MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Moneyball, Dirty Girl, Bombay Beach, Division III, The Overcoat, Belle du Jour, Mysteries of Lisbon, Cold Sweat …

Moneyball: Blu-ray
The term, “inside baseball,” often is used when a conversation about anything from politics to food preparation becomes so complex that only a professional could possibly understand its complexities. While it isn’t always used in a derogatory way, the term does suggest that one participant is attempting to dazzle the other with numbers, statistics and details not always germane to the discussion. Because baseball is a sport that can be played by 5-year-olds, yet debated endlessly by adults, hundreds of thousands of men and women now are conversant in the language of “inside baseball,” including 95 percent of the characters in “Moneyball.” Indeed, there are times in Bennett Miller’s surprisingly compelling sports drama that subtitles might have helped viewers less schooled in America’s pastime to understand what separates the good ol’ boys from the Young Turks in the Oakland A’s organization. Credit belongs to writers Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillion for making such clarification unnecessary. Indeed, as adapted from Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” the movie could have put an even greater weight on the influence Bill James and other Sabermetricians – seekers of objective knowledge about baseball – have had on the game. “Moneyball,” the movie, only tackles the on-base percentage theory, blessedly leaving such concepts as on-base-plus-slugging percentage, runs created, defense-independent-pitching, range-factor and a dozen other measurements to the fantasy geeks.

Instead, upstart A’s executives Billy Beane and “Peter Brand” (actually, Paul DePodesta) are awarded underdog status, for employing science instead of intuition in the re-creation of a team decimated by personnel losses, due to free agency, and crushing budget constraints. Usually, in Hollywood, it’s the rebels who win our admiration by making decisions based on subjectivity and emotional instincts, while the elitists use objective measures to contradict the visionaries. Here, it’s the reverse. Brad Pitt could hardly be more appealing as the failed jock, Beane, who saw the writing on the wall and went into management. He maintains a firm grip on the wheel, even when the ship is headed directly for the shoals of disaster, and is anything but a nerd. That role is reserved for his numbers-obsessed assistant, Brand, played wonderfully by an all-grown-up Jonah Hill. They may look like Mutt and Jeff, but the executives share a singular vision and purpose. Their opponents include old-school talent scouts and manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose more intuitive philosophy represents everything the sabermatricians are battling to change. The much respected manager has condemned the filmmakers’ interpretation of his tenure as field general and with some justification. Besides the fact Hoffman looks and acts almost nothing like Howe, the depiction of him as a gargoyle makes it seem as if the role of a manager in producing a champion – not to mention, a 20-game winning streak — is completely overrated. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Moneyball” does acknowledge that baseball, while changed irrevocably by SABR theory, isn’t likely to lose any of its ability to surprise and enchant fans of all ages. Statistical analysis may level the playing field for salary-challenged teams, but, when such data renders all things equal, the ball once again will placed in the hands of that most fallible of all of God’s creations, human beings. Otherwise, the A’s would have made the playoffs more than twice in the last 10 seasons. Nevertheless, as with any good pennant race, there’s more than enough drama in the A’s story to satisfy audiences. The Blu-ray edition looks and sounds excellent – as does all baseball on HDTV – and the bonus package adds four worthwhile making-of featurettes, with lots of interviews and historical background; a blooper in which Pitt breaks up uncontrollably; several deleted scenes; BD-Live functionality; and a short preview of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStationVita game, “MLB 12.” – Gary Dretzka

Dirty Girl
Add Juno Temple’s name to the list of hot young starlets who have made a name for themselves by playing socially awkward and sexually precocious teenagers, misunderstood by everyone except the class geek, a gay friend or a sympathetic mentor. That list includes Ellen Page (“Juno”), Portia Doubleday and Rooney Mara (“Youth in Revolt”), Jessica Chastain (“Jolene”), Emma Stone (“Easy A”), Natasha Lyonne (“But I’m a Cheerleader”), Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson (“Ghost World”) and, of course, Ally Sheedy (“The Breakfast Club”). In “Dirty Girl,” Temple’s character is the self-described class slut, Danielle, whose misbehavior causes her to be banished to a room reserved for pregnant girls, boys with ADD, chronically slow learners and other misfits. It’s there that she’s assigned to participate in a parenting project with Clarke, a depressed boy who’s bullied at school and home for being fat and probably gay. The assignment requires them to carry around a medium-sized bag of flour, which they’ll treat as if it were their infant child and for whom they’ll create a faux diary. After not wanting to participate at all, Danielle and Clarke somehow manage to bond with the “child” and include it in their after-school activities. Ironically, both feel as if they’re being treated like a bag of flour by their parents. Danielle isn’t thrilled by her mother’s choice of a new husband (Milla Jovovich, William H. Macy) and conspires with Clarke – who’s threatened with military school by his homophobic father and mousy mom (Dwight Yoakam, Mary Steenburgen) – to drive to California to meet the father who doesn’t know she exists. As the teenagers and their bag-baby race west from Oklahoma, the grown-ups also attempt to short-circuit their search for freedom and identity. Along the way, all parties learn something that benefits them when everyone finally makes it back home and the kids once again are put to the test.

