MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Harry Potter, Better Tomorrow, Atlas Shrugged, Identification of a Woman, In a Glass Cage, Blue Velvet, Sleeping Beauty …

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2: Blu-ray
Any attempt to provide a concise synopsis of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” would require spoiling surprises that have been gestating for 14 years. Longtime fans of the amazing series of movies and books probably will have already seen the finale, however, and anyone foolish enough to have leaped into the franchise at this late date knows they picked the wrong place to start. “Part 2” begins at a secluded beach house, where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are licking their wounds and plotting their return to Hogwarts and the bespectacled wizard’s foretold destiny. It’s not a pretty picture. Having stolen the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s grave, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) knows that the only thing standing between him and immortality is his soul brother, Harry. Before they’re able to settle that score, however, Harry and his pals are required to sneak back into Hogwarts – via Gringotts Bank – and liberate the trapped students from the terrifying reign of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Even if such a thing is possible, Harry would still be faced with locating and destroying Voldemort’s sources of strength and power.

Needless to say, 90 percent of “Part 2” is dedicated to settling scores and intense skirmishes between human and mystical demons. It’s all tremendously exciting, especially in wall-to-wall Blu-ray. What surprised me most, however, is the degree to which “Part 2” reflects New Testament theology (mythology?) and prophesies. It’s almost too obvious. If the End Times angle had come earlier in the series – maybe I missed it – the focus of the series might necessarily have drifted into rougher water, diverting the attention of less tolerant viewers. This way, though, author J.K. Rowling, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have provided themselves with an escape route that is in keeping with the scope and scale of the drama. Everything about this series of books and movies has been classy, as befits an enterprise valued at a cool $15 billion and counting. In hindsight, it’s bewildering how little respect the Motion Picture Academy has shown “Harry Potter.” With 10 slots open again this year, and no real frontrunners in view, it would be a crime if it weren’t finally nominated for Best Picture, at least. Then, too, there are the many superb British actors who’ve lent their support and return for a final bow in the finale. Besides the headliners, they’ve included Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, David Thewlis, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gambon, Warwick Davis (Filius Flitwick), Ciaran Hinds, Kelly Macdonald, John Hurt, Miriam Margolyes, Julie Walters, Gemma Jones, Robbie Coltrane and Gary Oldman. That’s like having all of the great New York Yankee players show up for one final all-star game. If the epilogue opens itself up to debate and conjecture – as well as a possible extension of the franchise – that’s also a good thing. In addition to the DVD disc and digital copy, the Blu-ray adds a separate disc’s worth of hi-def bonus features, as well. Among them are deleted scenes; a 53-minute “conversation” between Rowling and Radcliffe; the featurettes, “The Women of ‘Harry Potter’” and “The Goblins of Gringotts”; a tour of Warner Bros.’ London studio; an introduction to “Pottermore,” by Rowling; and BD-Live Functionality. In addition to the movie, the first disc contains Maximum Movie Mode, with picture-in-picture background material; making-of “focus points”; and “final farewells” by cast and crew members. The 3D editions of “Part 1” and “Part 2” are only available here in packages “bundled” with Sony hardware. – Gary Dretzka


A Better Tomorrow: Bluray
In John Woo’s landmark 1986 gangster drama of the same title, estranged Hong Kong brothers exist on opposite sides of the law. The older one is a high-ranking mobster specializing in counterfeiting, while the other is a police officer largely unaware of his sibling’s past. After the mobster is set up and arrested, he vows to go straight. Circumstances, however, won’t allow him to sever his ties to friends still in the criminal world or reconnect with his younger brother, who’s been denied advancement because of the sins of his brother. He also blames him for the death of their father. A final confrontation tests the binds of family loyalty, as well as the limits of resentment for past sins. Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” is considered the granddaddy of all modern Hong Kong crime dramas.

In the 2010 adaptation of the story, the older-brother character has escaped from North Korea two steps ahead of the military police. Not as fortunate, a younger sibling is tortured and their mother is killed. They meet again several years later in Busan, South Korea, after the younger brother – now an international gun runner – is arrested and the older one is brought in to identify him. Although their reunion is tense, they eventually enter into a tentative truce with each other. That, however, only lasts until the young brother is left behind at a shootout with rival hoodlums, albeit with a suitcase full of money in his hands. Trust has to be re-established before the brothers can reconcile and, inexplicably, and attempt to return to North Korea. Before they can accomplish that task, however, they are required to run a gauntlet between heavily armed cops and gangsters with scores to settle. What the second “A Better Tomorrow” lacks in narrative logic, it makes up for in bloodshed and hot lead. The critical consensus is that Hae-sung Song’s adaptation can’t hold a candle to the original, but it didn’t stop Woo from signing on as executive producer. If nothing else, the action is well choreographed and the cinematography is excellent. Purists may not be happy with the results, but those new to the story won’t carry the same critical baggage into it. After all, when is the last time you saw a movie in which anyone actually manages to escape into North Korea … let alone attempts to sneak back into it? It arrives in Blu-ray with cast interviews, a piece on the differences between both movies and an interview with Woo. – Gary Dretzka


Atlas Shrugged, Part 1
One of Hollywood’s popular legends holds that Ayn Rand’s perennial best-seller was such a hot commodity in the 1970s that Albert S. Ruddy, producer of “The Godfather,” spent years trying to turn it into a movie and had interested Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway in joining him. If only … The version of “Atlas Shrugged” that finally did find its way to the big screen this summer may as well have been adapted from a Classics Illustrated version of the novel. The script is greatly undernourished and it’s possible the actors were cast because they’d work for peanuts … real peanuts, not money. The timing of the movie’s release didn’t help much, either. Adherents of Rand’s philosophy of objectivism and survival-of-the-fittest theories have given us the greatest economic calamity in 80 years and a collection of Republican presidential candidates who collectively couldn’t beat a chimp on “Jeopardy!” The movie, which was supposed to have been delivered in three separate episodes, imagines how our nation might look if industrialists were forbidden from maximizing their ability to run their businesses the way they see fit. The year is 2016, but we already know how the cumulative effects of de-regulation have served to eliminate jobs in all sectors of the American economy and encourage already profitable companies from leaving for the greener pastures of Mexico, China, Vietnam and Malaysia, where child-labor laws aren’t enforced and the minimum wage borders on zero.

