MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Cars 2, Tabloid, Crazy Stupid Love, Water for Elephants, Snow Flower Trespass, Phantom of Opera …

Cars 2: Blu-ray
If you loved the first “Cars,” which rolled off the Pixar production line in 2006, it’s better than even money that you’ll enjoy “Cars 2.” If not, the sequel probably won’t change your mind. You either dig anthropomorphic automobiles or you don’t. Neither am I’m sure kids will care to sit through another 106 minutes of wild races through the streets of faraway cities and a plot partially inspired by James Bond movie. Some will, some won’t. “Cars 2” likely will appeal far more to parents and grandparents with fond memories of a time when you they could look at a vehicle and know instinctually its make, model and year of birth, if not precisely was under its hood. As such, it’s the kind of movie that defines that vaguest of cinematic conceits, “family entertainment.”

With a cast of 145 motorized characters, “Cars 2” is equal parts junk yard, showroom and automotive museum. Throw in the 007 throughline and it’s a veritable nostalgia factory. This isn’t to say, however, that John Lasseter’s pet project isn’t also filled with lots of peddle-to-the-metal action and rib-tickling low-brow comedy, because it is. This time around, Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater have joined the World Grand Prix circuit, which favors road-course racing over the familiar NASCAR oval and is typically contested on the streets of major international cities. While McQueen is burning rubber on the tracks, Tater finds himself caught up in a game of Spy vs. Spy. Michael Caine voices the super-slick Aston Martin, Finn McMissile, while Emily Mortimer does an Emma Peel turn as Holly Shiftwell. Eddie Izzard plays a petroleum magnate who uses the races to promote an alternative fuel of his own invention. As the rusty ringer, Tater nearly steals the show from all of them. Anyone not smitten with Larry the Cable Guy’s brand of cornpone comedy, though, may want to mute the sound and enjoy the visual treats, instead.

I’m told that the Blu-ray 3D edition is pretty snappy, which is good because it contains most of the bonus material. My 2D screener offered only the entertaining cartoons, “Hawaiian Vacation,” in which the “Toy Story” gang attempts to stage a tropical sojourn for Barbie and Ken; and “Air Mater,” in which everyone’s favorite tow truck joins the Air Force Thunderbirds. The five-disc 3D package adds commentary by Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis; an interactive globe with stops in Radiator Springs, the Pacific, London, Paris, Munich, Prague, Porta Costa, Tokyo and Emeryville, Ca., where a collection of making-of material, deleted scenes and other promotional material is located. There’s also a sneak peek of “The Nuts & Bolts of Cars Land,” Disney’s upcoming 12-acre attraction. – Gary Dretzka

Errol Morris’ latest documentary is a study in obsession and fanaticism. As the title implies, it’s also lurid, pulpy and ripped from vintage tabloid headlines. Some are more than 30 years old now, but age hasn’t diluted their power to titillate readers and viewers, alike. Morris’ subject, Joyce McKinney, still bubbly and attractive at 62, sold a lot of British tabloid newspapers in 1977-78. The onetime Miss Wyoming had been charged with stalking, kidnaping and raping her American boyfriend, who was in Surrey doing missionary work for the Mormon Church. As her story went, Kirk Anderson was whisked away to England after their budding love affair was reported to church officials by his mother. To find him, McKinney was required to hire a detective and pilot, who accompanied her to England. When McKinney confronted Anderson outside a meeting house, she says he voluntarily drove with her to a Devon cottage, where they enjoyed several days of blissfully kinky sex. Afraid he would be excommunicated if the truth came out, Anderson returned to Surrey, made up a story about being abducted, then shackled to a bed and forced to have sex. Given the difference in their sizes, it seemed unlikely that McKinney would be able to rape her much larger lover, but, even in England, stranger things have happened. Once the tabloids got wind of the case, it made the kind of headlines even the Kardashians would envy, and it kept getting stranger and exponentially more lurid from there. In 2008, long after “The Case of the Manacled Mormon” had lost its heat, McKinney returned to the headlines by having her dead pit bull cloned by South Korean scientists for $25,000. It resulted in the birth of five chocolate-brown puppies.

The subjects of Morris’ docs have ranged from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and physicist Stephen Hawking, to death-row engineer Fred A. Leuchter Jr., whose career was ruined after being used as a tool for Holocaust deniers. Part of Morris’ methodology is to allow his subjects to spin versions of their own stories as they so choose, while an unblinking camera and dispassionate director record them. Introduced later are facts and other evidence that effectively contradict their memories. Such is the case with McKinney, whose recollection of the events leading up to the kidnaping, trial and flight from so-called justice are wildly out of touch with reality. It would have been interesting to hear Anderson’s side of the story, but it’s entirely possible McKinney’s analysis of his brainwashing by Mormon leaders is accurate and he refused to participate. If Morris could have linked Mitt Romney — presidential candidate and recent target of anti-Mormon propaganda, Mitt Romney — to the long-simmering controversy, “Tabloid” could have been a real game changer. – Gary Dretzka

Crazy, Stupid, Love: Blu-ray
Finally, a Hollywood rom-com that gets enough of its various parts right to be considered successful as both a romance and comedy. More significantly, perhaps, it also reveals truths about love and marriage that grown-ups will recognize in a broken heartbeat. For younger viewers, there’s an Ashton/Demi scenario that’s as entertaining as anything else in “Crazy, Stupid Love.” Indeed, it’s the movie’s universality that ultimately works against it. No European rom-com about love, marriage and midlife sexual crises would attempt to cater to audiences with so wide a demographic range. Just when things begin getting interesting here, the filmmakers pull back from the brink of anything really titillating. If any movie cries out for an unrated, director’s-cut edition, it’s “Crazy, Sexy Love.”

