MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Contraband, Camelot, Return, Young Goethe, Innkeepers, Hollis Frampton … More

Contraband: Blu-ray
Like so many other crime dramas involving reluctant protagonists, “Contraband” can be summed up in the words of Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” Hang a few cool characters on that hook, add some inspired gunplay and set it in an interesting locale and, sometimes, even, a producer can save money by cribbing a script from any one of a hundred similar movies. Set in New Orleans and Panama City, “Contraband” stars such dependable actors as Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster, Lukas Haas, Kate Beckinsale, Diego Luna and J.K Simmons. The gun fights and chases are impressively choreographed by Baltasar Kormákur, the fine Icelandic filmmaker who produced and starred in the 2008 “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” from which “Contraband” was faithfully re-interpreted. This time around, Wahlberg plays retired seaman and smuggler Chris Farraday, who’s forced back into action after a deal arranged by his moronic brother-in-law goes south. Chris tries to reason with the gangster who sucked the kid into the scam, but, when that fails, he does the honorable thing by agreeing to recover the debt. In short order, Chris reconnects with a counterfeiter he knows in Panama City and ships out on a freighter with some old pals and a captain who has good reason to mistrust him. Things get even stickier when the fake money turns out to be less than perfect and Chris is forced to deal with a different Panamanian gangster. His bad luck is far from over, though. Not only is the clock running out on his ability to return to the ship before it pulls away from the dock, but he’s also required to join the second gangster in an armored car heist and deal with another betrayal by his brother-in-law. This kind of bad craziness continues to occur back home in New Orleans, where Chris’ wife is being held as a hostage by Ribisi’s dastardly hoodlum character and someone we’ve been led to believe is a friend. A lot of harm can be done by adding 21 minutes to what originally was brisk 88-minute thriller and, in his first Hollywood outing, Kormákur was required to do just that. Still, despite the added bulk, “Contraband” moves along in orderly fashion. Much of the credit for that belongs to Wahlberg, who’s as likeable an actor as we have right now. The brutality that begins building as soon as the ship leaves New Orleans also keeps our attention from wavering. Even so, it would be a greater crime if Kormákur were forced to focus on action pictures on future big-studio projects. He built a reputation as one the world’s most interesting new writer-directors with such offbeat films as “Reykjavik 101,” “The Sea,” “Jar City” and “White Night Wedding,” and it would be shame to lose that singular vision. The Blu-ray adds a pair of making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, commentary and U-Control picture-in-picture capability. – Gary Dretzka

Camelot: Blu-ray
I wonder how many potential viewers of Joshua Logan’s 1967 adaptation of the blockbuster Broadway musical, “Camelot,” are aware of the production’s links to the tragically abbreviated administration of John F. Kenndy and the mythology that still surrounds it. After the assassination of her husband, Jacqueline Kennedy compared the resurgence of hope, optimism and prosperity during his reign to that of King Arthur in “Camelot.” That’s how, the First Lady said, she wanted the public to remember President Kennedy. The media ate it up, allowing her vision of an American Camelot to obscure the compromises and mistakes that would lead to the Vietnam War; the Bay of Pigs and still problematic blockade of Cuba; the bottlenecking of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by segregationist Democrats; and conspiracy theories about JFK’s links to the mafia and his sharing of lovers with Chicago mobster Sam Giancana. No matter, though, because as much as the media bought into the Kennedy mystique, that’s exactly how much Kennedy loyalists despised his less charismatic successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who took the fall for almost all of the dead President’s shortcomings. LBJ would become Mordred to JFK’s King Arthur, even though he subsequently led the charge for the Civil Rights legislation and followed Kennedy’s lead in Vietnam. So much, then, for mythology.

Like JFK’s legacy, the movie version of “Camelot” hasn’t aged well in the succeeding nearly 50 years. In fact, after knocking ’em dead on Broadway in the early 1960s, the movie version failed to overwhelm Oscar voters or attract nearly the same number of fans as “My Fair Lady.” While the Lerner and Lowe score remains as wonderful as ever, everything else in “Camelot” seems old-fashioned and stagey. Even though some of the action and ceremony would be staged inside and around historic Spanish castles, the soundstage sets failed to capture the compressed majesty of the Broadway production. Today, however, the choice of Franco Nero, Richard Harris and a post-“Blow-Up” Vanessa Redgrave to replace Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet and Richard Burton doesn’t seem nearly as fatal as it did in 1996, when Jack Warner found himself in the same situation as the one surrounding “My Fair Lady” a couple of years earlier. For her part, Redgrave
There’s certainly nothing much wrong with the “45th Anniversary Edition” of “Camelot.” It looks great in Blu-ray and the songs sound as if they were recorded yesterday. The many tight focuses on the principle actors also hold up very well, capturing all the twinkles and enhancements applied by makeup artists and the cinematographer. The package also includes commentary by Stephen Farber, who discusses both the film and original Broadway production; a new high-def featurette, “Camelot: Falling Kingdoms,” which discusses the fortunes of Warner and the studio in the mid-1960s, as well as the connection to JFK; two previously shown pieces, “The Story of Camelot,” about both the Arthurian legend and movie, and “The World Premiere of ‘Camelot’”; several vintage trailers; and a CD containing four songs. It does not, however, include the previously released alternate music-only track. – Gary Dretzka

