MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: J. Edgar, Puss in Boots, On the Bowery, more

J. Edgar: Blu-ray
For most of the last century, J. Edgar Hoover was the public face of the FBI and, outside of certain criminal and socio-political circles, anyway, as honorable an American as there could be. In fact, though, once Hoover had eradicated the menace of machine-gun-toting gangsters during the Depression, Hoover oversaw the creation of an unseen empire, in which he was the king and the Constitution didn’t exist. To quell all dissent and activism, Hoover wasn’t averse to using blackmail, illegal intelligence-gathering techniques, provocateurs and character assassination. Presidents lived in fear that the FBI would leak their personal secrets to gossip columnists and any public figure to the left of Mickey Mouse could safely assume a file was being kept on them. By attempting to be fair to Hoover’s legacy, without ignoring his indiscretions, Clint Eastwood’s elegant bio-drama “J. Edgar” has painted a portrait of an infinitely complex individual, who built the most effective law-enforcement agency in the world but too often used it to circumvent those laws and principles he didn’t particularly like. The movie finally asks us to decide for ourselves if the country would be a better place today had Hoover simply enjoyed the tenure of most other political appointees and let his successors build on his legacy. It’s his mommy complex, career-long “bromance” with top aide Clyde Tolson and strange professional relationship with “keeper of the gate” Helen Gandy that dominate practically every scene in “J. Edgar,” distracting us from the real issue at hand. Neither Eastwood nor screenwriter Dustin Lance Black makes a convincing case for or against the possibility that Tolson and Gandy’s proximity to the boss impacted on his law-enforcement decisions, one way or another. It’s voyeurism, without the sexual payoff.

The movie leaves no room for doubt that Hoover used his office and personal neuroses to manipulate such great Americans as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It also suggests that his longevity in office and dossiers were used to make the FBI a stronger organization, if only because the money he extorted from lawmakers went into agency coffers, not his. If he was, as the tagline goes, “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” it’s only because his opponents were too weak to stand up to the man and put the interests of the country and protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights ahead of their own. Hoover also was acutely aware of the fact that every new president loved listening to the muck the agency raked against his predecessors. Not only was it wise politically to keep Hoover in your corner, but it also could be fun. Meanwhile, an entire generation of Americans would grow into adulthood mistrusting the FBI and doubting its mission. That’s only half the story told in “J. Edgar,” though.

Hoover was a man who not only enjoyed a lifestyle he despised in his enemies, but also flaunted it in public. The movie makes a convincing case for the likelihood that Hoover (Leonardo diCaprio) and Tolson (Armie Hammer), were, if not the screaming queens of legend, at least as married to each other as they were to the bureau. Apart from the overprotective Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his domineering mother (Judi Dench), women apparently were seen by Hoover as people to avoid. Here, an invitation to dance from Ginger Roger’s mother causes an acute case of apoplexy. After being persuaded to join the bureau in its infancy, Tolson made sure that he was in constant contact with him. They enjoyed nightly dinners out, as well as trips to racetracks to indulge the boss’ appetite for wagering. Unlike the closeted politicians and celebrities who were targeted in the bureau’s investigations, the director and his closest aide weren’t at all reluctant to have their pictures taken while outside the office.

In relating the complicated story, “J. Edgar” bounces back and forth between key periods in Hoover’s life. I don’t think Eastwood felt especially comfortable with the format, if only because it’s difficult to keep audiences pointed in the right direction for 137 minutes. Not surprisingly, then, the action scenes are more cinematic and entertaining. Even as a young man, Hoover was obsessed with his public image and about maintaining a high profile in the capital. After a congressman questions both his law-enforcement skills and collaborations with the entertainment media, Hoover insists on being alerted to headline-making busts so he could be photographed on the scene and be lauded for his heroism by the press. The pivotal moment in the agency’s history, however, comes in the investigation leading to the arrest of a German immigrant in the kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s 18-month-old son. Hoover’s dogged insistence that the FBI should be the primary investigative unit – combined with the inability of state and local police to make any headway on the case — would lead to legislation making kidnapping a federal crime. Finally, he would be allotted the money to afford a forensics laboratory and the ability to hire specialists in everything from handwriting analysis to saw marks on lumber. Eastwood does a nice job capturing Hoover’s obsession with the case and visionary approach to investigative procedures. Nothing that comes after it delivers the same direct punch. The Blu-ray bonuses are limited to an UltraViolet digital package and featurette in which cast and crew members discuss the movie and their impressions of Hoover. More valuable would have been a roundtable with journalists, scholars and politicians. – Gary Dretzka

Puss in Boots: Blu-ray
If the Oscar-nominated “Puss in Boots” had, as originally planned, been released direct-to-DVD, the world would be a less enjoyable place to be, today. Hollywood economics dictate that spinoffs from successful animated franchises — as opposed to sequels — follow a less costly route to the video marketplace. Corners can be cut creatively and the distributor benefits from not having to familiarize customers with the product. The original voicing cast often is jettisoned in a video spinoff and the animation work is farmed out to B-team facilities. For their part, retailers don’t make much effort to sell a film’s merits as family entertainment, confining it to the “kiddie corner” ghetto. As a “prequel sequel” to its “Shrek” series, DreamWorks’ “Puss in Boots” had an even tougher row to hoe. The project had been on the drawing boards for six years, awaiting a decision as to how much money and effort it deserved. Once the decision to go the feature route was made, however, “Puss in Boots” was given the respect it deserved. Production finally would begin in 2010, with Guillermo del Toro as executive producer; Antonio Banderas, as the voice of the swashbuckling feline; Salma Hayek, as Puss’ spunky love interest, Kitty Softpaws; Zach Galifianakis, as the devious Humpty Alexander Dumpty; and Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, as the bean-peddling outlaws, Jack and Jill. “Shrek the Third” director Chris Miller took the reins and Tom Wheeler handled the screenplay. Naturally, the budget ballooned into the six-figure range, as well.

