MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Super 8, Spy Kids 4, Devil’s Double, Sarah’s Key, Family Tree, Trigger, Helldriver …

Super 8: Blu-ray
Spy Kids 4: All Time in the World

As residents of the placid Ohio town of Lillian are being rounded up and bussed to an Air Force base – ostensibly to protect them from a mysterious virus – I remembered that I’d seen this movie before, dozens of times in the last 30-40 years. Contrary to expectations planted by a spectacular train-wreck set piece early on, “Super 8” adheres to the long-established cinematic conceit that government conspiracies can be thwarted by children. Here, a group of movie-mad mini-Spielbergians stands up to an unblinking USAF security team, attempting to contain and conceal the demons released in the train accident. The only weapon the kids on their side is the truth, which is contained in a Super 8 camera. Why the Air Force, of all branches of the military, is set up as the enemy here remains something of a mystery to me. Were all of the C130J Hercules transport planes out delivering groceries to the troops that day? No matter, it’s nice to know that someone in government still has faith in railroads.

As the train carrying the dangerous cargo speeds through Lillian in the dead of night, the teens are hoping it will provide an interesting background element for their zombie movie. In a coincidence inspired as much by producer Steven Spielberg as the imagination of writer/director J.J. Abrams, the most responsible of the boys spots an automobile jumping the tracks and heading directly towards the train’s engine. The collision causes all of the cars to derail. In their mad dash to escape disaster, the kids leave the still-running Super 8 camera behind on the platform of the abandoned railway station. Conveniently, the lens is pointed in the best possible position to capture the mayhem and release of mysterious metallic objects resembling Rubik’s Cubes. Within hours, the Air Force team quarantines the area and initiates a disinformation campaign designed to pacify local residents, including a recently widowed sheriff whose son is among the shutterbugs. No amount of spoiler alerts could prevent most viewers from guessing what transpires in Lillian over the next hour or so and whose concept of the truth prevails.

Considering that “Super 8” is set in 1979, it is to Abrams’ credit that it feels more analog than digital. The story harkens more to the “Hardy Boys” novels and “Spin & Marty” serials on “The Mickey Mouse Club” than, say, to “Spy Kids.” And, yes, a super-cute blond girl (Elle Fanning) has been added to the mix, as both leading lady and puppy-love interest for two of the boys. As predictable as “Super 8” may be, however, Abrams’ story proves sufficiently diverting to hold our interest until the wildly manic climax, which transports viewers back to the Digital Age. Even so, the primary selling point for the Blu-ray/DVD package likely will be the generous package of bonus features, including “Deconstructing the Train Crash” and eight other fine making-of featurettes; 14 deleted scenes; commentary; and a digital copy. Two of the pieces that stand out are “The 8mm Revolution,” which looks back at a time when film spooled through cameras and it took days for it to be developed, and an audition reel describing the search for fresh new faces.

The latest addition to Robert Rodriguez’ imaginative “Spy Kids” franchise is aimed at viewers even younger than those targeted by “Super 8.” Critics weren’t terribly impressed by it, but their opinions, shouldn’t dissuade pre-tweeners from enjoying the silly sight gags, pranks, gadgets and overriding precociousness of new spy-kids, Rebecca and Cecil (Rowan Blanchard, Mason Cook). They are the children of TV journalist and clandestine spy hunter, Wilbur (ever-snarky Joel McHale), and stepchildren of undercover spy-wife, Melissa (Jessica Alba). Parents may miss original spy-parents Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, but, again, most young audiences won’t even notice they’re gone. Original spy-kid-actors Alexa Vega and Darryl Sabara have been included here in supporting roles, 10 years older and considerably more attractive. “All the Time in the World” introduces Melissa as a new mom of a baby girl and stepmom of a pre-teen boy and girl obsessed with driving adults nuts. Melissa has been called back to OSS duty to combat the evil Timekeeper (Jeremy Piven), who threatens to freeze time and destroy the world. Rebecca and Cecil discover her mission and decide to beat her to the punch. Unlike “Super 8,” which largely played out against a real-world background, “Spy Kids” is set in a green-screen universe, in which all things are possible.

In theaters, “Spy Kids 4” not only was shown in 3D and 2D formats, but also “4D Aroma-Scope.” Not having seen it on the big screen, I can’t say with any certainty if Aroma-Scope captured the unique scents associated with the many fart, dirty-diaper and vomit jokes. If so, that fact alone would cause a mainstream critic to recoil in disgust. That element isn’t available in the new four-disc Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD and digital-copy package, but feel free to supply your own smells, instead. And, what kids flick today would be complete without a talking dog? Here, that voice is supplied by Ricky Gervais. The bonus package adds deleted scenes, Rodriguez’ interview with a young reporter from a kids-news outlet, “Rowan & Mason’s Video Diary,” “How to Make a Robotic Dog,” “Spy Kids: Passing the Torch,” “Ricky Gervais as Argonaut” and a look at the movie’s gadgets. – Gary Dretzka