Somehow, too, the breaking point for the industrialists in “Atlas Shrugged, Part 1” arrives in the form of government regulation of the railroads and an unwillingness to rein in unions. Again, as if … If Americans ever needed a national mass-transit system that included bullet trains, it’s now, and no one would stand in the way of someone hoping to profit from it, either. Lest we forget, the only way the cross-country rail lines were completed in the 19th Century was by giving away vast swaths of land to the robber barons and allowing them to call the shots on it. When it came time to upgrade the system, however, the same men decided that inventing in the future was for chumps. Anyway, with the United States still on brink of collapse, railroad heir Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and steel magnate Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) want to join forces to forge and install rails – already in place in most nations – so efficient that liberals and unions want to block their implementation. What? If this is an accurate representation of Rand’s greatest fears, it’s a good thing she didn’t live to see how our country has fared under the inspired leadership of her clones. I wouldn’t bet on the likelihood of all three films in the series ever seeing the light of day, at least in theaters. John Galt wasn’t expected to arrive until Part 3 and he’s the real star of the show. The Blu-ray set adds “Road to Atlas Shrugged,” “I Am John Galt,” a Galt-themed slideshow and commentary with writers John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole, and producer Harmon Kaslow. – Gary Dretzka

Identification of a Woman: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Crime of Love

Of all the foreign directors who found audiences here in the 1960s, Michelangelo Antonioni may have been the most difficult for Americans to embrace. Then, as now, most Americans would prefer to stay home and watch paint dry than be asked to contemplate the alienation of man in the modern world or the effects of institutionalized ennui on contemporary society. “Blow Up” did well here, if only because we’d already been introduced to Swinging London through Beatle-mania; the musical soundtrack was an appealing blend of jazz and rock; and the sex scenes were far more revealing than anything we’d seen previously. The music and Death Valley scenery were terrific in “Zabriskie Point,” but it completely missed the point of American radical politics and the motivations of its adherents. Still, for buffs, Antonioni continually offered more intriguing challenges and sensory pleasures than a multiplex full of more commercially popular directors, here and abroad. Like most arthouse titles, “Identification of a Woman” lived and died with the approval of certain key critics. A pan by the New York Times’ Vincent Canby after a 1982 festival screening caused distributors to panic and drop the movie, so it didn’t get even a limited release here until 1996.

Tomas Milian plays Niccolo, an Italian movie director of some prominence who has just been dumped by his wife and suddenly finds himself at loose ends. He’s struggling to come up with an idea for his next movie, but gets sidetracked by the attentions of two extremely beautiful and sexually demanding women. Through them, he’s introduced to social milieus that are foreign to him, yet seem to whet his imagination. Instead of pursuing his first idea of a movie about relationships with women, he becomes infatuated with a bizarre sci-fi conceit. “Identification of a Woman” may be best known for a set piece in which Niccolo drives far too recklessly into a thick bank of fog. He had been arguing with his lover at the time and fears he’s being followed by someone who is stalking one or both of them. Gunshots are heard, trucks pass dangerously close to his car and no one seems to know how to escape this surreal environment. Later, Niccolo takes her to a similarly enigmatic place: a vast lagoon outside Venice’s Grand Canal. “Identification of a Woman” is beautifully shot and highly erotic. It’s challenging, of course, but not difficult to find a handle to grasp. The Blu-ray set includes a booklet featuring an essay by critic John Powers and a reprinted 1982 interview with Antonioni by critic Gideon Bachmann. I missed not having a commentary track, though.

Made in the early 1970s, “Crime of Love” (“Delitto d’Amore”) is only now being shown in this country, thanks to an attractive digital restoration and hi-def transfer by RaroVideo. Sexy Italian farces were popular here at the time, but Luigi Comencini’s mix of romantic comedy and politically charged drama would have been a hard sell. The male protagonist is a self-professed anarchist and union leader, while the female lead is an immigrant in her own country. They’re introduced to us and each other as they cross paths at the time clocks of a Milanese factory between shifts. Even though there’s an obvious spark between the co-workers, Carmela plays hard to get with Nullo, who she accuses of being a notorious womanizer. She does gives in to her desires finally, but there’s still something holding her back from commitment. What she knows and Nullo can’t grasp is that a young woman from “the south” could never feel entirely comfortable with a man of “the north.” Traditionally, the interests of her Sicilian family always would have to come first and prejudices against southern Italians in Milan would naturally lead to larger problems. At first, their cultural differences are shown in a comic light – the fiery, undisciplined Sicilian vs. the more regimented Lombardian – but, before long, the economic realities faced by immigrant workers take precedence. The Sicilian women are assigned the worst jobs in the factory, constantly breathing toxic fumes, and eventually it takes its toll.