As anyone who witnessed the bombardment of ads on TV between Memorial Day and the end of July already knows, Steve Carell and Julianne Moore play a long-married couple, Cal and Emily, who separate after she expectedly announces she had sex with a co-worker and wants a divorce. Cal has been a perfectly decent husband and father, and Emily hasn’t shown any early warning signs of displeasure. Apparently, though, she’s unhappy that he’s surrendered to middle-age, middle-class complacency and seems content with his status in life. Emily has decided she won’t give in to the urge to grow old gracefully and takes a brief walk on the wild side. Suddenly single, Cal wants to dive head-first into the dating pool, but doesn’t know how. Even in a bar filled nightly with dozens of hot single women, he dresses as if he just got back from his son’s Little League game. He’s so pathetic, a slightly younger playboy, Jacob (Ryan Gosling), takes pity on him and volunteers to turn him into a babe magnet. While not an easy process, it is undeniably funny. The trajectory of Cal and Emily’s separation from here isn’t all that difficult to predict, but what keeps things rolling for viewers are the supporting characters, who are given ample opportunity to steal the spotlight. They include son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who’s infatuated with the family’s slightly older babysitter (Analeigh Tipton), who has an inconvenient crush on Cal. As usual, Emma Stone is wonderful as the woman who finally tames Jacob; Marisa Tomei, is hilarious as the randy barfly who rocks Cal’s sexual world; and Kevin Bacon does a nice job as the inadvertent home wrecker.

I don’t know why it took two sophomore directors – Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“I Love You, Phillip Morris”) – to interpret John Fogelman’s solid, if not terribly complex screenplay. Fogelman’s last half-dozen credits are “Cars,” “Cars 2,” “Tangled,” “Bolt,” “Fred Claus” and something called “Lipshitz Saves the World,” none of which have anything to do with less-than-blissful marriages. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the actors were given free license to put their own grown-up spin to the characters as written. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a couple of standard-issue making-of featurettes to the mix, as well as instant streaming with UltraViolet Digital Copy. – Gary Dretzka

Water for Elephants
Not having read Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel, I couldn’t say with any certainty how it compares with Francis Lawrence and Richard LaGravenese’s movie. The nation’s top critics were polarized on the adaptation, with the ones who read and liked the book on the negative end. The others were impressed by its palpable period flavor and highly credible circus setting. I enjoyed “Water for Elephants” – my mind reads it, “Like Water for Elephants” – primarily because it reminded me of the wonderful black-and-white melodramas shown on TMC. There’s nothing at all fancy about it. The heroes and villains are easy to identify and the actors, especially Reese Witherspoon (think Fay Wray) even look vintage. Robert Pattinson (think Robert Mitchum) plays chiseled leading man Jacob Jankowski, who studies veterinary medicine at Cornell during the Depression. After he loses both parents to a car accident, Jacob is forced to drop out of college and ride the rails to a possible job in the big city. Fortuitously, the boxcar in which he lands is full of circus roustabouts, not all of whom are anxious to beat the tar out of him. The oldest one offers his fellow Pole, Jacob, an opportunity to stick with the circus, if only to shovel manure and steer the rubes (hey, it’s still show business). It doesn’t take long, however, before Jacob is able to impress his boss, August (Christoph Waltz, but think Adolphe Menjou), with his ability to heal animals and soothe their pre-performance jitters. He especially impresses August’s animal-trainer wife, Marlena (Witherspoon), whose life he may have saved by diagnosing a potentially dangerous hoof disease on her prized horse. Naturally, August becomes jealous of what he senses to be a burgeoning romance between Jacob and his flirtatious wife, and he takes out his rage on a newly acquired elephant that won’t take orders. It’s a pretty ugly scene and, of course, a precursor of worse things to come.