“Puss in Boots” takes place well before the timeless character’s introduction in “Shrek 2.” The sword-wielding ginger is a wanted fugitive, looking to clear his name in a frame-up orchestrated by Humpty. After reuniting with the repentant egg and meeting Kitty in a combination duel and dance-off, the trio sets out to find Jack and Jill. The outlaws are in possession of magic beans that, after being planted in the right place, will grow high enough to pierce the clouds shrouding the Giant’s castle, where the Golden Goose goes about her business. Before they can claim the golden eggs, the trio first must conquer the Terror, in the form of a huge Mother Goose. The journey eventually leads to the Glitter Box and land of Shrek. What elevates “Puss in Boots” to the top shelf of animated features is the attention to detail, right down to Puss and Kitty’s whiskers. It’s worth noting that three key scenes were produced in a Bangalore studio, owned by Technicolor, and integrated seamlessly into the movie. Several critics praised the digital 3D presentation and IMAX 3D, but those without the home-theater options won’t be missing anything significant. The generous Blu-ray package add deleted scenes, several behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes, interactive games and activities, an entertaining “Puss in Boots” cartoon, “Puss’ Paw Pouncing Challenge,” “The Animator’s Corner” and a trivia track. – Gary Dretzka

Tower Heist: Blu-ray
Director Brett Ratner and producer Brian Grazer rarely do anything small, anymore, and that’s OK. Deep inside their most-recent big-movie collaboration, however, is a wee caper picture trying to get out. Because of the massive amount of publicity and star power attached to the project – it was during the marketing campaign that Ratner uttered the anti-gay slur that cost him and Eddie Murphy their jobs at the 2012 Academy Awards ceremony – it naturally was compared to both editions of “Ocean’s Eleven,” both of which have been accorded legend status in the industry. In fact, though, none of the “Ocean’s” sequels – then and now – could stand up to comparison with the originals. Even if too much money and attention was paid to the A-list cast and not enough to the screenplay, “Tower Heist” is a better popcorn movie than any of the “Ocean’s” follow-ups. Ratner’s film benefits greatly from being shot in Manhattan and copping a New York attitude. Most of the action takes place in a residence high-rise, modeled after the Trump Tower, while owner/antagonist, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), is supposed to remind us of jailed conman, Bernie Madoff. Arthur lives in a penthouse apartment and, by all outward appearances, is a swell guy and generous employer. In fact, though, he’s swindled hundreds of investors, including the folks he sees every day working in the building, and he’s heading for the last roundup. Like Madoff, Arthur benefits from having a judge who has more sympathy for rich people than their victims. He allows Arthur to cool his heels in his penthouse, where he enjoys all the luxuries of life, including a valuable Ferrari 250 GT Lusso once owned by Steve McQueen. Naturally, the hotel staff isn’t happy to see Arthur back among them, more arrogant than ever and completely unrepentant. Not even the FBI can dispute his claim of being penniless. In fact, Arthur’s more afraid of having someone in the kitchen spit in his food than discover where his treasure is hidden.

The caper half of the film begins after Arthur fires several staff members who doted on him when he was in the chips and a beloved doorman attempts suicide. Former building manager Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) assembles a motley crew of former and current employees to break into his well-guarded apartment and search for money or clues to where it’s hidden. The gang is represented by Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Michael Peña, Gabourey Sidibe and Murphy, while Téa Leoni plays an FBI agent. If you’ve already guessed that the Ferrari plays a key role in the plot, give yourself a pat on the back. In addition to all the usual impossibilities built into such caper flicks, it takes only a couple of days to locate the cache the FBI couldn’t find in months. The problem comes in removing it from its hiding place. Naturally, too, Stiller and Leoni enjoy an unlikely semblance of a romance, possibly designed to remind us of their time together in “Flirting With Disaster.” (It is nice to see her back in action.) Ratner does enough with this loosy-goosey scenario to qualify “Tower Heist” as an easy way to kill an evening at home. (Translation: I would have been pissed had I invested the money it takes to watch a movie in a theater these days.) Time passes quickly and no brain cells are taxed. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Ratner, editor Mark Helfrich and co-writers Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson; U-Control picture-in-picture, BD Live and Second Screen interactive capability; a production diary compiled by Ratner; an extensive making-of featurette; alternate endings and deleted scenes; a gag reel; and bookmarking. – Gary Dretzka

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Sean Durkin’s extremely disquieting debut feature feels very much like a movie out of place and time. In telling the story of a deeply disturbed young woman who escapes from the cult with which she’s been living for an unspecified span of time, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” can’t help remind people of the 40-year-old story of the Manson Family. Adding to the disconnect is the pastoral setting. The woodlands and watersheds of upstate New York don’t look like the kinds of places where dangerous cults thrive. Unlike almost any organism that requires water with which to grow, religious cults flourish in the parched earth of the American Southwest, as did the gun-toting Branch Davidians and hard-core polygamists of Eldorado, Texas. Jonestown may have been cut from a jungle in Guyana, but the doomed members of the Peoples Temple might as well have been trying to grow corn in Death Valley. The farmhouse populated by the cultists in “MMMM” sits on land rich with promise and opportunity. You’d think that the damaged young women so profoundly captivated by Patrick — the evil Svengali played here by John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”) – would have more interesting things to do than sit around and wait for him to impregnate them. Who knows, though, maybe all the Mansonites needed to be responsible citizens was a change in scenery. I’m only guessing here, but Elizabeth Olson’s deliberate and understated portrayal of Martha (a.ka., Marcy May and Marlene), the deeply disturbed protagonist of Durkin’s film, appears to have been informed by the still-incarcerated “Manson girl” Patricia Krenwinkel. It was Krenwinkle (a.k.a., Katie, Big Patty, Yellow), who, after participating in the “Helter Skelter” murders, split Los Angeles for her mother and aunt’s homes in of Mobile, Alabama. It’s likely that Krenwinkel’s homecoming was at least as bizarre and harrowing as Martha’s in “MMMM.”

We meet Martha at approximately the same time as the fog in her head has lifted and she’s experienced a rare moment of clarity. After confirming that Patrick, his henchman, Watts, and her fellow female cultists are sound asleep, Martha slips out of the house and makes a beeline for the highway beyond the forest. While sitting in a café, pondering her decision, Watts plops down in the seat opposite her and attempts to intimidate her into returning to house with him. Instead, Martha gathers her strength long enough to call her sister, Lucy, who she hasn’t seen or spoken with in years. After driving to the café, Lucy convinces Martha to return with her to the lakeside home she shares with her British husband. The anal-retentive Lucy is pleased to have Martha back in her life, but not so much that she can ignore her sister’s less-than-hygienic habits. We know that this refugee from voluntary imprisonment probably isn’t playing with all 52 cards in the deck, but Lucy assumes it’s merely a case of Martha being Martha. Hanging thick in the air between them is a memory of some unspecified event that caused pain in both of their lives. We learn more about Martha’s experiences on the commune through flashbacks, which grow increasingly uglier as time passes. In addition to great anxiety, the memories prompt Martha to behave as if she can’t discern the difference between the two residences. One night, for example, she walks into the master bedroom while Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy) are having sex and lies down on the floor to sleep. This may have been common practice upstate, but the intrusion completely freaks out the couple. Finally, in one of the flashback dreams, we learn exactly what’s traumatized Martha – it’s something we’ve suspected practically from Day One – and why her fears have yet to be alleviated.