Linda Cardellini (“ER”) was an inspired choice to play a wife, mother and member of the Ohio National Guard, returning home from an unconscionable 18-month tour of duty in Liza Johnson’s heart-wrenching drama, “Return.” Kelli joined the Guard right out of high school, in the mid-1990s, in the interest of helping disaster victims and to afford a college degree. What she and tens of thousands of other young men and women in the same situation hadn’t counted on, however, was that the war in Iraq would require the longtime support of so many National Guard troops. Neither could they have predicted that they would be treated so very differently from their counterparts in the regular army after supporting the same cause. As we meet Kelli, she’s being welcomed home in much the same way as other wives and mothers, husbands and fathers who served. Lacking a cushion of time and purpose, though, it doesn’t take long before Kelli begins to unravel and people stop cutting her slack. One day she was over there and the next she was here, with a husband and child who might as well have been strangers to her. Her job was held open, but, by comparison to what she had been doing in Iraq, she deemed it to be meaningless and insignificant. Never mind that 90 percent of all employment is indefensible as an intellectual exercise or beneficial to humanity, Kelli simply saw the absurdity in it. Neither does she allow herself to believe her husband – Michael Shannon, in another great performance – when he says he didn’t cheat on her with an attractive redhead who seems to be too familiar with him and their daughter. (We aren’t given enough evidence to know for sure, one way or the other, either.) When Kelli does finally snap and ends up before a judge for drunken driving, she’s routinely assigned to complete a 12-step program whose leader isn’t equipped to handle the specific problems of returning vets. Like so many other soldiers, Kelli begins to feel as if her real home is back in the shit.

In her debut feature, Johnson doesn’t pull many punches or allow her protagonist any easy answers. Kelli may think that the world as she knew it has changed, but it’s she who has been changed by the war and, while sympathetic, most people would rather not be reminded of what’s happening to Americans half a world away. (They care even less about what’s happening to the Iraqis and Afghans.) Cardellini does a really nice job interpreting Kelli’s spectrum of emotions and her difficulty re-adjusting to things she once took for granted. “Return” is as topical as it is compelling. The simple truth is that members of the Guard, especially, are paying the price for the bi-partisan political decision to avoid an unpopular and unsupportable draft at all costs. It’s manifested itself in tours of duty that were unheard of in the Vietnam era and assignments the Guard was never intended to perform. “Return” may not be an easy movie to watch, but it’s an important one to experience, especially by those in a hurry to commit American resources to another war based on lies, rumors and revenge. – Gary Dretzka

Young Goethe in Love
If the name, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, means nothing to you, it’s very unlikely you’ll want to spend much time with the German polymath in Philipp Stolzl’s scrupulously conceived period biopic, “Young Goethe in Love.” This isn’t to say there isn’t much to enjoy here, only that 21st Century audiences are too concerned with the plight of comic-book superheroes and their fear of a zombie holocaust to be impressed by the achievements of an 18th Century poet, dramatist, author, artist, biologist, theoretical physicist and stud muffin. Fans of European literature, though, should appreciate the exacting attention to detail paid by Stolzl’s team and the lush settings of historic Saxony. When we first meet the young and handsome Goethe (Alexander Fehling), in 1777, he’s in the process of failing his law exams. His refusal to pay attention to his teachers infuriates Goethe’s wealthy and prominent father (Henry Huebchen), who exiles his son to a provincial court as punishment and a tactic to get his priorities straight. The plan works to the extent that Goethe is able to impress his boss, Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), and establish himself as a local character. The rub comes when he discovers that the woman of his dreams, Lotte (Miriam Stein), has been promised to Kestner by her father and he’s the last to know it. It results not only in a duel and incarceration, but also the impetus to write the semi-autobiographical “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” The novel became such a huge European literary sensation that it made him something of a pop star and inspired a rash of sympathetic suicides. The DVD bonus package is worth sampling, if only to see how well existing locations lent themselves to the film’s period look. – Gary Dretzka

The Innkeepers: Blu-ray
The Wicker Tree: Blu-ray
Enter Nowhere
Night Wolf
The Fields

Upon its release in February, “The Innkeepers” was accorded the kind of limited release usually reserved for movies about to go straight-to-video, without passing “Go,” or making $200 at the box office. Despite receiving some excellent notices by influential critics, Ti West’s chiller never played on more than 25 screens simultaneously, before disappearing into the limbo that separates theatrical exposure and ascendance to DVD and Blu-ray afterlife, where it deserves a far better fate. There’s nothing terribly unusual in the setup. Clerks working at an inn about to close its doors for good decide that they’ll have a little fun by playing their own game of “Ghost Hunters,” using strategically placed video equipment and hypersensitive microphones. The male clerk (Pat Healy) gets things rolling right off the bat by devising a time-honored visual gimmick guaranteed to shock his partner (Sara Paxton) and unprepared viewers. She’s a bundle of raw nerves, anyway, so the more absorbed she gets in the investigation and issues surrounding the inn’s last guests, the more the suspense builds for everyone. West is very good at not showing his hand too early and tipping us off as to what he has in mind for his characters. He doles out the thrills sparingly, until we can’t wait any longer and the hotel gives up its secrets in a qfinal exhilarating rush. If nothing is particularly new in “The Innkeepers,” West makes the most of the archetypical and paranormal tropes. Rated R, for no good reason, the film could serve as great starting point for any teenager who is pursuing a serious interest in the horror genre.