While observant and entertaining, “Dirty Girl” shares several of the faults and inconsistencies associated with debut features written and directed by the same person, here Abe Sylvia. 1987 may seem like the Bronze Age to a young filmmaker, but Norman, Oklahoma, wasn’t nearly as unenlightened a place to grow up as it’s presented here. The behavior of the parents feels especially strained and exaggerated. Nonetheless, “Dirty Girl” brings a lot of teen spirit to the proceedings and several delightfully unpredictable scenarios are given the time to blossom. Danielle and Clarke’s journey into near-adulthood is handled credibly and without compromise. Neither are the characters overwhelmed by the formidable acting chops of the seasoned actors. Teens and young adults should find plenty to enjoy here. – Gary Dretzka

Age of Heroes: Blu-ray
The Coast Guard: Blu-ray

Age of Heroes” is a routine World War II action picture, interesting primarily for its dramatization of the formation of Britain’s elite 30 Commando, which was organized by Ian Fleming. Formed early in the war, the unit was assigned highly dangerous missions behind German lines, during which the soldiers would create much mayhem, but only to distract the enemy from their real assignment. Specifically, they were instructed to steal – not destroy – crucial intelligence tools and technology identified by senior officers in London. In the mission described here, the men were called upon to seize radar components that gave the Germans an edge in the North Sea because they had a greater range than the Brits’ radar. The first third of the movie, however, is involved with the formation and training of the diverse collection of soldiers, mostly in the Scottish Highlands. Danny Dyer plays the hot-headed Rains, who disobeyed the orders of an inept superior in order to get his platoon to Dunkirk in time for the evacuation. He routinely butts heads with Sean Bean, who plays the unit’s hard-ass, but fair and extremely competent lead officer. Once in Norway, 30 Commando would be required to play hit-and-run with German Alpine troops as it crossed the mountains to the destination and evacuation point. Along the way, they are joined by the requisite beautiful female resistance fighter and significant moral dilemmas. If “Age of Heroes” doesn’t break any new ground, fans of war movies won’t be disappointed much by the action sequences, Norwegian scenery, historical context and background featurettes.

Kim Ki-Duk has made so many splendid movies in the last 10 years that it’s easy to forgive him one early clinker, at least. “The Coast Guard” describes a highly disturbing incident near an encampment of South Korean soldiers assigned to guard the shores against the encroachment of spies from the north. Never mind that no spies have recently breached the barbed-wire fences lining the country’s shorelines. By 2002, it would be easier for a spy to arrive in Seoul on a jetliner than to risk being shot on sight by a highly motivated and well trained guardsman. In the early stages of “The Coast Guard,” we watch as the troops are drilled to within an inch of their lives on the mud flats and the rocky coastline of South Korea. They even engage in boxing matches in a ring lined with coils of barbed wire, their feet in six inches of ocean water. By all appearances, this is a crack, highly disciplined unit. Private Kang (Jang Dong-kun) is a gung-ho draftee who would prefer to be training with Special Forces, instead of monitoring the waves for invisible intruders and local punks defying clearly stated ordered not to trespass. After Kang gets into a confrontation with some slackers in a seaside café, it’s inevitable that he’ll be tested by one or more of them in the near future on his own turf. Sure enough, a young woman dares her boyfriend to make love to her on the sand within viewing distance of Kang’s night-vision goggles. Although he isn’t quite sure who or what’s being humped in front of his post, Kang decides not to take any chances, killing the boyfriend, as instructed, and tossing a grenade at him for good measure. Naturally, it creates a ruckus among the locals, who show little patience with the occupation of their town by the soldiers. It’s at this point, as well, that “The Coast Guard” inexplicably turns into a something of a horror farce, with Kang and the young woman simultaneously going nuts and discipline collapsing completely in the unit.

