MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Take Shelter, Tiny Furniture, More …

Take Shelter
At 6-foot-3, Michael Shannon towers over most of the actors with whom he’s asked to share the screen. Even so, it wasn’t until his Oscar-nominated turn in “Revolutionary Road” – along with a recurring role as a backsliding federal agent in “Boardwalk Empire” — that audiences began putting a name to the face. That relative newcomer Jessica Chastain, who stands 5-foot-4, holds her own opposite Shannon in the psychological thriller, “Take Shelter,” speaks volumes about her promise, as well. Two years ago, she couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood. Today, the 30-year-old redhead is sitting on a Best Supporting Actress nomination of her own. It’s for her portrayal of the disrespected “white-trash blonde” in “The Help,” but several critics groups thought enough of her performances in “Tree of Life,” “The Debt,” “Coriolanus,” “Texas Killing Fields” and “Take Shelter” to honor her 2011 body of work collectively. (For my money, her film debut in the little-seen and much-delayed “Jolene” represents her best work to date.) In Jeff Nichols’ haunting “Take Shelter,” Shannon and Chastain play a working-class couple, Curtis and Samantha, who are barely making ends meet in a rural Ohio town hard hit by the recession. They have an adorable daughter, who’s deaf and learning to use American Sign Language, and a home filled with love, if not plush furniture and sparkling appliances. It doesn’t take long for Nichols to introduce a palpable sense of menace and dread to the proceedings.

Something is eating Curtis, besides the economy. At first, it takes the ominous form of storm clouds gathering on the horizon and the sight of thousands black birds swarming in the skies above the town. Nichols isn’t at all timid about alerting us to the history of mental illness in the hard-working man’s family, especially when it becomes clear that he’s the only one hearing the thunder and seeing the birds. He senses that a storm of biblical proportions is gathering in the distance and borrows tools from his employer to upgrade the tornado shelter already dug in his backyard. Although his wife and friends fear Curtis may be experiencing a breakdown similar to the one that’s kept his mother in bed for the last couple of decades, savvy viewers understand things are never that simple in the movies. Anyone who’s seen the End of Days drama, “The Rapture,” will recognize what could be informing Curtis’ visions and nightmares. In an effort to keep his family together, he volunteers to attend counseling sessions and therapy, if necessary. Things continue to get worse, however, when furniture begins to levitate at home and his daughter begins to observe the same paranormal phenomena. Even when his obsessive behavior boils over in public, Nichols keeps us guessing as to what’s happening inside and around Curtis. Shannon has a brooding demeanor during the best of times, so it’s easy to accept Curtis as a harbinger of disaster. Samantha’s behavior also is consistent with a woman who wants to believe her husband isn’t nuts, but is prepared protect her daughter and herself if he is. “Take Shelter” is a smart and scary movie, no matter how one interprets the signs of impending doom. How the academy couldn’t see fit to nominate Shannon for a Best Actor trophy is, well, par for the course. The Blu-ray package adds commentary with Nichols and Shannon; a Q&A with Shannon and co-star Shea Whigham; a behind-the-scenes featurette and “Better Safe Than Sorry.” – Gary Dretzka

Tiny Furniture: Blu-ray: Criterion Collection
Every year, it seems, one or two movies emerge from the festival circuit with the imprimatur of urbane critics and young people anxious to embrace the Next Cool Thing. The disarming rom-com, “500 Days of Summer,” could serve as prototype for the successful hipster sensation. Besides starring the impossibly cute Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it took liberties with traditional narrative structure; was filled with songs by little-known rock groups; shamelessly dropped the names and titles of hipster icons; built buzz at nearly two dozen festivals; and was directed by a first-timer with a music-video background. Unlike most other flavor-of-Sundance favorites, Marc Webb’s debut feature wasn’t about a dysfunctional family, as was the similarly constructed and profitable, “Little Miss Sunshine,” and too many other indie sensations. It might even be the exception that proves the rule.

Perhaps, it’s wiser to compare Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” to Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and “The Future.” Unlike “500 Days of Sunshine” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” these decidedly offbeat films owe less to cinematic conventions than the conceits of performance and Internet art. They’re personal visions sold as-is … no apologies or refunds to those who don’t “get it.” In “Tiny Furniture,” it’s difficult to tell where writer/director/star Dunham ends and the character, Aura, begins. Like Aura, Dunham is a graduate of a progressive Midwestern college (Oberlin) and creator of humorous Internet series (“Tight Shots,” “Delusional Downtown Divas”). After her senior year, Aura returns to her mother’s loft apartment, where she finds herself overwhelmed by her domineering mother and pushed around by her younger sister. Mom Siri is a well-known photographer of miniatures, which sometimes require the body parts of her sister, Nadine, to provide perspective and irony. Would it surprise you to learn that Siri and Nadine are played by Dunham’s real-life mother and sister? No? Me, neither. Aura is a bit at loose ends, uncomfortable at home and unable to commit to a job. Her friends are extensions of the hipper-than-thou scenesters of her Internet series and as shallow as a teardrop. The closest she comes to having a boyfriend is a drifter, who’s in need of a place to crash. He takes full advantage of the pad, if not Aura’s sexual advances. Beyond that, nothing much happens.

