MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Iron Lady, Conquest, Sleeping Beauty, Streetcar, Dark Shadows … More

The Iron Lady: Blu-ray
The Conquest

What does it say about our democracy that elections in England — and, now, France — make for more compelling drama than those in the U.S.? Probably nothing voters don’t already know from watching the nightly news and such documentaries and dramatizations as “The War Room” and HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change.” On film anyway, elections in other western democracies appear far more civil than the ones we’ve experienced lately and the candidates don’t seem to pander to the lowest common denominator. By contrast to Newt Gingrich, Vladimir Putin is a statesman in the John Kennedy mold. It’s our fault, though, because we allow these bottom feeders to leave their toxic ponds every four years and wander freely among normal folks. “The Iron Lady” tells the story of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in an England as politically divided and close to economic collapse as any non-Third War country. The only thing missing is a guest appearance by Michael Sheen as David Frost or Tony Blair.

Love her or hate her, Thatcher stood her ground and made a difference. Her legacy, though, still is a long way from being etched in concrete. After all, it took more than 20 years for the seeds of an economic disaster, planted by Thatcher’s friend and conservative ally Ronald Reagan, to bear their poison fruit here. And, as for the tired business of this dynamic duo singlehandedly ending the Cold War, I would give equal credit, at least, to Pope John Paul II and MTV Europe. Even before the movie was released in England and the U.S., “The Iron Lady” was drawing fire from supporters on the right and detractors on the left. Not surprisingly, Laborites and Liberal Democrats criticized it for not showing how Thatcher’s hardline decisions negatively impacted working and poor people. Complaints from the right targeted the decision by director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame”) to tell her story from the point of view of a woman who regularly engaged in conversations with the ghost of her late husband, Denis, and recalled events throughout her life through the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. Brits of all political persuasions felt as if the filmmakers had broken the unwritten rule against portraying a living person’s struggle with dementia. Considering how few Americans, myself included, were aware that the baroness has Alzheimer’s, “Iron Lady” occasionally does seem to be an unnecessary invasion of privacy.

What is indisputable, however, is Meryl Streep’s dead-on lifting of Thatcher’s looks, mannerisms and speech patterns. Even if relative newcomers Rooney Mara, Michelle Williams or Viola Davis might have deserved this year’s Best Actress Oscar more that Streep or fellow finalist Glenn Close, the degrees of difference were infinitesimal. As First Husband Denis Thatcher, whose sense of humor kept his wife on an even keel, Jim Broadbent is his usual enchanting self, as well. The Blu-ray package adds a half-dozen featurettes, none of them too short to be particularly noteworthy. They include a 12-minute behind-the-scenes piece, with cast and crew discussing Thatcher, her marriage and the times; “Recreating the Young Margaret Thatcher,” with 25-year-old co-star Alexandra Roach; “Denis: The Man Behind the Woman,” with Broadbent commenting on his role; “Battle in the House of Commons,” which dissects the chaotic scenes of debate in Parliament; “Costume Design: Pearls and Power Suits,” with costume designer Consolata Boyle describing how the film’s wardrobe evolved as Thatcher grow older and more powerful; and “History Goes to the Cinema,” which looks at the history behind “My Week With Marilyn,” “W.E.”, “Coriolanus,” “The Iron Lady” and “The Artist.”

Any similarity between elections in the UK and France begins and ends with the actual casting of a vote, at least as described in Xavier Durringer’s “The Conquest.” More than “Iron Lady,” it is a dramatization of events in the long, difficult and often bitter political process that led to Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election as President of France. The depiction of his marriage during the same five-year period is every bit as interesting as the clash of ideologies, personalities and political strategies. As interpreted by Denis Podalyedes, Sarkozy is as pugnacious as a pit bull forced to share his bones with the laziest dogs in the kennel and as impatient as a spoiled child on Christmas morning. No sooner does the conservative politician find a niche in the government of Jacques Chirac (Bernard Le Coq) than he’s quoted as saying that he foresees being president every morning when he looks in the mirror. At first, Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin dismiss Sarkozy as a political midget – a reference to his short size – and a thoroughly unlikeable candidate. What they hadn’t considered, though, was the discontent of French workers and other moderates with both his Socialist and incumbent opponents. Because French presidential elections are contested in several rounds of voting, it’s easy to get lost in the details. What’s far more compelling is watching Sarkozy’s marriage to his second wife, Cecilia, crumble before our eyes. Although he considered Cecilia to be his closest political aide, he’s shown being disrespectful to her in strategy sessions and openly hostile behind closed doors. Knowing that it would be difficult to win the election without his wife at his side, Sarkozy continually begs her forgiveness and plays touchy-feely with her in public. Unlike American political wives, who stand by their men no matter how shabbily they’re treated, Cecilia not only left the campaign, but she also split to Switzerland for a tryst with her lover. Even after her husband convinced her to re-join the race in the stretch run, she refused to be photographed entering her polling station. The movie ends days before he got his revenge by marrying model/singer-songwriter/actress/babe Carla Bruni, who stands several inches taller than Sarkovy, but is 10 years younger than Cecilia. (She has since remarried and stays busy as a champion of women’s rights and other humanitarian causes.) I loved that the political scenes were accompanied by a light and bouncy Nicola Piovani score, unmistakably inspired by Federico Fellini’s circus movies. – Gary Dretzka