In his introduction, Kim acknowledges that he intends for viewers to gain something from the movie than the enjoyment that comes from watching an exciting war movie. Indeed, the story hardly mentions what might happen if North Korean hordes were to cross the DMZ and threaten to eliminate the freedoms enjoyed by people in the south. What’s dimming the prospect of unification, instead, are North Korean and the American despots who stand to gain from the stalemate. Americans simply don’t understand what makes Koreans tick, Kim argues. While this sentiment probably is accurate, it’s tough to believe that the lunatics who’ve run North Korea for the last 60 years would be any more benevolent than Uncle Sam. His case for the insanity of spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to maintain the status quo is far easier to swallow. The Blu-ray takes advantage of the scenic location and frequent nighttime sequences, while also offering interesting featurettes. Newcomers to Korean cinema would be better served, however, by sampling Kim’s infinitely superior “Bad Guy,” “3-Iron,” “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring,” “Breath” and “The Bow.” – Gary Dretzka

Bombay Beach
It’s almost impossible to create a work of fiction about the people who live on California’s Salton Sea more fascinating than the documentaries “Bombay Beach” and “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.” Examples of the strange goings-on there were dramatized in “Into the Wild” and the meth-and-madness thriller, “Salton Sea,” but the history of the place and eccentricities of its year-round residents define the term, “Stranger than fiction.” In it 106-year history, the vast, accidentally formed lake has served both as a high-volume tourist attraction and text-book example of what can happen when environmental concerns are neglected. Once a haven for anglers and birders, alike, the Salton Sea now more closely resembles an open-air cemetery for fish and birds incapable of tolerating the water’s high salinity and toxic agricultural runoff. A human menagerie of societal misfits, desert rats, meth cookers, diehard hippies and otherwise homeless people now resides among the abandoned restaurants, cottages, boats and trailers found 200-feet-plus below sea level. The tourist trade now is limited to the morbidly curious and folks drawn to the mud pots, mud volcanoes and remaining flock of American white pelicans.

Alma Ha’rel’s alternately compelling and off-putting “Bombay Beach” introduces viewers to a half-dozen, or so, people living in the once thriving, now largely abandoned lakeside town. Children play on roads nearly absent of traffic and along the shore littered with the corpses of fish and waterfowl. Inside a cottage resides an ex-con couple who temporarily lost custody of their children, when they were convicted of storing weapons and explosives capable of arming a militia. In a trailer cluttered with memorabilia resides a sickly old-timer clinging to life as his circle of friends closes, seemingly on weekly basis. One young boy’s disruptive behavior in school leads to him being prescribed a regimen of drugs as powerful as that of any cancer patient; for lack of better male companions, a pretty teenage girl keeps returning to an abusive boyfriend; her friend, a black football star, escaped to Bombay Beach from L.A. after gang violence claimed his cousin. The atmospheric soundtrack includes the music of Bob Dylan and Beirut. Among the interesting features in the DVD package are music videos and an uplifting update on the subjects. – Gary Dretzka

Division III: Football’s Finest
Mention Andy Dick to 95 percent of all movie critics and you’re likely to illicit a response that combines rage, horror and dismay. The same pretty much holds true for Pauly Shore, Corey Feldman, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Rob Schneider, Ashton Kutcher and Adam Sandler. Even those critics who love to hate movies would gladly pay their editors not to be assigned another of these actors’ films. So, it was with great trepidation that I approached “Division III: Football’s Finest,” a self-declared comedy about a disgraced coach who takes over a program at a school where ignoring the team is its most enduring tradition. I fully expected to see a movie that had none of the redeeming qualities of the terrible 2005 remake of “The Longest Yard” and all the credibility of the annual “Lingerie Bowl.” Imagine my shock to learn that “Division III” not only isn’t the worst comedy about football I’ll ever see but that it also is funnier than it has any right to be. There, I’ve said it.

