MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: The Beaver, Win Win, NEDS, Secret Sunshine, Breath, Road to Nowhere, To Die Like a Man …

The Beaver: Blu-ray
Even it were possible to ignore all the baggage Mel Gibson brings with him to any new project, “The Beaver” would still be a movie that defied audiences to like it. There are three things that come immediately to mind when I see the word “beaver,” and none of them is a cure for depression. Even assuming the good intentions of everyone involved in the project – which I do — whoever agreed to finance “The Beaver” ought to have been required to wear a Howdy Dowdy mask until the debt was repaid. Depression has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Absent a cure or miracle drug, those afflicted with it will seek help in all sorts of places, including science, snake oil and religion. I can only conclude that freshman screenwriter Kyle Killen’s only experience with depression has been the frustration that comes with flat tires and collapsed soufflés. Gibson and director/co-star Jody Foster deserve kudos for giving the movie a fighting chance, at least.

Gibson plays the CEO of a toy company that been in his family for many years. His Walter Black has suffered from clinical depression for many years, perhaps because his path through life was pre-ordained from birth. He has, however, been blessed with a patient and loving family, and the firm’s vice president (Cherry Jones) is perfectly capable of running the business, despite Walter’s many emotional absences. We meet the Blacks at the exact point where wife Meredith (Foster) and teenage son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), have decided it would be easier to live without an at-home dad than the one they have. Walter responds to his eviction by moving into a nearby hotel and making two unsuccessful attempts at suicide. Failing even that, Walter wakes up from his stupor with one of his company’s toys – yes, a beaver hand puppet – attached to his hand and an ability to put words in its buck-toothed mouth. The beaver becomes Walter’s surrogate, allowing him to function as a nearly normal human being. By requiring his wife, sons and employees to communicate with him through the puppet, though, Walter has given them even more reason to mistrust him. For Porter, his father’s behavior is downright humiliating. Fortunately, he’s nurturing a relationship with a smart and pretty cheerleader (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s asked for help with her valedictory speech to their classmates. It is Porter’s continuing bad luck that Norah’s neuroses are nearly as taxing as his dad antics.

While it’s true that hand puppets actually are used in various forms of therapy, they tend to be left behind at the doctor’s office. Because the beaver itself is kind of a prick, the conceit gets old pretty quickly. Moreover, Gibson’s uncanny resemblance to Soupy Sales made me wonder if White Fang, Black Tooth and Pookie might not be enlisted, as well, if the beaver fails. I do give the cast and crew a lot of credit for playing the rodent thing straight, though. I shudder to think how Robin Williams or Jim Carrey might have interpreted the role. The Blu-ray package adds commentary with Foster, deleted scenes and the making-of featurette, “Everything Is Going to Be O.K.” — Gary Dretzka

Win Win
The next time I hear someone complain about the scarcity of movies that are intelligent, enjoyable to watch and treat their teenage and adult characters with dignity, I’m going to point them in the direction of “Win Win.” Besides being the rare sports movie that doesn’t require athletes to win against all odds or cure society’s ills on the playing field, the family at the movie’s center isn’t wackily dysfunctional. Neither do the students at the local high school treat their teachers like jerks or use their lunch period to shoot heroin. Everyone in “Win Win” acts as if they real people in similar circumstances, sometimes selfishly and occasionally with great generosity. Small, without also being precious, Tom McCarthy’s vastly under-marketed movie fulfills its primary mission of being entertaining, even without the benefit of a car chase, fart joke or sex scene. That most potential fans of “Win Win” haven’t heard of it before now, at least, is proof that no one in Hollywood knows how to market smart movies, with populist appeal, that aren’t on the fast track for Oscar consideration.

Paul Giamatti is typically terrific as Mike Flaherty, a struggling lawyer and volunteer wrestling coach at the high school. His wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), practically defines what it means to be a married man’s “better half.” When one of Mike’s elderly clients (Burt Young) is threatened with becoming a ward of the state, he conceives a slightly dishonest scheme to benefit both of them. Purposely misconstruing a judge’s orders, Mike convinces the bordering-on-senile old man, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), to move from his lifelong home to a comfortable nursing home. For his part, the lawyer gets to pocket a monthly $1,500 stipend, essentially for doing nothing. One day, a bushy-haired teenager appears on the front steps of Leo’s now-vacant house, looking for the grandfather he’s never met. The kid, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), has run away from the home he shared with his junky mother and her burnout boyfriends. Kyle’s arrival could mess with Mike’s scam, but he cleverly devises a way to use the boy’s amazing wrestling skills, again, to both of their advantage. Kyle’s no angel, but he’s impresses Mike and Jackie with his manners, sense of humor and kindness to their daughters. He also proves to be a decent student, a good teammate and loving grandson. Just as Kyle is about to realize his dream of wrestling in the state tournament, his mom (Melanie Lynskey) shows up with lawyer in tow, hoping to make her own dream come true. She wants the money she feels is owed to her by Leo and is willing to use Kyle as a tool to get it. It becomes increasingly unlikely that Mike will be able to come up with yet another scheme that benefits everyone and keeps him from disbarment proceedings.

No need for a spoiler alert at this point. Just know that McCarthy’s script avoids cliché formulas and pat answers on its way to a very satisfying conclusion. All of the actors turn in winning performances, but it’s McCarthy who steals the show with his very intelligent script and sure-handed direction. While you might recall his face from appearances in “The Wire,” “Boston Public,” various iterations of “Law & Order,” “2012,” “Meet the Parents” and “Syriana,” it’s his behind-the-camera work on “The Visitor,” “Up” and “The Station Agent” that’s most impressive. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, interviews and other material collected at Sundance 2011, a music video by the National and a “Fox Movie Channel Presents: Direct Effect Tom McCarthy.” By the way, if the wrestling scenes look unusually authentic, it’s because Shaffer was a star athlete before breaking a vertebrae and he already knew all the right moves. – Gary Dretzka