One of the things probably better explained in the novel is the weird hold August has on Marlena. It transcends love, certainly, and she does Jacob no favors by seeking him out whenever she gets drunk and they’re in each other’s vicinity. The final denouement comes in the oldest of circus-movie traditions, when the manure hits the fan and chaos overwhelms everyone and everything under the Big Top. Again, while it’s all rather predictable, I think most viewers will find the climax to be satisfying. Also good is Hal Halbroke as an elderly nursing-home resident who wants to run away and re-join the circus.The Blu-ray edition adds commentary with Lawrence and LaGravenese; interviews with Pattinson and Witherspoon; and good backgrounders on re-creating American circuses. – Gary Dretzka

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: Blu-ray
Wayne Wang’s latest cross-generational drama took a drubbing from critics, for reasons I don’t completely understand. Even so, I can’t imagination fans of his adaptation of “The Joy Luck Club” not liking it. Based on the Lisa See bestseller, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” relates the parallel story of two pairs of “sworn sisters” (both played by Gianna Jun and Li Bingbing) separated by 200 years, but united by a tradition that defies time. The movie opens in a bustling 21st Century Shanghai, where a woman on a bicycle is hit by a car as she attempts to contact an estranged friend by cell phone. To explain the intimacy of their relationship, Wang dials the movie back to the early 1800s and introduces us to two girls, who share birth dates and anniversaries of the day their feet were bound. Despite their disparate economic backgrounds, Lily and Snow Flower are paired as laotong (“old sames”) by the woman who takes them away from their homes and trains them to be brides for men who can afford her services. Because the woman deems Lily’s fetishized feet to be “perfect,” she stands a better chance of finding the better husband, based solely on his wealth and family. Even though she’s the more valuable commodity, Lily is required to put up with a dragon-lady mother-in-law, a cold-fish husband and being forced to live in isolation after her first child is a girl. Snow Flower has a brute for a husband, but, at least, he occasionally treats her with warmth and something resembling love.

Meanwhile, back and forth to the future, Nina postpones the start of a new job in New York to look after her comatose BFF. While going through Sophia’s papers, Lily discovers a manuscript describing Snow Flower and Lily’s life stories, as well as clues to the location of a 300-year-old fan in whose folds is a message written in a vernacular only used by women. Its discovery would complete a collection of antique fans already on exhibit in a Shanghai gallery. If the narrative as described doesn’t always flow evenly, the blame lies mostly in the fact that See’s novel was set entirely in the past and Wang’s movie bounces back and forth, from past to present. This requires some adjustments on the viewer’s part. There’s no faulting, however, the acting, costumes and set designs. Neither is the movie reluctant to tug at the heart strings and jerk tears whenever possible. (Critics hate to feel manipulated.) The Blu-ray edition looks quite good and includes only the featurette, “The Sworn Sisterhood of the Secret Fan.” – Gary Dretzka

Trespass: Blu-ray
Director Joel Schumacher and cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak did what they could here with a barely serviceable home-invasion screenplay by first-timer Karl Gajdusek, and the result is a thriller whose set design is more interesting than the story. “Trespass” mostly takes place within the boundaries of a posh lakeside community whose security patrol is populated with criminals. Nicolas Cage plays a freelance diamond dealer who’s looking down the barrel of some heavy debts and can’t bear the thought of denying his wife (Nicole Kidman) and daughter (Liana Liberato) the finer things in life. It won’t take viewers long to figure out who set up the home break-in, how he did it and what his alternative motives happen to be. This spoiler revealed early on, the movie becomes an exercise in torture and paranoia. Cage’s character adamantly refuses to surrender to the invaders’ demands, even as they threaten to harm his wife and daughter. Not only does his stand piss off the crooks, but it also surprises his loved ones. As such, Kidman’s primary challenge is to continue looking sexy as she’s being flung repeatedly into walls and onto the floor. (She’d even look sexy in a hurricane wearing boots, a slicker and whaler’s hat.) Jordana Spiro plays the spunky daughter gets caught up in the madness after she returns home early from a party she earlier had been denied permission to attend. Later, the daughter will pretend to bond with the gang’s moll, a strung-out stripper who spends most of her time rummaging through Kidman’s wardrobe. Eventually, as Cage continues to refuse the crooks’ demands, all of the screaming, gun-waving and recriminations among the crooks grow tiresome. There are several clever twists along the way, but none is particularly scary. Apparently, “Trespass” only opened on 10 screens before almost immediately being shipped straight-to-DVD. Considering the talent involved in the project, this lack of confidence borders on the shocking. It also speaks volumes about what’s wrong with an industry that bases most of its decisions on false perceptions of star power and can’t resist saying “no” to half-baked scripts. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

An Invisible Sign: Blu-ray

The similarities in this unrelated pair of offbeat indies are mostly limited to starring roles for highly familiar actresses and their marquee value in video stores. Beyond that, however, each is based on a fresh idea and thinly disguised inspirational themes. If neither movie is very good, it’s nice to see something other than zombies, kung fu and ’roided-out gangsters. Jessica Alba, a TV-born star who has yet to bust out on the big screen, gives it her all in “An Invisible Sign,” a dramedy in which everything rests on a willingness to suspend disbelief for its entire 96-minute length. Alba, who, at 30, still looks like a teenager, plays a 20-year-old woman-child who’s spent most of her life in a state of enforced solitude. After her father (John Shea), a runner and math wiz, suffers a nervous breakdown, Mona decides that she’ll abandon all attempts to socialize with her peers or excel at sports. She fills the vacuum with numbers, which, in her mind, come to life before her eyes in a strange combination of math and numerology. Inexplicably, Mona takes most of her frustrations out on a neighbor who has encouraged her love affair with numbers but left teaching to open a hardware store. Don’t ask. Her mother (Sonia Braga) has virtually given up hope of ever seeing her own life and family return to normalcy.