Sleeping Beauty
Much is left unsaid in freshman writer/director Julia Leigh’s erotic anti-romance, “Sleeping Beauty.” That’s partially because the movie’s protagonist and title character, Lucy (Aussie Emily Browning), spends much of her time in drug-induced deep-REM sleep, while pervy old men share her bed. When she isn’t at college or doing minimum-wage jobs, Lucy is an employee of a high-end service that employs beautiful young women to serve as servers and companions at private parties in various stages of undress. Her boss/madam assures them that “penetration” is not part of any deal, because “your vagina is a temple.” Lucy, who isn’t averse to casual sex or last-minute hookups, doesn’t share that opinion, but the money is too good for a cash-strapped student to resist. I know next to nothing about Leigh or how her “Sleeping Beauty” is supposed to relate to the original fairy-tale, which has undergone much critical analysis by psychiatrists and other deep thinkers. Today, our dysfunctional economy has forced many women to consider positions – not all of them prone – in the adult-entertainment industry, where they can make more money in a night than at Walmart in several months. For a student who’s already comfortable with her body to agree simply to sleep her way through an evening shift isn’t nearly as outlandish a proposition as it would have sounded even five years ago. Still, Lucy can’t help but wonder what the rich geezers are doing to her, if not having intercourse with her. She begs the madam to let her watch one of the girls or be allowed to feign sleep, but is told it would break the spell. And, that’s pretty much where “Sleeping Beauty” ends. What’s nice about it is the pacing of the narrative, which approximates a dream state of its own. Nothing is rushed, padded or contrived. Browning is a mere wisp of a lass, not voluptuous by any stretch of the imagination, but far less innocent that the average fairy-tale heroine. If I were to guess, I’d say Leigh’s style here was inspired by David Cronenberg or Louis Bunuel, whose fantasies have advanced similarly surreal notions. – Gary Dretzka

Into the Abyss: Blu-ray
Surviving Hitler: A Love Story

Is it possible that, at the ripe old age of 69, Werner Herzog is only now hitting his stride? As a documentarian, his films are the equal of anyone else in the non-fiction game. Such recent theatrical features as “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans,” “Rescue Dawn,” “The Wild Blue Yonder” and “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” reflect the work of a man unafraid to follow his imagination into the dark corners of the American psyche. If their excellence isn’t always rewarded with substantial support at the box office – or recognition by AMPAS’ nominating committees – it doesn’t appear to have fazed him. Last year, his remarkably beautiful meditation on the ancient sketches found in France’s Chauvet Cave, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” preceded the release of “Into the Abyss,” a haunting study of crime and punishment in Texas. Such is the current state of human affairs in the Lone Star State that the triple homicide assayed in the documentary could almost be described as a routine crime … as was the execution of one of its perpetrators. Such horrors are so commonplace that neither the murders nor the men convicted in them – Michael Perry and Jason Burkett – have been accorded Wikipedia pages of their own. Even though Herzog is an opponent of the death penalty, “Into the Abyss” is careful not to steer viewers in the same direction. The film was being edited at approximately the same time as then-presidential candidate Rick Perry was using his state’s record of executing criminals, as well as men who would posthumously be found innocent, to elicit cheers from his rabid supporters. “This is not an issue film; it’s not an activist film against capital punishment,” Herzog told the Los Angeles Times. “Yes, it has an issue, but it’s not the main purpose of the film.” To this end, he not only interviews the condemned Perry (eight days before his execution) and his partner, who drew a life sentence, but he also spends time in Conroe, Texas, speaking with family members and friends of the men and their victims. Herzog also revisits the murders and subsequent shootout with police with detectives and prosecutors. A sequence each is devoted to a jailhouse interview with Burkett’s father, serving a 40-year bit across the road from his son, and the woman who met and married Burkett after the trial. She doesn’t deny the probability that she might be pregnant with his child, even though they’ve never been allowed a conjugal visit or anything more sexual than a held hand. This is amazing stuff. Americans don’t appear to be in any mood these days to launch a national forum on capital punishment, let alone ban it outright. Herzog deserves praise, though, for attempting to lay a foundation for such a debate.