Included in the DVD package is the short film, “Mary Last Seen,” which Durkin made before embarking on the production of “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Set in the same lush location and infused with the same ominous tone, it answers some of the questions we have about how Martha and other women found their way to the farmhouse. It does so without spoiling any of the surprises in the feature or diluting the tension built into it. Even though it could serve as a prequel, “Mary Last Seen” is best enjoyed after experiencing “MMMM.” Olsen, sister to the world-famous Olsen twins, hadn’t been cast in the feature when the short was made. She reminded me of a young Ashley Judd, facially and in how she addresses her character’s great vulnerability. Olsen will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. – Gary Dretzka

On The Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Vol. 1: Blu-ray
Where the Streets Have No Name

It’s the rare documentarian whose sympathizes don’t lie with common men and women, especially those dealt a weak hand at birth. Compassion isn’t something that can be taught at film school, like cinematography, history and theory. It pretty much has to be bred in the bone. It explains why the Republicans had to scramble to find filmmakers to counter the broadside attacks on the Bush White House by Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald, Charles Ferguson and Alex Gibney. Since Leni Reifenstahl wasn’t available, none of their efforts were particularly convincing. Leonard Rogosin, whose films are celebrated in the terrific new Milestone Blu-ray package, was a huge influence both on future documentary makers and Britiain’s “kitchen-sink” school of the 1960s. A veteran of World War II, he understood the difference between a Howitzer and a bayonet and the opposite ways they get their points across. In his hands, a 16mm Bolex could be every bit as devastating as a well-targeted projectile.

A child born of wealth, Rogosin spend several years traveling through Europe, Mideast and Africa after WWII, observing first-hand what it took to survive in the man-made hell that was post-war Europe, behind the closed borders of the Iron Curtain countries and under apartheid. As his first foray into filmmaking he wanted to go to South Africa and document enforced segregation, there. For practice, Rogosin decided to stick close to home, chronicling life among the alcoholics and dead-enders in New York’s Bowery district. Borrowing stylistically from the Italian neo-realists and Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North,” he followed a between-jobs railroad worker for three days, as he finds ways to squander his last check on Skid Row. He did so by drinking himself into oblivion; sleeping on the street and in flop houses and a rescue mission; getting robbed by sodden cronies, who then try to pawn the goods found in his suitcase; and blowing off the day jobs that might have afforded solid meals, instead of cheap booze. What’s amazing about “On the Bowery” – and is accentuated in hi-def Blu-ray – is Rogosin’s ability to capture so poignantly the distressed faces of the men and women slowly but surely committing suicide by alcohol. It’s truly an amazing film, made all the more relevant because the Bowery now has been gentrified to within an inch of its former self and “homeless” has become synonymous with the condition from which many of these people suffered. It was the first American film to receive the Grand Prize for Documentary at the Venice Film Festival. It also received a BAFTA award and was nominated for an Academy Award. It has been wonderfully restored by the Cineteca di Bologna.

“The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume One” also contains “Good Times, Wonderful Times” and his “lost” film, “Out.” Unable to find much anti-war and anti-nuclear passion in the United States in the early 1960s, the filmmaker was required to stage “Good Times, Wonderful Times” in London, where such activism wasn’t considered treasonous and there was strong support for nuclear disarmament. Interspersed with the largely frivolous cocktail chitchat and militaristic boasting of male guests at the party were clips borrowed from the archives of countries ravaged by war, racism and other atrocities. The juxtaposition of dancing twits and pontificating boors with clips from Hiroshima, the siege of Stalingrad, Nazi Germany, Vietnam, Africa, Alabama and atomic-bomb test sites finally has a devastating effect on viewers. “Out” was a film made for the United Nations, documenting the plight of Hungarian refugees fleeing to Austria in the aftermath of the revolt of 1956. The camera follows people as they risked everything crossing the border, as well as life in the purgatory of the Austrian refugee camps. It’s amazing stuff. “On the Bowery” is introduced by Martin Scorsese who grew up very close to the streets filmed by Rogosin. There are several other Bowery-related films, including a pair directed by his son, Michael.

Nowhere on the Wikipedia page dedicated to Cairns, Australia, does it mention that the coastal city in far north Queensland is the “pedophile capital of Australia.” According to several people interviewed in Vijaykumar Mirchandani’s bittersweet documentary, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” however, that’s one of things that attracts tourism to the area, which also is close to the Great Barrier Reef and an easily accessible rainforest. The documentary describes the efforts of Dr. Harald Falge, who for the last 20 years has worked tirelessly to deliver food, shelter and clothing to the many homeless youths drawn to Cairns for its fair weather and scenery. That, of course, was before the arrival of the predators. Most of the young people served by Falge have experienced physical and mental abuse at home, addiction to drugs and alcohol, mental illness and poverty. Even if jobs were available in the isolated region, they would only last the tourist season. What makes Cairn different from other meccas for street kids is the unusually high rate of pedophilia, rapes and prostitution. By supplying the staples of life, at least, Falge believes he can give the kids a leg up to survival and independence. He’s helped by friends and family members, but considers the charity to be part of his Christian mission. To that end, there doesn’t appear to be much proselytizing and the recipients aren’t required to attend services to receive aid, as do the Bowery dwellers in Ragosin’s film. – Gary Dretzka

The Son of No One
How weak does a movie co-starring Al Pacino, Juliette Binoche, Katie Holmes, Tracy Morgan and Ray Liotta have to be before a studio gives up on it and consigns it to a perfunctory theatrical release and a one-way ticket to video purgatory? Yes, pretty severely undernourished. Still, it makes one wonder how so much star power – Channing Tatum is the actual hero in the police drama – could be attracted to a picture that looked doomed after the first 15 minutes. Dito Montiel, who established indie cred with “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” certainly didn’t do himself any favors with an overly ambitious screenplay and misguided direction. The actors interpret the material as well as the script allows, with Pacino, especially, pumping up the volume to the max. Nothing else smacks of being in touch with reality, though.