The Devil’s Double
If the story weren’t so horrifyingly real, you’d find “The Devil’s Double” on a short list of thug classics alongside Brian DePalma’s “Scarface.” In fact, I’m surprised that movie wasn’t playing in the background somewhere during this faux-biography of Uday Hussein, another coke-snorting, woman-abusing and gun-obsessed fiend. The similarities between Tony Montana and the sadistic son of Saddam Hussein are inescapable. In an interview included in the DVD bonus package, director Lee Tamahori (“Once Were Warriors”) explains that he purposefully embellished Oday’s bad behavior – as related in the memoirs of body-double Latif Yahia – to distinguish it from traditional bio-pics, which can be judged according to their accuracy. In doing so, Oday’s misdeeds are made mythic and “Devil’s Double” becomes more operatic in tone. Tamahori also wanted to create a new archetype for the associates of rich and powerful people who take advantage of their position to commit crimes against humanity. It’s possible, too, that Tamahori was influenced by reports that Yahia had made up the story and he didn’t want facts to get in the way of a good movie. And, from what we’ve learned about Uday, “Devil’s Double” would be a powerful yarn even if only half of it were true. The late Moammar Ghadafi’s sons appear to have been cast from the same mold.

Brit actor Dominic Cooper plays both men in “Devil’s Double” in an extremely convincing manner. Because their personalities were diametrically opposed to each other, Cooper must have felt as if he were rehearsing for two different movies. The common denominator here is Uday’s outlandish wardrobe, which both men would share and looked as if it were ordered from Another thing they share, although not with Uday’s express permission, is the beautiful and duplicitous seductress, Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier). Yahia isn’t shown indulging in Uday’s many other party favors, even though they were abundant and his for the taking. Mostly he tried to avoid eye contact with his former prep school and college classmate, as he murdered anyone who crossed him and viciously raped girls and women on mere whims. If anything, the parties depicted in “Devil’s Double” are sleazier than the decadent nightclub scenes in “Scarface.” At one point, the coked-out potentate demonstrates just how much fun he’s having by demanding that all of his guests remove their clothes. And, of course, they do. Other scenes that should resonate with American viewers are those set during the intense bombing of Baghdad, during the first Iraq war, and when Yahia visited front-line troops in the Iran-Iraq war disguised as Oday. The DVD arrives with interviews with Tamahori, Latif and Cooper, as well as deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Sarah’s Key: Blu-ray
Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel, “Sarah’s Key,” once again begs a question that’s perplexed novelists and screenwriters ever since the full extent of Nazi atrocities began to be reported: Is it possible to create a work of fiction about the Holocaust that neither minimizes the horror nor exploits the suffering of the victims and survivors? Just as in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” De Rosnay’s focus is on a survivor whose life was permanently altered by terrible decisions made under the threat of death. Here, 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) locks her younger brother in a hidden closet of their Paris apartment just before collaborationist police take the family to the Vél d’Hiver velodrome. It was here that Jews were warehoused in advance of being transported to the death camps. The girl, Sarah, was led to believe that the French authorities were merely going to take information from the Jewish families and allow them to return home. Instead, after several miserable days inside the increasingly fetid velodrome, the families are trucked to a relocation camp outside the city and separated by gender and age. Still carrying the key, Sarah is desperate to escape and rescue her brother. In the next hour or so, we watch as the girl escapes from the camp, finds refuge in a nearby town, returns home to find the flat occupied by another family and attempts to live with her grief. It’s a harrowing story.

In a parallel narrative, American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her French husband are in the process of renovating an apartment his family has owned and occupied for more than 50 years. Coincidentally, she’s also become absorbed in researching an article she’s been assigned on the Vél d’Hiver roundup by a prestigious magazine. During an interview with a historian who is computerizing information about Jews taken to the velodrome, Julia asks if there’s any data on the Marais flat being renovated. In mere seconds, Julia learns the names of its former occupants and the fate of the Sarah’s parents. Putting two and two together, Julia fears that her in-laws may have been awarded the apartment after the roundup in return for work done to benefit the Vichy government. Further obsessive research puts the reporter on the same trail taken by Sarah in the wake of her family’s transfer to the makeshift camps. It leads to the home of a generous and kindly rural couple, to the apartment, America and Italy. No need to spoil anything beyond that point in the movie. Suffice it to say, Sarah and Julia’s path eventually merge but not in any predictable way.