Now 20 years old and still chronically lonely, Mona is invited to fill a mathematics vacancy at the local middle school. Because the principal isn’t aware of the young woman’s neuroses and lack of college diploma, let alone a teaching certificate, we’re not surprised by Mona’s clumsy approach the profession. The only class we watch her teach is mostly comprised of attentive students, but a few stand out as head cases. Her favorite is an overly dependent girl whose mother is dying of eye cancer, of all possible ailments. The others include a chronic troublemaker, who enjoys being sent to “the corner”; a girl who wets her panties when nervous; and an insufferable brat who taunts Mona for being “incompetent” and a “loser.” A fellow teacher, played by Chris Messina, takes a fancy to the unusual new math instructor, but she continually brushes off his advances. This is way, way too much baggage for a movie as fragile as “An Invisible Sign” to carry on its back and a director, Marilyn Agrelo, to tackle as her first feature. Nonetheless, Argelo has enough duct tape at her disposal to hold things together for most the movie’s compact length and, more importantly, a star who makes us care for her largely unlikeable character.

Jennifer Love Hewitt no longer can get away with playing characters fresh out of their teens, as Alba does in “An Invisible Sign.” If it sometimes feels as if Hewitt’s older than 32, it’s only because she’s been performing on stage since she was old enough to tap and has been a television regular since the mid-1980s. She’s still gorgeous, though, and usually the most stable presence in any show or movie. In “Café,” she plays a barista at an Internet/coffee dungeon in a trendy Philadelphia neighborhood. Claire shares coffee-dispensing duties with an idealistic young musician, Todd (Daniel Eric Gold), who not only has a mad crush on her, but also wants to rescue her from an abusive boyfriend. The fact that neither one of them has met their employer — a detail only revealed midway through –will raise a red flag among viewers familiar with faith-based movies. Before long, though, evidence of a larger, quasi-religious agenda becomes too obvious to disguise with secular stereotypes. Each new customer carries with him/her a burden begging to be lifted. In his first turn as a director, Marc Erlbaum wisely keeps the religious stuff from dominating the interaction between recognizable characters. If I’m not mistaken, heaven here is located somewhere in the vicinity of the café’s wireless router and there’s an unlimited amount of bandwidth available to the “avatars” serving God on Earth. (Decaf, please, hold the cream.) Besides Hewitt and Gold, “Café” stars Jamie Kennedy, Alexa Vega and Madeline Carroll. – Gary Dretzka

The Phantom of the Opera (1925): Blu-ray
Another Halloween has come and gone, and tens of thousands of costumes inspired by Lon Chaney’s performance in “The Phantom of the Opera” have been put into mothballs for another 12 months. It’s interesting, then, that this terrific Blu-ray edition of the 1925 version of the famous thriller should be released on the day after All Hallows’ Eve. If all you know of “Phantom” is the stage musical or any one of a dozen subsequent movie adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s 1908 novel, then you have yet to experience the real deal. Critics continue to argue about the artistic merits of Rupert Julian’s film – especially when compared to the German horror masters – but there’s no denying Lon Chaney’s performance is one of the most memorable performances in the history of the American cinema. He made the disfigured habitué of the Paris Opera House’s netherworld his own, never to be topped.

The new Blu-ray package includes the original 1925 version of “Phantom,” struck from a 16mm print, in standard definition, as well as a pair of re-edited and re-mastered versions of the 1929 re-release in hi-def. One of these versions runs at 24 frames per second, sourced from a 35mm negative, while the other is at 20 frames per second. One of the re-edited versions features an early two-color Technicolor sequence and several other that have been hand-colored to re-create the original Handschiegl Color Process. There are three separate musical soundtracks, including an all-new orchestral score by the Alloy Orchestra; the Gaylord Carter organ score, which is offered as an alternate audio option on the 1929 24fps version; a previously released Gabriel Thibaudeau score, performed by I Musici de Montréal, conducted by Yuli Turovsky and featuring soprano Claudine Côté; and, on the 1925 version, a composite score by Frederick Hodges. There’s also an audio essay by Dr. Jon Mirsalis on the history of the movie and Chaney; an interview with composer Thibaudeau; a 13½-minute photo gallery; a copy of the script; a souvenir program. Or, it’s OK just to watch it again for fun, in as close to pristine condition as it’s likely to be. – Gary Dretzka

His Way: A Portrait of Hollywood Legend Jerry Weintraub
There are only a very few show-business impresarios who possess the clout and chutzpah it takes to put their names above those of their more-famous clients on a marquee. Look at photographs taken of Frank Sinatra and his fellow Rat Packers in front of the Sands marquee and above their heads and names you’ll see, “Jack Entratter Presents.” Sol Hurok, Bill Graham, Ed Sullivan, Colonel Tom Parker and Jerry Weintraub could pull it off, as well. Their names added not one iota to a fan’s enjoyment of a show – unless they were working on an impression of Sullivan – but, in a very real way, they were the ones who oiled the gears on the star-marker machinery. Seeing their names above the title ensured that, if nothing else, the show would go on as promised and it would be a class act. Douglas McGrath’s bio-doc of Weintraub goes a long way to explain what it is a producer/promoter does for his talented clients. One minute, the Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised powerhouse is cutting million-dollar deals, while the next he’s fretting about Frank Sinatra blowing off a show because, well, just because. The film describes how he broke into the business and parleyed access to key show-business and political players into a huge fortune, which he ultimately would lose and recover.

