MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Hangover II, The Help, Friends With Benefits, Cowboys & Aliens, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Medea, Underbelly …

The Hangover: Part II: Blu-ray
The pressure on producer/director/co-writer Todd Phillips to create an instant sequel to the 2009 blockbuster, “The Hangover,” must have so great that it blinded him to the fact that it generally takes more than a few minutes to write, re-write and re-write again a prized property. That movie was so fresh, vibrant and unpredictable that it left audiences gasping for air between bursts of unexpected laughter. Apparently, studio execs felt the same way because they invested in a sequel before the original even opened. “Hangover II” isn’t a bad or humorless movie, by any means. Like too many other sequels, though, it simply took too many shortcuts along the way to a surefire opening weekend. Bangkok, the setting for “II,” may never be confused for Las Vegas, but the opportunities for debauchery and disaster aren’t substantially different. Instead of Mike Tyson’s tiger, there’s a perverted, scene-stealing capuchin monkey in a Rolling Stones jacket. Mike Epps’ drug-confusing Black Doug has been replaced by a mute Buddhist monk, while groom-to-be Stu (Ed Helms) unwittingly gets it on with a blond transvestite, instead of a ditzy blond prostitute. (Stu’s fiancée, Lauren, played by Jamie Chung, can’t hold a candle to Heather Graham, even if her presence opens the door to much Asian-American archtyping.) Despite the fact that Alan (Zach Galifianakis) isn’t originally invited to the wedding, Stu is convinced by Phil, Doug and a cache of photos from his first “wedding” to add him to the guest list. Alan, in turn, brings Mr. Chow to Thailand as his plus-one. Tyson even makes a cameo.

Stu’s future father-in-law is an arrogant prick who believes that his Thai-American princess is marrying below her station because he’s a dentist, “not a real doctor.” Certainly, he doesn’t measure up to Lauren’s brother, Teddy, who, at 16, is pre-med at Stanford and a standout cellist. Alan’s immediate dislike for Teddy and his father is compounded by his fear that the teenager will become a more valued member of the “wolf pack” than he is. Even after swearing there would be no Vegas-style bachelor party, Stu and the boys inexplicably find themselves in a roach-infested Bangkok hotel, hundreds of miles from the beach resort where the wedding party is assembled. After they wake up from their stupor, the guys realize Teddy’s missing and a cigarette-smoking monkey has appeared in his place. The only evidence he even made the trip is a detached finger with a Stanford ring still on it. With Teddy (Ang Lee’s son, Mason) AWOL, Stu has no chance of marrying Lauren and endearing himself to the family. As was the case in “Hangover I,” the buddies are able to recall the events of the night before through flashbacks, matchbooks and visits to a police station, hospital and Buddhist temple. And, yes, before you ask, the first place they look is on the roof of the hotel. If it weren’t for the monkey and some interesting Bangkok locations, there wouldn’t be any surprises. The Blu-ray bonus package adds a gag reel, “action mash-up,” the featurettes “Comedy Rhythm of Todd Phillips,” “Not Your Everyday Monkey” and “Bangkok Tour With Mr. Chow,” and instant streaming with  UltraViolet Digital Copy. – Gary Dretzka

The Help: Blu-ray
Much of what happens in “The Help” will feel like ancient history to viewers who can’t remember – or imagine – a time when segregation was as strictly enforced in parts of the United States as was Apartheid  in South Africa and even as prominent a liberal as John F. Kennedy hesitated to push for civil-rights legislation, fearing a Southern political backlash. Mississippi native Kathryn Stockett, author of the best-seller upon which the movie is based, was born after the worst of the troubles were over but little of the pain was buried. Screenwriter/director Tate Taylor was raised in Jackson, as well, and has been friends with Stockett ever since they were tots. Even if the black women we see working as maids and nannies in “The Help” had won important rights by the time Stockett and Taylor were born, it didn’t mean career prospects were any better for them or many dared to whistle “Take This Job and Shove It” as they walked out the door each night. Most of the benefits would be realized by their children. It is true, though, that “The Help” is informed by deeply personal memories of knowing your nanny better than a parent and realizing that these women spent more time with you than their own children. That much hadn’t changed by 1970.

The movie takes place in one of the darkest periods of the post-war era. While the delicate flowers of the South depicted in “The Help” concerned themselves with playing bridge and planning parties to benefit impoverished children in Africa, their menfolk either rode with the Klan or sanctioned its activities with their silence. The maids were expected to bear the brunt of the women’s anger, petty jealousies and anxieties quietly and with head bowed. Here, they stand in the background as their owners, er, bosses, discuss such weighty matters as the need for separate-but-equal bathrooms in the home. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is an ambitious college graduate who hopes to make her bones by writing a book about how “the help” feel about sublimating their own ambitions for the benefit of the children they rarely see and husbands who also take out their frustrations on them. Upon Skeeter’s arrival home, she’s shocked to learn that her longtime and much beloved nanny has moved to Chicago under a cigarette cloud of secrecy blown by her status-obsessed mother (Allison Janney). It isn’t until maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer reluctantly agree to participate in the project that she succeeds in interesting her Yankee publisher, however. That spark is provided both by the brainless behavior of some of the white society women and the 1963 assassination of rights activist Medgar Evers, an event so auspicious it even moved the president to action.