Knowing that Robin Hardy’s 1973 “Wicker Man” is still revered as one of the horror genre’s most influential imports from the U.K. – or, for that matter, anywhere else – bought for its far-less-riveting sequel nearly an hour’s worth of my patience and willingness to suspend disbelief. My confusion had almost nothing to do with Hardy’s inability to produce any thrills – cheap or otherwise — or the possibility that pagan rituals stopped being scary when an episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” was staged at the Burning Man Festival. In “The Wicker Tree” a pair of young American bible-bangers travels to the wilds of Scotland to spread the good news about Jesus Christ to the creepy residents of Tressock. Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett play the missionaries – one a born-again pop singer and the other a naturally born cowboy – who, for some unknown reason, have decided that this community of Scots requires salvation more than any other. It’s as if the fates drove them here. Even if it’s safe for us to assume that the townsfolk haven’t changed their religious stripes over the course of the last 40 years, the residents enjoy singing along with Beth and testing the vow of chastity of her cowpoke companion. What locals really see in Beth is the perfect candidate to be this year’s May Queen and, seemingly ignorant of the meaning behind the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven,” she agrees to join in the fun. The cowboy’s role in the pageant is less obvious, but no less essential to addressing the near-total absence of children in Tressock. If any of this sounds promising as a fodder for horror, it’s best to know ahead of time that there’s far more humor here than chills. Blessedly, the traditional pagan impulse to shed clothes while on long walks to worship remains as strong as ever here. Otherwise, there might be less reason to sample “Wicker Man” than rent Neil Labute’s 2006 remake of the original, which starred Nicolas Cage. In a making-of featurette, Hardy allows that the “Wicker” flicks are intended to be seen as a hybrid of horror, humor and music. The missing ingredient here is the horror. It stars Graham McTavish, Jacqueline Leonard, Honeysuckle Weeks, Clive Russell and with Christopher Lee, star of the original.

Enter Nowhere” finds three strangers drawn to the same sort of decrepit cabin in the woods that’s served as a final home to young adults in dozens of other such horror movies. For all intends and purposes, the strangely vacant abode could have been constructed of boards and roofing material left behind from the last incarnation of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s that kind of movie. Before discovering that none of them can agree on the same state of the union they’re in, or even the country, the strangers literally stumble over the entrance to a bomb shelter that contains maps, supplies and other material that dates back to World War II-era Germany. Could the Nazis have made a beachhead here decades earlier and left abruptly? It isn’t until someone in uniform begins shooting at them that the characters begin piecing together the puzzle that’s drawn them all here at this particular time and place. Although “Enter Nowhere” isn’t particularly horrific, a sense of suspense is maintained throughout by freshman director Jack Heller and the ending isn’t entirely predictable, as is so often the case in such mysterioso psycho-dramas.

The American DVD edition of “13Hrs” suffers from two rather unfortunate choices, 1) its title has been changed to the more generic “Night Wolf” and, 2) the cover gives away too much of the monster’s appearance, which the director carefully guards for most of the movie’s running time. “Night Wolf” describes what happens in the 13-hour period between the arrival home of the wayfaring Sarah Tyler (Isabella Calthorpe) and the horrible discovery of a beast that possibly is out to destroy the whole family and mansion in which they all once lived. After some coolish greetings are exchanged, Sarah and her siblings and friends (Gemma Atkinson, Tom Felton, Joshua Bowman, among them) are inspired by some frightening occurrences to spend much of the rest of the night in the mansion’s attic, where something or someone is conspiring to freak the shit out of them. It doesn’t get interesting for the audience, though, until closer to the dawn, when the monster must reveal itself or forever hold its peace. It’s at this point that “Night Wolf” pays its debt to viewers who’ve waiting patiently for something exciting to happen. Naturally, there’s more to the beast than meets the eye.

The Fields” takes me back to the time when the full extent of the atrocities committed by the Manson Family was being revealed in the media and in a Los Angeles courtroom, outside which young women with swastikas etched onto their foreheads held a daily vigil. The Tate-LaBianca case had officially closed the curtain on the Flower Power era and similarly shabby-looking radicals had begun blowing up symbols of U.S. imperialism wherever they found them. Regular folks had stopped picking up hitchhikers and what FBI informants couldn’t prove about Black Panthers, Yippies and the Weather Underground, it simply invented or provoked. In “The Fields,” an 8-year-old boy already traumatized by his parents’ (Tara Reid, Faust Checho) marital problems is shipped off to the Pennsylvania countryside to live with his slightly unbalanced grandparents (Cloris Leachman, Bev Appleton). As if the kid weren’t sufficiently unnerved by the chaos in his life, they expose him to news reports of the Manson killings and issue a stern warning about entering the cornfields next to their house. This is like telling a fledgling surfer not to worry about the sharks. Because Nintendo has yet to be invented, Steven is required to kill time watching late-night horror films with grandma and the loony stories of gramps. It’s no wonder, then, that the boy starts hearing things go bump in the night and sees shadows on his window shades. Not surprisingly, “The Fields” is enhanced by the fine acting of its veteran stars. Then, too, there are the corn fields, which we’ve learned to fear as much as deranged hippies and the SLA. Apparently, directors Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni, and writer Harrison Smith, were inspired by real people and childhood memories, some of which are recalled in bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Chasing Happiness
Planet of the Vampire Women