Tatum plays Jonathan, a second-generation New York cop who avoids getting in a spot of bother as a kid growing up in a crappy Queens apartment complex thanks to a favor done for him by a police detective (Pacino) who happens to be his godfather. That “favor” comes back to haunt everyone who subsequently is asked to protect the parties involved. By covering up what clearly was a case of self-defense, the detective planted a time bomb set to explode 15 years later, after the kid has joined the police force. While Jonathan continues to regret the incident, it’s a former pal who is devastated by the repercussions. Why, exactly, isn’t made clear. Flash forward to the present and mysterious letters alleging a conspiracy begin showing up in a local investigative paper and at police headquarters. They rekindle the debate in Jonathan’s conscience over what it means to be guilty or innocent in an unavoidable tragedy. Things get even more complicated when friends of his late father and godfather rally around Jonathan, compounding the original mistake. Several unrealistic plot twists follow, none of which are logical or easily explained. Fans of the cast members might enjoy parts of “The Son of No One,” but others won’t be impressed. – Gary Dretzka

London Boulevard: Blu-ray
William Monahan may be an A-list screenwriter – “The Departed,” “Body of Lies,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Edge of Darkness” – but, with “London Boulevard,” he learned how it feels to be a director in over his head. While not a disaster, by any means, the hard-core crime thriller offers little that Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn and several other very good Brit filmmakers hadn’t, except star power. Besides the ubiquitous presence of Ray Winstone in such dramas, the cast includes Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, David Thewlis, Anna Friel, Ben Chaplin and Sanjeev Bhasker, all welcome. What we’re not given is a reason to care about what happens to them. Farrell plays Mitchel, a just-released jailbird, who, upon his return home, is welcomed with open arms by his former mates, expecting him to pick up where he left off criminally. Instead, he wants to do something that will allow him to avoid another bit in stir. He does a few small favors for friends, but they leave a bad taste in his mouth. Finally, he’s tipped to a gig that basically requires him to the hold the hands of a freaked-out movie star, Charlotte (Knightley), who’s being besieged by paparazzi. Of course, they fall in love. Meanwhile, he keeps turning down overtures by Winstone’s powerful mob chief, Gant, and none too politely. Both men are too stubborn to give in an inch and Gant’s holding most of the cards. Obviously, someone has to die. That’s pretty much it, plot-wise.

As both writer and director, Monahan forgets to explain why these people deserve our pity, sympathy, love or hate. We don’t know what put Mitchel in prison and why he’s treating his droogies like fleas on a dog. Charlotte is a megastar, sure, but why is she so vehement in her aversion to cameras? Gant doesn’t need anything Mitchel has to offer, so why rile a sleeping hornet by doing him favors that demand a quid pro quo? Even though the Cockney-accented dialogue is a treat to hear and there are lots of pretty faces, viewers can’t subsist on violence alone. In short, “London Boulevard” is all style and little substance. It’s watchable, certainly, but one doesn’t take anything away from it. Monahan dominates the making-of featurette, which is better standard fare. – Gary Dretzka

War of the Arrows: Blu-ray
While there’s been no scarcity of period war epics in the last 20 years, Hollywood producers keep following a pattern that dates back to “Gone With the Wind.” By adding CGI technology to the formula, filmmakers now are able to multiply the number of warriors and weapons exponentially, without hiring more than a couple dozen extras. For every arrow fired in anger in a 1950s Western, a hundred can be rained down on combatants. A pair of catapults can be turned into 20 with the flick of a mouse stroke. The problem comes when filmmakers are required to fill the spaces between action segments with peekaboo love scenes, flakey history lessons, implausible drama, terminal illnesses and soaring musical scores. This typically results in a movie whose decibel level and gratuitous violence alienates adults and sends teenagers scurrying to the concession stand between action scenes. Once Chinese filmmakers got a handle on such genre spectaculars, they were able to avoid many of the conventions that handcuffed their American peers. Among other things, they were able to concentrate on events in their country’s own history, rather than try to make sense of the Crusades, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, Viking expansionism and the spread of syphilis from Europe to the New World. They could draw on thousands of years of recorded dynastic, military and cultural history, as well as wonderfully colorful costumes, amazing weaponry and splendid architecture. They could count on the world’s largest military force to supply extras, horses and non-union labor. Permits to film in some of the world’s most scenically diverse and untrammeled territory also were easy to secure. If Asia has yet to identify a budding John Ford in its midst, it certainly will.

South Korea can’t afford its filmmakers the same luxuries, yet, but if “War of the Arrows” is indication, the ones who focus on historical pictures could soon gain the same level of respect as Korea’s many fine directors of dramas, crime thrillers and horror. Kim Han-min’s thrilling “eastern Western” is a throwback to our cowboy/Indian adventures and British takes on the legends of the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood. It opens in 1636 with the slaughter of innocents living in an isolated village near Korea’s border with Manchuria. The elders of the tribe have been betrayed by their king and the invaders show no mercy to his unsuspecting subjects. The Master’s young son and daughter barely escape the fate of their father, narrowly eluding the vicious dogs sent to drag them down in the forest. Nam-Yi and Ja-In’s only possession is their father’s bow and arrows, which they use to take out the most persistent of the curs. The weapon also identifies them as allies of a community of dissidents living even deeper in the forest. The Master there was a friend of their slain father and allows them to join his family. Thirteen years later, Nam-Yi is estranged from the village elders and bitter about his status in life. More to the point, he also has become a bow hunter of exceptional talent.

As Ja-In’s marriage to the Master’s son approaches, a Manchurian prince is on a mission to expand his father’s empire. No sooner as the ceremony concluded than the prince launches his army’s vicious attack on the pre-occupied village. As interested in collecting slaves as plundering and pillaging the outpost, the soldiers kill the Master – who’s of no use to them – but captures Ja-In and her husband, with the intention of dragging them across the river to Manchuria. Fortuitously, Nam-Yi had boycotted the wedding and, in doing so, was able to survive the onslaught, while also killing a bunch of soldiers with precisely targeted arrows. Henceforth, he dedicates himself to rescuing his sister and avenging the deaths of his father and adoptive parents. For the next 90 minutes or so, “War of the Arrows” is all action, all of the time. Nam-Yi nearly destroys the invading army single-handedly with his uncanny marksmanship – and, yes, their deaths are shocking – while also inspiring the villagers being led to the border. After a one-man ambush allows his sister, her husband and the other prisoners to escape, Nam-Yi is hunted by an elite militia of Manchurian warriors, who are his equal in stealth and determination, if not accuracy. Adding to the excitement are the rugged locations and determination of hunters and prey. There’s a making-of featurette that shows the actors undergoing the specialized training that allowed the action to look so realistic and leave recent “Robin Hood” adaptations in the dust. – Gary Dretzka

Bad Actress
This modest spoof of suburban murder mysteries – I almost said, “Valley noir” — tries very hard to engage us with campy performances and twists on archetypal behavior. That the banality of suburban, middle-class life defies parody is demonstrated once again here. It takes someone as deliciously twisted as John Waters to create characters that transcend the oppressive sameness of the setting and then insert them into situations that are absurd, if strangely recognizable. Because of this, the central conceit has to be sufficiently compelling to support everything that happens around it. In “Bad Actress,” the first accidental death is as predictable, in a convoluted sort of way, as the response of the pre-packaged characters. If director Robert Lee King’s last picture, “Psycho Beach Party” – scripted by Charles Busch — pushed the envelope on good taste, he seems cautious to do the same thing in “Bad Actress.” Beth Broderick, a savvy veteran, plays a slightly over-the-hill soap-opera star (“HMO Nurse”), Alyssa Rampart-Pillage, who’s reduced to appearing in goofy commercials for her husband’s appliance business. Things begin to go haywire in their comfortable lives when their college-age daughter, Topanga, joins a green-is-groovy activist group, targeting the energy-wasting appliances in her dad’s store. After the protest turns destructive and the store is torched – something she hadn’t expected to happen — her father, Bernie, refuses to talk to her. When she attempts to apologize, he accidentally causes her to fall down the stairs, resulting in her death. So far, nothing particularly outrageous has occurred.