The raw sentimentality and use of vernacular in “The Help” may rub some viewers the wrong way. Others, no doubt, might feel that the outpouring of white liberal guilt on the part of Skeeters, Stockett and Taylor overshadows the courage of the maids. There’s no denying, however, the power of the story to elicit memories of a time when the American Dream was denied many of its hardest-working and most-oppressed citizens. Too many of the white Southern women are portrayed here as gargoyles, instead of the garden-variety racists they were, as if to add comic relief and an unnecessarily obvious racial distinction to the characters. And the bigotry isn’t limited to black women, either. White women not up the others’ standards are made to suffer in cruel ways, as well. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy interview with Stockett and Taylor, deleted scenes, a video of Mary J. Blige singing “The Living Proof” and the moving featurette, “In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi.” (In advance of the awards season, look for the performances of Davis, Spencer, Janney and Sissy Spacek, as a ditizy old dame, to find traction in the nominations.) – Gary Dretzka

Friends With Benefits
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis make such a winning couple here that it would be a shame if their pairing was limited only to this often witty, if generally lightweight romantic comedy from the writer/director of “Easy A.” Like dozens of other rom-coms released in the wake of “You’ve Got Mail” (1998), “Friends With Benefits” is informed by Gen Y’s obsession with social media and a willingness to trade privacy for immediate accessibility. Unlike most of those efforts, “Friends With Benefits” captures the rhythms, vernacular and immediacy of geek-speak and Internet protocol. Kunis plays a New York-based headhunter, Jamie, who uses it as a tool to pair corporations with job candidates, some of whom don’t realize they’re being hunted. Timberlake’s Dylan is a Los Angeles-based designer of blogs and websites who Jamie is recruiting for a similar job at GQ magazine. Dylan tells Jamie that he isn’t all that interested in moving to New York and working for an established business, but wasn’t about to turn down a free trip to the Big Apple. If Jamie is going to make her bonus quota, she needs to convince Dylan that New York is the center of the universe. After they meet extremely cute at the airport, she escorts Dylan to the GQ offices for his interview. Knowing he has the inside track, Jamie makes it her business to sell him on Manhattan. Her strategy includes drinks at a riverside café, dinner from a curbside vendor, a specially arranged Times Square flash mob and a visit to her favorite hiding place. Naturally, the plan works to perfection.

In another neat coincidence, Jamie and Dylan have recently been dumped unceremoniously by their needy yuppie lovers (Andy Samberg, Emma Stone) and they’ve sworn off dating for a while. Fast friends, they remain celibate for several weeks. One night, though, after admitting their overall horniness, they agree to become platonic friends, with benefits. Against all odds, Jamie and Dylan remain the best of friends, while also enjoying world-class sexual encounters. Naturally, such a sweet arrangement can’t last forever and things begin to unravel – as they must in every Hollywood rom-com – when Dylan invites Jamie to L.A. to visit his family over the 4th of July weekend. And, just as predictably, they return to normal a few months later. What makes “Friends With Benefits” easier to enjoy than most other rom-coms is Kunis and Timberlake’s enthusiastic approach to the material and offbeat supporting performances by

Woody Harrelson, as GQ’s gay sports editor; Jenna Elfman, as Dylan’s well-grounded sister; Richard Jenkins, as their bordering-on-delusional dad; Patricia Clarkson, as a hippy-dippy cougar; and Shaun White, as the obnoxious celebrity athlete he could very well be. The Blu-ray package includes commentary with Gluck, Timberlake and Kunis; deleted scenes; outtakes; a making-of featurette; a piece on choreographing a flash mob; and a pop-up trivia track. – Gary Dretzka

Cowboys & Aliens: Extended Version: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine so much time, effort and money being invested in the cinematic equivalent of a vivisectionist sewing a cat’s head on a dog’s body. Even if it were possible, of what use could it be? Jon Favreau’s mega-budget action-adventure “Cowboys & Aliens” merges Westerns and science-fiction in ways telegraphed all too explicitly in trailers and EPKs. The only real surprise is the form the aliens take when finally confronted by the cowboys, who look as if they might have stepped out of an episode of “Gunsmoke.” The special-effects extravaganza, which has more credited producers and writers than most movies have actors, begins simply enough as a Western in which a seriously befuddled bad-ass, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), is approached somewhere in the high desert by bounty hunters. All Jake knows is that he’s been left to die of exposure by parties unknown and there’s an impenetrable metal bracelet on his wrist. Wanted posters have alerted the gunmen to the fact that the desperado is the leader of a gang of outlaws responsible for all of the crimes committed west of the Mississippi in the last few months. By the time, the posse reaches the nearest town, Absolution, Jake will have turned the tables on them and freed himself. The shock of seeing supersonic jets stream over the parched landscape puts a jolt into everyone, especially local Apaches whose mythology isn’t sufficiently elastic to include airplanes, let alone extraterrestrials.