Dick plays Rick Vice, whose last job in football was coaching a Pee-Wee League team that succumbed to a mass poisoning of its Gatorade supply. Pulham University’s attention-seeking president (Mo Collins), who knows next to nothing about football, hopes that by bringing in Vice to coach the Blue Cocks she’ll be given an opportunity to appear in a reality show. In doing so, she antagonizes the school’s African-American athletic director, who’s worked his way up from maintenance supervisor. I don’t know what he did to himself here, but Dick actually could pass for a coach on some of college football’s less reputable teams … that, or a bartender at a biker bar. He has an extremely short fuse, isn’t afraid to offend minority players and uses his clipboard as a weapon. Perhaps because he played quarterback at Division III Occidental, freshman director/co-writer Marshall Cook somehow manages to rein in the actors’ natural tendency to overplay their parts and turn the movie into broad farce. Instead, he allows the material to speak for itself and the characters’ personalities to evolve more or less naturally. Neither does he demand that Vice go all mushy at the film’s inevitable conclusion. That’s left for the stuttering romance between the team’s No. 2 quarterback – and Vice’s personal punching bag – and the team’s pretty undergraduate manager. “Division III” is a far cry from perfect, but, as direct-to-video comedies go, it’s not bad. – Gary Dretzka

The Overcoat
Adapted and updated by Alberto Lattuada from a story by Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat” (“Il Cappotto”) tells the wonderfully tender story of an Italian city-hall clerk and lithographer, Carmine de Carmine (Renato Rascel), whose only possession of value is a threadbare overcoat. When it can no longer be repaired, Carmine is desperate to come up with the money to afford a new, more elegant defense against the cold. The city is dominated by a vainglorious mayor, whose toadies leap at his every request, no matter how silly. All of the lower-level employees live in fear that the mayor will unexpectedly drop in on them at the office and find something lacking in their work, causing him to rashly fire them. This is exactly what happens to Carmine, until the lowly bureaucrat discovers a bribery scheme involving the mayor’s team of architects and is given his job back in return for his silence. He’s also given the money necessary to purchase the new coat. It makes him look so fine that his co-workers gush over Carmine and his poor neighbors assume he now has the clout to get their problems fixed, which, he foolishly assures them, he can. During the movie’s funniest set piece, Carmine employs his newfound confidence to make a spectacle of himself at the mayor’s New Year’s Eve party, where he dares to make a pass at the man’s statuesque mistress but fails to deliver a petition by the poor folks waiting outside in the cold. Rascel’s performance recalls Chaplin’s humor and compassion. The movie doesn’t end here, of course. There’s one more tragedy and triumph left to go before the final curtain falls. “The Overcoat” has been given a nice digital facelift by the folks at RaroVideo, a company that specializes in underappreciated Italian treasures. The post-Neo-realist treat was originally released in 1952 and still holds up today. The generous bonus package adds audio commentary by Italian educators Flavio de Bernardinis and Gabrielle Lucantonio; 25 minutes of deleted and extended scenes; a 13-minute interview with filmmaker Angelo Pasquini; and a 20-page booklet. – Gary Dretzka

Belle du Jour: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Luis Buñuel’s highly erotic and deceptively surreal romance first arrived on these shores in April, 1968, a time when advocates for the fledgling women’s movement and blossoming sexual revolution had yet to accept that feminism and eroticism not only could co-exist, but they also could enjoy each other’s company. Because of this, leftist opinion-makers found themselves in a quandary. At the same time that feminists were sublimating their sexuality in the interest of raising their political, professional and intellectual profile, purveyors of soft- and hard-core eroticism debated whether it was possible to worship the female form without objectifying women. Four years later, the unabashedly left-wing filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci asked the same question in “Last Tango in Paris.” In a few years, the argument would be met with raised eyebrows by post-feminists, who had come to the conclusion that liberation meant they could look however they wanted to look and enjoy sex as much as they could stand. Moreover, many of today’s post-post-feminists don’t see any reason why women shouldn’t benefit financially from strip joints, escort services and brothels they don’t consider to be exploitative. It’s interesting here to consider the impact “Belle du Jour” had on audiences in the 1960s through the eyes of artists and scholars who’ve watched and referenced the movie repeatedly over the last 40 years. Certainly, it’s easier to see what motivated Catherine Deneuve’s Madonna/whore character, Séverine, a bourgeois Paris housewife who takes a day job in a bordello, and how her memories, dreams and desires all combine to make her who she is. We’re also able to see how Bunuel’s artistry wasn’t compromised by the movie’s inherent commercial appeal, notwithstanding the absence of frontal nudity, full or otherwise. Besides a swell high-definition digital restoration, the Blu-ray package adds commentary with historian Michael Wood; new interviews with sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams; a new interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière; excerpts from the French television program Cinéma, featuring vintage interviews with Carrière and actress Catherine Deneuve; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Melissa Anderson and a 1970s interview with Buñuel. – Gary Dretzka