Male fantasies don’t get much flimsier than the one at the core of “Chasing Happiness,” which, if its female leads had been required to give up a bit more skin – or any at all – could have easily found a home on Cinemax. Even though the ladies are plenty sexy and reasonably accomplished as actors, freshman writer/director Beni Tadd Atoori treats their characters as if they were being played by his daughters and he was concerned about preserving their cinematic chastity. The women share a large Los Angeles house with a money-grubbing madam with a male prostitute masquerading as a sex therapist. In other rooms of the house, there’s an ongoing poker game, a phony ashram and enema clinic. Before turning her female clients over to the stud for treatment, the madam interviews them. Mostly, this is to ensure that they aren’t undercover cops, but also to give young man a headstart on curing their ills. One day, after listening to a client’s sad tale, the madam discovers that she has a conscience, after all. Somehow, this revelation also inspires her employees to seek happiness and satisfaction in different ways. The most noteworthy attraction in “Chasing Happiness” is Indian star Kashmira Shah, who not only is strikingly beautiful, but also a terrific dancer in the Bollywood tradition.

What’s missing from “Chasing Happiness” is on abundant display in Darin Wood’s “Planet of the Vampire Women,” a new release that would have been at home in any drive-in or grindhouse theater in the last 60 years. Made cheaply and featuring a brigade of bimbos whose tops fly off with even the faintest hit of a breeze, it could hardly be more exploitative and, therefore, curiously hilarious. The weapons look as if they were power tools modified after being shoplifted from Home Depot and the monsters are less credible than a 12-year-old’s excuse for not doing his homework. The plot, such as it is, involves space pirate Trix Richards and her gang of interplanetary outlaws, who steal a top-secret doohickey and are required to seek shelter on a remote planet. Meanwhile, an Amazonian vampire is hot on their trail, sinking her fangs into men and women with equal relish. “Planet of Vampire Women” is for those genre buffs who insist they don’t make exploitation flicks like they used to. – Gary Dretzka

The Scarlet Worm
Reportedly made on a budget of $25,000, “The Scarlet Worm” is a remarkably authentic-looking Western, with production values that belie its bargain-basement roots. With the possible exception of “Deadwood,” I can’t recall an oater that addresses the question of unwanted pregnancies in Old West prostitutes. Here, a veteran gunslinger is hired to kill a brothel owner who forbids his ladies from carrying babies to term and uses tools that might have been invented in the Dark Ages to perform abortions. If these scenes aren’t nearly as graphic as they might have been, it’s still made abundantly clear that the brothel owner doesn’t have the best interests of his employees at heart. It’s all about money. Somewhere along the way, the bounty hunter picks up a trainee, who falls in love with one of the prostitutes – none of whom looks as if she’s taken a bath in weeks – and must be trained in the sniper’s art. Aaron Stielstra, who bears a passing resemblance to Sacha Baron Cohen, is surprisingly credible as the gunman, while the other mostly unknown actors perform way above their salary grade here. Of all the do-it-yourself movies I’ve seen lately, “Scarlet Worm” would rank among the best in getting the best bang for its bucks. In the featurette “Of Worms and Dogs,” we learn how a diverse group of genre buffs, critics and dreamers came together to accomplish something everyone else in the world merely talks about doing: making a movie that someone other than family and very close friends would pay to see. – Gary Dretzka

Of Dolls and Murder
Crime After Crime

Any documentary about cops and killers that’s endorsed by John Waters is one that demands our attention. “Of Dolls and Murder” describes how an heiress, denied a college education by her overprotective father, changed forever the way police detectives and forensics experts would do their jobs. By re-creating crime scenes in intricately detailed “nutshell” tableaux, Frances Glessner Lee allowed police to formulate opinions based not solely on first impressions or notes, but from visualizations exact to the brands of miniature products in the victims’ cupboards. More than a half-century before the first airing of “CSI,” Lee founded Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine, the first program in the nation dedicated to forensic pathology. The original recreations still are used as training tools for police in Baltimore and Washington, some of whom are interviewed extensively in Susan Marks’ film. She also interviews one of the creators of “CSI” and takes us on a graphic tour of the FBI’s “bone farm” facility. Waters introduces the cases described in the “nutshells’ in his usual way of making murder sound like fun. “Of Dolls and Murder” delivers on the documentarian’s commitment to introducing audiences to something of which they weren’t aware and making as enlightening as it is informative.

The title of the latest OWN Documentary Club presentation, “Crime After Crime,” refers to the refusal of a California parole board to do the right thing by releasing a woman from prison after serving 27 years of a life sentence in connection with the murder of the drug dealer who pimped her out in high school, beat her continually, threatened her family members and sexually abused their child. Debbie Peagler had been convicted solely on the evidence of an anonymous informer, “Deadman,” who lied about her desire to collect her husband’s life insurance and hiring local gang members to kill him. Peagler was convicted of first-degree murder after she copped a plea to avoid the death penalty the DA promised she would receive if she continued to fight the charge. Two decades later, a pair of young attorneys re-examined her case and fought for seven years to have it reopened. After jumping through several hoops, the new Los Angeles County district attorney broke his promise to reduce the charge to involuntary manslaughter and release Peagler, based on the fact that the maximum term for such a crime would have been six years. The DA’s reversal was based on the advice of government lawyers whose own motivations are suspect and wanted to avoid a stain – as well as a potential lawsuit – on their professional records. The lawyers refused to quit and Peagler continued to be a model prisoner.