All of the actors in “Sarah’s Key” are excellent, as are the period re-creations. After decades of denial and deflection, France’s collaboration with the Nazis remains an extremely hot potato in the country and most people would prefer letting it cool. The velodrome has since been replaced by a school and you’d need a GPS device to find any memorials to the victims. Although everyone involved in the project clearly was up to the challenge of adapting the novel, the task of stuffing 300-plus pages of intense drama, myriad characters, interlocked narratives and a divorce into a 111-minute package has proven difficult. Too many important questions are left unanswered and the adult Sarah remains an enigma until the end. The bonus package adds a lot of good background material on the period, book and adaptation, with several worthwhile interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Carjacked: Blu-ray
I know better than to expect an entirely satisfying movie-going experience based simply on the names of the actors on the cover of a DVD. Still, even given the vagaries of the straight-to-video market, hope springs eternal. So, if I receive a movie in which Maria Bello and Stephen Dorff are the featured attractions, there’s a reasonable expectation on my part that something inside the box is worth my time. “Carjacked” isn’t a bad movie, per se, but it’s no match for the firepower Bello and Dorff bring to a project at this point in their careers. Ten years ago, such a claustrophobic thriller could have served as a stepping stone to bigger things. Today, neither actor needs the credits or aggravation of spending three or four weeks in Baton Rouge. It only makes sense if they were helping a relative or friend get a leg up in the business or the producers made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Given the finished product, I can’t imagine either of those cards was on the table. Bello plays a down-on-her luck divorced mom, who makes the mistake of leaving the door of her car unlocked while a desperate bank robber (Dorff) is on the loose in the vicinity. After paying for gas, she’s surprised by the presence of her young son’s new friend, who’s sitting in the back seat and he needs a ride to the hidden loot. Naturally, after a close call at a roadblock and some comforting repartee, Roy gives Lorraine hope that she and her 8-year-old son will escape the ordeal unscathed. Instead, whenever it looks as if they might be developing a cautious rapport, Lorraine does something unnecessary to piss him off. Sherry and Michael Compton’s script is so full of holes that you could drive a Winnebago through it. And, John Bonito’s direction isn’t much better. Lack of experience is a legitimate excuse on their parts, but it doesn’t explain what prompted Bello and Dorff to contribute their talent. To their credit, neither of them appears to have phoned in their performance. As for action and thrills, I’ve seen worse. That’s all. – Gary Dretzka

Originally conceived as a sequel to Bruce McDonald’s punk mockumentary “Hard Core Label,” “Trigger” was rewritten to accommodate a story about a hit riot grrrl duo that crashed and burned 10 years earlier and is reuniting for the first time since then. As portrayed Molly Parker and the late Tracy Wright, Vic and Kat have several unresolved issues to deal with before they can feel comfortable with each other again and none of them is petty. The occasion of their reunion is a benefit concert to honor women in rock, sponsored by a Toronto record label. Vic and Kat are accorded living-legend status with the predominantly lesbian audience and the reception buoys both women. The question that takes all night for them to resolve is whether they can bury their respective hatchets – neither has completely conquered the temptations of booze and drugs – before one of them succumbs to a killer disease. The dialogue here is sharp and witty, and the undercurrents of bitterness, resentment and longing are palpable, as well. Wright and Parker appear to have been born to play female rock stars of a certain age, struggling to make sense of their place in an industry still dominated by men and worshipful fans old enough to be their daughters. It certainly helps that the musical soundtrack reflects what’s happening in their lives and on the screen. Sadly, 50-year-old Wright died of the same pancreatic cancer as was diagnosed in her character during post-production of “Trigger.” Whether her illness was used to inform the story, or it was a tragic coincidence, isn’t made clear. In any case the movie stands as a fitting tribute to the popular Canadian actor. – Gary Dretzka

The Family Tree: Blu-ray
Dark family comedies are a common starting place for debuting indie filmmakers. Too often, though, they confuse bizarre behavior with dysfunction, which has become the umbrella term for any family whose members argue too much and have peculiar habits. In “The Family Tree,” the Burnetts of Suburban U.S.A., merely are tired of being in each other’s presence and their boredom is reflected in their respective drives for sexual satisfaction (mom, Hope Davis), social acceptance (twin daughter, Brittany Robertson), spiritual direction (twin son, Max Theriot) and career advancement (dad,  Dermot Mulroney). When mom is knocked unconscious in mid-tryst with an African-American neighbor (Chi McBride), most memories of her past life and recent sexual dalliances have been wiped from her memory. Slowly, she begins to recall deeply buried memories, including what attracted her to her husband in the first place. This doesn’t stop her lovers from attempting to rekindle the flame, though. Things come to a head when a pair of aspiring gangstas invades the house, demanding the horde of jewelry they’ve heard is stashed somewhere out of sight. Her lover knows where it is, but admitting it would blow his cover as someone interested only in being a good neighbor. Meanwhile, the son is taking shooting lessons from a gun-nut priest and hanging out with sociopathic Jesus freaks. The desperately horny daughter snaps a picture of a lesbian teacher cuddling with a crippled student in a stall in a high-school washroom and uses it to turn an “F” into a “B.” If the tail finally ends up wagging the dog here, it’s still fun to watch cameos by Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”), Gabrielle Anwar (“Burn Notice”), Madeline Zima (“Californication”), Rachel Leigh Cook (“Psych”), Selma Blair, Jane Seymour, Keith Carradine and Bow Wow. Typically, though, it’s Davis and Mulroney who make “Family Tree” worth the price of a rental. – Gary Dretzka