Carmella is staunchly Roman Catholic in her beliefs and, as such, already is tempting fate by engaging in sex outside marriage. Once Nullo convinces her of his interest in being married, she insists on doing so before a priest. Nullo’s politics are his religion and he refuses to be married in a church. She tests his allegiance by pretending to leave Milan for Sicily, with potatoes in her suitcase instead of clothes. Unbeknownst to Nullo, Carmela has also developed a work-related illness that threatens her life. Before he can inform Carmella of his decision to allow a “Marxist priest” to perform the ceremony, she disappears again. This time, however, she’s hiding a much sadder reality. The company hadn’t supplied the workers with the necessary safety equipment and she developed a fatal illness. The house doctor had essentially put a Band-Aid on a problem that required surgery. Once Nullo finally tracks Carmella down, she’s too weak to say “no” to marriage.

Viewed from a distance of 35 years, “Crime of Love” doesn’t seem all that foreign. Workers have it rough all over and prejudice is as great a problem today as it was in the ’70s, maybe worse. Then, too, it would be easy to recommend the movie simply on the basis of the physical attributes of the lead actors. Still active today, Stefania Sandrelli is uncommonly gorgeous and entirely sympathetic as the doomed Carmela, while, as Nullo, Giuliano Gemma is both extremely handsome and a gentleman. The DVD is accompanied by an interview with film historian Adriano Apra and illustrated booklet. – Gary Dretzka


In a Glass Cage: Blu-ray
Blue Velvet: Blu-ray

If anyone needed any concrete evidence of the existence of monsters and unimaginable horrors in our midst, it was provided by Adolph Hitler and the men and women who prospered under his evil reign. And, while it’s easy to blame many of the atrocities on pea-brained bumpkins and bigots who claimed they were merely following orders, what excuse could the physicians and academics have had for carrying out the most heinous experiments ever perpetrated in the name of science. Curiosity? Sadism? Fear? Privilege? As “In a Glass Cage” opens, a man flogs the corpse of teenage boy in an exercise in sexual gratification. It’s so utterly grotesque, we feel no pity for the perpetrator in the next scene, as he lays face-up in an iron lung, incapable of wiping his own ass. After a teenage boy arrives at the villa, declaring himself to be the man’s nurse and care-provider, it isn’t long before we learn that the patient is a fugitive Nazi doctor who experimented on children in the death camps. When alone with the fiend, the boy reads to him from his journals, which describe procedures the old man can’t bear recalling. It’s now safe to assume that the boy had witnessed the earlier beatings and stolen the doctor’s diaries after he fell off the villa’s roof, leaving him a paraplegic. The sight must have fried the kid’s brain, because he’s grown into a full-blown sadist who gets off on re-creating the same sick experiments on other kids and forcing the doctor to watch them in the reflection of a mirror. Director Agusti Villaronga argues that repeated exposure to violence and perversity can numb the emotions of witnesses and victims to the point where they can’t help but follow suit. As the boy becomes friendly with the doctor’s pre-teen daughter, she, too, becomes a willing participant. Made in 1987, “In a Glass Cage” is still capable of provoking extreme responses in viewers. Alternately fascinating and disgusting, it is the work of a filmmaker who isn’t reluctant to ask viewers how they might react in similar circumstances or at the point of a gun. It comes with a festival Q&A with the director and three completely bizarre short films.

No stranger to arthouse horror himself, David Lynch has been playing with people’s minds ever since “Eraserhead” became a midnight-movie favorite in 1977. “Blue Velvet” may not fit the common definition of a genre film, but all of its ingredients say it is. In the 1986 psycho-drama, Lynch demanded of his fans that they look below the surface of their sodded suburban lawns – or behind the shiny, happy faces of their neighbors — to find the monstrous things hiding in plain sight. Here, of course, it was a severed ear that provided the catalyst for so much intrigue and insane behavior in Lumberton. Twenty-five years later, “Blue Velvet” hasn’t lost any of its power to disturb viewers. The excellent Blu-ray upgrade was supervised by Lynch and perfectly complements the bonus package, which includes a standard-definition retrospective, “Mysteries of Love”; a few outtakes; a 1986 review on “Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies”; a few short “vignettes,” with interviews; and 52 minutes of “newly discovered lost footage,” with even more cool Lynchian stuff. – Gary Dretzka


Not Another B Movie
Lust for Vengeance: 10th Anniversary Edition
The Teacher

We’ve seen plenty of movies about the process of making movies, some of which are instructive and entertaining. Most represent little more than a couple of hours of killed time.
John Wesley Norton’s “Not Another B Movie” may be of the latter variety, but it does contain a few redeeming qualities, at least. Basically, a writer, director, producer and star get together at a local watering hole to kick around ideas for a genre picture. The writer, who stands behind every word in his script, is required to listen to the philistines add and subtract characters, demand more gore and T&A, and edit the storyline beyond any recognition. Considering the nature of the horror game these days, however, their ideas are probably sounder than his. In addition to a cast of newcomers, “Not Another B Movie” boasts such familiar (barely) names as Ed Asner, Joe Estevez, Erin Moran, Robert Z’Dar, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman, David Faustino and Al Capone’s grandnephew, Dominic. For my money, though, the movie’s marquee attraction is Larry Thomas, who will forever be known for playing the “Soup Nazi,” in “Seinfeld.” The making-of material is better than movie.

ThanksKilling” is another DIY effort that proves just how difficult it is to make a movie that’s so bad it’s good and, therefore, funny. There are several pretty decent gags in Jordan Downey’s twisted holiday comedy, but most viewers over the age of 15 will be embarrassed to admit they laughed at them. The killer turkey is Triumph the Insult Comic Dog with a waddle. As with most such genre parodies, “ThanksKilling” runs out of steam at the halfway mark, causing redundancies and much forced humor. As late-night treat for stoners on Thanksgiving, though, it certainly beats watching reruns of the Macy’s parade and mainlining tryptophan.