More interesting is Bernie’s reaction to her death and the ghost who appears in store demanding he not be so greedy and unenlightened. He shows his remorse by joining an ashram and donating a ton of money to causes Topanga endorsed. When Alyssa learns that she and the kids have been cut out of his will, she marches into the ashram and drags him out before he can complete his mantra. When he refuses to change his mind, Alyssa conspires with his cousin to either knock some sense into him or eliminate the problem. This backfires, as well, when Bernie is stabbed to death and their alibi begins to unravel like a cheap suit. After turning on Bernie for Topanga’s death, the kids now begin to wonder if mom has gone psycho and they might be the next to die. This results in another cover-up, more bloodshed and, finally, blackmail. What “Bad Actress” is missing, though, are the kind of off-the-wall characters that fueled the comedy in Paul Bartel’s “Eating Raoul” and “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.” Broderick would have benefitted if Alyssa were modeled more after Kathleen Turner, in Waters’ “Serial Mom,” and King could have used a writer of Busch’s stature to hold his hand. – Gary Dretzka

I Ain’t Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac
Bobby Collins: Telling It Like It Is

It hasn’t been that long since the entertainment industry was as segregated as any American city, south, north, east or west. Until the mid-1980s, when the fledging Fox network made a conscious effort to attract so-called urban audiences, you could count on one hand the number of black actors and comedians given an opportunity to star in a sitcom or variety show of their own: Nat King Cole, Diane Carroll, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor carved a path for such shows as “Benson,” “The Jeffersons” and “227.” For all its onerous stereotypes, “Amos and Andy” was one the few shows – then or now — that featured a predominantly black cast. After it was chased off the air by the do-gooders, its fine cast found virtually no broadcast outlets for their talents. Things are much better today, of course, but how does one fill the vacuum left by as large a talent as Bernie Mac?

The Chicago native died August 9, 2009, of sarcoidosis complicated by pneumonia. To say he was riding high at the time of his death would be an understatement. After leaving “The Bernie Mac Show,” in 2006, the burly South Sider starred or co-starred in a string of high-profile motion pictures and was living the life of a true celebrity. His sitcom reflected both Mac’s edgy onstage persona and generous off-stage personality. In it, the upper-middle-class Bernie and Wanda unexpectedly are made custodians of his sister’s three children, after she enter rehab. The kids would be a handful for a lion tamer, let alone a man whose daily routine includes lots of quiet time and relaxation. Thank goodness for Wanda, because Bernie has a low tolerance for the kind of misbehavior and unreasonable demands teens put on all parents. One way Bernie works out his frustrations is by threatening the kids with all manner of medieval punishments … some of which, if executed, would land him in court on child-abuse charges. The other is by pleading his case to the audience, a la George Burns or Garry Shandling. Viewers were invited to commiserate with Bernie or side with Wanda and the kids, based on the evidence already presented. Everything about the show felt realistic, from the communal love to the awkward situations in which they found themselves. Although the initial concept might have owed something to Robin Harris’ “Bebe’s kids” routine, “The Bernie Mac Show” was as unique as it was hilarious.

I Ain’t Scared of You” is an emotionally touching and thoroughly entertaining tribute to Mac, paid to him by actors and comics with whom he’s worked, relatives and friends who recall the comic’s long climb to stardom and breakthrough performances on “Def Comedy Jam” and “The Kings of Comedy Tour.” We see how hard the audiences made Mac work for their approval and the sweat expended by him to please them. Once he won them over, it was a one-way ticket to the top. Among those testifying are Anthony Anderson, Tom Arnold, Angela Bassett, Bill Bellamy, Cedric the Entertainer, Don Cheadle, Cameron Diaz, Mike Epps, Andy Garcia, D.L. Hughley, Samuel L. Jackson, Carl Reiner, Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana and Steven Soderbergh. As personal as things get, there isn’t a cheap or cheesy moment in the Comedy Central presentation. Among other things, it reminded me of the contributions by those African-American comedians who died too young — Pryor, Harris, Wilson, Patrice O’Neal and Godfrey Cambridge, – and such pioneers as Redd Fox, Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby and Moms Mabley.

Bobby Collins is an old-school observational standup who’s been paying dues as a road warrior since breaking into the business in 1980. For you youngsters, that was just before comedy clubs became as ubiquitous as Starbuck’s outlets and cable TV gorged itself on live-performance specials … often killing the surprise for fans awaiting new material. Collins has opened for such legends as Frank Sinatra, Cher, Julio Iglesias, Tony Bennett and Dolly Parton, yet remains sufficiently fresh, hip and energetic to attract the current generation of club-goers and fans of dedicated podcasts and satellite-radio comedy shows. For a 60-year-old guy, that’s saying a lot. “Telling It Like It Is” was filmed in front of a mixed and extremely enthusiastic audience at the Connecticut’s Foxwoods Casino. – Gary Dretzka

Vomit Gore Trilogy:Box Set
Want to play a trick on your fundamentalist Republican friends? Ask them to join you in a screening of “Vomit Gore Trilogy.” After five minutes of the first chapter, “Slaughtered Vomit Dolls,” they’ll beg you to hit the stop button and demand smelling salts. After they regain their composure, mention that Lucifer Valentine’s exercise in horror-porn was financed by the National Endowment for the Arts and donations from President Obama’s PAC. In the time it takes for you for to say, “Gotcha!,” they will already have put in calls to Speaker of the House John Boehner and their favorite televangelist, not only demanding his impeachment, but also that you be publically flogged. Fact is, though, anyone who isn’t repelled to some degree by what happens in the “Vomit Gore” sequence probably should seek immediate treatment. The movies are that vile. Unless I’m completely off base, Valentine wants us visualize the horror experienced by a generic American teenager, driven beyond the limits of sanity by mental and physical abuse, the worship of pop icons (here, the late Kurt Cobain and his lovely wife, Courtney Love) and an acquired numbness to sexual depravity. The characters’ madness manifests itself in the fetishization of vomit, gore, rape, torture, extreme sadomasochism and other sexual behavior most Americans would consider to be abhorrent. Or, something like that.