Besides Sinatra, Weintraub worked for and with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Karen Carpenter, Neil Diamond, the Moody Blues and John Denver. Among the movies he’s produced are “Nashville,” “Oh, God!,” “Diner,” “The Karate Kid” and the revived “Ocean’s …” franchise. There’s no need to mention the turkeys, of which there were several. Nor are all of the questions about discordant business relationships fully answered, even after being brought up in passing. “His Way” is neither as entertaining as “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” nor as reverential as “The Last Mogul.” The best material comes when McGrath points the camera at Weintraub and simply lets him tell stories about himself and the people he knows. They’re interesting without being particularly revelatory. Also fun are anecdotes shared by pranksters George Clooney and Matt Damon, stars of the “Ocean’s …” pictures. The least flattering moment comes when Weintraub describes how he managed to con his wife and kids into putting up with his 20-year-long relationship with girlfriend, Susan Ekins. (Hint: lots of money and forgiving hearts.) The DVD adds only another short anecdote. – Gary Dretzka

Go Go Crazy
There are aspects of such amateur-competition shows as “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” that simply defy parody. Besides the ringer contestants, they include the judges, hosts, stacked voting and off-screen dynamics. As mockumentaries go, “Go Go Crazy” is as broad as Nebraska and as shallow as the Great Salt Lake, which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its moments. The “Go Go Crazy” contest is held on the stage of a gay nightclub, where five archetypal dancers will compete for the honor of being anointed top go-go boy and the possibility of winning a $1,000 cash prize. If, here, the film also resembles the grilling process in “A Chorus Line,” it’s probably intentional. If none of the dancers is particularly – or even remotely – talented, they do possess most of the necessary skills attendant to the job. The less-favorably- endowed dancers merely stuff their jockstraps with a fake cock. Far more entertaining are the dimwitted judges – is there any other kind? – and the show’s hostess with the mostest, a green-haired drag queen named Hedda Lettuce. There’s plenty of sex talk and raunchy innuendo throughout “Go Go Crazy,” but not much skin on display below the belt. It was directed by Fred M. Caruso (“The Big Gay Musical”). Bonus material includes cast auditions, deleted scenes and bloopers. – Gary Dretzka

Scrooged: Blu-ray
It’s a Wonderful Life Gift Set: Blu-ray
The Perfect Gift
Dear Santa
Hoax for the Holidays

In 1988, Bill Murray was as hot a commodity as any other actor in the business. Although the “SNL” alum had proven that he couldn’t pass for a romantic leading man — in the classic sense of the word, anyway — Murray had no problem making people laugh uproariously. That ability, in itself, is worth far more than the price of gold in Hollywood. Murray also possessed a snarky sense of humor and deadpan approach that appealed to the “hip” demographic. Who better, then, to play the world’s most famous miser and grump, Ebenezer Scrooge, a.k.a., TV executive Frank Cross. He’s a mean and venal S.O.B., if there ever was one, and the kind of fellow who would staple antlers on a mouse, insult carolers and make a movie about a fire fight between terrorists and Santa Claus. Of course, after being taken on an overnight ride by the three Christmas ghosts, he becomes an entirely different person, even without having to call Ghostbusters. If most critics were unenthusiastic about the conceit, everyday audiences showed their approval by making “Scrooged” a seasonal hit and perennial DVD and VHS favorite. The Blu-ray arrives without any bonus material.

Ever since legal battles over its ownership were settled, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has enjoyed a pretty wonderful afterlife of its own. As long as the Frank Capra classic was in public-domain status, it seemed as if anyone with a VCR could make a crappy copy and sell it at a local convenience store. Now that Paramount Home Entertainment owns its rights, it’s been made to look and sound better than ever. Neither is it allowed to be overexposed on television between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Already released once in Blu-ray, in 2009, the changes to the new “Gift Set” edition are limited to holiday packaging, a bell ornament and commemorative booklet. Otherwise, it’s the same fine movie.

In “The Perfect Gift,” Ruben Studdard looks as if he could either be a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears or ate the backfield for breakfast. All I could do was feel pity for his character’s skinny-Minnie wife, played by Golden Brooks (“Girlfriends”). The “American Idol” winner is given the task of portraying a husband and father whose Christmas is turned upside-down when his wife’s parents make an unannounced visit. With the help of God and his family, the holiday is saved by the discovery of the perfect gift, which was staring back at him all along. The straight-to-DVD movie, which arrives with a bonus soundtrack CD, was shot during a performance of Alvin Moore Jr.’s stage play.

In the Jason Priestly-directed TV movie “Dear Santa,” a spoiled rich girl (Amy Acker) is led to true love and frugality by a 7-year-old girl’s letter to Santa. In it, she asks for a new wife for her widowed dad. To win the guy over, she volunteers at his struggling soup kitchen. (Soup kitchen?) What she doesn’t anticipate is the man’s coldly calculating girlfriend. It’s a holiday rom-com with lots of pretty, mostly Canadian people.