Surviving Hitler: A Love Story” is remarkable as a story of uncanny good luck and remarkable fortitude, told by a woman, Jutta Cords, who only learned as a teenager that she was legally half-Jewish and therefore was prohibited from getting married or going to university in Nazi Germany. Neither could she know that another teenager, Helmuth, whom she met and shared dances with while on vacation, would play a major role in her life when they found each other again before he was deployed to the eastern front. Because Jutta and Helmuth’s family recorded so much of their early lives on film, “Surviving Hitler” benefits from firsthand source material and views of life before World War II. Jutta, now 92, vividly recalls how her parents were prescient enough to send her to school in Switzerland, where she could be safe no matter what happened back home in Berlin. Knowing that her parents were beginning to fear for their lives, Jutta returned to the city for the duration of the war. Even though it’s clear that all three were on the Nazis’ radar screen for a long time, they managed to avoid incarceration until nearly the end of the war. After the siege of Stalingrad, it became clear to Helmuth that his fuhrer was leading Germany into disaster. After his hospitalization, he and Jutta joined the Resistance movement, which, she insists, was larger and more active than Americans even now give it credit for being. Jutta introduced Helmuth to her friend, Werner von Haeften, an officer in the Wehrmacht who was secretly in the Resistance and was one of the driving forces behind Operation Valkyrie. After that operation failed, nearly 5,000 people believed to have been involved in it were executed and others were jailed. By the time the Red Army had entered Berlin, Jutta believed that Helmuth and her parents all were dead. We share her surprise when the truth is revealed. “Surviving Hitler” is interesting primarily for giving us an idea of what life was like behind the front lines, but it also serves as a heart-warming romance and nearly unbelievable story of survival.

One needn’t be an ardent feminist to agree wholeheartedly with the conclusions reached in actor-turned-director Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s debut documentary, “Miss Representation.” That the media is obsessed with sexual imagery and exploits it sell products and ad-supported publications and shows is an inarguable fact of American life. It’s been 57 years since the first Miss America was crowned on national television women and how far have we come? “Toddlers and Tiaras”? “Bad Girls of Las Vegas”? NBC’s disgraceful “Playboy Club”? In Los Angeles and other markets, longtime weather forecasters are being replaced by increasingly busty beauties whose wardrobe appears to have been selected by Larry Flynt. Nothing’s really changed and the data presented in Newsom’s documentary supports her theory. This might have been sufficient cause for its inclusion in the OWN Documentary Club lineup, but, if she really wanted to do some damage, Newsom would have advanced the dialogue to 2012. Despite the presence on her witness list of a couple dozen distinguished and learned talking heads – Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric, Jane Fonda, Rachel Maddow, Dianne Feinstein, Geena Davis and Margaret Cho among them – several tough questions go virtually unanswered. For example, why do so many women in positions of power do so little to prevent such exploitation? There’s no scarcity of women in the executive suites at studios, networks and magazines, yet the women who get the most exposure in their movies, shows and covers are young (and getting younger), thin (and getting thinner), digitally and/or cosmetically enhanced, and required to wear skimpy outfits picked out for them by sponsors and product-placement firms. That’s because executives, producers, directors and editors of the female persuasion answer to the same gods of Wall Street as their male counterparts.