Horror auteur Sean Weathers claims “Lust for Vengeance” is the “first and only true giallo film ever made in the U.S. to date.” That boast won’t mean anything to 99 percent of all American moviegoers, but it’s nice that he thinks it’s true. Giallo, “yellow” in Italian, shares the same roots as American pulp. From about 1930 to the mid-’50s, the work of even our best mystery writers was limited to cheap paperbacks with lurid covers. In Italy, the pages of almost all such mysteries were bound within yellow covers, hence the name. Even more than American exploitation specialists, Italian giallo directors amped up the sex, violence and horror, by lingering on displays of nudity, gore and rape. That’s what distinguishes “Lust for Vengeance: 10th Anniversary Edition” from other DIY horror flicks. The story is divided into five separately hued segments, in which a different woman is slaughtered by a guy who felt dissed by them in high school. (The cast is unusually diverse for this sort of thing.) That’s it.

I’m not quite sure why “The Teacher” is being re-released by Cheezy Flicks. The classic exploitation flick from Crown International Pictures was recently included in a collection of cult favorites compiled by Mill Creek Entertainment and it doesn’t look a scratch less threadbare. Neither have the primary reasons for watching Howard Avedis’ film changed: Angel Tompkins as the cougar teacher, Diane; Jay North (a.k.a., Dennis the Menace) as Sean, the horny high school graduate she seduces; and bad-guy actor Anthony James, one of the American cinema’s creepiest fiends. James plays the recently released mental patient, Ralph, who blames Sean for the accidental death of his brother. The teenager fell from a ledge high above the shipping canal where Diane is sunbathing topless in her small boat. Ralph isn’t happy that his voyeur’s nest has been invaded and vows to thwart Sean’s blossoming relationship with Diane. Tragically, for Ralph, he’s too inept to make good on his threats. It’s a crime they don’t make sexploitation pictures like this anymore. – Gary Dretzka


Alleged: Blu-ray
Set against the backdrop of the landmark Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925, “Alleged” is a distinctly faith-based movie that’s more concerned about the personal ethics of its characters than the debate over evolution and creationism. Considering the film’s budget, attempting to re-imagine “Inherit the Wind” for a contemporary Christian audience probably would have been a fruitless exercise. That’s not because the acting talent wasn’t available, because Fred Thompson and Brian Dennehy are excellent in the more familiar roles of William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow, and Colm Meaney makes a credible H.L. Menken. In Tom Hines’ mildly romantic drama, the emphasis is on the fissures that split the relationship of small-town reporter Charles Anderson (Nathan West) and office mate, Rose (Ashley Johnson), to whom he’s engaged. She becomes upset with him after he uses unethical tricks to juice up an already pretty good story. Charles sees the trial as a vehicle to put economically fragile Dayton, Tennessee, back on the map and, not incidentally, a leg up to a job in the big city. For Rose, her fiancé’s behavior raises a red flag. Filmed at Crossroads Village, near Flint, Michigan, “Alleged” looks very much like a 1925-vintage American town. All things considered, the drama and romance fit the small screen pretty well, too. The Blu-ray arrives with a discussion guide for church and home-group study. It attaches scripture to questions raised in the story. – Gary Dretzka


The Sleeping Beauty
It’s safe to say, you won’t find another version of Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty” – or, here, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” – that’s quite so deliberately poetic and sensually provocative as Catherine Breillat’s small gem. Instead of merely describing how the curse that leaves Anastasia comatose affects those around her, the France provocateur imagines what a child of royalty might dream given 100 years of REM sleep. As we know, Anastasia was cursed by an evil fairy at birth to prick her finger at 16 and die. Fortunately, three fairy sisters just happen to be in the neighborhood. They override the curse by ordaining that Anastasia will avoid death by being pricked earlier in her life and slipping into a much longer dream state. She’s allowed to grow older in her dreams, but only in a fragmented sequence of fantastical encounters and under the tutelage of an odd assortment of parent figures. Along the way, she’s also able to fall in love … Breillat-style. At 82 minutes, “The Sleeping Beauty” invites repeated viewing, if only to savor the wonderfully imaginative backdrops. This is the second of three fairytales the director plans to adapt, the first being “Bluebeard.” There is some nudity, but nothing a very sharp teenager would find shocking over over-stimulating. – Gary Dretzka


1 in the Gun

Talk about a tightly focused story, “13” traces the evolution of an underground Russian roulette tournament from the recruitment of a contestant to the finals, after which the winner gets to go home with a bag of money in his hand and the loser is carried out in a bag. If that makes “13” sound as if it’s a rip-off of “The Deer Hunter,” I wouldn’t disagree. Actually, I’m surprised no one’s thought of it before now. The premise is surprisingly simple. Sam steals an envelope intended for a man who dies while he’s doing electrical work in the house. Mysterious instructions cause Sam to hop on a train and get off at a designated location. From there, he’s whisked away to a secluded mansion. There to greet him are several gentlemen of means – Jason Statham, Alexander Skarsgard, 50 Cent, Ben Gazzara — who are confused by his presence. They’re disappointed by the death of the intended guest, but are pleased to learn that the imposter is so desperate for cash that he’ll stand in his place … with a pistol in his hand, pointed at the back of another contestant’s head, and someone else’s gun aimed point-blank at his head. In the first round, more than a dozen men are given one bullet each and told to spin the cylinders. With the flash of a light, they’re instructed simply to shoot. The odds that all of the men could die in the first round are extremely slim, if only because “13” is 97 minutes long and none of the bettors would benefit. Neither would the punters be happy if all of the men survived the first round, after which another betting cycle begins. In the succeeding rounds, survivors are given one more bullet than they had before. Ultimately, two men stand opposite each other with five bullets in their six-shooters. Writer/director Gela Babluani allows us to get to know a few of the contestants – Ray Winstone, Sam Riley, Mickey Rourke – but not well enough to be terribly disappointed if they died. There’s a bit of extracurricular excitement after the final shot, but it feels as if it were tacked on for sentimental value. “13” won’t make anyone forget what happened in “Deer Hunter,” as Saigon braced for the NVA invasion. The raw intensity of referee Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road) makes up for any deficiencies in the script, though.