Valentine’s protagonist is teenage runaway Angela Aberdeen (Ameara LaVey), who, we’re told, “has made a pact with Satan in an attempt to escape the trauma and abuse suffered throughout her short life. ‘The Vomit Gore Trilogy’ is a mind-altering, demonic triptych of events depicting Angela’s gruesome journey through life and death.” These include bulimia, parental and societal rejection and being forced to support herself by turning to stripping, prostitution and porn. After an hour or so, determined viewers will be as inured to the pain as Angela … again, part of the case Valentine appears to be building. In short, there is a method to Valentine’s madness. The boxed set arrives with a fourth disc that includes the short film, “A Perfect Child of Satan,” commentary, a making-of featurette and an interview with Chelsea Chainsaw. Moreover, each of the movies in the trilogy is followed by explanations, disclaimers and statements by the actresses about their voluntary participation in the scenes that couldn’t possibly be fabricated and a discussion of the special effects and prosthetics (dissected sex mannequins, mostly) for the ones that are. Don’t say you weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka

Treasure Train: Blu-ray
As if more proof were needed of the validity of the adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” along comes “Treasure Train.” Its cover art says less about what’s contained inside than any movie I’ve seen in a long time. Unlike most other DVDs, it completely understates its entertainment value, by suggesting that “Treasure Train” is a live-action version of “Thomas the Tank Engine,” starring Mickey Rooney. The ageless wonder is wearing a silly-looking engineer’s hat and hoisting an old-fashioned oil can, while holding court before three fresh faced kiddies. Below that image, is smaller one in which the children are walking alongside a moving steam locomotive. Show it to anyone older than five and they’ll immediately dismiss as being for babies. In fact, though, “Treasure Train” is wonderfully offbeat and highly entertaining curiosity by one of the 20th Century’s most celebrated surrealists and prolific artists, Fernando Arrabal. Good luck, trying to find any worthwhile background on how the Spanish writer, painter and filmmaker came to be involved in a French-Canadian family film. Arrabal is much more celebrated for his collaborations with such eccentric characters as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton. The movie was first released in 1980 as “Odyssey of the Pacific,” and also is known as “The Emperor of Peru” and “Treasure Train.”

While it isn’t the easiest movie to describe, comparisons are made to “Pippi Longstocking.” Two small children, Toby and Liz, live with their rich aunt and uncle. They are joined here by a young Cambodian refugee, Hoang, who’s awaiting permanent adoption. There’s also a pet goose. The kids spend their summer biking through the woods, where they meet a retired wheelchair-bound train engineer, Toby (Rooney), who lives in a freight car and introduces himself as the Emperor of Peru. Toby convinces the kids that the locomotive can be repaired and used to escape the local authorities, who want to put him in a retirement home. For his part, Huang longs to be reunited with his mother, who gave him up so he could pursue a better life than the one available in the living hell that Cambodia had become. The kids get lost in other fantasy adventures, but it’s their time with Toby that’s most enduring and amusing. “Treasure Train” won’t appeal to children whose life revolves around video games and cartoons. It should, however, find loyal viewers among kids who enjoy reading the occasional book and getting lost in their imagination. The Blu-ray includes an interview with Rooney, conducted by a gentleman who wants to know what’s like to work with Arrabal, but must settle for the musings of a 91-year-old who hears the questions somewhat differently and rambles on accordingly. It’s vintage Rooney and, therefore, delightful. – Gary Dretzka

Cillian Murphy, Thandie Newton and Jamie Bell are such fine actors that their mere presence adds a level of credibility to most any project in which they appear. Given that only three of the movie’s five characters spend more than a few minutes on screen, they have their work cut out for them here. The best thing about claustrophobic thriller, “Retreat,” is its remote setting. Except for the establishing aerial shots of a secluded island, Wales fills in nicely for Scotland. Newton and Murphy play a yuppie couple that has recently experienced a personal loss and wants to get away from the rest of the world for a while. They’d previously vacationed on the island, which has only one cottage and a short-wave radio to connect them to the mainland. They’ve barely settled in before they spot the bloodied body of a young man lying off in the distance. This is never a good sign in a movie with such a limited cast. After the stranger regains consciousness, he tells them that he’s carrying a deadly virus that’s spreading quickly through Europe. Given that Martin and Kate had just come from a populated area and are unaware of any such epidemic, they’re leery of his story. Even so, the stranger stays busy boarding up the windows and vents, while also making them extremely paranoid. In short order, threats are made, weapons are drawn and advantages are reversed. The question of whether the man actually is suffering from a killer virus remains a mystery throughout most of the movie. Any other information than that would spoil the climax, except to say it came as a surprise to me. I doubt that many horror fans will find much fresh and different in “Retreat,” but deadly-virus completists will want to add it to their collection. The DVD comes with a making-of featurette, interviews and a picture gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Frank Zappa: From Straight to Bizarre
From his rise to prominence in the mid-1960s to the announcement of his premature death, in 1993, Frank Zappa truly enjoyed confounding everyone who thought they had a handle on him as a musician and man. Although he looked as if he’d just stepped off the bus from the Haight-Ashbury and Fillmore auditorium, Zappa was a SoCal boy influenced as much by composers of avant-garde classical music as traditional R&B, doo-wop and rock. His lyrics spoofed hippie clichés and mainstream culture equally. Instead of puffing marijuana and gobbling down LSD, Zappa smoked and enjoyed cigarettes until his death was imminent. As a band leader, he was a tough taskmaster, not always willing to share the spotlight with his wonderfully talented colleagues. As a producer, he embraced independence and even encouraged musicians who were certifiably insane. That’s the Frank Zappa we meet in “From Straight to Bizarre.” Along with an impressive amount of biographical material and archival footage, the documentary describes how he made the uneasy transition from musician/composer to label executive, however atypical the companies were. While the major labels attempted to follow trends and showcase proven commodities, Straight and Bizarre discovered such unique, er, talents as the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), comprised of groupies and other wild women; Wild Man Fischer, a paranoid-schizophrenic who composed songs in exchange for loose change on Sunset Boulevard; experimental rocker Captain Beefheart; the original Alice Cooper; and doo-woppers, the Persuasions. Hipster comic Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce found home there, as well. The companies didn’t have the financial backing to succeed in the long run, but they still managed to make a small dent in the record-industry status quo. At 161 minutes, the MVD Visuals documentary may be too encyclopedic for newbies and casual fans. Diehards, though, will relish every second of it. – Gary Dretzka

Most Valuable Players
Touted as a charter presentation of Oprah’s Documentary Club, the joyous “Most Valuable Players” DVD can stand on its merits as a marvelously entertaining evening of musical theater. It shouldn’t take Oprah’s imprimatur to attract attention to such a worthwhile film, but if a little high-octane clout clears a path for it in stores, so be it. Imagine “Glee,” if it were actually sung, danced and acted by kids of high school age. That’s “Most Valuable Players.” The documentary chronicles the excitement that precedes the 2008 Freddy Award ceremony, at which high school theater departments in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley compete for prizes in several divisions. In a sense, it is to the Tonys what a needle is to a haystack. For the kids, though, it’s everything. They rehearse and perform with the same passion and dedication as any athletic team in the sports-crazy region. Parents, fellow students and teachers get as pumped up by the competition as the participants in the show. For all I know, this sort of thing happens everywhere in the U.S. and I simply am unaware of such contests, which can’t be cheap to produce.