NEDS: Non-Educated Delinquents
Working-class Glasgow has already provided the setting for several very good movies about rebellion among working-class youths – “Trainspotting,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “Ratcatcher” and “Small Faces” come to mind – whose nihilism probably could be cured if decent jobs were available. Likewise, any similarities between the Glaswegians we meet in Peter Mullan’s “NEDS,” and the more hopeful kids introduced in Bill Forsyth’s “Comfort and Joy” and “Gregory’s Girl,” are merely coincidental. Most coincide with the collapse of the industrial economy in the north and the growing anti-labor sentiment of business leaders and elected officials in the UK. Not surprisingly, perhaps, what sucked for workers turned out OK for arthouse audiences.
NEDS: Non-Educated Deliquents” may be another ugly chapter in the story, but it’s one that is well worth sampling. It focuses on a sharp young lad, John McGill, whose curse is to be surrounded by family members, friends and neighbors who take for granted that things aren’t likely to turn around any time soon and have found solace in gangs, alcohol and drugs. By the time the once-curious teen has entered high school, he’s given in to peer pressure and joined his older brother in the pursuit of kicks, easy money and non-stop gang warfare. After enduring the pain of being bullied, John experiences a growth spurt that allows him to do onto others what they did to him … and he does. No matter how much we want John to come to his senses and give education another shot, it seems highly unlikely he’ll choose that option. Among other impediments, the school’s teachers have either given up on themselves or have added corporal punishment to their arsenal. The aspiring hoodlums in “Blackboard Jungle” had a better chance of correcting their path than the kids we meet here and in other Glasgow-based flicks. (Comic relief is provided by an overly enthusiastic gym teacher, who thinks he can raise a spark of interest in his special-needs students by teaching them baseball. Watching the kids, including the misplaced John, try to make sense of the sport is worth the price of a rental, alone.)
Mullan has acted in, written and/or directed such dark and highly respected films as “My Name Is Joe,” “Trainspotting,” “Orphans” and “The Magdalene Sisters.” Among his other talents, he has a keen eye for dysfunction. “NEDS” mines similar territory as Ken Loach did in “Sweet Sixteen,” “Riff Raff” and his much-earlier, “Kes.” Perhaps, Mullan’s comfort level as a director can be attributed to his belief, “9 out of 10 delinquents are frustrated actors.” The DVD includes a pair of interesting expanded scenes, including the baseball lesson. – Gary Dretzka

Secret Sunshine: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

In what amounts to an amazing coincidence – or synchronicity, if you’re a fan of the Police, – two superb Korean films from 2007, both dealing with remarkably similar subjects, finally have been made available here on DVD and Blu-ray. Although Chang-dong Lee’s “Secret Sunshine” and Ki-duk Kim’s “Breath” each caused a sensation at Cannes, the movies’ primary exposure here came in Palm Springs and other regional festivals. Thematically, both films concern women who attempt to find solace, redemption and closure in conversations with men convicted of heinous crimes. Do-yeon Jeon won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her portrayal, in “Secret Sunshine,” of a woman who struggles to forgive the man who murdered her young son. If the weight of her grief weren’t already more than one person should ever be forced to bear, the prisoner turns the tables by telling her that he, too, has been reborn as a Christian and God’s already absolved him of the crime. She believes, however, that it’s her duty as a Christian to forgive and God’s responsibility to punish. Deprived of any peace that might have been derived from acting as Christ’s agent on Earth, she literally snaps. Her grief escalates and she takes it out on her town’s well-meaning Christian community.

“Breath” was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Ji-a Park’s performance in it also was considered for a top acting prize. She plays Yeon, an accomplished Korean sculptor depressed over her marriage to an overbearing and openly cheating businessman. One day, she becomes obsessed with reports in the news of suicide attempt by a notorious Death Row inmate, Jin Jang (Taiwanese actor Chen Chang). Apparently, he isn’t mentally prepared to die. Feeling like a prisoner herself, Yeon travels to the same prison as the one shown in “Secret Sunshine” and asks for an interview with the fiend. A guard turns her away, assuming nothing good could come from such an encounter, but he’s ordered to let her in by the warden, who monitors everything that goes on in the facility through a network of security cameras. Being a bit of a sadist, himself, the warden also is able to control the length and intimacy of their meetings. Yeon’s odd behavior results, I think, from having survived a near-death experience, and desiring to ease the journey of Korea’s most despised man to the afterlife. While in his company, she attempts to manipulate time by decorating the interview room in different seasonal themes, while also entertaining him with a kooky singing performances and photograph, showing her at different stages of her development. Without fail, Jang’s jealous cellmates steal and mutilate the photos, either out of spite for his few moments of happiness or jealousy over the woman’s encroachment on someone they consider to be their property. By the time Yeon reaches autumn in her scenarios, her husband has finally figured out why she’s been ignoring him and their adorable daughter. When Yeon follows her to the prison one afternoon, the warden seizes on the opportunity to begin torturing him, as well, this time by allowing the man to eavesdrop on the meetings.

Both movies demand the full attention of viewers and a great deal of compassion for the female characters, whose actions often border on the inexplicable. While “Breath” is enigmatic, though, “Secret Sunshine” describes a situation that’s all too common. Every day, it seems, a child is abducted by a monster and murdered, if only because they were in the wrong place at the right time. Neither is there anything truly unusual in Yeon’s conversion or her desire to put the horrors of the past behind her. Our job is to determine for ourselves how we might react not only to such a heinous crime, but also the abject grief of a friend or neighbor. What makes both movies truly exceptional is the directors’ willingness to directly challenge audiences with uncomfortable truths and atypical behavior of the key characters. It’s no secret that the Korean cinema is the most exciting in the world right now and, so, it comes as no surprise that the acting is exceptional. The interviews and making-of material in the DVD and Blu-ray editions should be considered must-viewing. The Criterion Collection version of “Secret Sunshine” adds a booklet with essays and an excellent hi-def transfer. – Gary Dretzka

Road to Nowhere
Any discussion of the Hollywood renaissance of the late-1960s and early-1970s must include Monte Hellman, if only because of his willingness to challenge genre conventions – especially those associated with westerns – and a distinct unwillingness to compromise his singular vision. Even though his most famous film, “Two-Lane Blacktop,” was more successful as a metaphor than a popular entertainment, it holds an iconic place in the history of American independent cinema. His next movie, “Cockfighter,” was every bit as good as “Two-Lane Blacktop” – both starred Warren Oates – but it went virtually unseen, due to the subject matter and the possibility of upsetting animal-rights advocates. (Now available on DVD, it is well worth watching.) Since then, Hellman’s attributed output has been sporadic, at best. If “Road to Nowhere,” his first feature in 21 years, didn’t find much of an audience, either, at least it represented something of a return to form for Hellman. It requires some work on the part of viewers, but usually it’s well worth the effort.