Rolfe Kanefsky’s psycho-thriller “1 in the Gun” also includes an extended game of Russian roulette, but it’s difficult to tell whether it’s taking place in real life or the Twilight Zone. While I found the movie to be different enough to be entertaining as a novelty, I can easily imagine viewers tuning out when the going gets weird. The movie starts normally enough, when a drifter is hired by a sexy MILF to paint the house she shares with her rich husband and enlists him in a plot to kill the brute. If the drifter had watched a few more noir classics, he’d know not to trust the seductress … and vice-versa. Things get strange when the drifter drives into the desert with a body in his trunk and a suitcase full of money on the bag seat. It isn’t long before he loses both at a crappy motor-court motel/restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The joint is populated with oddball characters who appear to have escaped from a David Lynch movie. Part of the job for viewers is separating fact from fantasy in the drifter’s mind and it ain’t easy. The women we meet in the desert are beyond description.

No one is playing Russian roulette in “Restitution,” but almost everyone involved points a gun at someone else during the course of the movie. It would be easy to dismiss Lance Kawas’ straight-to-DVD flick as a paint-by-numbers thriller, if any of the numbers added up to something credible. If anything, it resembles any number of police dramas that circulated on television during the “Magnum P.I.” era. While it’s always nice to see Mena Suvari in a bikini, co-writer/producer Mark Bierlein makes the rookie mistake of allowing himself to be seriously out-acted in the lead male role by Tom Arnold. For the record, “Restitution” describes a series of drug deals gone bad along the Detroit waterfront and a P.I. who gets caught in the middle of them. – Gary Dretzka


Dirty Pictures
Amazonia: Healing With Sacred Plants

Étienne Sauret’s intriguing documentary, “Dirty Pictures,” locates the exact point at which clinical pharmacology meets the rave community, beyond the ritual ingestion of Ecstasy and into the cluttered makeshift laboratory of its developer, Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin. A onetime corporate chemist employed by Dow, Shulgin was given free rein to explore how molecules interacted and formed useful new compounds. Such pure research on psycho-active substances could have resulted in drugs used to interrogate prisoners of war – Merry Prankster “acid tests” were a byproduct of LSD testing on behalf of the military – or to control mental illness and multiple neuroses. Shulgin, we’re told here, is the scientist behind more than 200 such compounds including MDMA (a.k.a., Esctasy). Historically, Dow Chemical and other major pharmaceutical interests have been far more interested in exploring products that can be exploited for large, continuous profits in medicine, agriculture and times of war than to explore the mysteries of the mind … and, let’s face it, for recreation. Once that happens, of course, politicians, drug-enforcement agents and lobbyists for the medical establishment stumble over themselves to ban anything that might result in enlightenment, culture and/or joy. Once that happens, the unregulated production of such substances is turned over to “cookers” and mad scientists in the employ of biker gangs and mob-connected smugglers.

Unlike Timothy Leary, who feasted on the attention paid to him by the media, Shulgin’s prominence remains within the chemist community and among “heads” who actually pay attention to the compounds they ingest. It’s fun to compare Shulgin’s facilities to those of the more clean-cut and less arbitrarily dressed scientists who testify in his defense in “Dirty Pictures.” Even so, they all speak the same scientific language and can read charts and substance diagrams (“dirty pictures”) the way most of us civilians scan newspaper headlines. By breaking down compounds found in cacti and other plants, they’re discovering how Serotonin, for example, is prevalent throughout nature and why it’s considered to be a “miracle drug” by some psychiatric patients. Some scientists believe, as well, that we’ve only scratched the surface in the hunt for new and more effective anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs. It’s only when such concepts as “empathy,” “love,” “consciousness” and “spirituality” enter the equation that the DEA starts paying attention. Shulgin admits to working “around the edge of the law” and, along with his wife, being his own best guinea pig. “Dirty Pictures” paints a fascinating portrait of a true American explorer, whose knowledge could be used to help people legally and without cultural prejudice.

Anyone old enough to recall the fuss made over Carlos Castenada, the Peruvian-born anthropologist who wrote a series of books describing his training in Yaqui shamanism, will recognize what’s happening in “Amazonia: Healing With Sacred Plants.” Alberto Villoldo is an anthropologist/psychologist/author who has spent more than 25 years studying shamanic healing practices of Amazonian tribes. That jungle tonics, plants and other vegetation have been woefully underutilized in the treatment of common psychological maladies is an inarguable fact of life in American medicine. That some of the plants to which we’re introduced here share things in common with drugs used to treat anxiety and depression – Serotonin, for example – also is indisputable. Villoldo makes a convincing case for broadening our horizons as pertains to traditional healing processes. The problem for me comes in the testimonials by non-natives, some of whom sound as if they dropped out of the Esalen Institute because it wasn’t sufficiently cosmic. The shamans, themselves, primarily are shown blowing smoke and waving pipes over their “patients,” if you will. That’s where “Amazonia” differs substantially from “Dirty Pictures,” in which the hippies and recreational partakers remain in the tie-dyed background of concerts and events like Burning Man. I would have liked to hear more from native people as to their interactivity with shamans. The True Mind documentary works best as an introduction to the concept of combining spiritual belief with the healing powers of native jungle plants, in the interest of treating the “whole” person. Practitioners from Peru’s Madre de Dios River in the Amazon watershed heal with a “brew” called Ayahuasca (“the vine of the souls”), which allows partakers to look inside themselves and investigate the root causes of their pain. As was the case in the treatments forwarded by Castenada, some puking is required to achieve the maximum benefit. – Gary Dretzka