Streets/Angel in Red: Roger Corman Double Feature
Already co-starring in one of TV’s most successful sitcoms, “Married With Children,” Christina Applegate made her feature film debut in the hookers-in-peril drama. “Streets.” Exec-produced by Roger Corman and directed by exploitation specialist Katt Shea, the gritty low-budget thriller documents what can happen to a working girl when she refuses to meet the expectations of a psycho cop (Ed Lottimer) and leaves claw marks on his face during her escape. In fact, Dawn is that rarest of Venice street hookers – circa 1990, when the beach community was infested with gangs  — who limit her skills to hand-jobs and BJs, without making it clear in advance that’s all she’ll do. After the cop is thwarted in his demand for the real thing, he spends the rest of the movie chasing her and killing anyone who doesn’t provide him with information about her whereabouts. Dawn finds an ally in a runaway teen boy, who’s fearless, if overmatched against the brutal motorcycle jockey. Meanwhile, Dawn isn’t doing herself any favors by slipping back into a heroin habit. “Streets” exhibits a certain grindhouse appeal, but, as a rising mainstream star, Applegate wasn’t about to deliver the goods devotees expect from flicks about misguided hookers.

In “Angel in Red” (a.k.a., “Uncaged”), the prevailing menace is a vicious white pimp – as rare a creature as the albino buffalo — whose jealousy and paranoia puts him on a collision course with the most powerful black pimps in Hollywood. If it looks familiar to grindhouse buffs, it’s because “Angel in Red” is a west-coast reiteration of “Streetwalkin’,” an earlier Times Square-based, hooker-in-peril picture that starred Melissa Leo. Here, Mickie (Leslie Bega) and her brother run away to L.A. from Hooterville, or some such burg, where they almost immediately get swallowed up by a pimp named Sharkey. For a while, Mickie is devoted to Sharkey. When he starts beating up her johns, however, she starts looking for another “daddy.” Then, he really goes berserk. Bega’s really pretty, but she’s no match in the acting department for Leo. – Gary Dretzka

Gabriel Iglesias Presents: Stand-Up Revolution
Pablo Francisco: They Put It Out There

In his introduction to “Stand-Up Revolution,” Gabriel Iglesias describes how some comedy clubs ghettoize black and Hispanic comics by grouping them together and building weekly theme nights around them. He makes light of the booking strategy by speculating on how club owners might characterize a program intentionally comprised of niche white comics or those from different countries. “Fluffy” may be kidding, but he’s doing it on the square. Unlike television, where even a 1.1 rating for niche programming translates into big numbers, it probably isn’t a good idea for club owners to segregate their customers. You certainly don’t have to be Mexican-American to enjoy Iglesias’ monologues and the rowdy routines of his guests. Indeed, because the material speaks to experiences commonly shared by Spanish-speaking Americans, the comics are free to ratchet up the craziness and on-target satire before largely Hispanic audiences. When, for example, the show is staged in a Phoenix nightclub, everyone in the room “gets it” when Iglesias rips into the politicians and law-enforcement officials who are exploiting the current controversy over illegal immigration for their own benefit. In any case, “Stand-Up Revolution” is often hysterically funny, and the presence of house band Ozomatli is definitely a plus. The two-disc DVD includes all seven extended episodes and new material by Iglesias.

By now, Chilean-American comic Pablo Francisco needs no introduction to Comedy Central audiences. He’s been playing in the big leagues for quite a while now. In “They Put It Out There,” Francisco reminds me a lot of Dane Cook – for better or worse – but with a more formidable arsenal of characters, sound effects and wacky impressions. Every five minutes or so, he breaks into his trademark “Movie Voiceover Guy” persona, which gets old after a while. Still, anyone already in Francisco’s camp isn’t going to object to such overkill in “They Put It Out There.” The DVD adds “Infomercial,” outtakes, a photo shoot, makeup break and “Scandinavian Sunglasses.” – Gary Dretzka

Women’s Superstars Uncensored: Volume 1
In the world of women’s professional wrestling, Women’s Superstars Uncensored is to the WWE Divas what Formula 1 racing is to Monster Truck rallies. These grapplers couldn’t be any less glamorous if they tried. For one thing, their costumes look as if they were purchased at a post-Halloween sale at Walmart. For another, the women look as if they learned their trade in prison and the matches are held as part of a work-release program. To make matters worse, I didn’t count more than 30 people in any of the crowds shown in this generous five-hour package from Kick Ass Films. The DVD set features highlight matches from the organization’s five-year history, interviews and commentaries, all of which harken to an era before professional wrestling went MTV. – Gary Dretzka

Bill Zebub Productions: Antfarm Dickhole
Slaughter Claus
Haunted Changi
My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire!