Set in the Smoky Mountains, London, Verona and Rome, the thoroughly enigmatic “Road to Nowhere” delivers two mysteries in one handsome package, as well as a movie within a movie. The first mystery occurred 20 years in the past, when a small plane crash-landed in a mountain lake, presumably killing a politician and his lover, and drowning $100,000 in cash. The second mystery is contained in the movie being made about the incident by an over-amped young director, Mitch Haven (Tygh Runyan), who invests his ego in everything he does. Because the characters exist in the present, as well as the past, we’re rarely certain of which of the two movies we’re watching: the one being directed by Hellman, or the one helmed by his surrogate, Mitch. You never get the feeling Hellman is purposely trying to mislead us, but he clearly wants us to pay attention and sweat along with Mitch.

Written by Hellman’s longtime collaborator Steven Gaydos, “Road to Nowhere” stars Shannyn Sossamon, as the largely unknown actress who bears an uncanny resemblance to Vilma, the woman presumably killed in the crash. Informing the shoot is research and evidence collected by a blogger (Dominque Swain), whose investigation is being monitored by a private investigator, who may be in cahoots with parties interested in letting sleeping dogs lie, including local police and a tainted politician (Cliff De Young) who also may or may not have survived the crash. Meanwhile, Mitch keeps busy off-screen by watching classic movies in the company of his high-strung lead actress – whose only previous role was in a cheapo horror flick – and playing the traditional role of mentor/predator. And, yes, it helps to keep a scorecard handy to keep the players straight.

Tech heads might be interested in the fact that “Road to Nowhere” was shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, a high-def camera capable of capturing 12 minutes’ worth of images at a time. Because the camera looks and handles like any 35mm device, Hellman was able to shoot European locations without a permit, saving the cash-strapped production a ton of money. When the light is right, the digital technology adds an interesting sheen and texture to the movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: Blu-ray
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Morgan Spurlock describes in “Greatest Movie Ever Sold” just how easy it’s become for Hollywood producers not only to prostitute themselves, but also the movies they make. Product placement is as old as show business itself, but the practice didn’t become an integral part of the movie industry until “E.T.” and Reese’s Pieces set a new standard for subliminal advertising. Thirty years later, there’s nothing subliminal about it. Product placement is about as organic and subtle as a Ford Excursion as a go-kart track. There were more plugs for T.G.I. Friday’s in “The Zookeeper” than there are nuggets of candy in the average bag of “Reece’s Pieces.” They even showed up in TV commercials for the comedy, trailers and Facebook pages. Indeed, some products now are digitally located in movies and TV shows, allowing easy substitution when they hit the ancillary markets. It’s a hideous practice and there ought to be a law against it. The same could be said for putting ads on already-overpriced boxes of popcorn or naming stadiums after companies that swindle their customers. Enron, anyone? That train, however, has already left the station.

Spurlock set out to prove that it would be possible to finance an entire documentary about product placement using the money paid to him by companies hoping to see their brands displayed prominently and in a positive light. Because the budget was somewhere south of $2 million, the conceit looked relatively simple to pull off. That might have been the case if Spurlock’s reputation as an anti-capitalist provocateur hadn’t preceded him into the pitch meetings he conducted with reps of several major corporations. Most of the ones we meet early in the film would no more entrust the sanctity of their company’s brand to the man responsible for “Super Size Me” than the AMA would hire Michael Moore as its spokesperson.

And, yet, Spurlock is blessed with the kind of buoyant personality that could convince Eskimos to buy ice cubes from him. If anyone could get hard-core marketing goons to invest in a movie whose mission presumably was to blow the whistle on product placement, it would be the personable and self-effacing Spurlock. Predictably, lawyers and executives for the fattest companies on his wish-list either dismissed the idea outright or insisted on prohibitions that would turn the documentary into a fairy tale. Watching them try to control their gag reflexes, though, was pretty entertaining.

Even if “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” doesn’t really tell us much we don’t already know or suspect, it’s the devilish details found in the contracts that are the most instructive. While the manufacturers of Original Mane ‘n Tail products – “It’s a shampoo for both horses and people,” Spurlock enthuses – were only too thrilled to make the cut, others demanded performance guarantees, image counts and non-disparagement clauses before they’d join the 22 other companies (out of 600) whose brands appear on all ads for the movie. Even the doc’s primary sponsor, Pom Wonderful fruit drinks, required Spurlock to jump through hoops. Personally, I was so pleased Pom finally decided to sponsor the movie that I went out and bought a couple of bottles of the pomegranate product. It isn’t cheap, but it tasted good. Spurlock spends most of his time setting up deals and introducing us to the nuances of the game. For perspective, he turned to progressives Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky; young Hollywood hands Brett Radner, Peter Berg and Quentin Tarantino; and elected officials in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where all forms of outdoor advertising have been deemed offensive and banned.

Anyone who doubts the power of product placement need only consider how tobacco companies have for decades used actors to promote the “glamour” aspect of smoking cigarettes and cigars … and still do. Money once dedicated to print and television advertising still can be used to facilitate the placement of tobacco products – if not always the individual brands – in movies. So many actors smoke, it’s rarely a problem finding one to push for its inclusion in a scene. (Reality shows targeted at teens and young adults — “Jersey Shore,” being one of them — also have been allowed to get away with not-so-subtle plugs.) The DVD and Blu-ray editions of “Greatest Movie Ever Sold” offer commentary, lots of deleted scenes, making-of and background featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Roger Corman’s Cult Classics: Sword and Sorcery Collection
A more accurate title for the latest installment of Shout! Factory’s “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” would have been “Sword, Sorcery, Boobs and More Boobs.” If it weren’t for the vast array of titties in this quartet of quintessential 1980s drive-in flicks, who would pay to see 90 minutes of sloppy sword fights, bad hairdos and silly sorcery. Isn’t that what cable TV is for, now? As it is, though, “Deathstalker,” “Deathstalker II,” “The Warrior and the Sorceress” and “Barbarian Queen” easily fit the bill as guilty pleasures. They’re super goofy and easy on the eyes. Sadly, though, many customers will be drawn to the package solely to check Lana Clarkson, the pretty blond actress and nightclub hostess whose brains were blown out in Phil Spector’s San Gabriel Valley mansion. She’s one of the best things about “Deathstalker” and “Barbarian Queen,” but not for any acting prowess on her part. Although Clarkson could never have made made anyone forget Marilyn Monroe, she screamed in all the right places here and looked sexy while being raped and tortured by ogres and Huns. Also adding to the fun are a mostly clothed Barbi Benton, mostly unclothed Katt Shea and Maria Socas, Corman-regular David Carradine, Luke Askew, a James Horner score and the grotesque reptilian pets of a bulbous potentate. The set features fresh widescreen transfers; trailers; photo galleries; audio commentary by directors John Sbardellati and Jim Wynorski, special makeup effects artist, John Carl Buechler and actors Richard Brooker, John Terlesky and Toni Naples. – Gary Dretzka