Hundreds, if not thousands of women remain incarcerated – rightfully and wrongfully — after killing the men who abused them. California is the only state that allows the reopening of such cases with “habeas” petitions. It’s easy to watch such documentaries as “Crime After Crime” and wonder, if the evidence of injustice is so clear, why can’t government officials see it, too. Could it be possible that the documentary makers manipulated the evidence as much as the original prosecutors did on Peagler’s case? In this case, the only response from the DA’s office was silence and wall-to-wall ass-covering. If the lawyers hadn’t pleaded their case in the only court open to them – the media – she would have died in prison of lung cancer, instead at home with her friends, children and grandchildren. After more than a quarter-century of failed justice, the biggest crime of all is that incompetent attorneys and other public officials remain free to do harm, and it’s only through the good offices of determined pro-bono attorneys, private investigators and filmmakers that the truth finally is revealed. “Crime After Crime” is the scariest kind of horror story. – Gary Dretzka

Let the Bullets Fly: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Movie

Set in China in the chaotic period that followed the overthrow of centuries-long dynastic rule, “Let the Bullets Fly” opens with a train robbery that could have been directly lifted from a thousand earlier American Westerns. A bandit puts his ear to the iron rail connecting the provincial capitals to such backwater towns as Goose Town. The reason he can’t identify the vibrations is that the train isn’t being powered by coal and steam, but is being pulled by a team of majestic white horses. Inside sit the state’s governor and his wife, his counselor and a platoon of heavily armed soldiers whose guns are pointed everywhere except where the bandits are hiding. Shots ring out from the surrounding cliffs, the team is separated from the engine and the rails are split in a way one has to see to believe. Everything that happens in the rest of the movie can be traced to the moment when the war lord decides to switch places with the now-dead governor, retain his self-serving adviser and accept the wife’s offer to become his lover (Loosely translated: “I didn’t marry the man, I married his money and power.”). After arriving in Goose Town, the warlord endeavors to become the white knight who slays the governor that’s taxed the people into poverty and drained the town’s coffers. In the ensuing battle of wits and kung-fu, the citizens see their fortunes reversed several times as the governor’s men adopt the disguises of the mayor’s police, in order to steal the money given them by the warlord. If this sounds confusing, know ahead of time that it is. I got the feeling that some of the references and gags went over my head because of my inability to understand the language. Still, the best new Western on your video store’s shelves this week could be from China.

The cover art for “Films of Fury” is a composite of photographs from classic martial-arts flicks positioned to resemble a kung-fu fighter in mid-kick. Like a poster that looks as if it might have in a sun-facing display window for too long, the cover isn’t the most welcoming invitation to a documentary that’s as up-to-date as possible and as entertaining as it is informative. That’s because instead of employing the talking-heads of critics, the filmmakers let the many film clips present the evidence for them. Although the ancient art of kung fu didn’t find an audience in the west until the early 1970s, its roots in the popular culture of China are traced to the Peking Opera, in which it represented an especially expressive form of dance. It emerged on film in the silent era, but exploded with the international stardom of Bruce Lee. As audiences grew weary of the same-old/same-old, filmmakers invented new ways to maintain their attention, including adding gunplay, urban settings, Hong Kong-style wire work, epic period pieces, special-effects, fantasy elements and female protagonists. Recently, in such films as “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer,” legitimate action was coupled with outrageous comedy. It’s ironic that Chinese authorities chastised its film community for not beating Hollywood to the pot of gold that came with the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise. “Films of Fury” probably could have used some interviews with the genre’s greatest stars and directors, instead of explanatory sequences featuring an animated narrator. – Gary Dretzka

The Beatles: Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records
Unauthorized: The Story of Rock N Roll Comics
Michael Tilson Thomas: The Tomashefskys

Beatles completists should be thrilled with the arrival of “Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records,” which documents the Fab Four’s failed attempt to reshape the music-publishing business by nurturing new talent, recording their material and sending it out with the Apple imprimatur. It was a great idea and completely in step with the mood of the revolutionary times. In 1968, the major labels had yet to figure out how to exploit the emergence of album-oriented rock ’n’ roll and bands that didn’t rely on songwriters with offices in the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley, as was the common in the early days of rock and R&B. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the success of Apple wasn’t the Beatles’ top priority. They had recently stopped touring and were going through the changes that ultimately would lead to their breakup and pursuit of such pastimes as Transcendental Meditation, radical politics and trading in old wives for new ones. This would have been OK if the persons left minding the store back home in London could make decisions without the OK of one Beatle, at least, and the artists were given the attention they deserved. Paul tended to mold the artists he recruited in his own image, while John obsessed over Yoko’s career and his collaboration with Elephant’s Memory. George dropped everything he was working on to focus on the Concert for Bangladesh and Ringo had other things on his mind. Even the artists who scored early hits – Mary Hopkin, Badfinger, Billy Preston, James Taylor – eventually came to think of themselves as afterthoughts. The ones whose work suffered from being overshadowed by the release of the Beatles last album – deejays could only squeeze one or two Apple products into rotation, and the company was releasing as many as four new singles simultaneously – missed the train to success entirely. Some soon-to-be huge bands voiced a desire to be added to the label, but couldn’t find a receptive ear to listen to their songs. While fascinating, the Apple story isn’t terribly relevant in the era of Internet publishing and declining record sales. If anything, the exhaustively researched “Strange Fruit” best serves as a cautionary tale for artists aspiring to control their music and swim with the sharks of the industry. Fans, though, tend to eat up anything new about the Beatles.