It doesn’t take long for Jake to make friends and enemies in Absolution, a town controlled by a ruthless rancher and his good-for-nothing son. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrision Ford). Dolarhyde is upset that the sheriff, with an assist from Lonergan, has thrown the boy into the slammer and demands retribution. Before the old man can rescue his son from the law, however, another squadron of jets flies over the town, this time roping citizens and pulling them into their cargo holds. The only person who might have a notion as to why the humans are being rounded up is an enigmatic beauty, Ella (Olivia Wilde), who’s playing her cards pretty close to her alluring chest. Jake and Ella, who seem to share a psychic connection, join a posse that ultimately includes the town’s menfolk, Dolarhyde, Apache braves and members of Jake’s old gang. Together, they’re required to defend themselves against further attacks by the jet fighters and prepare an assault on a spaceship full of aliens inspired by the creatures in “Predator” and “Alien.” If it doesn’t begin as a fair fight, the team of six screenwriters none-too-convincingly conjures ways for six-shooters to neutralize giant robotic insects with razor-sharp claws. The final confrontation is extremely loud, messy and confusing, but, as in Vietnam, the only thing that really matters is body count. Even if we’re conditioned to side with the cowboys, we have only Ella’s word to trust that the aliens are any worse in the long run than the Lonergan gang, Dolarhyde’s mercenaries and vengeful Apaches.

“Cowboys & Outlaws” was adapted from Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel, which is far more complex and full of ideas than the movie. Fact is, though, sci-fi Westerns and space Westerns are nothing new. “Star Trek” was famously pitched by Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon train to the stars” and “Star Wars” was replete with Western references, including the famous cantina scene. “Cowboy Bebop” was a Western anime, while the inventions in “Wild Wild West” pushed the boundaries of the genre. “Cowboys & Aliens” could have benefitted from looking more like a graphic novel than a cross-genre experiment. As such, buffs and purists will find Favreau’s concoction less appetizing than kids and teens. The Blu-ray includes a 119-minute theatrical cut and a 135-minute extended version. It also adds “Conversations With Jon Favreau,” commentary, the making-of “Igniting the Sky,” U-Control Picture-in-Picture, the interactive Second Screen, BD-Live connectivity and a digital copy. – Gary Dretzka

Mr. Popper’s Penguins: Blu-ray
Whenever I watch a movie that’s being market as family entertainment, I try to keep track of the fart and poop gags. Beyond being the most common of common denominators, scatological humor crosses all demographic borders and amuses viewers in all age groups. The MPAA appears to be neutral on the issue, as well. In the first 15 minutes of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” alone, I counted four gags involving the bad bathroom habits of undomesticated Gentoo penguins, several of which unexpectedly appear at the door step of a wealthy New York real-estate investor. They’re funny enough, I suppose, but beg the question as to why Mr. Popper’s apartment remains so free of guano throughout the rest of the comedy. Maybe, somehow, the Gentoo we know has been potty trained by Mr. Popper managed to teach the others how to use the facilities. Blessedly, director Mark Water isn’t a stickler for details.

In the 1938 story by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mr. Popper is a house painter in a small town. His family is struggling to survive during the Depression, so the surprise arrival of the penguin named Captain Cook is a burden. Even so, a female is adopted to cure Captain’s loneliness and, eventually, the penguins outnumber the Poppers. To make ends meet, they form a vaudeville act. For the movie, Jim Carrey was assigned the task of reimagining the character as a rich urbanite, too invested in his career to pay attention to his wife (Carla Gugino) and two children. The penguins’ arrival coincides with Popper’s pursuit of one of New York City’s crown jewels: Tavern on the Green, in Central Park. Needless to say, the mayhem that ensues inside Popper’s extravagant hi-rise condo conflicts with his ability to focus on the task ahead, which includes schmoozing the restaurant’s snooty owner (Angela Lansbury). Because Popper’s kids believe their father’s assertion that he bought them as gifts for the family, he is locked into keeping the birds around for their weekend visits. A zoologist specializing in penguins covets the Gentoos, as well, but only as trade bait for other species. Popper is left juggling the needs and desires of his company’s board of directors, the condo board, his kids and ex-wife, and the penguins themselves. It’s a lot of fun to watch Popper turn his split-level apartment into a winter wonderland for the penguins and become a surrogate mom to them. A mixed flock of real and animatronic birds, the winged characters also are delightful. How could they not be? As Popper, Carrey makes us believe that the businessman is capable of behavior that’s alternately ruthless, nurturing and redemptive.