Again, you’ll either buy into Aura and her world or you’ll find “Tiny Furniture” excruciatingly pretentious and boring. The Criterion Collection edition adds Dunham’s first film, “Creative Nonfiction,” and four short films. I recommend watching them before attempting “Tiny Furniture,” if only because they provide helpful context. There are new interviews with Dunham and writer-director Paul Schrader and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Phillip Lopate. – Gary Dretzka

Three Outlaw Samurai: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
As far as I know, the 1964 Japanese chambara, “Three Outlaw Samurai,” never was released in the United States. Some attention was paid here to the films of Akira Kurosawa, but only after “The Seven Samurai” was translated into English as “The Magnificent Seven.” In Hollywood, swords were for swashbuckling and no one wanted to acknowledge that the samurai code of honor pre-dated Hopalong Cassidy’s Creed for American Boys and Girls by several centuries. Watching the debut film of sword-fight specialist Hideo Gosha makes me wish that he had been asked to work his magic on a theatrical version of “Have Gun — Will Travel.” Although considerably more dapper and well-read than the swordsmen we meet in “Three Outlaw Samurai,” Paladin was similarly mercenary and principled. It wouldn’t unusual for Paladin to volunteer his services to the lowest bidder or turn against his sponsor in the name of justice. In “Three Outlaw Samurai,” a seen-it-all ronin finds himself in the company of peasants who abducted the daughter of a corrupt magistrate, unwilling to reduce taxes on starving farmers. At first, Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tamba) mocks the efforts of the kidnappers, knowing that the magistrate could obliterate a peasant militia without raising a sweat. Impressed by their grit, however, Shiba decides to even the score by joining their cause. He manages to convince two of the magistrate’s samurai to switch teams, while also educating the young woman on plight of the peasants. The second half of the movie is filled with exciting swordplay, as well as the occasional betrayal and act of revenge.

The black-and-white cinematography glistens in the restored Blu-ray edition, as does the musical soundtrack, which adds an ominous tone to the standoff. “Three Outlaw Samurai” served as the origin-story for a popular Japanese TV series and Gosha would go on to make the highly celebrated “Sword of the Beast” (also on Criterion), “Goyokin,”Hitokiri, “The Wolves” and “The Geisha.” When the sword and samurai genre lost steam in the 1970s, Gosha turned his attention to yakuza flicks. Besides the excellent hi-def restoration, “Three Outlaw Samurai” includes only a booklet, with an essay by film critic Bilge Ebir. – Gary Dretzka

Tales From the Golden Age
Summer Holiday

A decade after the Ceausescus were dragged, kicking and screaming, from power, the Romanian cinema became recognized as one of the most interesting and challenging in the world. Life under the country’s unique brand of communism was so profoundly strange and confounding that memories of it continue to inform the work of Romania’s finest filmmakers. Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days” – which described the harrowing ordeal of a woman seeking an abortion in 1980s Bucharest — became an international sensation after it won the Palme d’Or and two other major awards at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Mungiu returns to the same period in the seriocomic “Tales From the Golden Age,” comprised of a half-dozen urban myths and folk tales from the “dark years.” The title refers comes from to the term applied by Nicolae Ceausescu to Romania’s “golden age” of communism, in the 1980s, and the marketing of it to a captive population, who knew better. “Tales From the Golden Age” describes how shrewd peasants and desperate urbanites related to the disconnect between propaganda and reality. While apparatchiks delivered the company line to the people, the people found other ways than communist doctrine to feed themselves and make ends meet. “Tales From the Golden Age” isn’t as profound or moving as “4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days,” but viewers old enough to remember the Iron Curtain will find it entertaining and not a little bit nostalgic. I can’t help but wonder what kind of films will emerge from North Korea after that long nightmare ends.

Radu Muntean’s “Summer Holiday” (a.k.a., “Boogie”) describes a distinctly different Romania. The people we meet are free to travel and make money in professions other than coal mining and spying on their neighbors. They are, if fact, yuppies. Set in a decreasingly popular Black Sea resort, “Summer Holiday” focuses on Bogdan and Smaranda Ciocazanu, a married couple with a young son and another child on the way. They seem to be having fun, although Bogdan can’t escape business calls and the interruptions annoy Smaranda. Their son is a bundle of energy who demands almost constant attention … again provided primarily by mom. Also visiting the resort are two of Bogdan’s oldest running mates. Smaranda isn’t keen on them, but she isn’t about to interrupt the reunion. One night, when he comes back to their room smelling of cigarettes and booze, she can’t help herself from unloading on him. Even if her complaints aren’t unusual or unwarranted, they are sufficiently hurtful to cause Bogdan to rejoin his friends in serious boys-will-be-boys revelry. The same scenario probably could have played out in a hundred other countries, but what identifies Romania as the country of origin is an ironic early-morning visit to an estate that once belonged to the Ceausescu family. The only thing the men really know about it is that it once served as home to a flock of peacocks, which they attempt to summon with ear-piercing squawks. No response given, they go about their business as if the dictator never existed. – Gary Dretzka