Mysteries of Lisbon: Blu-ray
Anyone with both a taste for classic literature and 257 minutes to kill could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of “Mysteries of Lisbon,” Raul Ruiz’ epic melodrama adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco. Presented as a multipart television mini-series in Europe, “Mysteries of Lisbon” is equal parts telenovella, Masterpiece Theater and Merchant-Ivory. The story opens as a young orphan boy, living in a seminary, is forced to defend himself against bullies, because his single name, Joao, identifies him not only as an orphan but a bastard child. Waking up in the infirmary after being beaten senseless by a larger boy, Joao vaguely recalls being visited by a woman in a dark shawl. He demands of his guardian, Padre Dinis, to know if the woman was his mother. The circumstances surrounding his birth have haunted Joao since he was old enough to know that all kids have parents, somewhere, alive or dead. After pondering the question of revealing how the boy arrived at the seminary, Dinis decides to introduce him to the woman he correctly guessed was his mother. Clotilde Hesme plays the Countess Elisa de Montfort, whose brutish husband is incapable of forgiving his wife for bearing another man’s child. Humiliated by the count’s undisguised relationship with a maid and afraid to bring the child home, Elisa decides to take the first opportunity to accept the sanctuary of the Church. For the next several hours, the narrative flashes back to happier times for the countess and forward to Joao’s continuing search for a father whose identity is becoming clearer. The setting also shifts from one royal European abode to another, introducing to an increasingly complex network of crowned heads, aristocrats, monks and many formidable and beautiful women in great costumes and wigs. There’s also the odd pirate, soldier, gypsy, duelist and merchant to keep straight. At 70, the Chilean filmmaker remains one of the most formidable cinematic figures in the world, with 100 films to his credit. “Mysteries of Lisbon” is practically a master class in technique, staging, storytelling and movement. It’s beautiful to look at and a brain-teaser, to boot. The story is told on two separate discs, while a third one contains enough bonus features to choke a librarian. They include making-of and background material; literary analysis; criticism; interviews; and a visit to the museum in Portugal dedicated to the author. – Gary Dretzka

Cold Sweat
This chilling Argentinian export opens with newsreel footage from the period 30-some years ago when militarists in charge of the country declared war on anyone who was left of Jose Carioca, kidnapping, torturing and killing them and giving their orphaned babies to supporters to raise. The unstated message in “Cold Sweat” is how closely politically motivated acts of cruelty resemble what today’s purveyors of torture-porn cinema do to their characters. In Argentina, Chile and other dictatorships, however, the sadists who tortured political prisoners were trained by CIA operatives, not genre specialists. Included in the newsreel footage are snippets of information about explosives stolen from an armory that remain missing today. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess that somewhere during Spanish filmmaker Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s often very scary movie, the mystery of the missing nitroglycerine will be solved. Before it is, however, female Internet surfers will be lured to a torture chamber inside a building owned by the last remaining members of a right-wing hit squad. The geezers make Jigsaw, of the “Saw” horror franchise, look like a beginner, as they’ve been experimenting on pretty young women with various tools and substances for decades. One of the missing girl’s boyfriends follows a trail that leads from her computer to the apartment building, arriving within minutes of her planned execution. Because most of “Cold Sweat” is set in the building’s dark and moist basement, a palpable aura of claustrophobia prevails. There are plenty of macabre surprises left to come in a thriller that reminds us that the era of political horrors is only a coup or terrorist attack away from recurring. – Gary Dretzka

First Squad: The Moment of Truth: Blu-ray
Redline: Blu-ray
Color me old-fashioned, but an animated fantasy set during the very real invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II pushes the borders of my willingness to suspend disbelief to the breaking point. It was difficult enough for me to cheer along with the Nazi killers in “Inglourious Basterds,” knowing that it was based merely on wishful thinking and that millions of Jews, Gypsies and gays still would be killed in gas chambers, despite the wet dreams of Quentin Tarantino. I’m old and set in my ways, though … sue me. Influenced by anime and other Japanimation techniques, “First Squad: The Moment of Truth” conjures an even more decisive battle than the one waged in the actual siege of Stalingrad, which is re-created here. This time, Soviet teenagers with X-Men-like properties are enlisted to neutralize a SS scheme to raise a supernatural army of crusaders from the dead and sic them on the Allied forces. The forces of righteousness must also deal with gorgeous Aryan soldiers, who, after the war, might have moved to Chicago to inspire Hugh Hefner to launch Playboy. My qualms aside, “First Squad” offers fans of such things plenty of cartoon thrills, action and blood-letting. The background drawings make the Russian winter look just as foreboding as it does in live-action war movies. The set includes a short and long version of the movie.