The Blu-ray package is enhanced by commentary with Waters, editor Bruce Green and visual-effects supervisor Richard Hollander; deleted scenes, with commentary; a gag reel; the cartoon, “Nimrod and Stinky’s Antarctic Adventure”; a half-dozen entertaining and informative featurettes; and a sneak preview of “Tooth Fairy 2.” – Gary Dretzka

Medea: Blu-ray
There are several very good reasons to rush out and grab the Blu-ray edition of Par Paolo Pasolini’s rarely seen adaptation of Euripides’ “Medea.” The most obvious is the august presence of Maria Callas in her only theatrical film. Even though she doesn’t sing a note, Callas dominates the screen. The greatest diva of them all had rejected several overtures to make movies, but, in 1968, she was in the twilight of her career and stung publicly by Aristotle Onassis’ marriage into America’s royal family, the Kennedys. Jacqueline Kennedy possessed none of the qualities associated with Callas, but, after the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, clearly was a damsel in distress. That Onassis turned his back on his longtime lover didn’t prevent him from appearing at Callas’ door at odd hours, demanding she give in to his demands. She had sung “Medea” countless times in the past, but stage acting is a substantially different art than that required for the screen. A born actor, Callas understood the differences immediately and allowed Pasolini to craft a character whose fire, passion and pain matched her own: “. . . a semi-goddess who puts all her beliefs in a man. At the same time, she is a woman with all the experiences of a woman, only bigger … bigger sacrifices, bigger hurts.” Pasolini’s interpretation of Medea and Jason’s tragic romance may differ greatly from the works of Euripides, Seneca, Ovid and the composer Cherubini, but the key elements remain intact. The biggest difference comes in opening with Jason being tutored by the Centaur, but abruptly skipping ahead to the theft of the Golden Fleece and Medea’s removal to Corinth.

Beyond the drama, “Medea” is wonderfully scenic. It was shot in such ancient locations as Turkey’s Cappodoccia Goreme, where the earliest Christians worshipped and hid from the Romans; historic Aleppo, in northern Syria; the marshes and lagoon at Grado, north of Venice; Piazza dei Miracoli at Pisa; Lido Marechiaro, in Anzio; and Viterbo, near Rome. The timelessness of the ruins and landscapes serve Pasolini’s desire to re-create a period when the mythic gods and idols held sway over the earliest blossoming of civilization. The costuming and production design are amazing and the musical score haunting. As such, Pasolini’s “Medea” isn’t for fans of sword-and-sandal epics based on “Jason and the Argonauts,” “The Odyssey” and the antics of the gods’ semi-mortal children. Medea may be the granddaughter of the sun god Helios, but her flaws are all too human. The Blu-ray includes Tony Palmer’s fascinating feature-length bio-doc, “Callas.” – Gary Dretzka

For Christ’s Sake

It isn’t often that the words, “porn” and “priest,” can be used in the same movie review and not induce nausea in readers. That’s exactly what happens, though, in “For Christ’s Sake,” a nifty indie comedy in which a priest is duped by his brother into financing the production of a XXX movie. Jed Rees plays a dedicated parish priest who borrows money from his church’s emergency fund to finance what he believes to be his sibling’s cancer treatment. Father Robert hails from a small town, where everyone is in everyone else’s business and the biggest event is the annual church fair. He fully expects to be paid back, despite his brother’s known tendency to tell lies and exploit other people’s kindness. He doesn’t discover the truth until he pays him a visit in his surprisingly lavish Hollywood Hills home, where, he’s shocked to learn, a porn movie is being shot. Desperate to recover the church money, Father Robert is coerced into performing behind-the-camera duties on the set. It’s not something he enjoys doing or intends to hide from his confessor. In fact, he nearly derails the production by innocently engaging in religious discussions with the film’s voluptuous female lead (Sara Rue). When she takes the message to heart, the priest faces a new dilemma. Either he finds a way to convince her to finish the shoot or he’ll lose the money. Another crisis erupts when a mobster repossesses the camera equipment and he accepts an offer from a fellow priest – and porn aficionado – to lend him the money his brother will need to finish the production.

There’s more, but it would spoil the pleasantly surprising ending. I credit freshman director Jackson Douglas with understanding the difference between irreverent and offensive, sexy and lurid. There’s nudity, but it isn’t particularly erotic or gratuitous, especially within the context of a comedy targeted at mature audiences. Moreover, the actors avoid caricature by being extremely likeable and secure in their work. The movie received almost no distribution beyond a festival appearance, but that shouldn’t discourage people looking for a ribald comedy from picking up “For Christ’s Sake.” If nothing else, it will look good on Rees and Rue’s clip reel.