Few Options
Given George Pappy Jr.’s low profile on the Internet, it’s difficult for me to understand how he was able to attract such talents as Michael Sheen, Laura San Giacomo, Brad Dourif and Rainn Wilson to a project that must have seemed pre-destined to go straight-to-DVD, if only in brief cameos. There’s very little wrong with his unpretentious crime thriller, “Few Options” — and it’s rarely a surprise anymore to find familiar actors in smallish movies – but the science of casting is endlessly fascinating. If nothing else the good that derives from stars lending their name to a deserving project balances the bad karma that comes from praising a movie that sucks during press junkets and talk-show interviews. The real star of “Few Options” is Kenny Johnson, a fine character actor known primarily for his work in the TV series “The Shield,” “Saving Grace,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “Prime Suspect.” In “Few Options,” Johnson demonstrates that he can carry a low-budget indie drama, at least, and convince us of a character’s pain and vulnerability. Here, he plays a middle-age guy, Frank Connor, released from prison after 22 years for a bungled drug transaction. Twenty-two years seems a bit excessive for a first-time offender, but such a draconian sentence is required if anything else here is to be believed. Upon his return home, he’s surprised to discover that the only people prepared to welcome him back are the dirtballs who got him into trouble originally, if only for nefarious purposes. He struggles to stay on the straight-and-normal path, but the man (Brad Dourif) who gives him a job parking cars at his strip joint is the same one who set up the original deal and now he wants his investment back, in cash or in kind.

As the title suggests, Connor is left with few or no options. Even so, Pappy’s script allows for an ending that will come as a surprise to most viewers. Erin Daniels (“The L Word”) does a nice job as a desperate stripper drawn to Connor, apparently because he doesn’t try to get in her pants five seconds before they’re introduced. (In an ironic spin on the old cliche, her Helen spends far more time putting on clothes then taking them off.) Sheen and San Giacomo are on screen for a blink of the eye, but Wilson (“The Office”) is memorable as a henpecked cousin forced to kick Connor out of his garage retreat because, basically, he’s an eyesore. If nothing else, it reminds us that he can play characters whose appeal doesn’t rely on his subversive comedy chops. “Few Options” has all the usual holes found in these sorts of movies, but none large enough for us to fall through them. – Gary Dretzka

The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that’s so vile and lacking in redeeming social value that it’s impossible to ignore. Most serious critics were so repelled by “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” that it began attracting fanboys like flies to a corpse in Central Park. Once that happened, it was a short ride to Internet fame and monologues on late-night talk shows. The premise was simple: a demented surgeon (Dieter Laser) kidnaps tourists stranded in a German forest and uses them to prove that it’s possible to reverse the procedure used to separate conjoined twins. His conceit was to assemble the tourists, ass-to-mouth, in a human chain that resembled a centipede. Given the history of German medical experimentation, it was possible to believe that the surgeon had escaped prosecution in the aftermath of World War II or had picked up a sketchbook left behind by a Nazi ancestor. “First Sequence” didn’t make a lot of money at the box office, primarily because few exhibitors would touch it. I’m guessing, it killed in DVD. Somehow, Dutch writer/director Tom Six anticipated the ancillary fame of “First Sequence,” by promising a “Full Sequence” and “Final Sequence.” That qualifies as chutzpah.

If anything, “Full Sequence” is more disgusting than the original … not scary, exactly, but truly repellant. This time, the gag involves an emotionally disturbed and physically deformed fan of the first movie who becomes obsessed with creating a human centipede to call his own. Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) works in an underground parking garage, where he collects specimens he spies over the security system. After they wake up from their concussions and comas, the victims find themselves duct-taped and helpless in a dank warehouse. Meanwhile, the fiend is at home tormenting and being tormented by his abominable parents. For an amateur, Martin does a serviceable job as a surgeon. That’s he’s also a pervert proves to be his undoing, however. Stiches and tape only last so long, after all. Six isn’t delusional enough to represent his franchise as anything more than an exercise in grossing out those genre obsessives who think they can stomach any possible cinematic atrocity. He promises even greater nightmares in “Final Sequence.” – Gary Dretzka

Nude Nuns With Big Guns: Blu-ray
Porn Star Zombies
Naked Nazi
Return to BloodFart Lake

In the world of micro-budget and do-it-yourself filmmaking, the difference between being seen and being ignored often boils down to choosing the right title. A few weeks ago, I was drawn to a movie that promised more gore and abhorrent behavior than I normally care to see in a month of reviewing DVDs. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” lived up to the promise of its title.

While Joseph Guzman’s “Nude Nuns With Big Guns” comes close enough to earn a cigar, it falls well short of enshrinement in the Grindhouse Hall of Fame. This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of nude nuns or big guns in the story, because there are. Too often, though, they merely compensate for a decreasingly coherent narrative. Here, the bishop of a Spanish-speaking archdiocese is in cahoots with the motorcycle gang, Los Muertos, to distribute heroin. Nuns are required to package the powder, but only after shedding their habits. After a drug transaction with the bikers goes sour, the drug-czar bishop offers Sister Sarah (Asun Ortega) in exchange for the missing heroin. Naturally, the leader of the gang, Chavo (David Castro), enslaves the pretty young nun to heroin and turns her out in a shithole brothel in the desert. Just as she’s about to hit rock bottom, God appears to Sister Sarah, instructing her to exact revenge on the bikers and corrupt priests. This, she does. “NNWBG” is targeted at several generations of Catholic males, who, as lackadaisical students, idled away with their days imagining how their teachers would look naked. The bonus features include the short film that inspired Guzman to make “NNWBG.”

Made on a budget estimated to be in the neighborhood of $10,000, “Porn Star Zombies” is exactly the movie you’d imagine it to be. Yes, it revolves around a scene in which a ravenous porn star reveals her true nature by biting off her co-star’s penis. Almost everything else is incidental to the story. Keith Emerson’s debut film may be crudely made, thoroughly predictable and poorly acted, but every penny of the $10,000 can be found on the screen, in one way or another.