Redline,” also made in 2009, is far more to my liking, in that it resembles a clearly fantastical adaptation of such pedal-to-the-metal entertainments as “Death Race,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Cars,” “Speed Racer” and “Cannonball Run.” Overflowing with fast-paced action and crazy characters, “Redline” is as exciting as it is colorful. I’m told that most of the animation here is hand-drawn. It looks terrific on Blu-ray and the collisions sound good, too. As directed by Takeshi Koike, an enjoyment of “Redline” requires almost no wear and tear on brain cells, as it can be appreciated purely for its sensory pleasures. The Blu-ray arrives with an hour-long making-of featurette, covering all aspects of the animation and voicing process. – Gary Dretzka

Good Morning, Vietnam: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Dead Poets Society: Blu-ray

If there are two things we know to be true about Hollywood stardom, it’s that an actor is only as marketable as the success of his/her last couple of pictures allows them to be. (The revised maxim allows for some flexibility due to overlapping projects and fickle audiences.) The second requires of each new generation of studio executives that they shape new stars in the molds of previous ones. (Thus, the unending search for the new Cary Grant, new Marilyn Monroe, New Humphrey Bogart, new Elizabeth Taylor. …) In Robin Williams, I think Hollywood saw the model for a new Jerry Lewis, who, for a long time, could do no wrong with fans and, therefore, industry bean counters. No matter that Williams’ humor was inspired more by Jonathan Winters, whose improvisational skills and wild flights of fancy were more suited to television. As long as Williams continued to knock ’em dead on talk shows and other publicity opportunities, Robin was allowed to be Robin, and fans accorded him the benefit of a doubt. Problems related to substance abuse caused him to slow down for a while, though, and his recovery coincided with the release of several movies even his manic persona couldn’t save.

Good Morning, Vietnam” allowed Williams do exploit his amazing improvisational skills and fever-pitch delivery of dialogue, while remaining identifiable as the hip new kid on the block.  It also shaped his persona as the wise and passionate humanitarian hero in fool’s disguise. The story was based, rather loosely, on the morale-boosting role played by Armed Forces Radio deejay Adrian Cronauer in the early years of the Vietnam War. Cronauer reminded our troops more of the irreverent, wild-and-wacky Top 40 deejays back home than the stodgy drones favored by brass. Reportedly, Williams improvised all of his character’s bits adding his trademark sentimentality to scenes set by director Barry Levinson outside the studio. His Cronauer was the deejay everyone in America wished could still be heard on AM stations, but were being replaced by computerized playlists. With Vietnam in the nation’s rear-view mirror and innovative radio stations dying on the vine, the timing for “GM,V” was perfect. The movie was a huge commercial and critical success. Williams would be nominated for Best Actor Oscar for his performance. The set adds a multipart standard-definition “Production Diary,” with producer Larry Brezner, screenwriter Mitch Markowitz, Levinson and Cronauer; and an uncut, 13-minute take of Williams improvising a monologue.

Two years later, in the similarly successful “Dead Poets Society,” Williams’ John Keating became Mr. Chips for Eisenhower-era boarding-school students, minus the diverting love interests. While completely devoted to his students and literature, Keating also represented the anti-establishment attitudes and anarchic behavior that would reign a few years later but wane by the time the movie was released in 1989. The supercharged pedagogue encouraged a group of seven restless students to, “Carpe diem, seize the day,” and carve their own paths in life. Their Dead Poets Society met in a cave near Welton Academy, where they read verse to each other and plotted their intellectual liberation. This, of course, simply couldn’t be tolerated by the school’s administration, which reported not to Keating but to the boys’ elitist parents. Again, Williams’ inspirational performance would be honored with a Best Actor nomination. Look for such future stars as Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles among the students. The Blu-ray package adds commentary by director Peter Weir, cinematographer John Seale and writer Tom Schulman; the standard-definition featurettes “Dead Poets : A Look Back,” “Master of Sound: Alan Splet” and “Cinematography Master Class”; and raw takes from a deleted scene.