Even if John Waters hadn’t made a cameo appearance as the deity, in “Mangus!,” his influence on writer/director Ash Christian would be unmistakable. His fingerprints are all over the indie comedy. Like the mustachioed maestro, Christian was able to convince recognizable actors to have fun in oddball roles. Without Jennifer Coolidge, Leslie Jordan, Heather Matarazzo, Deborah Theaker and Waters, “Mangus!” merely would qualify as do-it-yourself project too ragged for prime time, but too promising to be ignored. With them, however, the movie resembles a white-trash “Glee.” Ryan Boggus plays Mangus Spedgewick, a marginally talented high school senior who wants to follow in the family tradition of playing Jesus in the town’s annual amateur production of “Jesus Christ Spectacular.” The musical is less accomplished, even, than the one in “Waiting for Guffman,” but, as far as the locals are concerned, it might as well be “My Fair Lady.” Sure enough, Mangus is chosen to play Jesus, just as his father and grandfather had before him.

Just as rehearsals are about to begin, however, Mangus is left a paraplegic in an automobile accident. Although he’s still game to play Jesus in a wheelchair, some parents lobby against having their lord and savior portrayed as a cripple incapable of healing himself. Undaunted, Mangus decides to weasel his way into the production by sabotaging his replacement’s opportunity. This backfires when the boy is injured while prancing around his living room practicing his routine. Mangus incorrectly assumes he’s died and it’s his fault. He decides to hightail it to Hollywood Boulevard with his sister (Matarazzo), but ends up in Hollywood, Florida, instead. Meanwhile, back home, his dad has returned from Iraq in a wheelchair and dedicated himself to proving his love to his ex-wife (Coolidge).  Mangus’ stepmom stays busy hitting on greasers half her age. By the time Mangus is informed that no one has died and he’s needed on stage, things back home have gotten pretty wild. Because “Mangus!” is populated with gay icons and lovers of musical theater, its exposure was limited to festivals catering to that community. As it is, the movie is “queer,” without being particularly gay and surprisingly accessible. Anyone drawn to Waters’ movies – gay or straight — should get a similar kick from the low-budget “Mangus!” – Gary Dretzka

Dexter Romweber: Two Headed Cow
Michael Feinstein: The Sinatra Legacy: Blu-ray
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore

“Two Headed Cow” is the latest in a series of rock bio-docs that describe the hardships associated with being dubbed a tortured genius. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” “Derailroaded,” “Joy Division” and “Kurt Cobain: About a Son” come immediately to mind as films that document how the ravages of fame, near fame and failure impact rock musicians who’ve pushed the envelope and had it close back up on them. Although he’s not widely known outside guitar-hero circles, Romweber’s ferocious brand of rock ’n’ roll has influenced musicians with whom most people are familiar. Among those who testify here are Jack White, Cat Power, Neko Case, Exene Cervenka and Mojo Nixon. While on tour, in 1990, opening for the Cramps, he appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman” with Chris “Crow” Smith, the other half of the band Flat Duo Jets. Their sound combined traditional lo-fi rockabilly with roots rock, garage rock and something called surf-punk. They made a few albums and played a lot of bars, before splitting up acrimoniously. Romweber, who probably suspected he was a genius all along, was left to his demons. Writer/director Tony Gayton had already included Flat Duo Jets in his 1987 rockumentary, “Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out,” and incorporates concert footage from that period into the new film, which had its festival debut in 2006. It wasn’t until very recently that “Two Headed Cow” found distribution on DVD.

Michael Feinstein has long been known as one of the finest interpreters of standards popularized by Frank Sinatra. In this in-concert film, which aired on PBS stations last summer, Feinstein not only performs Sinatra hits, but also those of his contemporaries. He also shares memories of the period and artists. “The Sinatra Legacy” was recorded in May, as part of the inaugural season of the newly completed, state-of-the-art Palladium, in Carmel, Indiana. (Was Las Vegas closed that night?) Backed by a 32-piece orchestra and swinging new arrangements, Feinstein enchants the Hoosier audience with such chestnuts as “Once in a Lifetime,” “I Thought About You,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Put on a Happy Face/Lotta Livin’,” “So In Love,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Begin the Beguine” and “New York New York.” The Blu-ray adds the bonus track, “Sway,” and the featurette, “Journey to the Palladium.”