Naked Nazi” isn’t so much a horror movie as it is an excuse to show Michelle Young (a.k.a., Amber Lee) masturbating in Nazi fetish gear … minus the matching Hello Hitler bra-and-panties set. After being raped by a client, Young’s Naked Nazi decides to turn the tables on non-Aryan male pigs by dominating and killing them. Only another Nazi fetishist can stop her. Young and Jason Impey last collaborated on “Women Prisoners of SS Camp From Hell,” in which our fair maiden played “Hitler’s slut.”

Released in 2009, “Terror at Blood Fart Lake” was a micro-budget parody of such horror flicks as “Sleepaway Camp” and other slasher epics set on the shores of a lake, in a rustic cabin or among vacationers about to be slaughtered by a guy wearing a mask. It follows, then, that “Return to Blood Fart Lake” is parody of “Return to Sleepaway Camp” and other uninspired sequels. Even after watching the movie, I can’t explain what happens in it, except that the “Scarecrow Killer,” Jimmy Van Brunt, is back and still pissed off about something or other. “Return to Blood Fart Lake” is all title and no movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Devil’s Rock
By all rights, “The Devils Rock” and “Naked Nazi” belong in the same capsule review, if only because the jackets of both movies feature sexy, semi-dressed women wearing Gestapo gear. (The original poster art for “Devil’s Rock” was far less suggestive.) Far more artistically legitimate, Paul Campion’s debut film is a blend of WWII intrigue and satanic horror. It opens with a New Zealand commando team landing on the beach of a heavily fortified island in the English Channel. Their job is to sabotage artillery positions, causing the Germans to think the D-Day landing will occur somewhere other than Omaha and Normandy beaches. As the soldiers descend deeper into the tunnels of the bunker, screams emanating from below grow louder and more terrifying. Upon reaching the command center, they are greeted by a scene from an old-fashioned charnel house and a Nazi officer, who kills one of the Kiwis and interrogates the other on the inevitable assault.

Given the movie’s title, it’s safe to assume something other than German intelligence and defense is at work on the island. We know that Hitler had a keen interest in the occult and assigned agents to investigate the possibility of exploiting paranormal phenomena in the war against the Allies. The Gestapo agent here has conjured the devil and chained it to a wall. In the presence of the Kiwi officer, it assumes the identity of his recently deceased girlfriend and attempts to seduce him into revealing plans for the invasion of Europe. Apparently, it’s not the first time such shape-shifting has been employed. It accounts for the carcasses of soldiers who likely bought into its deceit. The making-of material, which specifies how the actual bunkers and tunnel systems informed the production, is quite interesting, as is the discussion of special makeup effects. – Gary Dretzka

Ocean Heaven: Blu-ray
My Kingdom

All great actors enjoy a change in scenery and wardrobe every so often, even those whose names have become synonymous with a particular genre. Martial-arts master Jet Li couldn’t be any further removed from hand-to-hand-to-foot combat than he is in “Ocean Heaven.” In it, Li’s aquarium technician is confronted with a sad reality faced by many parents of autistic and otherwise disabled children. Already a widower, Sam Wong has recently been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and he knows that his 22-year-old son, David (Lunmei Kwai), probably couldn’t survive without him. His first inclination is to conduct an act of filicide and suicide, while on a boat at sea. Because David is more at home in water than anywhere else, it fails. As long as Sam lives, David is allowed to swim and cavort among the fish and turtles in the aquarium’s largest pools. Once on dry land, however, David has trouble remembering his own name.

Compounding Sam’s fears is the reluctance of Chinese social-service agencies to accept an autistic adult into government-run residences and schools. His only recourse is to teach the young man how to perform the most rudimentary of daily tasks and finding someone to provide a roof under which he can sleep. The process is exhausting for everyone involved – the audience, too – but reaps benefits down the road, as David finds kindness in unexpected places. “Ocean Heaven” succeeds as a tear-jerker, albeit one with which western audiences will already be familiar. I’m pretty sure that Xiao Lu Yue intended for Chinese viewers to gain a greater understanding of the problems faced by families with kids who are autistic or have Down’s syndrome. The Blu-ray package arrives with deleted scenes and an interview with Li about autism.