And speaking of Canadian exports, here’s something new and different. In “Hoax for the Holidays” (a.k.a., “Faith, Fraud & Minimum Wage”), a rebellious teenager overwhelmed by the death of a sister discovers an unusual way to make lots of money, fast. While at work at a donut shop, she throws a cup of coffee at the wall, and with a little help, is able to convince customers that it’s the image of Jesus Christ. This causes a stir in her small, god-fearing town, but no more so than with her father, who sees it as a sign from his daughter in heaven. Meanwhile, she tries to haul in enough money from the miracle to make ends meet at home. – Gary Dretzka

Cop Land: Blu-ray
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: Blu-ray

In 1997, no movie was more highly anticipated than “Cop Land” – OK, maybe “Titanic” – if only because of a cast that included Sylvester Stallone, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta. Writer/director James Mangold had made his debut with the indie hit, “Heavy,” and the Miramax marketing team was pushing the angle of Stallone finally getting to show off his acting chops in a dramatic role. It also was reported that the key actors had agreed to work for scale, so “Cop Land” could fit within a $10-million budget, and Stallone had gained 40 pounds for the role. The reviews were mostly positive and it quadrupled its miniscule budget at the box office. The story concerns shady dealings in a New Jersey town populated with an inordinate number of New York City cops. Stallone plays a local sheriff who is asked by an NYPD internal-affairs officer (DeNiro) to help him make a case against renegade New York cops, living in the small town. As such, it’s pretty much a suicide mission. Stallone’s character is looking for redemption, though, so why not? It’s an excellent police drama. The Blu-ray package comes with an extended cut of the film, with 10 additional minutes of footage; deleted scenes; audio commentary; a making-of featurette; and storyboard comparison.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was anticipated more as a bizarre novelty than anything else. Besides the fact it represented George Clooney’s directorial debut, Charlie Kaufman had adapted “Dangerous Mind” from Chuck Barris’ highly questionable autobiography. Barris was notorious for producing such outrageous game shows as “The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show,” which predated “American Idol” by 30 years, but featured entertainers of the same dubious quality. In his book, Barris admitted to being a CIA assassin, whose assignments not coincidentally took him to the same places as the winning daters he chaperoned. It wasn’t an easy scenario to get one’s head around. Somehow, Clooney made it work with assistance of Sam Rockwell, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, with an assist from participants in the ’60s-era shows. Even so, it made almost no money. The Blu-ray includes commentary, deleted scenes, “The Real Chuck Barris” documentary and Sam Rockwell’s original screen test. – Gary Dretzka

Pearl Jam Twenty
Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon
Stevie Winwood: Live in Concert: Blu-ray
Chicago: Live in Concert: Blu-ray
Michael McDonald: Live/A Tribute to Motown: Live: Blu-ray

I don’t know a lot about the rock bands that have broken through the crowd over the last 20 years. My MP3 and iTunes playlists pretty much are limited to bands and musicians that were popular before my son entered high school, at which point I decided to accept the fact I’d reached geezer-hood. Among the bands we could agree upon was Pearl Jam, a band born in the shadow of Nirvana and lumped among grunge acts simply because it was from Seattle. Frontman Eddie Vedder’s voice was a cut above most other rockers, before and since he was recruited to replace the recently OD’d lead singer of Mother Love Bone. He also had a riveting personality and willingness to showboat on stage. Rock journalist and Academy Award-winning director Cameron Crowe had moved to Seattle at the same time as Pearl Jam was breaking into the public eye. He culled the material included in “Twenty” from 1,200 hours of footage he’s shot for interviews, articles and just because he felt like it. It was merged with 24 hours of recently shot concert and interview footage. Not surprisingly, the movie looks and sounds great. Fans will enjoy getting up-close and personal with the musicians and newcomers will see what all the fuss is about. In addition to the feature-length documentary, there are 26 minutes of take-outs with individual band members.

Likewise, the Kings of Leon were a mystery to me until I watched “Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon,” a fascinating documentary about a band no Hollywood screenwriter could invent. It is comprised of three brothers and a cousin from the Followill family of Oklahoma and Tennessee. They named their band for their grandfather, Leon, a singer of some local repute, who hailed from Talahini, Oklahoma. The Followill brothers were raised by their father, a Pentecostal minister whose fire-and-brimstone preaching reverberates through the band’s music. The fevered dancing and incomprehensible tongue-talking that begins when the Holy Ghost invades the soul of a parishioner or tent-show attendee also inform their stage presence. What separates “Talihina Sky” from other rock bio-docs, however, is the focus on the extended Followill family at home and family gatherings. They make the Beverly Hillbillies look like the Ewings of Dallas … but, in a very good way. The old-timers love their boys and enjoy their music, but still fear for their souls. For their part, the boys love their family and respect their traditions and country ways. Stephen C. Mitchell’s film is fascinating both as a family history and performance experience. The DVD adds deleted scenes, home movies and commentary tracks.