Another recent PBS presentation captured on Blu-ray is the Guthrie Theater’s staging of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” I’m no expert on the subject, but, from what I can gather from buffs and critics, the Joe Dowling’s irreverent approach to the material took liberties that fans and purists didn’t appreciate. Most galling, perhaps, were arrangements that borrowed from big-band swing and classic pop. Even controversial G&S is better than none at all for most of us, though, and I found plenty here to like. The DVD adds a piece on the Minnesota arts scene. – Gary Dretzka

Design for Living: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released in 1933, before the Production Code forced studios to treat adults as if they were children, “Design for Living” remains a delightful sexual farce “about three people who love each other very much.” It was adapted from a popular Noel Coward play by director Ernest Lubitsch and screenwriter Ben Hecht. Coward conceived the play as a vehicle for himself, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt but it was revised to accommodate far-less-upper-crusty Americans, played by Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. Her sassy blond commercial artist meets Cooper and March’s painter and playwright, while traveling through Europe on a train. They became fast friends on the train and, only later, lovers. In the early years of their unique relationship, the trio co-exists as gay (in the original sense of the word) and adventurous young adults. Things get complicated when they achieve success and butt heads with accepted notions of morality. Finally, though, all three realize – separately – that they miss the liberated lifestyle of the past too much to let conformity get in its way. These notions, of course, were considered risqué and somewhat dangerous in the early 1930s, and still are in some fundamentalist quarters. The stage version offers broader hints at the homosexuality/bisexuality of key characters and this, of course, was an even greater taboo than unconventional heterosexual relationships, especially in England. Criterion’s Blu-ray package allows viewers to compare both versions, with “Play of the Week: A Choice of Coward,” a 1964 British television production of the play, introduced by the playwright. The hi-def restoration isn’t perfect, but that can be blamed on neglect. “Design for Living” was released a year before enforcement of the Production Code forced Universal to put it on a shelf for the next few decades. The package also includes a Lubitsch short, “The Clerk,” in which Charles Laughton plays an office drone sent a million-dollar check by a mysterious benefactor; selected-scene commentary by film professor William Paul; a new interview with critic/writer/director Joseph McBride, on the Lubitsch, Hecht and Coward; and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kim Morgan. – Gary Dretzka

Triple Tap: Blu-ray
Derek Yee’s latest thriller may be set in Hong Kong, but don’t look for wire-work and martial arts. His sequel to “Double Tap” (2000), which he wrote, instead is populated with competitive sharpshooters. Rivalries born in tournaments are settled in the city streets. Here, champion marksman Kwan Yau-bok (Louis Koo) is arrested by the cop he recently beat in a tournament, even after he had shot and killed four men who were robbing an armored van transporting bearer bonds. One of the crooks escapes, but a cop who challenged the gang is rescued. No sooner is Kwan cleared of any guilt in the incident than he’s targeted by the crook who survived. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues in “Triple Tap” adds a psychological element missing from most Hong Kong action-thrillers. No one can be trusted. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the director and stars, deleted scenes, a making-of featurettes, photo gallery and optional English dub track. – Gary Dretzka

Tora! Tora! Tora!: Blu-ray
History: Vietnam in HD: Blu-ray
PBS: Women War & Peace

It’s interesting, if not overly instructive, to note “Tora! Tora! Tora!” cost an estimated $25 million to stage, while, 31 years later, Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” was handed an estimated budget of $140 million with which to work. Both movies were expected to be blockbusters, but only “Pearl Harbor” made back its initial investment at the domestic box-office … not taking into account costs associated with prints and marketing, splits between theater owners and distributors, and the creativity of Hollywood accountants. Among other things, too, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” did better financially in Japan than in the U.S., if only because half of the movie was shot by directors Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushimall and it chronicled Japan’s greatest wartime victory. (Akiri Kurosawa took an early powder, reportedly after learning that his Hollywood counterpart would be Richard Fleischer, not David Lean, as promised.) Roger Ebert hated both movies, almost equally. Even more remarkably, the movie was and still is rated, “G.” The Blu-ray edition arrives on these shores with several new and formerly available features, including commentary by Fleischer and Japanese-film historian Stuart Galbraith IV; the documentaries, “Day of Infamy” and “History vs. Hollywood: A Giant Awakes”; the “AMC Backstory” presentation, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”; a behind-the-scenes gallery and production gallery; several vintage newsreels from Fox Movietone News; the original theatrical trailer; and a collectible hardcover book. Sadly, it doesn’t include the extra 15 minutes of film included in the Japanese edition.

Vietnam in HD” is built from the same template as was used to create “WWII in HD,” a compilation of largely unseen footage taken by personnel in the field, military historians, news organizations and other interested observers. The action and images are recorded in color, if by not hi-def digital cameras as the title implies, and, therefore, is slightly grainy but extremely clean and free of visual artifacts. The six-hour miniseries begins slightly before the initial troop build-up, in 1965, and ends with the fall of Saigon a decade later. The stories are told by the men and women who were there and put in harm’s way by our government in defense of the since-discredited domino theory. In some cases, actors read from the memoirs and letters of the same veterans. Because 8mm cameras were widely available at the time, it wasn’t unusual for soldiers to make “home movies” that are extremely intimate and ultimately heart-breaking. Early on, the letters home were full of gung-ho sentiments, parroting the official line about the war being over in a few months. Soon, those same letters reflect the reality of the situation on the ground and patriotic exuberance turns to near-despair. It’s a fascinating, if sobering series. Clearly, today’s leaders didn’t really pay attention to the lessons taught by the Viet Cong and NVA, and consequently put us in the quagmire we’re now experiencing in Afghanistan. The two-disc set represents 282 minutes of sometimes amazing footage, as well as 3D maps and graphics that amplify on the physical challenges facing U.S. troops.