Unauthorized: The Story of Rock N Roll Comics” examines another interesting sidebar to the history of the musical genre. Long before the phrase, “The Internet wants to be free,” was introduced to studio and label executives hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the Web, rock fans fought efforts to monetize an art form spawned in the garages of suburban America and nurtured in musty nightclubs from Hamburg and Liverpool, to the Sunset Strip and Lower Manhattan. Such anti-establishment thinking reached its apex when tens of thousands of fans stormed the fences at Woodstock, turning it into a “free festival” (apart from the album and movie revenues). Bill Graham would find ways to keep the barricades intact, but some folks still found it unseemly to bow to the gods of rock ’n’ roll capitalism. Such was the thinking of comic-book publisher Todd Loren, who refused to pay for the right to depict the stories and myths surrounding some of the 1980-90s’ most popular entertainers, including Kiss, Alice Cooper, Bon Jovi, Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses, Motorhead and Skid Row. Loren stood up to the artists’ lawyers, citing the same First Amendment rights that allow for parodies and satire. Any sympathy we may develop for Loren, though, is diluted by the knowledge that he was as likely to rip off his stable of talented artists as he was to publish an unauthorized biography of the latest pop sensation or assign salacious stories on Tipper Gore and other perceived enemies of free speech. By all accounts, Loren was an egomaniacal asshole, who couldn’t comprehend the concept of keeping employees and contract workers happy for the sake of the product. He was murdered in 1992, possibly by the same sociopath who stalked and killed Giorgio Armani. The documentary benefits from the inclusion of the comics themselves and plenty of interviews with artists, industry reps and such rockers as Alice Cooper and Mojo Nixon.

In “The Thomashefskys,” composer, conductor and musical director of the San Francisco Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas pays homage to his grandparents, Boris and Bessie, “two kids from the little shtetls in the middle of the Ukrainian nowhere, who came to America and became the founders and pioneers of the American Yiddish Theater.” The DVD was recorded during a performance last year at the New World Center, in Miami. His grandparents also owned theatres, published their own magazine, wrote columns in popular Yiddish newspapers, sponsored and encouraged generations of young artists, brought countless Yiddish artists to America, and tirelessly raised funds for progressive social causes. It features music reconstructed from the original repertoire, as well as projected images and dramatized stories from the Thomashefskys memoirs. The music combines Eastern European klezmer and cantorial modes with American tones and rhythms. The result is a lively evening of music and memories — Gary Dretzka

Car 54, Where Are You?: The Complete Second Season
Billy the Exterminator: Season 4
Marvel Anime: Iron Man/X-Men: Complete Series

Last year, I had a lot to say about the release on DVD of the complete first season of “Car 54, Where Are You?” For my money, that set and the new four-disc, second-season package from Shanachie offer as much bang for the nearly $40 price tag as any recent TV-to-DVD release. It arrives on the 50th anniversary of sitcom’s debut. Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne star as a pair of truly dim-witted NYPD cops who’ve been partners so long that they share each other’s thoughts, mannerisms and ailments. Unlike the precinct house in “Barney Miller,” which would come along a decade later, the unit was delightfully dysfunctional from top down. Fortunately, the officers rarely were required to investigate real crimes. One of the funniest episodes here involves then-President John F. Kennedy, who, after arriving at Idlewild Airport, requires a police escort into the city. Because Toody and Muldoon have been partners for 10 years and have the best driving record, they’re picked by the commissioner for the prestigious assignment. No one at the precinct level thinks this is a particularly good idea – Muldoon faints at the mere thought of being in the same vicinity of JFK – and the Secret Service wisely chooses to know what they’re getting into ahead of time. Naturally, behavior that seems to be completely abnormal to an outsider is standard operating procedure for the guys in the precinct. The humor may not be terribly sophisticated, but, in the hands of actors trained in the New York Theater, it feels inspired. In the second season, the list of guest stars includes Sugar Ray Robinson, Molly Picon, Larry Storch, Mitch Miller and Shari Lewis. This time, all 30 episodes are being presented in broadcast order and, as a bonus extra, there’s a 10-minute standup comedy routine by Ross.

A&E’s “Billy the Exterminator” is far from the most bizarre reality series on television, but it’s a lead-pipe cinch that Billy probably would be the last to be invited to compete on “Dancing With the Stars.” He looks as if he might have inspired a Zap Comix character and makes no concessions to contemporary fashion. In Season 4, Billy and his brother Ricky travel from Arizona to Miami to Chicago to humanely trap varmints ranging from javelina and pack rats in Arizona, to a bed bug infestation in Miami, vicious squirrels and raccoons in Chicago and some truly nasty geese in North Carolina. There are, as well, the usual array of monster alligators and dangerous snakes. If non-Southerners can’t relate to alligators and snakes, most suburbanites have horror stories to tell about squirrels and raccoons attempting to nest in their chimneys and attics. If another raccoon attempts to tear up my roof to find a warm corner of my attic for a temporary home, I know who I’ll call and it ain’t Ghostbusters. That, I think, is the appeal of this crazy show. Billy has answers to questions all of us have had at one time or another.