Not being a connoisseur of Japanese exploitation films, I didn’t quite know what to expect from “Helldriver,” a balls-to-the-wall gorefest from Sushi Typhoon and writer/director Yoshihiro Nishimura. Apparently, Sushi Typhoon is Japan’s answer to Troma Entertainment, in spirit and in content. Among the directorial credits for special-effects wizard Nishimura are “Mutant Girls Squad,” “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl” and “Tokyo Gore Squad.” In any case, I’ve never seen anything quite like “Helldriver.” In it, an epidemic of ghouls has split Japan in half and a zombie-proof wall has been constructed to keep a mysterious alien-spawn mist from traveling south. (The movie was made before the tsunami and nuclear-plant disaster, but it easily can be viewed now as commentary on the still-hidden dangers.) The virus begins to spread after an evil older woman is struck by a meteorite while she’s arguing with her daughter, Kika. The rock goes through her chest, leaving a hole where her heart once pounded. She immediately thrusts her hand into her daughter’s chest stealing her heart. The girl is encased in an amber-like substance that emits the deadly mist. After the wall is built, the government implants an artificial heart into Kika’s chest, in effect creating a dynamo to which a power saw is attached. It becomes Kika’s mission to eliminate the zombie threat. What ensues is a bloodbath comparable to the one inflicted on the Turks by Vlad Tepes. Indeed, the rest of the movie is non-stop horror, with zombies adapting to their environment by using corpses in ways the good lord never intended. Can Kika end the plague or succumb to it? Don’t expect any clear cut answers from “Helldriver.” Oddly enough the Blu-ray enhances the red mist and gore to an even greater degree. The DVD arrives with several short films.

This month’s ration of insanity doesn’t end with “Helldriver.” Bill Zebub’s inappropriately titled “Antfarm Dickhole” is about as anti-social and twisted as movies get these days. And, yes, that’s saying a mouthful. It’s also hilarious, in a truly perverse sort of way. Made on a miniscule budget, “Antform Dickhole” conjures the distasteful image of a young slacker with the bad luck to have South American army ants crawl into his urethra and lay eggs inside of him. The critters don’t take kindly to folks messing with their makeshift home and they will attack and devour intruders. This includes the women who get intimate with their host. And, by women, I mean strippers likely to have been recruited from the nearest biker bar. The sight gags often are disgusting to watch, but only in a far-fetched sort of way. The dialogue sometimes is pretty funny, too. My advice is to approach “Antfarm Dickhole” with extreme caution and give Zebub credit for making a passable DIY comedy with a budget that must have approached $150.

Slaughter Claus” is another nutso horror/comedy that requires a strong stomach and perverse sense of humor. In it, a facially disfigured Kris Kringle and his bipolar elf get their jollies ruining other people’s holiday. This includes cute little kids, who are rarely shown being murdered in horror flicks. It’s done for laughs, of course, but a lot of viewers won’t find it all that amusing. There’s an anti-materialism message buried in the gore, so, I guess, it’s educational.

Haunted Changi” transports the student-film methodology employed in “Blair Witch” – and its countless imitators – to Singapore, where a group of filmmakers investigates reports of hauntings at a hospital once used by Japanese soldiers for cruel experiments and torture. The facility was abandoned after the war, but the ghosts apparently decided to stay … or did they? The spookiest material comes when the director becomes obsessed with a Chinese squatter, who may or may not exist and splits from the group to look for her in the tunnels and hidden chambers. Too much of the movie is a tease for what happens at night in the hospital, but there are a few truly hair-raising moments.

The title, “My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire!,” takes away most of the suspense in this low-budget indie thriller. A high school student discovers the truth about his mother’s new husband, but, of course, no one believes him. The truth doesn’t come out until the boy digs up his father’s grave and unearths a deep, dark secret. – Gary Dretzka

The Mugger
Kill a Dragon

This month’s batch of manufactured-on-demand titles from MGM/Fox is full of the usual surprises and curiosities. “The Mugger” is interesting mostly as an early adaptation of an Ed McBain crime novel. The black-and-white procedural from 1958 could hardly look more old-fashioned, even by the standards of TV series from that period. And, yet, there is something nostalgic about watching big-city cops mingle with crooked nightclub owners and participants in a floating crap game, as if they had just stepped out of touring company of “Guys and Dolls.” A police psychiatrist is assigned to be point man in an investigation of a mugger, who cuts his women victims on the face before running away with their purses. It isn’t long before the shrink has profiled the creep, whose identity pretty much comes out of left field. Meanwhile, a murder takes place that’s made to look as if it were committed by the mugger, but clearly wasn’t. Among the faces that would be become familiar in popular ’60s TV series are James Franciscus, George Maharis and Renee Taylor. McBain’s material would be better served a few years later in “87th Precinct.”

