all ages, produced and hosted by grown-up boys who act as if they’re 16, again, and have been given the keys for their dad’s car for the first time. That is, if the boys’ parents owned Ferraris, Porsches, Mercedes, Jaguars, Formula I racers, factory prototypes, experimental vehicles and the occasional farm implement and moon rover. In the 16th season package, James, Richard and Jeremy spend time in the Middle East, Albania and U.S., testing the limits of their automobiles and their hosts’ senses of humor. If everybody on Earth enjoyed their jobs as much as these guys, there would be strikes or layoffs. Each show is as much a travelogue as a mash note to the automobile industry. Celebrities drop by to test their skills on a closed track and gadgets are put through their paces, as well. My favorite adventure is more ironic than thrilling. The lads are given high-end models of Mercedes, Ferrari and Porsche and asked to sample one of America’s most beautiful and potentially exciting roadways, the Appalachian Trail. To their great consternation, motorists are limited to 35mph for its entire 400-plus-mile length. At this speed, the drivers weren’t even able to shift into second gear. – 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