Twelve Thirty
In such offbeat indies as “Childhood’s End,” “Flannel Pajamas” and “Once More With Feeling,” writer/director Jeff Lipsky demonstrated a willingness to let dialogue carry the weight of the story, sometimes at the expense of narrative flow. In “Twelve Thirty,” a sexually insecure 22-year-old manages to worm his way into the lives of three neurotic Iowa women – a divorced mother and her two very different daughters – causing more trouble in a week than most men do in a lifetime. Mom Vivien (Karen Young) is a freelance dealer in fur coats, who rarely leaves her home and still prefers having sex with her gay ex-husband to any of her boyfriends. Mel (Portia Reiners) is a pretty, sexually confident 19-year-old whose heart likewise belongs to her over-protective daddy. Maura (Mamie Gummer), also 22, is lost in the material world, emotionally and sexually.

As the movie opens, Jeff (Jonathan Groff) tells co-worker and longtime acquaintance Mel that he’s fond of her, but avoids intimacy because he’s embarrassed by the shape of his penis. Mel, who’s been waiting for him to make a move, first assures Jeff that his unit looks perfectly normal and, then, proves that it’s also completely functional. Even so, he seeks solace and fellowship at the small, stone “Church of the Open Door,” where everyone’s welcome … except when that door is locked, as it is here. Within the next few days, Jeff helps Maura lose her virginity, albeit in a closet, during a party. For her part, mom Vivien saw an opportunity and took it, using Jeff as a boy-toy for a few hours. None of them is reluctant to share the experience with Dad, who confronts Jeff in a mock inquisition designed mostly to freak him out. It works. If this description doesn’t make “Twelve Thirty” sound remotely entertaining, you should know that the movie is otherwise distinguished by some of the most brilliantly acted exchanges between related characters that I’ve seen in a long time. The dialogues almost tear your heart out with their intimacy. I’m not sure I buy the context, but the power of the words can’t be denied. It’s interesting to learn that two of the key actors are show-biz Thoroughbreds: Mamie is the daughter of Meryl Streep, while Haley Feiffer, who plays Maura’s quaintly Satanic friend, Irina, is the daughter of cartoonist/playwright Jules Fieffer and comedian Jenny Allen. – Gary Dretzka


The River Why: Blu-ray
It’s nice to think that there still are places on Earth where a boy can make the passage into adulthood, not with a gun or diploma in his hand, but with a fishing rod. Maybe, such spots exist solely in the mind of a novelist or screenwriter. Maybe, the setting isn’t a remote stream and the fishing rod is a golf club, or a sailboat, or a piece of sculpture, or a movie. Perhaps, the boy is a girl. Such thoughts flow through the mind unabated while watching a movie as visually and intellectually stimulating as “The River Why.” Inspired by a best-selling 1983 novel by David James Duncan – whose name is conspicuously missing from the credits – “The River Why” describes how 20-year-old Gus Orviston (Zach Gifford) decides that the nest has gotten too small for two self-absorbed adults and a son who’s grown tired of their opposites-attract act. All three are obsessed with fishing, but for different reasons. Dad (William Hurt) is a tweedy Brit who personifies the classic stereotype of an effete angler – he’s written extensively on the subject — while mom is the archetypal American worm-drowner. When Gus finally decides to leave the shadow of his parents, he moves into a shack alongside a scenic, trout-heavy Oregon river, where he’s determined to fish 15 hours every day. Given all that time in voluntarily solitude, albeit in God’s own backyard, Gus eventually comes to the inevitable conclusion that something is missing in his life and it isn’t his parents. His salvation arrives in the person of a pretty, if elusive blond (Amber Heard), who loves fishing as much as he does and, like his mother (Kathleen Quinlan), has a far more grounded self-image.

Apparently, Duncan wasn’t pleased with the script and tried to keep the movie from being produced. Whether this occurred after he was paid for the rights to his novel, or not, I don’t know. My guess is that the movie, as written, wasn’t sufficiently epic to contain all of the philosophical and environmental ideas he fleshed out in his book and this pissed him off. A settlement was worked out and the movie suffered from the delays and animosity. There’s no reason I can see for “The River Why” not being distributed theatrically, but it’s good to see it in Blu-ray, after all. The scenery is magnificent and the actors – Dallas Roberts and William Devane, among them — all look as if they belong there. The Blu-ray adds a series of in-depth interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Mutiny on the Bounty: Blu-ray
The Cannonball Run: Blu-ray

They don’t make historical epics like “Mutiny on the Bounty” anymore and, for that, at least two generations of studio executives are thankful. The one-two punch of “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Cleopatra” in 1962 and 1963 not only demonstrated the limits of stardom, but also the inability of high-power executives to say “no” to their meal tickets. For all the negative things that can said about the dominance of CGI-enhanced filmmaking, no computer has ever threatened to walk off a set or demand that Chasen’s chili be flown from Beverly Hills to Rome. A half-century later, stories about those near-disastrous productions seem quaint and attributable to human folly, not the development of expensive new software or the rights to pop music. More to the point, absent the bad press, both movies are downright fun to watch. Even Marlon Brando’s foppish portrayal of Fletcher Christian doesn’t seem nearly the catastrophe today as it must have in 1962. Maybe it’s because we know exactly how much time, effort and money were invested in the creation of the H.M.S. Bounty, alone, that we cut the picture so much slack. The scene in which British sailors help the locals drive hundreds of fish to the shore is worth the price of the rental, alone. The Blu-ray presentation is pretty good, especially in the reproduction of Bronislaw Kaper’s score. The bonus package is dominated by interesting featurettes on the history of the rebuilding of the H.M.S. Bounty and its subsequent travels. There’s also a prologue and epilogue originally intended to bookend the movie in flashback form.