Just as women have made their presence felt top-down in the U.S. military – performing tasks previously reserved for men and sometimes fighting alongside them – their counterparts in less developed nations have begun assuming leadership roles in promoting diplomacy and updating our notions of war. The five-part PBS mini-series, “Women, War & Peace,” demonstrates how women have taken significant roles in situations where gangs and warlords still rule and the proliferation of small arms and improvised weapons is a continual barrier to peace. Then, too, women not in uniform are increasingly being targeted by religious and political extremists. The series spotlights the stories of women in such troubled places as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Colombia and Liberia. The narration team includes Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Geena Davis and Alfre Woodard. – Gary Dretzka

2011 World Series Collector’s Edition
This year’s World Series didn’t figure to be a world beater ratings-wise. The St.Louis Cardinals may be one of the game’s most venerable franchises, but, beyond Albert Pujols, the 2011 iteration lacked charisma and spice. The Texas Rangers had been to the Big Dance the year before, losing to the San Francisco Giants. And, yet, it proved to be one of the most exciting championship series in history. The Cardinals had fought their way to the finals as a wildcard team, while the Rangers had to overcome flashier teams with larger payrolls. Together, they were about as evenly matched as could be imagined. As fans figured out that this World Series was one for the ages, the ratings went from lackluster to spectacular. The lowest number of viewers was for Game 3, during which Pujols stunned the sports world by hitting three home runs. By the time Game 7 rolled around, the ratings and share numbers more than doubled. “The 2011 World Series Collector’s Edition” is distinctly Cardinal-centric, so Rangers partisans aren’t likely to rush to their local purveyor of DVDs. The eight-disc DVD compilation includes all seven games, from the first to last pitch. Fans can enjoy them as described by Fox Sports announcers and broadcasters or with the local radio feed attached. The special features include “Walk-Off Winners and “Milestones”; victory celebrations; the trophy presentation and victory parade; and coverage in Spanish on ESPN Deportes Radio. Also available, in Blu-ray, is the four-hour “Official 2011World Series Film,” which is comprised of extended highlights, the entire NLDS Game 5, excerpts from “This Week in Baseball” and “Prime 9,” and coverage of post-series events. – Gary Dretzka

He’s Mine, Not Yours
Cheaper to Keep Her

Romantic melodramas targeted at African-American audiences remind me a lot of the romantic comedies of the 1960s, some of which starred Doris Day and Rock Hudson. “He’s Mine, Not Yours” and “Cheaper to Keep Her,” both of which have been given a boost on BET, are remarkably chaste and moralistic, even as they deal with such topics as infidelity, physical attributes and lust. Even partial nudity is non-existent and, apart from the requisite Jezebel, the women are the more honorable half of the romantic coin. It’s a formula, but, given the realities of niche distribution, one that’s safer to adhere to than dismiss. In “He’s Mine, Not Yours,” a professional seductress tests the faithfulness of men for her female clients. Far more often than not, the P.I. (Caryn Ward) is able to prove that their men are dogs and not worthy of their time, let alone their hand. That’s because she’s exceptionally beautiful and can easily spot a man’s most vulnerable spots. Considering that a woman like that wouldn’t normally look twice at the type of men she’s seducing, it simply isn’t fair. Before Brooke (Gabrielle Dennis) commits to Kent (Jason Weaver), she hires Mandy to test the former playboy’s fidelity. Even when he proves to be true blue, Brooke doubts his allegiance to her. Mandy decides that Kent’s too good to pass up and insists that Brooke put up or shut up about him. Their rivalry only serves to make Kent feel as if he’s the luckiest guy on Earth. Also in the cast are Carl Payne, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Nadine Ellis and Darius McCrary.

“Cheaper to Keep Her” is a bit more raunchy, but only in the number of sexual innuendos exchanged by the women whose men don’t behave as well as they would like. There also are more frequent allusions to church matters and God’s will. Vivica A. Fox is cheated upon by her husband, who has a hankering for white meat and red hair. She’s devastated, of course, but has to be talked into suing for what she’s rightfully due. Amazingly, she allows the cad to share their home after the divorce. Hoping to avoid costly alimony payments, he invites an old flame of his ex-wife to rekindle past feelings. She takes the bait, but has second thoughts about the value of her ex-husband. None of it makes a lot of sense, especially considering the acrimonious split. But, then, what kind of man would cheat on a woman as splendid as Fox? A stupid one, that’s who. “Cheaper to Keep Her” was staged in front of a live audience and rolling cameras. While it’s not a terribly fresh or effective approach to the material, it’s a format I’m seeing more often, lately, so it must sell DVDs. The play also contains some very decent soul tunes and choreographed banter. – Gary Dretzka