When “Kill a Dragon” was released in 1967, the martial-arts genre was still in its infancy – “The One-Armed Swordsman” broke the million-dollar barrier (HK) that year – and Bruce Lee was making TV shows in the U.S. While not technically a kung-fu movie, “Kill a Dragon” contains a lot of fight scenes and was shot entirely in Hong Kong, Kowloon and Macau. It involves an evil crime boss (Fernando Lamas) attempting to keep a group of islanders from reaping profits off a cargo of nitro-glycerin that washes up on shore. They hire an American mercenary (Jack Palance), who convinces buddies (Aldo Ray, Don Knight) to put together a team of fighters for a battle royal. A former Miss Israel and Miss Hong Kong also get plenty of screen time. Everyone else in the large cast was Chinese. – Gary Dretzka

Hallmark: Love Begins
Love Begins” is the prequel to Hallmark’s 10-part series of westerns adapted from Janette Oke’s “Love Comes Softly” novels. In an earnest and genuinely wholesome manner, the books describe the grit of women and girls who pioneered the American frontier, often in the absence of makes in traditional roles. In “Love Begins,” a young adult woman, Ellen Barlow (Julie Mond), and her teenage sister, Cassie (Abigail Mavity), struggle to maintain the family farm outside a dusty western town after the death of their father. While most of the men in Anderson’s Corner are off in California, panning for gold, the property is ravaged by the elements and age. After being arrested for joining a brawl started by his rambunctious partner, Clark Davis (Wes Brown) is allowed to work off the debt he owes a restaurant owner by fixing up the Barlow place. Predictably, after a rocky start, Ellen and Clark begin to hit it off as something more than boss and farmhand. Their relationship hits a pothole, not when Clark’s buddy escapes from a chain gang and returns to town to talk him into committing a crime, as would be the most likely scenario, but when Ellen’s boyfriend returns unexpectedly from the goldfields. After two years and no correspondence between them, he attempts to renew their romance. The newly wealthy and handsome miner isn’t portrayed as a heel, so Ellen’s must decide between wealth and obligation and love. All of the movies adapted from the Oke novels are lumped together in the family-friendly category, if only because the connections between love, hardship, loneliness and physical romance are dealt with in a way consciously designed not to offend anyone. When Clark and Ellen are about to exchange their first kiss, a missing cow makes its presence known by mooing loudly. It causes them to postpone the kiss, at least until the camera stops shooting. It’s a cute moment, but not plausible to anyone older than 10 or a card-carrying member of America’s Christian Taliban. Nevertheless, “Love Begins” is competently made and the actors seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s worth noting how many actresses have used starring roles in the episodes as a springboard for more high-profile work down the road: Katherine Heigl, January Jones, Erin Cottrell, Scout Taylor-Compton, Sarah Jones and Hayley Duff. – Gary Dretzka

Nature: My Life as a Turkey: Blu-ray
These Amazing Shadows: Movies That Make America: Blu-ray
Nova: Fabric of the Cosmos
Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero

Zalman King’s Body Language: Season One
Doctor Who: The Complete Sixth Series

With another Thanksgiving suddenly upon us, PBS has released a delightful documentary from “Nature” on the bird Benjamin Franklin considered to be “more respectable” than the bald eagle and worthy of being designated our national bird. “My Life as a Turkey” chronicles the year naturalist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto spent living among 16 newly hatched turkey poults in a forest in Florida. It is extremely rare for a human to come across a nest of fertilized eggs, which haven’t been ravaged by predators or abandoned by the mother. The production is a dramatization of Hutto’s book
, “Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey,” with the naturalist reading from the text. There’s nothing in the film that looks staged or phony, however. In fact, like “Bambi,” younger viewers might be horrified by the realities of life in the deep woods. (Anyone frightened of snakes might want to skip this documentary altogether.) Unlike fawns, turkeys stop being cute soon after leaving the nest, so it isn’t likely that watching the film will convince anyone to not join in Thanksgiving festivities. Neither is there anything predictable in the behavior of the birds once they come of age.

These Amazing Shadows: Movies That Make America” is a must-see for anyone whose love of movies extends beyond a subscription to Netflix and dreams of having their handprints enshrined at the Chinese Theater. The documentary describes the significance of the National Film Registry, the federal agency that designates 25 titles annually for preservation, protection and special consideration by all connoisseurs of the cinematic art. Not only do the lists contain the titles of Academy Award-winners and blockbusters, but also indies, oddities and movies of strictly historic importance. In the wake of Ted Turner’s purchase of a huge film library and proclamation that he’d colorize any movie he damn well pleased, Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act and National Film Preservation Board, under the auspices of the Librarian of Congress. Some 550 films have since been honored.  “These Amazing Shadows” balances the geek-speak and academic testimony with commentary by filmmakers, actors and journalists. They discuss the criteria for judging movies for such honor and provide personal memories of discovering the power of the cinema. We also visit the rare nitrate-film vaults at the Packard Campus of the Library of Congress, which opened six years ago in Culpepper, Virginia. The preservationists have discovered long-lost segments of movies removed in advance of censorship by the Hays Office, and they’re shown side-by-side with the released versions. The DVD and Blu-ray include a great deal of interesting bonus material.