I imagine that everyone involved in the production of “The Cannonball Run” – also new to Blu-ray — enjoyed the experience a whole lot more than those assigned to “Bounty” and “Cleopatra.” For one thing, the stakes weren’t nearly as high for the studio and all of the talent appears to have been in on the joke. Like the otherwise unrelated 1976 action movie “The Gumball Rally,” “Cannonball Run” is set during a coast-to-coast race contested by lovers of fast cars and eluding the Highway Patrol. Hal Needham, Brock Yates and Burt Reynold’s interpretation of the annual underground event owed far more to the success of “Smokey and the Bandit” than Charles Bail’s “Gumball Rally,” which starred Gary Busey, Michael Sarrazin and hardly anyone else viewers might recognize today. By contrast, “Cannonball Run” resembled “Ocean’s 11” in the number of familiar names it attracted (including Rat Packers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.). Reynolds could do no wrong in those days and, here, he was surrounded by such flakey sorts as Dom DeLuise, Bert Convy, Jamie Farr, Adrienne Barbeau, Peter Fonda, Jackie Chan, Farrah Fawcett, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Elam, Mel Tillis, Bianca Jagger, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Valerie Perrine and non-flake Roger Moore. In truth, “Cannonball” often is no funnier than a flat tire at the Indy 500, but that was never really the point. Reynolds had a way of making viewers feel as if they were as important to the show as the actors themselves, and, of course, they are. The Blu-ray comes with commentary by director Needham and producer Albert S. Ruddy. – Gary Dretzka


Gia: Unrated: Blu-ray
Mr. Magoo on TV Collection
Masterpiece Contemporary: Page Eight
Rickey Smiley: “Open Casket Sharp”
How the States Got Their Shapes: Season 1

Gia” wasn’t the first movie in which Angelina Jolie’s acting talent came to the fore. She’d stolen part of the spotlight, at least, in “Hackers,” “Foxfire” and HBO’s “George Wallace,” for which she won a Golden Globe in a supporting category. As the troubled supermodel, Gia Carangi, Jolie would convince the remaining doubters she could carry a movie all by herself. Apart from her undeniable acting chops she has an ooo-la-la body and, back then, wasn’t reluctant to show it. She even resembled the model, who while still in her teens went from hash-slinging in her father’s Philadelphia diner to the covers of Vogue and other fashion magazines. The photographers who favored her look represented the top shooters in the business. Gia was a rising star in an industry that had yet to begin churning out models as famous as the designers whose clothes they wore. Sadly, Gia’s fame also brought with it addictions to cocaine, heroin and then-shocking sexual preferences. Soon, her habits would cause her to blow assignments and come to work looking less than spectacular. When she was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, it had not yet become identified with intravenous drug use and very few women had fallen victim to it. Her death in 1986 drew scant attention in the press and many of her co-workers didn’t learn of it until weeks later. “Gia” would draw attention to the model’s ordeal, but it was Jolie who would benefit the most from the movie. It brought her a second Golden Globe, an Emmy nomination and SAG award. “Gia” aired at approximately the same time as the first DVD players were being introduced and hi-def TV was still a long way from reality. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent, but it comes unencumbered by any special features. It is, though, five minutes longer than the original. As for being “Unrated,” remember that TV merely adds parental guidelines to its products, not ratings, per se,

When Mr. Magoo made his theatrical debut in 1949, it was considered highly unusual to feature a human as the sole cartoon protagonist: if Elmer Fudd was on screen, it was a safe bet that Bugs Bunny was somewhere in the vicinity, as well. Even so, Magoo would become one of the single most endearing characters in the cartoon menagerie. Short, squat and dangerously nearsighted, Magoo was always a step or two away from disaster. Somehow, though, he always managed to avoid it. As voiced by Jim Backus (Thurston Howell III, for fans of “Gilligan’s Island”), Magoo started out life as a parody of certain political figures in the era of the Hollywood Blacklist. By 1960, when the cartoon became a fixture on television, the wealthy Rutgers alumnus was completely de-politicized and he even became a spokes-character for GE products, an eyeglass concern, beer and preserves. Shout! Factory’s 11-disc “On TV Collection,” is comprised of three different series, more than 180 cartoons and specials. Anyone sensitive to racial stereotypes should know in advance of Charlie, Magoo’s Chinese houseboy during the 1960s. He’s as offensively drawn as one can imagine, but quite smart and dedicated to his boss’ well-being. (The tables were turned in 1997 when support groups for visually impaired people protested the release of Leslie Nielsen’s live-action “Mr. Magoo.” Although it was making money for Disney, the picture was pulled from release after two weeks.)

Page Eight” is another terrific thriller from the fine folks at BBC/PBS’ “Masterpiece Contemporary.” In it, Bill Nighy plays a long-serving, long-suffering MI5 officer who senses he’s being frozen out of the intelligence agency by a new breed of politically expedient political leaders. He loses his last for-sure ally when his boss (Michael Gambon) dies unexpectedly of a heart attack, taking with him a secret that could topple the current government. Trusting no one in MI5, he turns to a pretty next-flat neighbor (Rachel Weisz) who’s suddenly begun to insinuate herself into his life. Her brother recently was killed by Israeli police and it appears as if the government is covering up the true nature of his death. Finally, they turn to each other for help in solving their respective problems. Thanks to a no-frills script by writer/director David Hare, the 99-minute program zips along briskly, without skimping on the details of the story. “Page Eight” was shot in London and Cambridge.