The often exhilarating and spectacularly staged “My Kingdom” provides a perfect example of what can happen when a work of art loses its balance and symmetry. Gao Xiaosong’s story opens in stunning fashion, with the mass beheadings of an entire Chinese clan by the Prince Regent of the Qing dynasty. A defiant elder warns the Prince Regent that his descendants will avenge his death, if any are left after the slaughter. Before he steps to the butcher’s block, a boy bravely forces the executioner to wait until he sings a mournful song for the young girl ahead of him. In the crowd is a famous actor in the Beijing Opera and his adopted son. The boy begs Master Yu to step up and adopt the obviously talented child, which, remarkably, he’s allowed to do. Under their master’s tutelage, the boys grow into two of the opera’s most promising stars. When Yu loses a non-lethal, but spectacularly choreographed winner-take-all showdown to a younger actor from Shanghai, the boys vow to avenge his embarrassment, as well. They will get their opportunity in another 15 years or so, when they show up at the historic Shanghai Opera House and demand satisfaction. For those unaware of how the Beijing and other regional operas operated before Chairman and Mrs. Mao shut them down, it’s important to understand that performances combined dance, acting, pageantry, discordant music and song, and martial arts, with the actors dressed in elaborate costumes and amazing cosmetic masks. The face-offs, staged by Sammo Hung, are among the greatest fights — lethal or non-lethal – I’ve seen on film. The actor’s goal in these fights is to clearly destroy the opposing actor’s ego without actually killing or maiming him. This requires the razor-sharp dexterity, split-second timing and athletic abilities of a Bruce Lee and Baryshnikov clone. Unlike Yu, the defeated Master Yue elects to commit suicide, rather than suffer the indignity of losing his troupe and never being able to perform on stage again. Meanwhile, the boys have instantaneously become superstars. So far, “My Kingdom” is a heck of a movie. Unfortunately, it will take all the second half for the “opera warriors” to simultaneously avenge the executions, enjoy their newfound celebrity, romance the opera’s star actress and perform other narrative tasks. Sadly, none of them are as exciting as anything that happens previously on the opera stages. Neither do the young men look mature enough – sans makeup and costumes – to scare anyone who threatens them offstage. Apparently, the actors Wu Chun and Han Gen are big pop stars in China and Taiwan, as are Barbie Hsu and Louis Liu, and the producers hope to attract men and women of their generation to the venerable opera tradition. For all I now, young Chinese might dig the plotting and romance in the second half more than all of the scenes on the opera stage. “My Universe” is one DVD that really would have benefitted from a decent making-of featurette. –Gary Dretzka

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within: Blu-ray
No sooner had it been announced that Rio de Janeiro and Brazil would host the Summer Olympics and World Cup than fears were raised about the safety of tourists and fans. Crime was at epidemic levels in Rio and Sao Paolo, but the government pledged that it would be held in check by the time the games began. One way of accomplishing such a difficult task was for the police to declare war on the gangs that control the favelas and slums. This accomplished, however, the same communities apparently came under the control of corrupt and blood-thirsty police. “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” flows naturally from “Elite Squad,” which, in 2007, described the efforts of a select division of the police department to remove potential dangers and embarrassments before the pope’s visit to Rio in 1997. In “The Enemy Within,” Wagner Moura reprises the role of Capitao Nascimento, head of the crack BOPA task force. As the sequel opens, Nascimento is required to put down a rebellion by gang leaders in a nearby prison. Following his orders, instead of those of politicians, the cops mercilessly gun down the perpetrators. It causes a huge stink among the politicians still on the payroll of the gangs, but the massacre couldn’t have been more popular with the citizenry.

Seeing Nascimento as something of a loose cannon, the state’s governor decides to give him a position monitoring illegal wiretaps. Even here, it’s difficult to avoid the corruption of the police and government officials who benefit from the power vacuum. This time, however, the closer he gets to the truth, the farther out in the pasture he finds himself. So much money and power are at stake that the established powers are willing to take on a hero and threaten his family. In an interesting subplot, Nascimento’s former wife has married a high-profile reformer, who has convinced their son that daddy’s a fascist. It all comes together in an extremely exciting and unexpected climax. Fans of recent Brazilian cinema will recognize the name of writer/director José Padilha in the credits of both “Elite Squad” installments. He’s also responsible for the documentary “Bus 74,” which described a dramatic hijacking that captured the attention of the Brazilian media in 2000. Likewise, Braulio Mantovani, who wrote the screenplay to “City of God,” collaborated with Padilha on the story and screenplays for both “Elite Squad” entries. Anyone looking for movies that reverently borrow stylistic mannerisms from Martin Scorsese’s gangland dramas will find a good one here. – Gary Dretzka

Mozart’s Sister: Blu-ray
Watch “Mozart’s Sister” alongside “Amadeus” and you’ll gain a pretty good understanding of what show business was like in 1763, at least as practiced in the salons of the crowned heads of Europe. Written and directed by Rene Feret, “Mozart’s Sister” follows the musical family – father, Leopold; mother, Anna-Maria; sister, Nannerl; and, of course, boy-genius Wolfgang – as it crisscrosses the continent in a rickety carriage in search of paid gigs, commissions, free meals and accommodations, both posh and modest. In some ways, things haven’t changed all that much in 250 years. The focus here is on Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart, Wolfgang’s older sister by nearly five years and a brilliant musician in her own right. The children dote on each other and collaborate under the tutelage of Leopold, who serves as teacher, promoter, manager, banker and parent. As a girl, Nannerl is at a distinct disadvantage in the showdowns among child prodigies, all seeking the approval and patronage of royalty. She was discouraged from playing the violin and composing, even by her father, who requires she accompany her brother on the harpsichord, at least in public. This she also does very well.