Closed for the Season
Super Hybrid: Blu-ray
The Bleeding House
Peeping Blog

Not being addicted to horror movies and ghost stories, I wouldn’t know how many genre flicks have been set in long-abandoned amusement parks. Budgetary prohibitions likely would preclude many companies from building one of their own. It’s much more sensible simply to settle for tricked-out fun house or a carnival roller-coaster painted to look rusty. Fortunately, for the makers of “Closed for the Season” (and “Deadwood Park,” three years earlier), there exists in the wilds of Medina County, Ohio, just such a location. The amusement park on Chippewa Lake entertained folks for 100 years, from 1878 to 1978, before the owners hung a “Closed for Eternity” sign on the front gate. Since then, rust, weeds and the elements have taken their toll on the rides and other attractions, leaving only skeletons and ghost stories in their wake. In any case, there’s no way Chippewa Lake Park could have competed against nearby Cedar Point and Kings Island. Oh, what a location for a low-budget horror picture, though.

Made on a budget estimated to be $250,000, “Closed for the Season” looks as if it cost at least $3 million to film. Apart from the no-name cast and inexpensive digital equipment – both of which were more than adequate for the task – it doesn’t look as if many corners were cut. In addition to writing and directing the movie, Jay Woelfel edited the picture and composed the music. To save a few pennies on craft services, he might even have provided PB&J sandwiches for the gang. As for the story, though, Kristy (scream queen Aimee Brooks) finds herself drawn to the site of an amusement park she once frequented with her parents and friends as a kid. After climbing through a hole in the fence, she experiences a series of haunting events choreographed by carnies and clowns dressed as if the park merely was closed for the night. While attempting to figure out if she’s dreaming, or not, Kristy is greeted by a handsome young guy who has similar memories of the park in its heyday. Together, they bounce between the present and the past, sharing nightmarish experiences and romantic interludes. Ultimately, though, their mission is to get to the bottom of a mystery that’s been buried in Kristy’s subconscious for almost three decades. While “Closed for the Season” may not be sufficiently frightening to impress hard-core horror buffs, it’s well made and the story will keep most viewers guessing. There’s some graphic violence, but nothing anyone older than 13 hasn’t already seen. Brooks is equally credible as the girl-next-door and slut-next-door, a change she makes routinely here, employing only a fresh coat of eye shadow, mascara and bright-red lipstick. The Doublemint Twins should be so versatile.

Early in “Super Hybrid,” I got the distinct impression I was watching one of those made-for-Syfy movies, exec-produced by Roger Corman, in which reptilian/amphibian hybrids attack unsuspecting surfers and teenage girls in bikinis. Here, the monster is an automobile capable of shape-shifting and attacking anyone who gets in its way, including mechanics and a young woman in fishnet stockings. The vehicle isn’t so much possessed by an evil spirit – as were the ones in “Christine” and “The Car” — as it is a wounded animal backed into a corner. It reacts just this way after being towed to a multi-story police garage, after being involved in an accident. Any character stupid enough to open its doors or hood to see what makes it run is immediately devoured by creepy-crawly creatures, who leak blue blood instead of oil. That’s about it, really. Not bad, but no cigar, either. The only actor I recognized was Oded Fehr, who played the lead terrorist in the Showtime series, “Sleeper.” The Blu-ray edition of “Super Hybrid,” which was shot in 3D and 2D, adds a making-of featurette.

In freshman writer/director Philip Gelatt’s “The Bleeding House,” we’re introduced to a villain who’s equal parts snake-oil salesman and sadistic surgeon. Veteran character actor Patrick Breen is wonderfully creepy as the slick, white-suited Southerner who one night arrives at the rural home of a bickering family, seeking conversation and a warm bed. He promises that he’s arranged for a AAA tow truck to come out in the morning to transport his car into town. After briefly debating the wisdom of inviting the stranger in, Mom decides he probably isn’t any worse company than her useless husband and twisted daughter. And for a while, anyway, his glib dialogue is quite diverting. Anyone familiar with the slasher genre will know what happens next. Not so predictable, however, are the stranger’s methods and motives, and Gelatt’s strategy for exacting justice on the lunatic. The film takes place over the course of single night and the darkness outside the house is far less foreboding than the light that illuminates the stranger’s activities inside it. The Gothic mood is further enhanced by Breen, who reminded me a bit of Brad Dourif’s demented preacher, Hazel Motes, in “Wise Blood.” Although not particularly scaring, “The Bleeding House” definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. Bonus features include an alternative ending and deleted scenes.

DIY horror auteur Creep Creepersin has delivered in “Peeping Blog” a movie that fully lives up to the faux menace of his name. Unlike most of his other experiments in horror, “Peeping Blog” has dispensed completely with plot and narrative. Instead, it assumes the visual point-of-view of a masked stalker and simply follows him as he tracks his victim and invades the privacy of her home, all for the titillation of his blog audience. The only diversion comes when a friend of the woman arrives to kvetch about something and we realize that the stalker is momentarily trapped. Like too many other things on the Internet, you’ll want to take a shower after watching it. – Gary Dretzka

Popovich Brothers of South Chicago
Black and White

From Facets Video arrives a documentary that should remind Americans of all ethnic backgrounds of the cruel struggles and great joys of moving to a country where celebrating one’s religious and cultural traditions not only is allowed, but it is encouraged … unless, of course, you’re a recent arrival from Mexico and live in Arizona. As evidenced in “Popovich Brothers of South Chicago,” people who couldn’t understand a word of their immigrant neighbors’ native language had no difficulty sharing the passion of their music. In Chicago, neighborhoods traditionally have been defined by the ethnic makeup of their residents. On weekends, countless bars and nightclubs cater to these communities, offering a place to drink, eat and dance to the music they brought with them, like so many photograph albums. On the Southeast Side of Chicago, in the 1960s and ’70s, you were never very far from a bar where blue-collar Serbians gathered to hear the music of the Popovich Brothers, whose various siblings, cousins and uncles had been performing for nearly a half-century. The first generation traveled between mining towns, entertaining foreign-born Serbs laboring wherever jobs were to be had. Musicians of Croatian, Greek, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Scandinavian and Hispanic backgrounds did the same. When better jobs opened for eastern Europeans in the mills and factories of Chicago, Gary, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Toronto, the Popoviches joined them. Jill Godmilow’s meticulously restored documentary looks very much like a home movie, during which passings are mourned and other milestones celebrated. The descendents of people who first enjoyed the tambura and kolo music performed by the Popovich family can learn a great deal about their culture from the documentary, as can anyone who relishes world music, in general. It arrives with a featurette on some Pittsburgh-area musicians who carry on the tradition, as well as a short piece on the restoration.