Rickey Smiley shares a lot in common with Steve Harvey, a close friend who introduces him at this recorded concert, which was shown on BET. Both are comedians, as well as TV and radio personalities, whose sense of professional balance must be extremely acute. Here, the easy-to-like comic shares his observations on his family, friends, Southern marching bands and, yes, funerals. The DVD adds bonus sketches “First 48 With Little Darryl” and “The Church Lady.”

You might think a show called “How the States Got Their Shapes” could be found on cable’s Geography Channel, instead of the History Channel. (There is one, isn’t there?) Fact is, though, it’s impossible to separate the two disciplines in America. And, of course, therein lay 50 pretty interesting stories. Host Brian Unger travels the country, letting local experts fill us in on the details of how our borders evolved and why. Many of the explanations will surprise you. In Season 1, the episode titles include “A River Runs Through It,” “The Great Plains, Trains, & Automobiles,” “Force of Nature,” “State of Rebellion,” “Living on the Edge,” “Use It or Lose It,” “Church and States,” “A Boom With a View,” “Culture Clash” and “Mouthing Off.” Needless to say, adults will learn almost as much from the series as their kids. – Gary Dretzka


Babar and Father Christmas
Lifetime: Under the Mistletoe
Lifetime: A Very Merry Daughter of the Bride
Lifetime: A Christmas Wedding
Lifetime: Holiday Wishes

In another collection taken from the 1989 HBO and CBC series, Babar the elephant king is required to save Christmas for the boys and girls of Celesteville. They had written a letter to Father Christmas, inviting him to visit the kingdom for the holiday, but never was delivered. Unbeknownst to them, the invitation was intercepted by Rataxes the evil rhinoceros, who wants all of Santa’s toys for himself. Babar takes it upon himself to find Father Christmas and deliver the message personally. The DVD set adds a pair of bonus episodes — “A Child in the Snow” and “The Gift” – and an eight-page holiday coloring book.

Lifetime churns out Christmas-themed melodramas as if they were so many candy canes. All involve some sort of dilemma that needs to be addressed or miracle waiting to happen. In “Under the Mistletoe,” Susan (Jaime Ray Newman) is a reporter whose husband dies in a car accident. His ghost appears before their teenage son and, together, they conspire to find a new mate for mom. They arrange for her to enter a radio station’s dating game, hoping she’ll be attracted to the boy’s coach, who’s also lost his spouse. She’s leaning to another man, however.

A Very Merry Daughter of the Bride” pits an attractive middle-age woman (Helen Shaver) against her wedding-planner daughter (Joanna Garcia), who disapproves of mom’s hastily conceived plans for marriage. The daughter’s only recourse is to take arrange the details of the wedding and control things from there. Ultimately, they learn a lot about life from each other’s concerns. In “A Christmas Wedding,” a woman (Sarah Paulson) who’s always dreamt of having the perfect wedding must turn control of the final details over to her soon-to-be husband (Eric Mabius), who’s a classic procrastinator. Determined to get it right, Ben tries a bit too hard, getting mired in such things as bridal shows and seating charts. Finally, the biggest threat to the wedding is something beyond both of their control, the weather.

Holiday Wishes” imagines a scenario in which young women (Katie Keating, Britney McKilllip) from opposite sides of the economic divide wish upon a department-store Santa, only to wake up the next day in each other’s bodies. Their wishes are answered, but not in the way they wanted them to be. It’s left to a party planner (Amber Benson), with a dream of her own, to straighten things out and make sure everyone’s learned a lesson or two. – Gary Dretzka


A Child’s Garden of Poetry
If wonder if poetry is as much a part of the curriculum today as when I was a student and William Shakespeare was still wearing knickers. Probably not. Like trigonometry and physics, there simply isn’t much call for it at a time when lyrics to most pop songs aren’t required to rhyme. “A Children’s Garden of Poetry” makes a good case for hooking kids on poetry at an early age, when they’re open to new things and poetry can be made to seem like a game, with rules that are more challenging than restrictive. This 27-minute DVD collects 15 poems by such writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Shakespeare. They are read and sung by a cast that includes Julianne Moore, Dave Matthews, Natalie Merchant and Liam Neeson. Some vintage poems are read by poets e.e. cummings, Carl Sandburg and Edna St. Vincent Millay. They are accompanied by animation sequences and short live-action films. Time is also set aside for children to discuss poetry and what it means to them. – Gary Dretzka

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4 Responses to “The DVD Wrapup: Harry Potter, Better Tomorrow, Atlas Shrugged, Identification of a Woman, In a Glass Cage, Blue Velvet, Sleeping Beauty …”

  1. I really hope Atlas Shrugged does really well on DVD. I saw it in theatres and ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT. Jsu Garcia was wonderful as Francisco D’Anconia and I thought they did just such a wonderful job with Ayn Rand’s classic. (I worked with Jsu Garcia on the feature film he did after Atlas Shrugged – The Wayshower) Atlas Shrugged has such a powerful message, so appropriate for today and the world we’re living in right now. Definitely feels like there are many wonderful movies coming out helping to lift consciousness. I mean Harry Potter, while they’re fantasy, they’re really bringing an incredible message for both young and old – about going within and finding your strength and being the change and goodness you want more of in your world. And Inception, Adjustment Bureau, and more.
    Working on the movie ‘The Wayshower’, with Jsu Garcia, (and favorites Academy Award nominees Eric Roberts and Sally Kirkland) was incredible and I really hope it gets massive attention when it’s released next March. It’s so courageous and forward thinking in regards to a very metaphysical abstract portrayal of the journey we all take throughout life and the relationships we have with special mentors and teachers – special Wayshowers that enrich and change our lives forever. I loved this movie so much. So different and ground breaking. Check it out: (sign up for free fanletter including free screening invites)

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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