Underbelly: The Trilogy
The Simpsons: The Fourteenth Season
Tavis Smiley Reports: Too Important to Fail

“Underbelly” is a terrific crime series from Australia about vice, violence and corruption in places where most Americans assume kangaroos still roam. The stories are based on actual investigations and the headline-producing prosecution of underworld kingpins and police detectives with common financial interests. The characters represent all strata of life on the nation’s underbelly, from drug mules and pimps, to politicians and business executives. The talk is tough and the violence is scary. Just as it would on HBO and Showtime, “Underbelly” contains rough language and nudity, most of it not at all gratuitous. The “Trilogy” is comprised of individual13-part mini-series – “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Golden Mile,” “War on the Streets” – spanning a lawless period between the 1970s and turn of the last century. The acting is uniformly excellent, the action is ferocious and the police work feels authentic. It can also be sexy. The DVD set also contains three making-of featurettes.

By the time Season 14 of “The Simpsons” rolled around, 292 episodes had aired and it was still pulling in awards by the bus load. It had become such a firmly entrenched institution that, instead of greeting each new chapter with enthusiasm, fans began to compare them to earlier triumphs and pick new episodes apart as if they were Buffalo chicken wings. Many considered Season 14 to be lacking in several key areas. And, yet, network television offered few alternatives. “The Simpsons” was and continues to be as fine an entertainment as TV offers. It had the nominations and trophies to prove it. Among other goodies, the season features guest appearances from Mick Jagger and Lenny Kravitz. The three-disc Blu-ray set presents all 22 episodes in their broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The bonus material includes audio commentaries on every episode, “A Haunting Invite From Matt Groening,” four making-of featurettes, deleted scenes with commentary, a multi-angle animation showcase, original sketches and bonus “Treehouse of Horror” episodes.

Tavis Smiley reports and hosts “Too Important to Fail,” an investigative report on the challenges facing African-American boys as they reach high school. The drop- out rate is almost 50 percent and the choices for those who do matriculate are extremely limited. Smiley visits schools in Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago and Los Angeles, where the teens have dedicated themselves to excelling and getting scholarships to college, so as to achieve meaningful careers. “Too Important to Fail” is an upbeat document, but not to the point where it’s unreasonably optimistic. School districts are strapped for cash and only a handful of boys are accepted to such charter programs and academies each year. Otherwise, it’s the same old, same old. We’ve seen stories like this on “60 Minutes” and in such documentaries as “The Providence Effect,” but another good one certainly can’t hurt. – Gary Dretzka

Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas Special: Blu-ray
Transformers Prime: Darkness Rising
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete 7th Season

If one cares to do the math, the last full-sized wooly mammoth walked the earth some 3,700 before the birth of Jesus Christ, while saber-toothed tigers and giant ground sloths were gone even before then. A cynic might wonder how Manny, Sid, Diego and the rest of the “Ice Age” gang came to celebrate an event that wouldn’t occur for another three millennium. Saint Nicholas of Myra, the model for Santa Claus, wouldn’t come along for another 400 years. At best, this would make Sid, Peach, Crash and Eddie’s trek to the North Pole problematic. But, what the heck, cartoons aren’t supposed to bear much resemblance to reality. Otherwise, roadrunners would be flourishing in the American west and coyotes would be nearing extinction. In “A Mammoth Christmas Special,” which aired last month on Fox, Sid breaks Manny’s precious Christmas rock and everyone fears Santa’s wrath. A trip to the North Pole doesn’t work out as planned, but, really, how much harm can be done in 26 minutes? Even Scrat gets into the act, when an errant acorn leads him to Santa’s sleigh. The Blu-ray also includes a preview of next summer’s “Ice Age: Continental Drift” and a three-minute “Swingin’ Jingle Bells” music video.

The first five episodes of the Hub network’s “Transformers Prime” formed a story arc under the “Darkness Rising” banner. Apparently, the latest “Transformers” spinoff performed well enough to earn a second season, which began last month. In “Darkness Rising,” the rascally Decepticons are getting dangerously close to the Earth’s Energon deposits and Autobot Cliffjumper is kidnapped. Peace is broken, but a trio of human teenagers joins forces with Bulkhead, Arcee and Bumblebee to put a stop to the madness.

Like Ol’ Man River and “The Simpsons,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” just keeps rolling along. The 30-episode seventh season ran from June 2009 to July 2010 and included such titles as “I Heart Dancing,” “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Sandy,” “Growth Spout,” “Tentacle-Vision,” “The Inside Job,” and “Stuck in the Wringer,” as well as the entire multi-chapter special, “Legends of Bikini Bottom.” The nine-hour, four-disc set also chronicles Spongebob’s entire modeling career, Squidward’s public television career and Mrs. Puff’s Krusty Krab career. – 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