Boris Frumin’s “Black and White,” also from Facets, tells a very different sort of immigrant’s tale. Made in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the low-budget indie drama follows one young Russian émigré to New York, where the welcome mat has lately been reserved for wealthy foreign business executives, cold-blooded gangsters and oligarchs, and free-spending entertainers. For too many other recent immigrants, America has devolved into a Darwinian nightmare, where the strong use brute strength to survive and the weak are their prey. Still, they come.

Lisa (Yelena Shevchenko) has immigrated to New York to study medicine and absorb some of the Bohemian culture still found in pre-gentrification quarters of the Lower East Side. As the movie opens, Lisa is rescued from a beat-down – at the hands of her drug-dealer boyfriend — by an African-American apartment manager, Roy. Learning that she’s destitute, Roy offers here a free pad in the building he supervises. They become close friends, but their relationship is limited by Roy’s self-imposed familial obligations and financial problems. When the building owner, an artist who specializes creating plaster casts of naked women, discovers that Lisa isn’t paying for her room, he seizes on the opportunity to trade sex for lodging. At first, she resists. When Roy once again comes to her rescue, though, he’s fired. To prevent such a calamity, Lisa agrees to the landlord’s demands. Any promise of Lisa and Roy coming together as something other than friends, finally, is thwarted by a psychological barrier too thick to cut with love, alone. It would be interesting to learn how they fared over the course of the next 20 years – the Lower East Side is a completely different place, after all — but the reality may be even more horrific (or boring) than what we’ve already witnessed. Fans of early John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch films are the target audience for “Black and White.” – Gary Dretzka

To Die Like a Man
Fernando Santos delivers an unforgettable performance as a much-celebrated Lisbon drag entertainer in the late 1980s. His Tonia has been living as a woman for most of the last two decades, or shortly after she became an absentee father. As we meet her, a surgeon is using origami to describe how he will craft a vagina, clitoris and labia from strategically sliced sections of his penis and foreskin. The doctor’s matter-of-fact presentation disturbs her far more than the reality of undergoing an irreversible sex change. Her other trepidations come from her religious beliefs. Apart from that, Tonia and her friends live lives we’d recognize here as being middle-class, with décor and ornaments that would suggest the residents have good taste and are educated. Anyway, they don’t flounce around the house in platform heels or sing show tunes in the shower. Much of “To Die Like a Man” takes place in a nightclub populated with divas, but the title of João Pedro Rodrigues’s film should alert viewers not to expect a gay romp, a la “Les Cage Aux Folles” or “The Birdcage.” Among the life-affirming moments, though, is a nighttime fantasy staged in a dense forest, which borders on the magical.

Tonia lives with Rosario, a much-younger man who’s gone AWOL from the army. He pushes her to decide whether she’ll finally accept herself as a part-time man or full-time woman, although we learn in the end that she’d be just as happy as a “plural.” If that weren’t enough, Tonia’s facing a challenge at the club and her son, who’s about the same age as Rosario, is enraged by their living situation. Moreover, health problems linked to leaking breast implants and prescribed drugs have begun to present themselves in increasingly distressing ways. Finally, as her health continues to deteriorate, the battle to preserve her dignity as human being becomes every bit as challenging as the relatively minor ones she faces at home and work. Clearly, this is not a movie meant for all viewers to embrace. It’s far too uncompromising in its portrayal of an alternate lifestyle to suit mainstream tastes. Anyone deeply moved by “Philadelphia,” “Before Night Falls,” “Time to Leave” and “Transamerica” should find “To Die Like a Man” to be a worthwhile experience, however. The tenderness of the ending will have many viewers reaching for hankies, even if they aren’t card-carrying members of GLAAD. – Gary Dretzka

Little Big Soldier
Unless he is performing ridiculously difficult stunts, acting the fool or teaching cute little kids out to kick the crap out of rival gang members, Jackie Chan by now probably assumes his most personal movies won’t find distribution in the United States. “Little Big Soldier” is just one of those projects. It took 20 years for Chan to realize his dream of writing and starring in this epic story of survival, unlikely alliances and the absurdities of war. As one of the very few survivors of a major battle between Chinese states, his character would be required to embark on an arduous journey to a home that may no longer exist, with an opposing general in tow as collateral. The project took so long to complete, Chan’s ideas for Little Soldier had to be redrawn for the middle-age Big Soldier. The epic historical dramedy, if you will, is set in China’s era of Warring States, which led to the unification under the Qin Dynasty. The battle Big Soldier survived pitted tens of thousands of warriors on each side. When it was over, corpses littered the earth for as far as the eye could see. It didn’t really pay to survive intact, because those soldiers who weren’t killed or maimed were destined to be treated as traitors. A general would resist being captured by anyone, let alone a mere grunt, so Big Soldier had his hands full. Their skirmishes provide much of the comic relief in the movie. When the General’s rivals learn he has survived the carnage and is on the run, he reluctantly accepts the fact that he and Big Soldier will have to accept temporary accommodations, at least. If only Big Soldier would refrain from singing silly songs and quoting his father, who apparently was no genius, their time together would pass much faster.

Anyone who’s seen Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Richard Price’s “The Wanderers” will know exactly what Chan and director Sheng Ding’s intentions are here. As Chan and the general wind their way through some of China’s most splendid landscapes, the rival bands become increasingly grotesque and dangerous. The staging of the fights is great fun to watch, even if the wire work and other martial-arts tricks are kept to a minimum. Marvelously entertaining, there’s no good reason why “Little Big Soldier” shouldn’t have found distribution here. The swell-looking Blu-ray edition of “Little Big Soldier” adds a full slate of bonus features, ranging from deleted scenes and making-of pieces, to a Jackie Chan music video and dubbed-English soundtrack. – Gary Dretzka

Sympathy for Delicious
Mark Ruffalo’s first foray into direction is a wildly uneven Skid Row psychodrama about a wheelchair-bound Los Angeles DJ who’s either been blessed or cursed with the gift of healing. Writer Christopher Thorton, himself a paraplegic, plays the increasingly belligerent “Delicious” Dean O’Dwyer to Ruffalo’s generous, if short-sighted Father Joe, who works tirelessly for the betterment of conditions in the crime-ridden district. Desperately poor, but too proud to beg, Dean lives and sleeps in an abandoned automobile. He discovers his gift after attending a raucous Evangelical hoedown and witnessing what the power of faith can do. He narrowly misses his opportunity to be healed, but discovers the gift he possesses by inadvertently curing a rock musician of his drug addiction. He doesn’t want to believe he’s anything special and bridles at the fact he can’t heal himself. Father Joe, however, convinces Dean that God has entrusted him with the job of curing other homeless people, which he does. It isn’t until Father Joe asks Dean to heal a wealthy man’s daughter in return for a large gift to the mission that he decides to chuck it all and perform healings during goth-rock concerts organized by a band fronted by Juliette Lewis and Orlando Bloom, and managed by Laura Linney. A miscalculation results in an on-stage death and subsequent legal action, when everyone’s true colors are revealed. That’s the simplified version, anyway.