Fresh-faced Marie Feret is delightful as Nennerl, equally at home pillow-fighting with Wolfie and conversing with dauphins and princesses. Her story is blessedly free of such dramatic staples as parental abuse, life-threatening illnesses and a broken heart. Certain things were taken for granted when dealing with the royals, including the impossibility of their marrying commoners. Instead, viewers are encouraged to gorge themselves on the period fashions, regal surroundings and beautiful music. It isn’t until the postscript that we learn the true fate of a woman, however brilliant, in a society where women mostly serve as ornaments. Even her friend and confidante, Princess Louise de France, couldn’t escape the borders enforced on women. Wolfgang Mozart’s story already has been wonderfully dramatized in “Amadeus,” which won the Best Picture Oscar and seven others in 1985. Nannerl’s is every bit as worthy of the attention that movie received. A CD featuring selections from the soundtrack is included in the Blu-ray package. – Gary Dretzka

Taylor Swift: American Beauty: Unauthorized
Yardbirds: Performances

Only 22, superstar singer/songwriter Taylor Swift already has an unauthorized biography based on her life and career. “American Beauty” isn’t at all salacious or embarrassing. It’s simply a recitation of quotes, by actors, attributed previously to Swift, family members, friends and music-industry weasels. In fact, it’s not even clear what the actors say can be attributed to real people, just as none of the songs have anything to do with the favorite daughter of Reading, Pa. The most interesting segment is a dramatization of Swift’s 30-second, over-the-phone breakup with one of the Jonas boys. After a crying jag, she goes on to write a withering song about it. That’a girl.

Yardbirds: Performances” is comprised of videos made by the heavily influential British band, during various stages in their career. The early ones, unfortunately, are basically unlistenable. The interest in this collection is the participation of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page as successive lead-guitar gods. Even then, the camera focuses on singer Keith Relf far more often than the soon-to-be superstars. The transition from garage blues band to psychedelic virtuosos is the most noteworthy thing about the DVD. I found the videos to be unusual, but it’s entirely possible that all of them already are in circulation. – Gary Dretzka

Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story
How to Die in Oregon

Like nearly everyone else in America, I grew up playing Monopoly. If nothing else, it taught me the true value of play money and that rich people always wear tuxedos and top hats. I’ve since participated in the Monopoly contest at McDonald’s and played 15 iterations of the slot-machine game in Las Vegas. Watching Kevin Tostado’s entertaining and informative documentary, “Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story,” I was surprised to learn how much the board game has changed since the last time I tossed the dice. For example, I had no idea that hard-core players now throw three cubes in competition … two white and one red. From what I can tell, the extra die serves as something of wild card, allowing for shorter, if considerably more intense contests. Neither was I aware of the fact that the laws of mathematical probability are as important in competitive Monopoly as they are in poker. Am I the only one who doesn’t know that the last time an American won the Monopoly World Championship was in 1974 and the current title-holder is frickin’ Norwegian? That’s the kind of otherwise useless information that makes “Under the Boardwalk” so fascinating. The filmmakers follow the now-familiar pattern of attempting to identify likely finalists beforehand and explain the nuances of the game through them. Although that strategy doesn’t quite work here, Tostado’s choices reflect the intensity and intricacies of Monopoly, as it’s played among professionals. He also provides fans with a very decent history lesson on the origins and evolution of it. The DVD package adds footage from a class taught by one of the masters of the “mind sport” and clips from memorable championships.

Basketball may not qualify as a “mind sport,” but it definitely takes brains to play it well. Like Monopoly, the sport no longer is dominated by American players. If it were, the U.S. Olympic squad would still be manned – and womanned – by amateurs, not multi-millionaires. Still, countries with no deep history of hoops occasionally step up their game to a level where they can beat our “dream teams.” Anne Buford’s ambitious doc, “Elevate,” opens at the SEEDS Academy in Dakar, Senegal, where the cream of West Africa’s basketball crop competes for scholarships to American high schools and colleges. They also learn what it takes to compete in the classrooms of some the America’s finest basketball factories, er, prep schools and universities, while occasionally daydreaming about a possible pro career. As one might imagine, West African teens are among the tallest and deceptively graceful athletes in the world. Outside of SEEDS, their schools and training facilities are primitive. Inside of it, however, there are few distractions to interfere with the business at hand; the courts are adequate to the task; the food is good; and everyone has closet full authorized NBA gear, shoes, team T-shirts and bags. The kids aren’t pampered, by any stretch of the imagination, but as future representatives of Senegal and Africa, they do enjoy some privileges. We follow two of the players from SEEDS to the Kent Academy, in Connecticut, and Lake Forest Academy, near Chicago. Another player is a couple of days away from boarding a plane to America when he’s told by the embassy that he’s not wanted here (no reason given by staff or the filmmakers, although we know that most of the boys practice Islam). It’s a truly heartbreaking moment in an otherwise uplifting documentary. Anyone with a lazy, underachieving kid at home might consider forcing them to watch “Elevate.”

Once exposed to “How to Die in Oregon,” it would be impossible for even an ardent opponent of physician-assisted suicides not to ponder whether it’s better for a terminally ill friend or relative to die painlessly of his or her own volition or to condemn them to an excruciating, undignified and prolonged death. That person may come away with their core belief unchanged, but, at least, they’ll have a better understanding of what’s at stake. In 1994, Oregon voters approved doctor-assisted suicides and, since then, several hundred men and women have taken advantage of the law. (I thought the count might be higher.) We’re introduced to several of these people in the weeks, days and moments before they die. Clearly all are in severe pain and none wants to be a burden on their families. They’re lucid and fully understand the consequences of their decision. They’re also told that the decision is reversible any time before they drink the fatal cocktail. (“It tastes woody,” one says, just before we watch him take his last breath.) While director Peter Richardson’s sympathies clearly lie with the terminally ill individuals, “How to Die in Oregon” falls well short of advocacy filmmaking or exploitation. Everything one needs to know about the seriousness and compassion with which he approached his project can be read in the eyes and final dignity of his subjects.