In hindsight, Couric wonders if she inadvertently became part of the problem when she allowed “Today” producers to photograph and dress her in ways they considered to be sexy, right down to the free Manolos and Jimmy Choos on her feet. Yes, Katie, you did. Likewise, Fonda is allowed to take off on media exploitation without being challenged on her own enhancements. If Newsom is suggesting that OWN Documentary Club viewers forgo dieting, having their boobs done and going out sans makeup, she owes it to them to explain why these celebrities play the media’s game. And, if they do decide to undergo the same procedures as the celebrities, they shouldn’t be chastised for it. As worthwhile an exercise as “Miss Representation” is, it often feels more like a PDA than a call to arms. – Gary Dretzka

A Streetcar Named Desire: 60th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Kate & Leopold: Blu-ray
Bounce: Blu-ray

Newly re-released into Blu-ray, “A Streetcar Named Desire” stands tall both as a supreme entertainment and a reminder of a time when Hollywood was afraid of its own long shadow. As important a film as it remains in the repertory, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ landmark play – also directed by Kazan on Broadway – was anything but an easy sell as a movie. Darryl F. Zanuck’s plans for producing the movie version at Fox were thwarted by his bosses, who foresaw insurmountable problems getting “Streetcar” approved by the Hays Office and Legion of Decency. It ended up at Warner Bros., where Charles K. Feldman shepherded the movie through the landmines laid by censors and priests. This was 1951, after all, and everyone in power in the motion-picture industry feared being a purveyor of anti-American values to defenseless adults (all of whom had somehow just endured the agonies of a world war and economic deprivation). To appease the MPAA and Roman Catholic ratings board, several alterations were made in the adaptation. As documented in the excellent bonus material, they included inferences of desires felt by Blanche and Stella DuBois toward Stanley Kowalski and another male visitor; dialogue that makes it clear that Blanche’s husband committed suicide after she found him in bed with another man; the depiction of Stanley’s rape of Blanche; and Stella’s final reaction to her husband’s lustful behavior. Neither were Alex North’s sultry musical score and Harry Stradling’s brilliant black-and-white cinematography exempt from the legion’s prudish nitpicking. A featurette uses side-by-side comparisons to show how several scenes looked before and after being edited. What the censors couldn’t contain, however, was Brando’s raw animal magnetism. In an unprecedented performance, Brando reeks of unvarnished sexuality, unbridled lust and unexpected vulnerability. It set the standard for actors looking to escape the straitjacket of tradition and conformity so commonplace at the time.

It’s also interesting to learn how the movie allowed Kazan to re-balance the characterizations of Stanley and Blanche. On stage, he catered to audience expectations by allowing Brando to dominate every scene in which he appeared. In the movie, it’s made clear that Williams intended Blanche to be every bit as compelling and formidable a character, if far more damaged. By the end of the stage version, anyway, it’s clear that that war between Stanley and Blanche symbolizes post-war divisions dividing the increasingly less agricultural, more urbanized New South and faux gentility of Old South traditions. So, throughout most of the story, it was important that a certain balance between the opposing forces be enforced. Vivien Leigh, who took over the role of Blanche originated on Broadway by Jessica Tandy, benefited from being directed in the London production by her husband, Laurence Olivier, who wasn’t required to defer to an actor of Brando’s strength. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden reprised their roles in the movie version and lived long enough to be interviewed here about their recollections of the experiences. Their thoughts are included in the making-of featurettes. Of the four primary actors, only Brando failed to take home an Oscar. The informative commentary track adds the thoughts of Malden and historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young. Among the other featurettes are the feature-length “Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey,” “A Streetcar on Broadway,” “A Streetcar in Hollywood,” “Censorship and Desire,” “North and the Music of the South,” “An Actor Named Brando,” Brando’s screen test, outtakes, audio outtakes, trailers and Digibook packaging, with photos and text. Of course, the Blu-ray represents the un-edited, pre-censored version of “Streetcar.”

Other Blu-ray re-issues pale in comparison to “Streetcar,” but that’s only to be expected. In 2001, Meg Ryan’s career still was benefitting from the fumes left behind such successes as “You’ve Got Mail,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Courage Under Fire,” while multitalented Aussie Hugh Jackman was the handsome new kid on the block. The time-travel rom-com “Kate & Leopold” seemed on paper, at least, a logical place to combine her spunky charm and his natural good lucks. He was the charming 19th-century nobleman magically transported to 21st Century New York, where she would assume he’s just another poser friend of her brother looking to get into her pants. It’s fun to watch Leopold struggle to make sense of myriad consumer goods, cars and fast-food restaurants, while Kate is, well, just another stereotypical blond career gal playing hard to get. Other than the fish-out-of-water confusion, there’s not much else to recommend “K&L” to anyone who’s not a fan of the stars. The Blu-ray brings back commentary by director James Mangold, a making-of featurette, deleted scene, a music video of Sting’s “Until” and short piece on Donna Zakowska’s costumes.