In between Dean’s first and final healings – both of which are nicely rendered – he’s bent, folded and mutilated like a misplaced letter to Santa Claus. He suffers far too many trials and tribulations, some of which stretch credulity to the absolute limit. A bit less reverence for the screenplay would have paid dividends. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to deny the good intentions that inform Thornton’s screenplay and Ruffalo, as director, does a nice job capturing the harshness of life on Skid Row. Among all the sturm und drang, an entirely credible faith-based message can be discerned in “Sympathy for Delicious,” as well. – Gary Dretzka

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
The Greening of Southie

These documentaries exist on opposite ends of the environmental spectrum.
If a Tree Falls” examines the Earth Liberation Front’s campaign to raise the ante on “green” activism, by destroying buildings and businesses it decided were emblematic of the destruction of America’s forests, wild horses, water supply, atmosphere and what have you. “The Greening of Southie” chronicles the construction of a residential building in South Boston, designed specifically to be as green as is humanly and architecturally possible. By meeting the stringent requirements of the city agency that rewards idealistic contractors with financial incentives, green companies can bypass the needs of poor and working-class Bostonians and target the wallets of yuppies and deep-pocketed liberals. At the same time as ELF saboteurs were destroying buildings in the name of preserving God’s bounty on Earth, the people financing the Macallen Building were attempting to prove there was room in South Boston for million-dollar condos and clear consciences. In between lie countless shades of green.

“If a Tree Falls” frames its story around Daniel McGowan, a militant ELF activist and self-acknowledged arsonist, who the government has branded a domestic terrorist. He currently is serving time in a high-security prison, surrounded by jihadists and home-grown assassins, whose attacks on federal buildings have killed hundreds of their fellow Americans. Directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman chronicle the progress of McGowan’s case, while also tracing the roots of ELF and parsing its motives, philosophy and rationales for violence. “If a Tree Falls” may be on the side of the environmental angels, but it’s not an apologia for ELF tactics. Curry and Cullman offer plenty of screen time to loggers and other targets, FBI agents and representatives of government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, which is made to look very bad here. ELF wouldn’t have found any traction if the service hadn’t decided to sic its goons on hippies protesting against the destruction of old-growth forests, simply to feed the greed of logging and building concerns. Neither was the cause of rationale debate served by Eugene’s city fathers, who voted to cut down beautiful trees and replace them with a parking structure, and backing up their decision by beating and gassing peaceful demonstrators. When ELF began embracing guerrilla tactics, many otherwise moderate environmentalists felt it was only fair to level the playing field. And, before the radicals began making costly, bonehead mistakes, that’s pretty much what happened.

No such controversy exists in “The Greening of Southie.” Boston law demands of builders that they meet certain environmental standards, but the one profiled here decided to go even greener than the statutes required. The construction unions had no reason to complain, either, as all of the laborers were under contract and the use of non-toxic materials ensured more hours on the clock. The only static heard came from nearby residents – famously clannish Irish Catholics – who naturally feared being priced out of “Southie.” Here, the other side of the coin is revealed when the building begins rejecting some of the green materials — wheatboard cabinetry, recycled steel, bamboo floors, the grass on the “living roof” – and they must be replaced at no small expense to the contractors. Neither were the not inconsiderable costs of transporting such materials, some from as far away as Brazil and China, factored into the green grading system. Even so, no one considers the Macallen Building to be anything but a solid first step in the right direction. Both documentaries arrive with extended interviews, updates and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

The Legend of Rin-Tin-Tin: America’s Favorite Canine Hero
John Wayne: The Tribute Collection
The Magnificent Seven/Return of the Magnificent Seven: Blu-ray
Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More: Blu-ray

Anyone who enjoyed Susan Orlean’s piece on Rin-Tin-Tin in the latest New Yorker will be thrilled to learn of the release on DVD of “The Legend of Rin-Tin-Tin: America’s Favorite Canine Hero,” from Mill Creek. Like the article, this collection focuses on Rinty’s early years, from his discovery on a World War I battlefield and through 48 serialized episodes of “The Adventures of Rex and Rinty,” “The Law of the Wild,” “The Lightning Warrior” and “The Lone Defender.” He’s a heck of a dog, all right. Among the dark-coated German shepherd’s co-stars in these cliffhangers from the 1930s are humans Kane Richmond, Frankie Darro and Bob Custer and, of course, Rex “King of the Wild Horses.” The movies look remarkably good for their age and remain surprisingly entertaining. The set also includes a new, original documentary, tracing Rin-Tin-Tin’s bloodlines and verifying his status as Hollywood superstar. In fact, three years after making his debut in 1923, Lee Duncan’s “wonder dog” was accorded the title of “world’s biggest movie star,” raking in $6,000 a week. By 1930, he even had his own radio show.

In the same year Rin-Tin-Tin became Hollywood’s top-draw, a USC football player named Marion Morrison made un-credited appearances in three silent pictures, only one of which was a western. As John Wayne, the tall and handsome athlete would go on to eclipse Rinty and most other Hollywood attractions, becoming one of the most iconic stars of his time. The Mill Creek collection, “John Wayne: The Tribute Collection,” contains 25 titles on four discs, vintage trailers and retrospective doc. It includes movie serials and features from the 1930s, as well as “Angel and the Bad Man” (1947), “McClintock!” (1963) and “The American West of John Ford” (1971). No fan should die before seeing “Riders of Destiny” (1933), with the Duke as “Singin” Sandy Saunders, perennial sidekick George “Gabby” Hayes and legendary stuntman and second-unit director Yakima Canutt.