Williams would enjoy artistic and commercial success in the future, but not necessarily in the lead roles that demanded he carry a bad script with over-indulgent acting or tear-jerking pathos. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in “The Fischer King” and won the prize for “Good Will Hunting.” He’s also done fine work as a voice actor in hit animated features and in guest spots on television. Apparently, though, most mainstream critics have yet to forgive him for making them sit through “Patch Adams,” “Jack,” “Bicentennial Man,” “Being Human,” “Toys” and “Father’s Day.” – Gary Dretzka

America in Primetime: Blu-ray
The Tuskegee Airmen/The Josephine Baker Story/Thurgood: Blu-ray

Pacific Blue: The Complete Series

The Best of the Dean Martin Variety Show

BBC: Waking the Dead: The Complete Season Six

“America in Primetime,” which aired on PBS stations last fall, is the latest in a long line of documentary series to find some deeper meaning in the medium that dominates the free time of so many Americans. Television, especially of the broadcast variety, has shaped how we see ourselves and each other, even if the characters tend to be mere composites of various types. If all bigots were as lovable as Archie Bunker and George Jefferson, for example, the world would be a much better place. Likewise, if all gang-bangers were as harmless as the Fonz, our big cities would be as safe as Disneyland. Are the housewives of Wisteria Lane the natural descendants of June Cleaver, Donna Reed and Mary Tyler Moore or is their DNA shared with the “real housewives” of Beverly Hills and Orange County. “America in Primetime” examines 60 years of television programming with an eye toward the evolution of character types. It’s the kind of thing PhD’s study endlessly from the vantage point of their ivory towers and viewers take entirely for granted. For most of us, it’s enough to know we’re being entertained by characters who look, more or less, like people we recognize. If they more closely resembled our neighbors, co-workers and bosses, there would be no reason to watch them. It explains why “The Office” is such an anomaly. Its characters are exactly like people we’ve known since high school and went to college to avoid. And, yet, through some creative alchemy, we can’t wait to join them each week. It would be impossible to wrap up several generations’ worth of characterizations and archetypes in four hours and develop a cohesive understanding of the medium. What makes “America in Primetime” entertaining are the many clips from beloved shows and the comments of such folks as Jason Alexander, Judd Apatow, Alec Baldwin, Roseanne Barr, James L. Brooks, Diablo Cody, Larry David, Danny DeVito, Edie Falco, Dennis Franz, Michael C. Hall, Patricia Heaton, Ron Howard, Felicity Huffman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Lynch, Julianna Margulies, Jerry Mathers, Mary Tyler Moore, Elisabeth Moss, Mary-Louise Parker, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and Rainn Wilson. Don’t worry if the producers have missed your favorite show or character. Another documentary will be pulling into a PBS station near you in another few months, or so.

With the Martin Luther King holiday now behind us and Black History Month two week away, it’s fitting that HBO has released a trio of its original movies, describing the contributions of important African-Americans. The package includes “The Tuskegee Airmen,” “The Josephine Baker Story” and “Thurgood,” all of which have been accorded numerous Emmy nominations and awards and arrive here on Blu-ray for the first time. The newest entry is “Thurgood,” with Laurence Fishburne playing the first African-American appointed to Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. George Stevens Jr. wrote the one-man play, which, before debuting on HBO last February, was staged at Connecticut’s Westport County Playhouse, with James Earl Jones, and Broadway and the Kennedy Center, with Fishburne playing the justice. Throughout his career, Marshall defied the odds against a black man not only becoming a lawyer, but also arguing before the Supreme Court and then being appointed to the same body.

Fishburne also appears in 1995’s “The Tuskegee Airmen,” the true story of the black pilots, navigators, bombardiers and support staff who broke the color barrier in the U.S. Army Air Corps and distinguished themselves over the skies of Europe. It is essentially the same story told in the new feature film, “Red Tails.” (Cuba Gooding Jr. appears in both pictures.) Like Marshall, the airman took flack from racists of all stripes, but persevered to become largely unsung American heroes. Along with Fishburne, Andre Braugher was nominated for a Supporting Actor Emmy.