Currently airing on some PBS affiliates, “The Fabric of the Cosmos” explores the borders separating physics and metaphysics. It is hosted by physicist Brian Greene, whose “The Elegant Universe” introduced “Nova” audiences to such mind-blowing concepts as string theory, wormholes, quantum mechanics, parallel realities and alternate universes. “Fabric of the Cosmos” is explained best in chapter titles, “What Is Space?,” “The Illusion of Time,” “Quantum Leap” and “Universe or Multiverse?” In other words, all the stuff acid heads contemplated while tripping their brains out now is being addressed by the scientific community. It’s about time.

When, on 9/11, four hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a patch of farm land in Pennsylvania, believers around the world asked themselves the same question: How could the terrorists possibly believe that God, Mohammad and a gaggle of virgins would welcome them to Paradise after committing such heinous acts? The terrorists studied the same Koran as tens of millions of other Muslims, yet derived from it completely opposite meanings. The “Frontline” documentary,“Faith & Doubt at Ground Zero,”revisits that perplexing debate and the greatest of question of them all, “If there is a God, why do such horrible things continue to happen, especially to innocent people?” Americans from disparate backgrounds and religious beliefs — and none at all – were interviewed for the documentary. Was God on the minds of the people who leaped hand-in-hand from the top floors of the WTC or did they act out of desperation? If desperation, would God consider their suicides to be a mortal sin, as is taught in some religions, or would the Almighty grant them a one-time waiver? If viewers don’t go into “Faith & Doubt” looking for definitive answers, there’s a good chance they’ll find value in the debate, at least.

Zalman King, who has introduced countless Americans to the pleasures of soft-core porn in “9½ Weeks” and “Red Shoe Diaries,” returned to Showtime with “Body Language.” Set in a so-called gentlemen’s club, the series asks us to believe that most of the troubles in the world could be resolved, if only people listened to the theories of lap dancers, bartenders and bouncers. Each episode, college student and mixologist Samantha (Jessica Rimmer) addresses the issues vexing a different stripper, who typically charges more for her time then a psychiatrist could justify. The DVD package adds material deemed too hot even for premium-cable subscribers, so anyone who liked the original series will love the extended cuts. King’s ability to produce couples-friendly erotica is on full display here.

There seems to be an infinite inventory of “Doctor Who” material, which isn’t surprising considering how long it’s been on the air. The sixth series opens with Rory (Arthur Darvill) and Amy (Karen Gillen) ensconced in the honeymoon suite of a giant space liner that wanders into the toxic atmosphere of an alien planet. A call from Amy summons the TARDIS, which carries the doctor (Matt Smith) to the planet and the person who literally owns the air. The doctor must convince atmosphere mogol Kazran Sardick to help him rescue the passengers or save the spacecraft from destruction, before he can proceed with the remainder of the season’s episodes and an unusual visit to Earth. The DVD and Blu-ray package combines the two halves of the sixth series, while adding the 2010 Christmas special, commentary and other bonus material. – Gary Dretzka

The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 1
Beauty and the Beast’s Enchanted Christmas: Blu-ray /Belle’s Magical World
Prep & Landing

In an unusual scheduling twist, American audiences will have to wait for Christmas to see what international fans of The Adventures of Tintinoverseas have already experienced. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation employs motion-capture animation and CGI to retain the visual flavor of Belgian artist Hergé’s beloved comic strip, which debuted in Europe in 1929. American audiences ought to consider doing some homework before attempting the movie and, apart from picking up the books, the easiest way to do so would be studying the animated television series, which ran from 1991-93 on HBO. Season One of “The Adventures of Tintin,” introduces newcomers to the young Belgian reporter, his canine companion Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and detectives Thomson & Thompson.

Disney’s hugely successful Beauty and the Beastspun off a pair of holiday specials in 1997 and 1998, as DVD originals. “Enchanted Christmas” gets the full Blu-ray treatment, with plenty of bonus features and a DVD disc. In it, Belle continues her mission to make the Beast feel welcome among normal-looking folks. The story is told in the form of one of Mrs. Potts’ “tales as old as time.” Composer Forte is determined to keep the lovers apart from each other, but Christmas spirit is more powerful than spite. The attractive hi-def presentation adds a behind-the-scenes featurette on the animation; “Forte’s Challenge” memory game; an “Enchanted” environment feature with animated fireplace scenes; sing-along tracks that can be played separately or during the feature film; and music video, “As Long As There’s Christmas,” by Play. “Magical World” hasn’t been accorded a full-blown makeover. It tells three stories based on the themes of forgiveness, kindness and love.