Who knew Japanese translated so easily into English and Italian? Not only have Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo” long enjoyed the respect and admiration of audiences and filmmakers outside Japan, but they also provided the template for “The Magnificent Seven,” “Return of the Magnificent Seven,” “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More.” This month, MGM and Fox Home Entertainment did Blu-ray enthusiasts the great favor of releasing single-film editions of the classic westerns, with all sorts of terrific bonus features. The titles were previously available only as Target Exclusives or as part of “The Man With No Name Trilogy” and “The Magnificent Seven Collection.” For the uninitiated, “Magnificent Seven” describes what happens when a band of American mercenaries is hired by the citizens of a poor Mexican village to protect them from bandits. It starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz and Brad Dexter, as the gringo gunmen; and Eli Wallach, as the chief bandito, Calvera. It was directed by John Sturges and memorably scored by Elmer Bernstein.

Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” not only introduced “spaghetti westerns” to American audiences, but it also transformed Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates, from “Rawhide,” into the squinty-eyed Man With No Name. (Actually, the credits allow that he was a man called Joe.) As in “Yojimbo” and, before that, the Dashiell Hammett mystery “Red Harvest,” an enigmatic stranger stands between warring western clans, pitting them against each other for fun and profit. The movie’s haunting score was contributed by the great Ennio Morricone. In the sequel, Eastwood’s bounty hunter joins forces with a black-clad assassin (Lee Van Cleef) — temporarily, at least — to pursue the evil El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté), again, for fun and profit. The sequel to “The Magnificent Seven” is less memorable. In it, Brynner’s character returns to the Mexican village to rescue men – including Chico (now Julian Mateos) – kidnapped and forced to build a church by another band of outlaws. Among the new cast members are Warren Oates, Claude Akins, Fernando Rey and flash-in-the-pan, trivia-game answer, Jordan Christopher. (Who married Richard Burton’s first “ex” and was in the band that first performed “Wild Thing”? It wasn’t the Troggs or Jimi Hendrix.) – Gary Dretzka

History: September 11th Memorial Edition
Johnny Carson: Late Night Legend
A&E: Storage Wars: Season One
History: Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy, Volume One
Gossip Girl: The Complete Fourth Season
PBS Explorer Collection: Mars: The Red Planet
Nickelodeon: Dora’s Halloween Parade

I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do in the next few weeks is relive the tragic events of 9/11/2001. Compared to the horrendous attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that day, the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was a fair fight. Nothing can be gained by watching the Towers crumble 200 or 300 more times and hearing the story of the brave passengers who died trying to prevent the terrorists from plunging into the White House or Capitol Building. The world media, however, already is salivating over the prospect of recycling the terrible footage and re-introducing us to the villains, victims and surviving families. No, thanks. It would be more productive for the media to indict the FBI and CIA officials who refused to work together to eliminate the threat they knew was festering in our midst. Or, they could publically humiliate the politicians, who, until last month, held up medical benefits for firefighters and other relief and salvage workers; the contractors and developers hoping to profit from the re-purposing of Ground Zero; and the bureaucrats and special-interest demagogues who can’t agree on a fitting memorial. All that said, however, some DVD and Blu-ray products promise to be better than others. Among them are the History Channel’s suitably reverend and informative “September 11th Memorial Edition,” which is comprised of the highly personalized “102 Minutes That Changed America,”; “Hotel Ground Zero,” which describes the ordeal from the point of view of the 940 tourists, visitors and staff in the Marriott WTC Hotel, located beneath and between the Twin Towers; “The Miracle of Stairway B,” the story of 12 firefighters, 3 office workers, and a Port Authority police officer who survived the collapse of the North Tower; “The Day the Towers Fell,” which offers fresh testimony from eyewitnesses, including amateur and professional photographers; and the bonus “I-Witness to 9/11,” which serves as a companion piece to “102 Minutes That Changed America.”

Johnny Carson may have been one of the most popular performers in television history, but very few people under the age of 70 know how he made his way from the broadcast boonies of Nebraska to the heights of fame in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Before ascending to the late-night throne abdicated by Jack Paar, Carson spent a decade toiling in the vineyards of morning and afternoon television, as well as hosting quiz shows and doing guest spots on prime-time variety programs. The Mill Creek collection, “Late Night Legend” is comprised of 35 more-or-less rare appearances on such shows as “The Johnny Carson Show” (1955-56), “Carson’s Cellar” (1953), “The Morning Show” (1954), “Who Do You Trust?” (1957-62), “The Timex All-Star Comedy Show” (1962), “Colgate Comedy Hour” (1954), “The Chrysler Shower of Stars” (1954) and variety shows hosted by Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra, Martin & Lewis, Sid Caesar, Arthur Godfrey, Martha Raye, Bobby Darrin and Jack Benny (commercials, too). The episodes look sharp and represent a who’s who of mid-century show-biz legends-to-be. A newly produced documentary on Carson’s life and career also is part of the package.

If ever a program concept deserved to be aborted, it would be staging reveals at storage facilities and examining what’s left behind by deadbeats and relatives who refused to pay monthly fees for what they assumed to be boxes of worthless trinkets and moth-eaten clothes. Instead, “Storage Wars” found a loyal audience of reality addicts. A&E’s weirdly entertaining, if slightly doctored series follows modern-age prospectors as they mine for gold in the most unlikely of shafts. To me, “Storage Wars” has the same appeal as the final round of “Let’s Make a Deal,” when everyone’s dying to learn what’s behind the three doors … junk or treasure. The first-season DVD set is comprised of 12 episodes, shot in SoCal and Las Vegas.

Having seen Larry the Cable Guy in performance, I can attest to the fact that he’s a very funny man and one needn’t have been born in the shadow of a NASCAR track to laugh out loud at his jokes (although it helps). In the History series, “Only in America,” Larry makes stops at several different locations — the Oregon Trail, Grand Canyon, the Delaware River, the goldfields of California’s gold – absorbing local history, spinning yarns with the natives and taking stabs at such pastimes as cooking moonshine, breeding mules, riding with Hell’s Angels and hunting alligators.

The fourth season of “Gossip Girl” opened in Paris and ended on a rooftop in Manhattan. In between, Chuck recovered the memories he lost in Prague at the end of Season Three; Serena and Blair disposed of boyfriends as if they were last year’s fashions; Dan grappled with impending parenthood (not) and his slutty sister pretty much disappeared into the ozone; a judge forced Serena’s mom to wear a thoroughly un-stylish ankle bracelet; and Bass Industries nearly collapsed under the weight of its board of directors’ massive egos. A neat twist in the final episode promises more trashy fun to come in Season Five. The extras include a behind-the-scenes look at the Paris episodes; a tight focus on Episode 18, when another one of Lily’s sisters and a psycho niece were introduced; a gag reel; and unaired scenes.