In 1991, Lynn Whitfield was awarded the Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy for her portrayal of Josephine Baker, one of the great entertainers of the 20th Century. Born in St. Louis, where she danced on street corners to make money, it wasn’t until Baker moved to Paris, in 1925, that she became a star. The HBO movie describes in glorious (and, perhaps, silicone-enhanced) detail how her erotic performances made her the toast of Europe. It also recalls her stormy romances and evolution of talents not limited to dancing around the stage in a skirt made of bananas. She didn’t find the same success in New York, when she agreed to star in a Ziegfeld Follies production. The critics portrayed in the movie appear to have resented both her race and success across the pond. During World War II, she agreed to spy for the Allies and support the Resistance by exploiting her popularity with enemy occupiers.  She would also become an outspoken supporter of the American civil rights movement. The Blu-ray adds new commentary from Whitfield, writer Ron Hutchinson, and associate producer Alisa Taylor.

As ridiculous as it sounds on paper, a show about an “elite unit of bicycle cops” managed to stay on the USA cable network from 1996-2000. Considering that it was set in Santa Monica, its longevity probably can be attributed as much to the scantily clad beach bunnies as the pursuit of purse snatchers on the bike paths and Promenade. “Pacific Blue” also benefitted from young and hot cops who could never be mistaken for police anywhere except southern California. It included Darlene Vogel, Shanna Moakler, Amy Hunter, Jim Davidson, Paula Trickey and current ass-kisser-to-the-stars, Mario Lopez. The set includes all 101 episodes of the show, described here as “‘Baywatch’ on bikes.”

Time-Life has released the second volume of “King of Cool: The Best of the Dean Martin Variety Show,” which originally had been sold on infomercials. I don’t know if anyone under 40 would enjoy revisiting the era of variety shows on television, but those who remember the extinct species will delight in the six-disc set, which comes with an episode guide. Among Dean’s guests are Red Buttons, Mickey Rooney, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Bill Cosby, Carroll O’Connor, Bob Newhart, Ella Fitzgerald, Eddie Fisher, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Mathis, Liberace, Herb Albert, the Supremes and a bunch of long-forgotten acts.

The latest collection of stories from BBC’s cold-case series, “Waking the Dead,” represents the sixth season, which ran in early 2007.  The titles include “The Fall,” “Deus Ex Machina,” “Wren Boys,” “Mask of Sanity,” “Double Blind” and “Yahrzeit,” all multi-parters. Tara Fitzgerald is now a regular cast member, as pathologist Dr. Eve Lockhart.  Any fan of American forensics and CSI series is a likely candidate to get hooked on “Waking the Dead.” – Gary Dretzka

Titanic: The Definitive Documentary Collection
The Race to Space: America’s Greatest Journey

Civil War: Commemorative Documentary Collection

Every time a floating hotel makes an unscheduled stop on a submerged shoal or rock formation, survivors compare the experience to being on the Titanic. It happened again a few days ago in Italy and, unlike the Titanic, most of the passenger survived. The ship will need some body work, but it likely will be made to float again. The same, of course, can’t be said of the Titanic, whose memorabilia are being offered for sale on eBay, as we speak. Mill Creek’s “Titanic: The Definitive Documentary Collection” includes five documentaries about the disaster, covering facts, myths, legends, mysteries, interviews and information collectors would specifically enjoy.

The Race to Space: America’s Greatest Journey” is interesting for its place in television history. Among other things, the 10-part documentary collection represents filmmaker David L. Wolper’s first forays into television. “The Race for Space” was shown in 1959, when Americans were still reeling over the fact that the commies had beaten us into space. Wolper would return to the subject several more times in his career. The docs include space footage and other material collected from NASA and Soviet space agencies. Much of the material, of course, will appear dated on modern television sets, but it recalls a time when anything seemed possible and we all stood in awe of the astronauts and the people who lit their candles.

This being the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, it’s a good time to get reacquainted with the events and issues – in addition to slavery — that led to the conflagration and controversies that contributed to the hatred and rivalries that continue until today. Mill Creek’s “Civil War: Commemorative Documentary Collection” set is comprised of nearly eight hours of interviews, archival material, battlefield tours, and re-enactments. The episodes are titled “The Life and Death of the Army of Northern Virginia,” “Mr. Lincoln’s Army: Fighting Brigades of the Army of the Potomac,”  “The Battles for Atlanta,” “Shadow in the Valley: The Battle of Chickamauga,” “Diary of a Confederate Soldier,” “Civil War” and “Abraham Lincoln: Father of Freedom.” – 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