What possibly differentiates what happens in Lehigh Valley from most other school districts is the attention paid to the kids and competition by the local media. The nominations are announced on local television as if they matter as much as the results of a football or basketball tournament, which they do. The ceremony not only is produced within an inch of the Tony, Emmy and Oscar awards presentations, it also manages to be far more fun and enjoyable to watch. Filmmakers Christopher Lockhart and Matthew Kallis discovered the Freddy competition while looking for something else on YouTube and made viewers care very much about the kids, teachers and their individual stories. The DVD adds an update on the participants, three years later. – Gary Dretzka

Frontline: The Interrupters: Blu-ray
American Experience: Clinton: Blu-ray

Anyone looking for an excuse to look beyond the usual Pledge Month repeats and donate money to PBS, anyway, will find one in these two terrific documentaries, both shown as entries in regular series. Obsessive Oscar prognosticators have already chastised the academy for allowing “The Interrupters” to be passed by over by the nominating committee. In fact, it didn’t even make the committee’s short list of candidates. But, then, neither did Werner Herzog’s two fine docs, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Into the Abyss”; Asif Kapadia’s “Senna”; James Marsh’s “Project NIM”; and Andrew Rossi’s “Page One.” I could almost understand if “The Interrupters” wasn’t a finalist – there were at least 20 worthy non-fiction films last year, including the nominees – but to completely ignore it smacks of a conspiracy.  Indeed, it’s tied for No. 25 in Movie City News’ compilation of all top-10 lists by established critics, alongside “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and the comedy, “Young Adult.” The title derives from the appellation, “violence interrupters,” ascribed by the Chicago anti-violence group CeaseFire. Comprised of former convicts and gang-bangers, CeaseFire is providing an answer for the oft-asked question, “What can we do to stem Chicago’s epidemic of murders and gang violence?” It began to be heard more loudly after several African-American teens were beaten to death on their way home from school.  One incident was recorded on a cellphone camera and distributed on the Internet.

The men and women who rush to quell potentially deadly confrontations on the streets of Chicago’s South and West Sides know that the people who commit such violence won’t always listen to reason, but, as OGs, their voices carry more weight than others. Steve James’ camera captures scenes of extreme volatility, including acts of revenge, petty jealousy and chump change. James follows the cases of several at-risk individuals and families whose lives have already been turned upside-down by such mindless violence. We’re introduced to cold-blooded killers, grieving parents, hate-filled siblings, dead-enders and community leaders. The daughter of the incarcerated gang leader Jeff Fort, one of the most notorious criminals in Chicago history, is among the most visible, outspoken and respected members of CeaseFire. “The Interrupters” doesn’t make excuses for what’s happening in the streets or point fingers at the usual police and government suspects. It simply shows how a couple dozen individuals can make a difference in a war zone, simply by calling time out and engaging with the potential combatants before they do something irreversible. The Blu-ray adds material trimmed from the theatrical release to accommodate “Frontline” time limits.

Parts of “Clinton” pertaining to the former President’s ill-considered – OK, stupid — indiscretion with intern Monica Lewinsky were leaked to media outlets ahead of the documentary’s airing on PBS’ “American Experience.” While the incident remains highly troubling and relevant to any understanding of Bill Clinton and his administration, the regurgitation is hardly the most interesting segment in the film. In fact, hardly anything new is uncovered, except first-hand recollections from White House insiders. What’s best about the four-hour “Clinton” is the completeness of the portrait it paints of a politician who, despite being his own worst enemy, was as motivated to be a people’s president as we’re likely to see in a good long while. If the only the positive thing Clinton did while in office was leaving it with a budget surplus, he would have accomplished more than both his successors in nearly 12 years of trying. As this warts-and-all portrait suggests, however, he did quite a bit more good than harm. The documentary also devotes a lot of attention to Hillary Clinton’s roller-coaster ride as First Lady of both Arkansas and the country. His enemies are accorded serious and mostly nonjudgmental screen time, as well, typically in harangues to empty seats between sessions. (One of the things about high-definition cinematography most politicians forget is how easy it is to spot a bad toupee, poorly applied makeup and ridiculously lacquered hair on Blu-ray. It makes them all look guilty of something, which, of course, they are.) – Gary Dretzka

Fort Apache: Blu-ray
Unforgiven: Blu-ray
Track 29: Blu-ray
The simultaneous release of John Ford’s “Fort Apache” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” should serve a reminder of just how good Westerns can be when the genre is reassessed by very smart and talented people – include, here, writer Frank S. Nugent and David Webb Peoples – and respect is accorded both the audience and characters. “Fort Apache” (1948) has all the fixings of other classic Ford Westerns, including John Wayne, Ward Bond, Monument Valley and a pretty young woman, this time played by a grown-up Shirley Temple. It resets the Battle at Little Big Horn in the American Southwest, casting Henry Fonda against type as a stand-in for the dangerously arrogant George Custer. Wayne plays the colonel’s second-in-command who understands the big picture when dealing with a military genius who doesn’t follow the rules of conduct as established by the U.S. Cavalry. Then, as now, a West Point education didn’t guarantee that correct decisions would be made in the heat of combat or that graduates were trained to read the minds and understand the motivations of their adversaries. After impressing his superiors during the Civil War, the colonel feels slighted by being assigned an outpost in the American Outback. Against his subordinate’s advice, he intends for Cochise to pay the price for the perceived slight. “Fort Apache” was the first installment in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, which also includes “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande.” The Blu-ray adds commentary by F.X. Feeney and the featurette, “Monument Valley: John Ford Country.”