Also from the Miramax vaults, now controlled by Lionsgate, comes “Bounce,” a romantic drama starring the hot couple of 2000, Ben Affleck and Gwenyth Paltrow. Affleck plays Buddy Amaral, a slick ad exec who avoids being killed in a plane crash by agreeing to give his ticket to a passenger “bounced” due to overbooking. That poor soul (Tony Goldwyn) was in a hurry to get home to his wife, Abby Janello (Paltrow). The near-miss disturbs Buddy to the point where he nearly drowns himself in drink and must find help of the 12-step variety. Following one of the organization’s tenets, Buddy feels it necessary to meet Abby and explain his role in the tragedy. Instead, he pretends to be a friend of her late husband. They spark, but the flame is extinguished by his admission of what really happened. Can love survive deceit? Duh. Again, “Bounce” will be appreciated more by fans of the stars than anyone else. The Blu-ray package contains commentary by director Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex”) and co-producer Bobby Cohen; deleted scenes and a gag reel; a pair of behind-the-camera featurettes; a “Need to Be Next to You” music video; a pullout of selected scenes with additional commentary. – Gary Dretzka

American Reel
The Museum of Wonders

Although not in the same league as “Crazy Heart,” fans of the Jeff Bridges vehicle might consider renting “American Reel,” in which David Carradine plays another singer-songwriter whose refusal to sell out has kept him out of the spotlight for 20 years. Instead of bashing his head against the wall, James Lee Springer has made a modest living teaching school and doing his own musical thing. Out of the blue, a song he wrote as a young man hits the charts, opening the door to a comeback tour. Springer’s all for it, as long as he isn’t required to compromise the same ideals upon which he refused to compromise two decades earlier. If anything, though, the music industry – now, apparently, centered in Chicago — has only gotten more segmented, hit-driven and rigid in its demands on artists. His old friend and manager, played by British Shakespearean Michael Maloney, tries desperately to get Springer to bend just a wee bit, if only to acknowledge the passage of time. He hires a Second City comedian (Mariel Hemingway) to babysit the singer and keep him amused (not sexually … just happier). Even if the setup doesn’t reflect current reality and the ending is fairly predictable, “American Reel” moves along at an even pace and the music, at least, is good. Finished in 2002, Carradine looks very much alive and comfortable in his character’s boots. He co-wrote and plays guitar on several the songs on the soundtrack, which gets a boost from some of Nashville’s top session players. “American Reel” is serious enough to qualify as a drama, but it has gentle heart and offers more than few laughs.

If Todd Browning’s “Freaks” ever were to be turned into an Italian opera — or David Lynch decided to direct a summer-stock revival of “Cabaret” — it might look a lot like Domiziano Cristophro’s very bizarre, “The Museum of Wonders.” The characters who gather to celebrate the good fortune of the wee circus owner, Marcel (Fabiano Lioi), and his dancer bride, Salome (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), don’t share the same physical deformities as sideshow attractions in “Freaks.” There’s a strongman, mystic, sword-swallower and fire eater, tattooed and bearded ladies, a transvestite or two, and a creepy master and mistress of ceremonies. Civilians come to their little theater to marvel at things people now take for granted. (A professional tattooed lady wouldn’t stand out in any crowd, today.) It’s the drama of the characters’ personal attitudes toward themselves, each other and so-called normal people that Cristophro accentuates with his brilliant lighting design and special visual effects. Salome shows her true colors by adding poison to her diminutive lover’s drinks and attempting to steal away with the strong man, Sansone. Marcel diagnoses his own malady before Salome can make her getaway, however, causing the other museum attractions to exact their punishment on the fiends. For all of its horror conceits, “Museum of Wonders” is an unusually artful blend of Italian genres. The acting is quite good, by any standards, and the score mixes elements of tragic opera and carnival midway music.