Gary Hustwit’s “Urbanized” is the final chapter in a documentary trilogy that considers how we relate to the designs of such everyday things as typography, manufactured objects and urban planning. As in “Helvetica” and “Objectified,” Hustwit consults with design experts to determine their opinions on historical miscalculations, successes, trends, fads and long- and short-term solutions. About urban development, the one thing upon which almost everyone in the film agrees is that nothing works anymore and that it’s not their fault. Complacent architects, planning commissions, politicians, short-sighted modernists and greedy developers all share the blame for the mess. Once these learned men and women get past their egos, however, many interesting things are discussed and ideas forwarded. Hustwit’s itinerary includes stops in New York, Paris, Santiago, Bogota, Capetown, Mumbai, Phoenix and Rio, where old and new elements often are required to co-exist in eternal discordance. He also visits Brasilia, which, when it was founded in 1960, was considered to be the most progressive and harmoniously designed capital in the world. Today, one of the architects describes Brasilia’s open spaces and widely separated buildings as a nightmare for people who can’t afford cars or chauffeurs. Indeed, the one common thread running through “Urbanized” is how often cars take precedence over humans in most modern cities and how easy it is to correct the imbalance. The discussions are thought-provoking and blessedly accessible to lay viewers. – Gary Dretzka

Dragon Age: Redemption
If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a noise? If you’re only famous on the Internet, does that make you a star in the real world? Felicia Day is the kind of frequently employed actor, whose face people recognize from a dozen different television appearances but can’t place. On the Internet, everyone seems to know the chronically cute Alabama-born redhead. That’s because she’s found a niche on the Web as someone who understands things that studio executives in the analog world can’t quite grasp. For one thing, she appears to be satisfied with a fan base limited primarily to “gamers” and “geeks.” She understands their world, is an avid player and is able to dramatize – add another dimension, if you will — the games they love. At 32, she probably could still pass for a perky college cheerleader, as she did in “Bring It On, Again”; a vampire slayer on the WB; or too-adorable-to-die patient on a hospital series, such as “House.” It’s on the Internet, however, that she’s a force with which to be reckoned. In 2007, Day launched the YouTube series, “The Guild,” which follows a clan of gamers addicted to a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game.” It’s since expanded its reach to include several other multimedia platforms. The success of “The Guild” prompted producer Joss Whedon to create the Internet musical, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a show that also starred Neil Patrick Harris. Day is also responsible for the Web series “Dragon Age: Redemption,” a six-episode live-action adventure based on the fantasy role-playing game developed by BioWare. She’s played a fairy in at least two Internet series and provides a voice in “Fallout: New Vegas.” In addition to being an award-winning actor and writer, she also is a partner in a production company. In the geek universe, she might as well be Angelina Jolie.
Not being a gamer, I don’t know what to make of “Dragon Age: Redemption.” The webisodes require grownups to dress as pixies, elves, sorcerers and Templar knights, and then wander around a forest near L.A., killing each other with medieval and special-effects weaponry. It feels as if it only cost a few bucks to stage, but, on the Internet, looks usually are deceiving. In any case, it’s popular with the people who count: gamers. The DVD package includes all six episodes and more than 40 minutes of extra stuff. An extensive making-of featurette, interviews with Day and creative director Mike Laidlaw; commentary; bloopers; a script; and marketing material for new “Dragon Age” products. – Gary Dretzka

Mama I Want to Sing
Adapted from the long-running off-Broadway musical of the same title, “Mama I Want to Sing” was inspired by the careers of such church-nurtured singers as Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Donna Summer, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and playwright Vy Higginsen’s sister, Doris Troy (“Just One Look). Its release, only three days after the death of Whitney Houston, also reminds us of that great diva’s gospel roots and her rise through the ranks of pop and R&B artists. Here, the future superstar, Amara (Ciara), is tutored by her father, the Reverend Dr. Kenneth Winter (Marvin Winans), and mother, Lillian Winter (Lynn Whitfield), who is a diva in her own right. Before he died of a heart attack while preaching to his congregation, the dynamic Reverend Winter taught Amara and her younger brother, Luke (Kevin Phillips), that they not only are blessed as a gifted singer and photographer, but also as African-Americans with no borders on their horizon. His wife, though, would prefer for her children to limit their dreams to the church and within shouting distance of their nest.

Naturally, Amara is discovered by a producer of pop hits (Billy Zane) and, as part of her transition from gospel, is required to wear outfits and sing lyrics that Mrs. Winter ascribes to hoochie-mommas. (Troy reportedly was discovered by James Brown, while Houston was famously molded by Clive Davis.) It creates a rift between the two headstrong women that is as familiar as it is melodramatic. Ultimately, a tragedy brings them together in welcome compromise. As interpreted by Charles Randolph-Wright, “Mama, I Want to Sing” is an extremely broad musical and dramatic experience. Whitfield, especially, appears to be playing to the customers in the balconies. Even so, everyone involved knows what’s demanded by fans of such gospel musicals and delivers the goods in large strokes. The music, of course, is very good, and the inspirational messages are universal. If Amara manages to avoid the tragic path taken by Houston, we know it’s by the grace of God and gospel music. – Gary Dretzka

Beavis & Butthead: Volume 4: Blu-ray
Storage Wars: Volume 2
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: I Heart Minnie
Dora’s Easter Adventure