The “PBS Explorer Collection: Mars: The Red Planet” documents the latest attempts to uncover the secrets of the planet most likely to offer a compatible environment for earthlings. The compilation is divided into four parts: “Can We Make It to Mars?,” “Is There Life on Mars?,” “Welcome to Mars” and “Mars: Dead or Alive.” We’re given a behind-the-scenes look at the $820 million Mars Exploration Rover project, through the lenses of Spirit and Opportunity, and much speculation about the possibility of recognizable life forms and exploitable resources. Another segment previews the future of space travel, when and if the U.S. has enough money to afford such pursuits.

Halloween being just around a couple of corners and long hallways away, there’s no time like the present to get the kids psyched for the holiday. Nickelodeon helps by sending out “Dora’s Halloween Parade,” featuring four episodes from the popular children’s series, which aims to educate viewers, as well as entertain them. – Gary Dretzka

Robert Plant’s Blue Note
The natural tendency of rock-’n’-roll fans is to demand that their idols stay frozen in time, making and recording new music for their own pleasure, but always returning to their favorites in concert and greatest-hits albums. Their loyal followers made the artists fabulously wealthy, after all, and now only require of them that they not grow old. It helps explain why no one would pay $5, let alone $200, to hear the Rolling Stones perform songs written after, say, 1980. The same pretty much applies to all of the British Invasion groups, the Beach Boys and Motown acts. Much of the music Bob Dylan has made in the last 35 years has been quite good, but he knows what his fans have come to hear and gives it to them, albeit in different variations. Robert Plant is the rare British rock superstar who’s been allowed to evolve musically and sell albums at the same time. When he won five Grammys for his collaborations with Allison Krause, in 2009, it would be difficult to tell whose fans were more shocked. The new unauthorized musical biography, “Robert Plant’s Blue Note” – which has nothing to do with the record label or jazz club – argues that no one should have been surprised, because he’s been acknowledging and tracing his myriad roots for most of the last half-century.

Like everyone else in the British rock scene of the mid-’60s, Plant owes his career to American bluesmen, such as Muddy Waters, Willy Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf. Led Zeppelin would be influenced, as well, by American folk-rockers and psychedelic groups. Skip ahead a couple dozen years and Plant has enjoyed the freedom to embark on several journeys of re-discovery through the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, Nashville, North Africa and India. He’s in constant pursuit of the “blue note” he first heard in the voices of Elvis Presley and Howlin’ Wolf, when he was a kid, and, since then, in the music of only a few other singers. Basically, though, the producers of “Blue Note” were able to feed off Plant’s eclecticism to tell their story. As is typical of the feature-length bios distributed by MVD, the DVD sidesteps the lack of authorization, by interviewing friends, historians, critics, fellow musicians and finding concert material on public-domain footage. And, in the case of Plant, Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds and their contemporaries, there’s no scarcity of material from which to draw. Moreover, the quality of the DVDs has improved to the point where the scratchy visuals, spotty audio and sloppy editing have largely become a thing of the past. – Gary Dretzka

Erotic Escape
Exotic Malice
Sex, Demons and Death

Half the fun of screening Italian sexploitation and giallo DVDs derives from solving the mysteries surrounding title translations, pseudonyms and self-censorship. The three One7 releases covered here may be known on Amazon as “Exotic Malice,” “Erotic Escape” and “Sex, Demons and Death,” but you’d have to know their original titles “Fuga scabrosamente pericolosa,” “Sesso Nero” and “Diabolicamente … Letizia,” respectively, to find them at A parallel search at both services invariably leads to other, completely unrelated European movies, with the same or similar titles, or translations that take you in an entirely different direction. A close perusal of the small-type credits might reveal the names of the director or stars, but that task usually requires a magnifying glass or 20/10 vision. Generally speaking, though, viewers needn’t possess superior visual acuity to distinguish between the many spectacularly voluptuous actresses willing to disrobe on cue or be repelled by the blood that spurts from the wounds inflicted by razor-toting sociopaths.

“Exotic Malice”/“Sesso Nero” doesn’t come close to describing the evil intentions of the sexy female characters in Joe D’Amato’s orgy of masculine agony. The target of their wrath is a handsome middle-age gentleman, who’s lost his lover to suicide and is about lose his manhood to prostate cancer. No matter where he turns, Mark (Mark Shannon) is accosted by women whose sole mission in life appears to be bringing him to an orgasm painful enough to bring a bull elephant to its knees. The severity of the pain even cuts through the morphine his doctor has prescribed for him. In the time given him, Mark most desires to return to the island where he first tasted true love. Instead, he runs into a woman who’s a dead ringer for his late girlfriend – or, maybe, her ghost — and seeks to re-create the experience, even knowing he may be one ejaculation away from hell. Indeed, watching “Exotic Malice” may be the closest its male viewers will ever come to experiencing the pain of childbirth. The only things truly exotic in the movie are the women, who come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes. Apparently, the deleted scene included in the DVD was borrowed from a previous D’Amato picture and it wasn’t deleted from that one, either.

“Erotic Escape”/“Fuga scabrosamente pericolosa” describes a political prisoner’s escape from a high-security penitentiary. So, half of the English title is accurate, at least. Given that the hostage taken by the prisoner for insurance is played by the impossibly sensuous Eleonora Vallone, the movie could have stood to be a lot more erotic, however. As far as I could tell, there were only two sex scenes and they were decidedly soft-core. There is, however, a great deal of gratuitous violence perpetrated on women and that, too, is in the tradition of Italian sexploitation.

In English and in Italian, “Sex, Demons and Death”/ “Diabolicamente … Letizia,” has been accurately titled. In it, a pretty blond college grad is welcomed into the home of her childless uncle and aunt, both of whom have entered middle-age with their good looks intact. Instead of being grateful, Letizia uses them as her personal whipping post and target for her sadistic spell-casting. On the way to convincing her aunt that she’s going nuts, Letizia slowly introduces her to the pleasures of girl-girl sex. She also uses her mystic eyes to persuade the maid to seduce both the aunt and uncle, before driving her sports car into a tree. The local disco serves as testing ground for Letizia, who could dance all night and still find the energy to mess with the couple’s heads. Lurking in the background is her pervy mentor. Again, “Sex, Demons and Death” is product of its place and time. In this digital era, I can’t imagine any national cinema being as delightfully tawdry as Italy’s, in the second-half of the 20th Century. – Gary Dretzka

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One Response to “The DVD Wrapup: The Beaver, Win Win, NEDS, Secret Sunshine, Breath, Road to Nowhere, To Die Like a Man …”

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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