Also from the MVD catalog arrives “Claustrofobia,” a claustrophobic Dutch thriller that succeeds even though its plot has holes through which you could drive a truck. Eva aspires to be a veterinarian, although her study habits would qualify her only to change the newspapers on the bottom of bird cages. Feeling her youthful oats, she decides to move into an apartment in a building seemingly populated with peepers and perverts. One morning, after being plied with drinks by the doctor downstairs, Eva awakes to find herself chained to a bed in a dank dungeon. Loud noises and disembodied voices unnerve her, of course, but it’s the black-clothed creep with the gas mask who really freaks her out. Eva fights back, however, eventually unmasking her captor and discovering cracks in his veneer and that of her prison. Just when we think she’ll be able to pull off her escape, Eva discovers her captor’s greater mystery and the reality that a security system won’t allow her to get past the coded door lock. Hope is trumped by disappointment twice more, with the stakes rising each time her plans are thwarted. As the clock ticks closer to Eva’s personal midnight, viewers might find themselves far more deeply invested in her predicament than they thought possible. – Gary Dretzka

The Terror Experiment
Thou Shalt Not Kill … Except: Blu-ray

This isn’t the best week for horror releases of the domestic variety. Since Troma’s “Kill” has the most unusual fiends – birdbrains wearing Tiki and knight gear – it immediately jumps to the head of the class, and I use that word advisedly. Even by the usually low production standards associated with Troma’s do-it-yourself features, this one is cheesier than a mountain of warmed-over nachos. Made on a budget estimated to be $5,000 in play Canadian money, Gabriel Carrer and Chad Archibald’s collaboration is one movie that could have benefited from far more gratuitous nudity and fewer cardboard props. In it, a half-dozen unrelated characters are surprised to find themselves trapped in a locked house, whose bedrooms and common areas are monitored by obviously placed cameras and linked to their puppet masters by a loud-speaker system. Curiously, too, they’re all wearing head-to-toe white outfits. They first sense that things aren’t going to get any better any time soon comes when a bleeding man is tossed into the mix and they’re told that their survival depends on killing everyone else around them. Before that happens, though, the Tiki warriors invade the living quarters. Their unexpected presence is funnier to us than it is to the characters, who don’t appear to be particularly surprised. If somehow the producers had been able to stage this atrocity in Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room or Trader Joe’s, “Kill” might have had a shot at immortality.

Any movie in which top billing is shared by C. Thomas Howell, Judd Nelson and Robert Carradine either was made in 1985 or a quarter-century later in a straight-to-video thriller. You’ll find “The Terror Experiment” (a.k.a., “Fight or Flight”) in the bargain-bin wing of the latter category. In it, a disgruntled veteran detonates a biological weapon inside a crowded federal building to alert the world to a secret government program to create a similarly hideous toxic gas. Never mind the hypocrisy, however, because what “The Terror Experiment” then becomes is an escape thriller. Can the people inside the federal building exit the facility without infecting humanity or being shot by soldiers awaiting orders from high command? In a rare foray from the TV arena, director George Mendeluk has produced a film that feels as if it were commissioned by the Syfy or Chiller networks. Tipping the balance closer to a younger demographic — not aware earlier entries in Nelson, Howell and Carradine’s resume — are co-stars Alicia Leigh Willis (”The L Word”), Serah D’Laine (“General Hospital”) and Alexander Mendeluk (“The Twilight Saga: New Moon”).

And, speaking of 1985, that’s when “Thou Shalt Not Kill … Except” (a.k.a., “Stryker’s War”) reared its bloody head from the wilds of Detroit. Josh Becker’s cut-rate action-thriller combines elements of “Platoon,” “The A-Team” and “Helter-Skelter,” in the service of a story that probably would have been more relevant in the early 1970s. When the injured Marine Sergeant Jack Stryker (Brian Schulz) returns home from Vietnam, he’s required to rescue his ex-girlfriend (Cheryl Hausen) from the clutches of a Charles Manson-like cult leader. Horror maestro Sam Raimi, another Michigander, hams it up as the deranged fellow. Synapse Films gives “Thou Shalt Not Kill …” a new 2K high-definition transfer from the original negative. It’s probably better treatment than the movie warrants. It includes amusing audio commentaries featuring director Josh Becker, co-writer Bruce Campbell and Schulz; a new video interview with Campbell; a deleted scene with optional director’s commentary; an alternate title sequence; and original theatrical trailer.