Disney made the holiday featurette, “Prep & Landing,” to fit the needs of ABC television, which was looking for a Christmas special that wouldn’t grow old with repeated airings. Made under the supervision of exec-producer John Lasseter, “P&L” follows the elves as they prepare homes for Santa’s visit and makes sure the kids know the drill. It’s a cute addition to the Disney/Pixar family. “P&L” arrives with the shorts “Operation Secret Santa,” “Tiny’s Big Adventure” and four Kringle Academy training videos. – Gary Dretzka

New York Dolls: Lookin’ Fine on Television
One of the reasons crusty old rock-’n’-roll journalists take the Hall of Fame less than seriously is the nominating committee’s tendency to honor performers whose ability to sell records trumps innovation, sacrifice and influence. Some musicians and singers have been inducted several times, while others are only considered after the uproar gets too loud to ignore. The fact that such mainstream entertainers as Billy Joel are members and not hard-core acts like the New York Dolls demands loud debate. Watch “Lookin’ Fine on Television” and I think you’ll see the case to be made for the Dolls. Directly influenced by the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and the Faces, the Stooges and MC5, the Dolls may have been the first American band to embrace Britain’s emerging Glam Rock and Punk movements and convincing suburban teenagers that boys have the same right to wear makeup and tease their hair as their girlfriends. Among the bands the Dolls influenced were Alice Cooper, Kiss, Sex Pistols, Motley Crue, the Ramones, Guns N Roses, Poison, R.E.M., Aerosmith and Clash. David Johansen was able to survive by morphing into the persona of lounge lizard Buster Poindexter and making songs for hipper elements among the disco crowd. Filmmakers Bob Gruen and Nadya Beck have compiled clips from the band’s formative years in L.A. and N.Y.C., as well as vintage interviews. From MVD, it’s one of the best rock docs I’ve seen in a while.Gary Dretzka

The Big Country: Blu-ray
Quigley Down Under: Blu-ray
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: Blu-ray

William Wyler’s epic western, The Big Country,” is set on a pair of ranches so large that everyone involved says, “It’s a big country …,” whenever they run out of other ways to comment on life’s mysteries. Gregory Peck stars as a sea captain, who, after making a fortune on the high seas, moves west to marry Carroll Baker and work the ranch owned by her father. It’s difficult to imagine anyone thinking cattle would thrive on such a barren location, but dumber notions have succeeded, I suppose. No sooner does the seaman reach town than he finds himself caught in a range war between a pair of old-goat patriarchs who bicker over everything, including the Big Muddy that doesn’t exactly flow between the two properties. He also crosses the ranch’s top hand (Charlton Heston), who covets Peck’s fiancé. The cowboys can’t understand why the easterner won’t fight when provoked. Baker, too, can’t understand why he’s such a coward, which, of course, he isn’t. At three hours, “Big Country” moves a tad slow for a western. It looks good in Blu-ray, though, and the acting is top-notch. Also swell are Burl Ives, Chuck Connors, Charles Bickford and Jean Simmons. A making-of featurette also is included.

Quigley Down Under was released in 1990, when westerns were an even rarer commodity than they are now. Unless the protagonist was played by Clint Eastwood, he might as well have been from another planet … or Australia. That’s where we find Tom Selleck, who plays a marksman from Montana hired by an Aussie landowner (Alan Rickman) to shoot Aborigines. Once informed of this end of the deal, Quigley decides not to participate, however. After taking a beating, he decides to settle the score, alongside Laura San Giacomo, who also was brutalized by the land baron. Australia is the real star of the show here, although Selleck and Rickman always earn their money. The Blu-ray adds a featurette, “The Rebirth of the Western.”

The recent remake ofThe Taking of Pelham One Two Three had its good points, to be sure, but the original was a doozy. Made in 1974, when New York was a bit more gritty than it is today, Joseph Sargent’s tick-tock thriller is loaded with atmosphere and tension. In addition to the intricately designed and precisely timed heist of a cash-carrying subway train, the movie featured excellent performances by Walter Matthau, Jerry Stiller, Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam and Robert Shaw. Gary Dretzka

H.H. Dalai Lama: Essence of Mahayana Buddhism
H.H. Dalai Lama: Message of Peace and Compassion

The latest entries in MVD’s collection of lectures conducted by the Dalai Lama captures His Holiness as he consoles westerners interested in following Buddha’s path. In his 165-minute lectures, which are mostly in English, he summarizes the essence of Mahayana Buddhism as the unified practice of compassion and wisdom. He also adds practical advice to westerners practicing dharma and takes questions from the audience. – 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