Warner Home Entertainment is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” with a special re-packaging of the earlier Blu-ray edition. The so-called revisionist Western was the recipient of Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Film Editing, Best Director (Eastwood) and Best Picture. In it, Eastwood plays a reformed gunslinger and boozer, whose new life as a farmer and single father isn’t going so well. When offered an opportunity to claim a bounty on a pair of cowboys who cut up a prostitute, he rounds up an old partner (Morgan Freeman) and looks for an easier payday. Standing in his way is a nasty sheriff (Hackman), who doesn’t want mercenaries in his town. A new commemorative booklet is included among previously released commentary by Richard Schickel, a trio of making-of featurettes, the career retrospective “Eastwood on Eastwood” and a 1959 episode of “Maverick,” with Eastwood.

In the 1970-80s, lovers of intellectually challenging and frequently outrageous cinema would wait breathlessly for every new release by such directors as Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell. Since its founding in 1979, George Harrison’s Handmade Films played a key role in making sure movies by unconvential directors were made available to movie lovers. Released in 1989 in a handful of U.S. cities, “Track 29” may be most significant for having been scripted by Dennis Potter, who’s best described as the Paddy Chayevsky of Britain. Roeg’s then-wife, Theresa Russell, stars as a woman who gave up her infant son – conceived after being raped by a lowlife carny – and, 30 years later, begins to fantasize that he’s come back to her as a rowdy British vagabond (Gary Oldman) … or has he? Russell’s character, Linda Henry, is married to a frequently distracted surgeon named Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd), who’s obsessed with model trains and enjoys getting spanked by a nurse (Sandra Bernhard). The audience will learn that the hitchhiker is an apparition long before Linda realizes it. In the meantime, he manages to trash everything standing in the way of her happiness. A scene in which Henry addresses a train-hobbyists’ convention is a riot. – Gary Dretzka

Borgia: Season One
Underdog: Complete Collector’s Edition
The Story of Ireland
The Fades: Season One
Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 1991

It’s one of the great mysteries in life how entertainment moguls – on opposite sides of Hollywood or, in this case, an ocean — arrive at the same creative conclusions at approximately the same time. Just as there once were three Janis Joplin projects in the works, today there are competing Linda Lovelace biopics. None of the Joplin pix saw the light of the silver screen and I can’t imagine how Lovelace’s story can be told without mention of a certain German shepherd and potentially libelous recollections of deep-throating well-known personalities, alive and dead. But, I guess, that’s why the NC-17 rating (a.k.a., kiss of box-office death) was instituted by the MPAA. Last year, when a pair of mini-series about the Borgia family was released virtually simultaneously via Showtime and Netflix, most people barely noticed that the latter even existed. This isn’t because the European version wasn’t worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the Showtime mini-series, starring Jeremy Irons, because it is. It’s even in English. I’m guessing that the American public can handle only so much papal and Italian history in a typical year, even if both contain enough nudity and sinful behavior to inspire another Protestant reformation. Both were shot in part or wholly in Prague and cost a bundle to make, anyway.

More to the point, Tom Fontana’s “Borgia” and Neil Jordan’s “The Borgias” make history fun and that’s good enough for me. There’s beaucoup sex, violence and intrigue, all stylishly delivered. Apart from the American actor, John Doman, as the pope-in-waiting, the cast of “Borgia” is populated mostly with unfamiliar Euros, none of whom sound particularly Roman. (The same applies to “The Borgias,” however.) In short, fans of sexy historical soap operas can’t go wrong either, way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Catholic Church required that parishioners visit their local confessional after each episode.

That Shout! Factory is releasing a complete-series set of “Underdog” cartoons will be greeted with greater applause by Baby Boomers than their kids and grandbabies, who grew up on anime and have different senses of humor than their seniors. Underdog, the character, resembles Superman in that he enters a phone booth to change from the mild-manned Shoeshine Boy (voiced by Wally Cox) into a caped crusader whenever reporter Sweet Polly Purebred is in peril. Unlike Clark Kent’s alter ego, though, Underdog rhymes his dialogue and occasionally needs a Super Energy Pill to replenish his powers. It’s interesting that the character and legend of Underdog was created by General Mills executives to sell the company’s products during commercials. (Kids, this was before the invention of the Internet, social media and “likes.”) The cartoon, itself, was produced by the same company that gave kids “King Leonardo,” “Tennessee Tuxedo,” “The Beagles” and “Go Go Gophers.” In effect, the show represented something of a repertory company of cartoon characters. Between “Underdog” shorts, the antics of Tennessee, the Gophers, the Hunter, Commander McBragg, Klondike Kat and Tooter Turtle also were represented. The DVD extra include bonus cartoons, a background featurette, alternate episode openings and closings; and commentaries with writer/producer/co-creator W. Watts Biggers, voice actor George S. Irving, producer Treadwell Covington and animation historian Mark Arnold.

From the BBC comes another exhaustive retelling of the history of a country bordering the United Kingdom or sharing common interests. And, of course, most things pertaining to British history also have influenced the United States and the global balance of power. Also from an American perspective, “The Story of Ireland” explains how several centuries’ worth of invasions, migrations, wars, famines and political policies caused millions of Irish to seek and find relief in the United States. Many of the same forces led to the Irish revolution and “troubles” that dominated world news for much of the 20th Century. Typically, the five-hour series took nearly a decade to research and produce. It was written and presented by BBC correspondent Fergal Keane, who was inspired by the signing of the crucial Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Even before the invasion of the Vikings, the history of Ireland was written in blood. That the land was worth the sacrifices made by its people is evidenced in the magnificent beauty of the country and their passion for freedom.

The BBC supernatural drama, “The Fades,” aired here as part of BBC America’s popular Saturday-night sci-fi block. The title refers to a paranormal phenomenon visited on an English teenager, Paul, in the form of apocalyptic dreams populated by spirits of the dead. Fades, which only can be experienced by Paul and a collection of kindred spirits, appear to be residing in a celestial waiting room, not unlike purgatory, awaiting their journey to glory. They blame humans for the holdup and are sufficiently vengeful to make the transition back to a corporeal state and destroy their perceived enemy. It’s up to Paul and other “Angelics” to intercede, postponing Doomsday at least until next season.

Before it closed production in 2010, the BBC sitcom “Last of the Summer Wine” reputedly was the longest-running program in England and longest-running sitcom in the world. Set in lovely Holfirth, West Yorkshire, it followed the exploits of an ever-changing trio of elderly Peter Pan wannabes from different personal and professional backgrounds. If their antics didn’t always sit well with their fellow residents of the former mill town, they were enjoyed by four decades worth of British audiences. In the 1991 season, the bad boys were played by Bill Owen, Peter Sallis and Brian Wilde. The latest DVD collection adds the 1991 Christmas special, “Situation Vacant,” in which Foggy decides to start up a motorbike courier service. – 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