For a certain caste of television viewers, the highlight of the current season hasn’t been the return of “Downton Abbey” or even the renewal of the “Hawaii Five-0” franchise. It was the welcome, by some, revival of MTV’s strangely wonderful “Beavis & Butthead” in new episodes. The show, created by Mike Judge, originally ran on the cable network from March 8, 1993, to November, 1997. Among other things, the dimwitted friends were blamed for the “dumbing-down” of America and encouraging teens to become serial arsonists. The show also is credited with putting MTV on the map as a purveyor of original programming, including “Jackass” and “Jersey Shore,” both of which make “B&B” look like “Masterpiece Theater.” In the new season, the animated pals don’t appear to have aged a day since 1997. They’re just as stupid as they were in the 1990s, wear the same clothes, listen to the same kind of music and remain virgins. None of the other characters have evolved, either. Thematically, though, the new episodes do reflect the passage of time, most obviously in the music and YouTube videos they critique. Snooki and “The Twilight Saga” also take some direct hits. The Blu-ray is comprised of 24 segments, including “Werewolves of Highland,” “Holy Cornholio,” “Drones,” “Supersize Me” and “Bathroom Break,” “Copy Machine,” “Massage” and “Whorehouse.” Blu-ray extras are “2011 San Diego Comic-Con Panel,” during which Judge and Johnny Knoxville discuss the show’s history; phone conversations between B&B the cast of “Jersey Shore”; and the PSA, “Silence Your Cell Phone.”

If Beavis and Butthead were ever allowed to grow into adults, they might find work as pilferers of abandoned storage units. As we learn in the offbeat A&E series, “Storage Wars,” practitioners require only cash and an ability to judge, sometimes incorrectly, what other people’s castoffs are worth. Just as one man’s trash is another’s treasure, a less authoritative metal-head might spot gems passed over by the more seasoned buyers … vintage Metallica and AC/DC T-shirts, for example. In the second season, which is only partially collected here, Dan and Laura Dotson of American Auctioneers return to orchestrate sales and coax top dollar for the opportunity to strike gold or overpay for useless junk. There are no guarantees.

Lest we forget the occasion of Valentine’s Day, Disney sends out “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: I (Heart) Minnie.” Coincidentally, it’s also her birthday. The collected episodes include the newly shown “Minnie & Daisy’s Flower Shower,” “Daisy’s Dance,” “Daisy’s Pet Project,” “Minnie’s Rainbow” and “Minnie’s Birthday,” in which the Clubhouse gang attempts to arrange and set up a surprise party.

In “Dora’s Easter Adventure,” Our Heroine and Boots are called upon to retrieve a basket filled with holiday confections. Two other episodes involve the Grumpy Old Troll and Troll Land. The DVD adds several interactive karaoke numbers, during which kids are encourage to follow the bouncing Easter egg. – Gary Dretzka

Doctor Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe: Blu-ray
Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani: The Peter Davison Years, 1982-84
Doctor Who: The Sensorites: The William Hardin Years, 1963-1966: Blu-ray

The floodgates have yet to shut on the flow of titles from the BBC’s “Doctor Who” catalogue. The newly available material runs the full gamut of the show’s life. Indeed, it’s only been two months since Christmas and the enduring series’ 2011 holiday special, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” is already available in Blu-ray. By contrast, it’s taken 46 years for “The Sensorites” to arrive in hi-def and 28 for “The Caves of Androzani,” in DVD.

The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” borrows freely from the C.S. Lewis classic, in ways suggested by the fractured title of the disc. The special episode opens in 1938, with the doctor stuck on a damaged alien spacecraft in Earth-orbit. Just in the nick of time, he dons his impact suit and plummets to the surface, where a kindly British woman helps the hapless spaceman get his bearings, so he can locate his TARDIS. Skip ahead three years to the Blitz. The woman’s pilot husband is missing in action over the English Channel and the she’s taken the kids to a relative’s house in Dorset to avoid the incessant bombing. We recognize the home’s caretaker as the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith), even if the woman doesn’t. His desire to give the family a happy Christmas inadvertently results in the opening of a gift that leads to a time portal, into which the son disappears. The daughter and doctor follow the light to an enchanted forest. Meanwhile, mom bumps into a group of miners from the ecologically threatened Androzani Major. There’s more, but I’m already confused.

And, speaking Androzani, it’s on Androzani Minor that the TARDIS drops the 5th Doctor (Davison) and Peri, during the show’s 21st season. As usual, the planet is wracked with turmoil, including the pursuit of a compound, excreted by bats, that is believed to extend life. Rebels are battling the dominant corporation for access to the substance. It probably wasn’t one of the doctor’s best ideas to intervene in the fracas, and by the end of the episode, a 6th Doctor has been regenerated to save the planet and solar system. Many aficionados consider “The Caves of Androzani” to be their favorite episode.

“The Sensorites” is No. 007 in the “Doctor Who” canon. Shown in six parts in the 1964 season, it stars William Hartnell as the 1st Doctor and companions played by Susan Foreman, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton. When the doctor arrives, the Sensorites are holding a capsule inhabited by Earthlings frozen in orbit. A previous survey team had discovered something valuable on the planet and caused much damage there. In an effort to get both problems solved, open-minded Sensorites allow the doctor and his team to join them in finding a cure for mass-poisoning and other disasters. Clearly, one of the reasons cultists love “Doctor Who” is that the complexity of the plots and story arcs discourages easy access to newbies, like me. – 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