The latest batch of “Sound Stage” Blu-rays from Image Entertainment includes concerts featuring classic-rock faves Steve Winwood, Chicago and Michael McDonald. I don’t know how many fans of Pearl Jam and Kings of Leon would enjoy the music contained in these sets, but their parents probably know the songs by memory. Winwood’s set list includes music from his days with Traffic, Cream, Blind Faith and his later solo albums. His distinctive voice is in tip-top shape and the Blu-ray presentation adds greatly to the experience.

Chicago began its life in 1967 as Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA, for short. Beyond the blues, the city had developed a reputation for turning out bands – the Ides of March, Cryan’ Shames, Buckinghams, Shadows of Knight – that produced radio-ready songs with brass, sass and lively harmonizing. Soon, though, bands from San Francisco, L.A. and London would dominate playlists. CTA didn’t surrender to flower power or recycled Chicago blues. Instead, it built on recent tradition by becoming one of the first of the new-era bands to embrace cross-genre fusion. It was influenced as much by the increasingly popular San Francisco jam bands, R&B, jazz and funk, as au courant psychedelic rock. Unlike many of their peer artists, Chicago willingly created songs that fit the three-minute-long demands of AM radio, in addition to longer workouts. And, the group sold a lot of albums and singles, without simultaneously touring itself to an early grave. Some of the band members, circa 2004, have gotten pretty long in the tooth, but they definitely can still kick their ancient hits on video.

Michael McDonald has taken more than his fair share of ribbing during a career that’s included stints with Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers and singing backup with too many top artists to count. His willingness to lend his melodious baritone voice to other people’s records has inspired caricatures on shows ranging from “SCTV” to “Family Guy.” As was the case with Chicago, though, there’s no arguing with success. In addition to a hi-def performance of personal standards – some with former Doobies and Ashford & Simpson — the Blu-ray package includes a separate concert in which 14 Motown classics are shared. In it, McDonald is joined by Indira.Arie, Toni Braxton, Take 6 and Billy Preston. – Gary Dretzka

Without a Home
The Last Mountain
Hot Coffee

How many documentaries about the plight of America’s homeless population will it take before someone in Washington acknowledges that a problem exists and it’s worth fixing? A lot more probably because homeless people simply can’t afford to hire lobbyists or simply purchase a politician to advance their complaints. Without one, no one in government is going to pay attention to a crisis their benefactors deny even exists. Conversely, now that the problem has blossomed into a full-blown crisis, legislators are free to throw up their hands and surrender to the difficulty of finding a cure. Filmmaker Rachel Fleischer spent four years attempting to put a recognizable face on the issue of homelessness and finding cures for the root causes of it, including addiction to drugs and alcoholism, chronic mental problems and lack of health-care solutions. Sometime after Fleischer began recording the problems of homelessness and poverty, she broke the cardinal rule of documentary making by inserting herself into the narrative. In addition to covering the experiences of six homeless or virtually homeless individuals in Los Angeles, she began lending her skills at finding temporary shelter, rehabilitation clinics and other resources to her subjects. Before long, however, she gets sucked into serving as their valet, chauffeur and counselor and, of course, they become as dependent on her as on their drugs, alcohol and medication. If she didn’t become involved, however, who would? The DVD adds interviews with sociologists, deleted scenes, anecdotal and making-of material, profiles and a recording of the song “Without a Home.”

Two weeks ago, I reviewed a documentary made in the 1960s about protests that led to reforms in Kentucky’s strip-mining industry. The activists in “You’ve Got to Move” used sit-ins and sing-ins to make their points and win a temporary victory, at least. This was before Richard Nixon signed sweeping environmental legislation — passed with bipartisan support in Congress — and Americans finally could breathe an unfiltered sigh of relief. Forty years later, Republicans in Congress are close to overturning the legislation signed by Nixon, while Democrats twiddle their thumbs. “The Last Mountain” describes the fight to keep West Virginia companies from blowing up and strip-mining every mountain containing coal and polluting the environment surrounding the mining operations. As the movie demonstrates, it’s an uphill battle for residents who have already lost most of their traditional way of life. Politicians refuse to listen, company representatives invent new lies every time they’re interviewed and workers are so desperate to keep their jobs they’ll parrot the company line when confronting their unemployed neighbors. It’s fair to wonder how far Bill Haney’s scrupulously researched “The Last Mountain” would have gotten without the continual presence in Appalachia of professional activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose name carries weight even in the camp of his opponents. Among the bonus features are outtakes and deleted scenes; a Q&A with Kennedy; and PSAs in support of “The Last Mountain” from Emmylou Harris, Naomi Judd, Kathy Mattea.