New story arcs involving superheroes Iron Man and X-Men were created as part of an anime project between Marvel and Tokyo’s Madhouse studios. The re-imaginings were designed to introduce the American characters to young television viewers in Japan. In “Iron Man,” Tony Stark travels to Japan to introduce his replacement, the Iron Man Dio. When the armor proves not to be ready for prime time, he requires the help of Zodiac and other Japanese organizations, not all of whom are anxious to cooperate. In the “X-Men” series, Professor X reassembles the gang to combat the U-Men’s plot to abduct young mutants and harvest their organs. – Gary Dretzka

Titanic: Blu-ray
Masterpiece Classic: Birdsong: Blu-ray
Lifetime: The Bling Ring
Lifetime: Girl Fight
Lidia Celebrates America: Weddings

Anyone attempting to make a new movie or mini-series about a historic event of the magnitude of the sinking of the Titanic probably ought to consider doing it differently than what’s come before it. In addition to the almost countless number of documentaries that have beenq made, it would be difficult to make anything as compelling as James Cameron’s “Titanic” and Roy Ward Baker’s “A Night to Remember.” Last week, the Internet was abuzz over recently shot photographs of what appear the legs, pants and shoes of one of the male victims. Without much other reshuffling of the chairs on the deck of the “Titanic,” the esteemed British writer/director has added a “Downton Abbey,” “Upstairs, Downstairs” twist to the proceedings, by focusing as much on the poor souls in steerage as the swells. Cameron did much the same thing, of course, but the primary focus was on Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet and Billy Zane’s characters. In any case, while the “Titanic” mini-series doesn’t embarrass anyone involved in it, even Fellowes wasn’t able to keep it afloat in the ratings. It arrived after most of us were up to our ears in Titanic nostalgia and couldn’t stomach any more of it. Completists, though, should enjoy it more than casual viewers and fans of “Downton Abbey,” which opened Season 1 with bad news from the disaster.

Currently airing on PBS stations, as part of the “Masterpiece Classic” series, “Birdsong” tackles the same cinematic period as “Titanic” and “Warhorse.” Eddie Redmayne (“My Week With Marilyn”) and Clemence Poesy (“Harry Potter”) are the star-crossed lovers whose timing could hardly have been any less unfortunate. Stephen is a young Englishman who arrives in Amiens, France, in 1910. While living with a family there, he enters into a passionate, if secretive affair with the daughter, Isabelle. The romance is so demanding of the couple that it can’t be sustained in the normal ways and is allowed to falter. Years later, Stephen returns to the same area, only this time as a soldier in the trenches. As horrible as the conditions are there, he can’t help but be haunted by memories of their time together in these same now-destroyed fields. “Birdsong” is another exemplary production from the BBC and the Blu-ray contains featurettes on its stories of love and war, as well as a behind-the-scenes piece.

Lifetime didn’t have to dig too deeply into its archives for its two latest TV-to-DVD releases. With all of the fallout from the controversy surrounding the movie “Bully” and its original R-rating, “Girl Fight” strikes a chord with another story of bullying and the role the social media play in the terrible process of destroy a teenage girl’s life. It is, of course, “inspired by a true story.” Anne Heche and James Tupper star in the movie, but it’s Jodelle Ferland, who, as Haley, is beaten and humiliated by leaders of her school’s ruling clique. It begins after careless comments made by Haley on the Internet come back to haunt her in real life. “Girl Fight” is yet another movie that describes how a child’s high school years can be the best of times and the worst of times.

Bling Ring,” you might recall, was the name bestowed on a gang of young crooks in the San Fernando Valley who broke into the homes of celebrities and stole their expensive and oh-so-trendy clothes and accessories. In a sign of the times, the girls and boy hoped that their daring acts would make them popular at school. The local media ate it up. As luck would have it, one of the girls was a member of a family – low-rent Kardashians – already being followed around by camera crews and much of the drama was used to create a soap-opera atmosphere for the show. Austin Butler, Yin Chang and Jennifer Grey lead the cast.

On her travels through America, chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich recognizes recipes and traditions that have survived the journeys of millions of immigrants and generations of cultural cross-breeding. More than anything else, I think, the maintenance of such honored dishes and ceremonies is what gives the U.S. the illusion of being a melting-pot nation. Bastianich follows the roots of several of the rituals – “from jumping the broom to tying the knot” – before they’re allowed to disappear forever in “Lidia Celebrates America: Weddings.” – Gary Dretzka

A Hollis Frampton Odyssey: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave: Criterion Collection

Although the many short films included in Criterion’s “A Hollis Frampton Odyssey” were made in a two-decade rush of creativity in the 1960-70s, many look as primitive as those made at the dawn of the age of cinema, when Thomas Edison tested the limits of his camera by capturing movement and studying it. It was left for others to see if audiences would buy into the concept of telling stories on film, rather than simply enjoying the sensation caused by watching trains and bullets rush by them. They did, of course. When surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel collaborated on “Un Chien Andalou,” the relationship between (A)rt and commerce would be examined. The cultural volatility of the 1960s and general acceptance of so-called arthouse films laid the foundation for avant-garde artists to combine mediums and produce films that served more as much Rorschach tests than entertainments. To some degree, these experiments would trigger the subsequent rise of the American independent movement. In the 15 years given to Frampton to map the boundaries of his art, he merged complex intellectualism with basic visual and aural techniques. If the results remain baffling even to sophisticated viewers, it’s only because, well, no one said art has to be easy. Frampton came to film after committing to poetry and photography. In Ed Halter’s essay, included in the bonus package, we learn that he was influenced by Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp and Jorge Luis Borges. His interest wasn’t in telling stories, per se, but seeing how well film could incorporate mathematics, literature, sculpture, philosophy and the natural elements into the vernacular. Not all of the films made it past the experimentation stage, but those that did became increasingly more accessible and provocative as he neared his untimely death, at 48, of cancer. What struck me while watching the films in this extensive collection is how difficult – and costly – it must have been for artists to make the transition to film in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a time when everyone seemed to be pushing the limits on something and advance technology was being made affordable to consumers. Analog techniques, however, didn’t always lend themselves to quick and easy answers, and distribution was limited to institutions in a few big cities and college towns. Today, of course, anyone with access to a “smart phone” can make a movie and distribute it via the social media to a ready-made audience of millions of geeks dedicated to “cool” stuff. This isn’t to say that it cheapens thought or is less challenging, just that there are few, if any barriers to creativity today. And, that’s a very good thing. The Blu-ray “A Hollis Frampton Odyssey” collection is comprised of 24 films, representing 266 minutes of time. Several films are narrated by the artist and the set also includes excerpts of a 1978 interview, footage from a 1968 performance piece, a gallery of works from his xerographic series, “By Any Other Name,” and an informative booklet filled with essays.