Just when you thought it was safe to feel sorry for large corporations faced with so-called “frivolous” lawsuits, a documentary comes along to disavow you of that notion. The title, “Hot Coffee,” refers to the elderly Albuquerque woman who was burned by scalding-hot coffee and successfully sued McDonald’s for a couple of million bucks. As ridiculous as the case sounded when recounted by TV news anchors, pinhead radio pundits, late-night talk-show hosts and “Seinfeld” writers, there was another side to the story and it’s the one that wasn’t passed along in the media. In fact, the water in which the coffee was brewed was “as hot as the water in a car’s radiator after being driven for a while.” According the McDonald’s guidelines, the water was far too hot to serve and the Albuquerque woman was one of 700 customers who had suffered similar burns. In fact, the $2.9 million penalty would be reduced to $480,000 dollars by the judge and settled out of court, probably for even less. Ironically, it also was a godsend for companies that wanted to limit the consumers’ right to take them to court. Lobbyists used the coffee case as a rallying cry, passing legislation that was vetoed by President Clinton. Failing in Washington, the so-called American Tort Reform Association took their case to the state legislators who could be bought and sold for Green Stamps. The media took the bait, as well, when President Reagan pushed the association’s agenda by exaggerating the facts of notorious lawsuits. Karl Rove, who worked for Philip-Morris and then-Gov. George Bush simultaneously, would conspire with insurance companies to limit judgments in Texas, both frivolous and legitimate. Bush had no problem raising campaign funds among those who benefitted from such legislation. All he had to do was convince people that their tax dollars were being used to bankroll such suits and the deal was done. Presumably, these people hadn’t been in a position to be damaged by an accident or mistake caused by a corporation or doctor. “Hot Coffee” is important because it questions common wisdom, media ineptitude and political rhetoric at a time when American voters are willing to blame the victims of malfeasance for their own unhappiness and despair.

Is this a great country or what? – Gary Dretzka

Frontline: The Man Who Knew
Frontline: Top Secret America
Victorious: Season 1, Volume 2

It amazing what journalists can learn and report if only their employers let them do their jobs. PBS’ investigative series, “Frontline,” provides visible proof of that notion every week of the year on television and, then, a few weeks later, on DVD. In each hour-long episode, “Frontline” reporters offer viewers a version of America unseen on other media outlets. It’s rarely a pretty picture. In “The Man Who Knew” and “Top Secret America,” we learn how American intelligence officials dropped the ball on Al Qaeda before 9/11 and, after the attacks, spread lies about weapons of mass destruction and the corporatization of the military. Moreover, the many embarrassing lapses prompted President Bush to authorize the creation of an intelligence bureaucracy that grew like Topsy but was little more efficient than the ones it oversaw … which is to say, not very. In “The Man Who Knew,” it is revealed how one FBI counterterrorism gadfly banged the Al Qaeda drum so loudly and so often that his Washington superiors stopped listening to it. Among the things John O’Neill was able to do on his own was identify Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden as specific threats to the United States, even to the point that its operatives had brazenly enrolled in flight schools here. He also anticipated the attack on the USS Cole. This isn’t to say, however, that anyone in Washington would suddenly begin to take him seriously. O’Neill was branded a maverick by the political appointees to whom he reported and, as such, a threat to FBI protocol. The managers who felt threatened by his expertise most made his life miserable, while also ignoring the facts he had given them. As in all “Frontline” reports, the information presented is backed up by interviews with key players and classified documents. Oh, yeah, in a final ironic note, we’re told that O’Neill died as he attempted to flee his new, civilian office in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He was killed, in effect, by the same people he had investigated before being forced to retire from the bureau for insisting too loudly on the threat they posed.

In the wake of 9/11, American citizens were apprised of the fact that the country they knew prior to the attacks was going to change dramatically as Bush administration officials pursued the perpetrators. According to “Top Secret America,” this would the last time people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would share anything factually revelatory with the public. As journalists were to learn, America’s intelligence agencies competed with each other for teacher’s attention and refused to share vital information with each other. Indeed, much of the information proved to be contradictory. Because the CIA already had a plan for dealing with the Taliban, if not Al Qaeda, the president decided that it would be the agency to conduct the secret war, instead of Rumsfeld’s minions. To keep everyone in the loop, he also ordered the creation of an entirely new umbrella agency. What began as the brunt of jokes among intelligence insiders has grown into an uber-bureaucracy of its own, with an expensive new building and outposts in strip malls and industrial parks throughout the U.S. As was the case with the “Underwear Bomber,” it sometimes is no more effective than the spell-check function on its computers. The most publicized threats to our safety were thwarted by troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan and sharp-eyed cops and civilians who can see what spy satellites don’t. The material forwarded in “Top Secret America” was reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dana Priest.

Just as there’s no “I” in “team,” without T-O-R-I, there’s no “Victorious” on Nickelodeum. Breakout-star-in-waiting Victoria Justice portrays Tori Vega in the popular Nickelodeon sitcom, which is set at mythical Hollywood Arts high school. Justice is the most prominent member of an excellent ensemble cast of talented young performers who simply can’t wait to become famous and eventually rich. First, though, the kids have to pay some dues, and, in L.A., they aren’t cheap or easy … unless one is comparing the experience to that of normal teens in other performing-arts high schools. Still, give or take a puppet or two, they’re fun to watch. The episodes collected here are from summer and fall of 2010 and represent only half a season’s output, in no discernible order. The second half of the second season is already in progress. The DVD adds a music video of “Best Friend’s Brother,” the “iCarly” cross-over special and a making-of featurette of the mash-up version of that show. – 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