While Frampton was experimenting in New York, Czech artists were using film to tell stories, some of which could be read as commentary on life under the yoke of communism. Czechoslovakia was a burr under the saddle of Soviet rulers in Moscow and efforts to quash artistic freedom by local party officials were greeted with anger and derision. Even so, the so-called Czechoslovak New Wave continued to crank out movies that were slyly critical of the repressive state and challenged the boundaries laid by censors. Among those that made a splash in the west were Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde,” “The Firemen’s Ball” and “Closely Watched Trains”; Jan Kadar’s “The Shop on Main Street”; and Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Watched Trains.” Not so well known here are are “Pearls of the Deep,” “Daisies,” “A Report on the Party and Guests,” “Return of the Prodigal Son,” “Capricious Summer” and “The Joke,” which are included in Criterion’s “Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave.” The 1966 omnibus film “Pearls of the Deep” introduced five top filmmakers, Vra Chytilov, Jaromil Jire, Ji¡ Menzel, Jan Nmec and Evald Schorm. All of the installments are based on stories by writer Bohumil Hrabal, All of the movies remain entertaining and representative of period in time when ideologues were as interested in shackling minds as bodies. – Gary Dretzka

Paradise Recovered
“Paradise Recovered” is a cautionary tale about extremists in the Evangelical Christian community who prey on people so desperate to be “saved” that they willingly turn off their brains and hand them over to fire-breathing preachers and silky-haired televangelists. If it had been made in Hollywood, “Paradise Recovered” might have been lambasted as yet another attack on the beliefs of outsiders. Instead, the movie appears to have been produced by moderate Evangelicals, dedicated to keeping the minds of young people open to fresh ideas and philosophies that aren’t shaped by pastors whose beliefs haven’t changed much since the Dark Ages. Cheryl is a member of Prophetic Watchman Ministries, as Christian sect so radical that it doesn’t even believe in heaven, hell, birthdays and doctors. Damaged by the split-up of her parents, she has been accepted into the family of a minister, primarily as an unpaid babysitter and future wife of the sex-crazed son. Home-schooled and denied access to any media outlet not sanctioned by the sect’s leader, Cheryl (Heather Del Rio) is a sweet girl, but ignorant about the ways of the world. She assumes that God gave women to men to do with as they see fit. The teenage son in the family, who’s following in his dad’s footsteps, convinces her that God would like nothing more than for her to take off her clothes and submit to her future husband. After the old man interrupts the interlude, he naturally blames Cheryl for corrupting the boy, denouncing her as a Jezebel and demanding she leave her home. Fortunately, she works with a couple of nice guys at a health-food store, who offer to take her in and promise not to entice her any further into straying from Jesus’ flock.

The store’s manager, Gabriel (Dane Seth Hurlburt), is the son of pastor but a dedicated skeptic. He’s at once fascinated and horrified by Cheryl’s story. Moreover, Gabriel convinces her that free will and Christianity can co-exist and it isn’t a sin to wear makeup, watch TV or eat the occasional hot dog. (Because “unclean food” is the devil’s work, she’s never even been allowed to eat a marshmallow.) Still too weak to say no to her adopted family, she allows herself to be talked into returning home and getting back with the program. Gabriel, though, refuses to give up on Cheryl. “Paradise Recovered” isn’t a particularly polished drama, but it’s easy to empathize with Cheryl and hope she listens to Gabriel. In the meantime, we’re encouraged to watch the boy’s own attitude toward religion evolve, based on his dialogues with Cheryl. The DVD comes with commentary and interviews with Christian sociologists and de-programmers. – Gary Dretzka

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4 Responses to “The DVD Wrapup: Contraband, Camelot, Return, Young Goethe, Innkeepers, Hollis Frampton … More”

  1. Bona says:

    “Paradise recovered” sounds like a very interesting watch. Unfortunately, this was a cruel reality only a few centuries ago.

  2. Auto says:

    I’ve seen most of the movies mentioned here, and I loved them all. I like how you don’t settle for cheap average movies and talk about great ideas, concepts or projects. Good work!

  3. Braco says:

    Sadly,they don’t make such great movies.I enjoyed watching Camelot,because I like Broadway musicals and Paradise Recovered was heartbreaking.

  4. Epilare says:

    From the list of movies you described I watched Young Goethe in Love,The Scarlet Worm and Chasing Happiness and I can honestly say that they are amazing.Now I’m going to watch all the movies from your list for sure.Thanks for the review!


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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