Not much more entertaining, but technically proficient, at least, is “Hidden,” a movie with the rare distinction of being co-written by the fictitious Alan and Alana Smithy. Originally intended to be presented in 3D, it tells a story that appears to have been borrowed from David Cronenberg’s “The Brood.” The son of a mad scientist is invited to return to the “Divine Sanctuary of Hope,” where his mother conducted her experiments on people addicted to various evil substances. She was able to locate the place in the brain where the neurons controlling the addiction are found and transform them into livings capable of being delivered from the body as babies. Or, something like that, anyway. Turns out, these manifestations of evil are significantly more dangerous than the thing being cured. In any case, the clinic was closed for some ghastly reason and Brian and his friends are about to discover that the buggers are tough to kill. I’m guessing that “Hidden” is more effective in 3D, but I doubt if it will ever be shown publically in that format. – Gary Dretzka

True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell

Historically, the Japanese cinema has bowed to no one in its willingness to push the boundaries of good taste, simply to sell a few more tickets and videos. And, the titles are almost as wonderfully vulgar as what happens in the movies. In the late-1960s, Japanese horror and action flicks gave way to what was loosely termed, soft-core porn. In fact, the difference between “Emmanuelle” and “True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell” and “Debauchery” is quite a bit greater than the occasional glimpse of pubic hair and genitalia, which were strictly prohibited there at the time. The prominent Japanese studio Nikkatsu entered the “pink” movie game in 1971 with its Roman Porno line, adding higher-the-usual production values to sexploitation fare. As goofy as some of the movies seem today, critics gave them high marks for writing and direction. Released in 1975, “True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell” resembles all other women-in-prison movies in that it offers such staples as scenes involving convict changing uniforms, medical examinations, communal showers, predatory lesbians, gentle lesbians, a prison break, catfights and brutal male and female guards. Director Koyu Ohara didn’t stop there, however. As if to compensate for the absence of pubic hair, Ohara added sexual sadism, “water sports,” implied fisting and the insertion of foreign objects into the vagina, and even the occasional used tampon. The larger story is largely told in flashbacks, during which the women relate how it came to be that they’ve been incarcerated. As genre specimens go, “Sex Hell” is wild by American standards and routine compared to similar Japanese fare.

Released in 1983, “Debauchery” represents a step in a different direction from “pink” films, which were tame compared to the hard-core (if still censored) VHS tapes then flooding the adult marketplace. Hidehiro Ito’s stylish film borrows shamelessly from “Belle du Jour,” in that a bored, if extremely attractive housewife (Ryôko Watanabe) is talked into taking a shot at prostitution by a friend of her surgeon husband. He directs her to the elite Madame Machiko Society Club, which specializes in sex games, S&M, bondage, beads and whips. Her original intention was to add a bit of spice to her marriage, but, of course, she becomes addicted to the pain and humiliation she suffers at the hands of anonymous men. Things begin to get weird when her husband’s friend becomes her costumer. A lot of the stuff in “Debauchery” is pretty rough, even compared with such S&M classics as “The Story of O” and “The Image,” and it makes “9½ Weeks” look like a Disney cartoon. Both pictures come with informative notes by Japanese film historian Jasper Sharp. – Gary Dretzka

Fix: The Ministry Movie
Anyone who had Al Jourgenson in their office death pool during the latter half of the 1990s probably felt pretty confident about their chances for winning it. Based on the information provided in “Fix: The Ministry Movie,” it’s truly a wonder that the pioneer of “industrial rock” not lived through the making of the documentary, but also has survived to reconstitute the band, record an album and make plans for another tour of Europe this summer. Besides following in the footsteps of other debauched rock-’n’-roll survivors – shooting heroin and cocaine, drinking copious amounts of booze, avoiding sleep – Jourgenson managed to avoid being killed by fans who make the Hell’s Angels look like Boy Scouts. It’s no coincidence that the “scariest rock band ever” attracted some of the most frightening people in the world to their concerts, including, Jourgenson testifies, at least one of the planet’s most aggressively horny groupies. Industrial is an interesting distillation of rock genres. While as unquestionably loud and percussive as a drop forge, it also is characterized by transgressive and provocative themes. Early on, it mixed experimental electronic conceits with punk and heavy metal, and everyone involved seems to be pissed off about something or other. In case anyone doubts Jourgenson’s contributions to the genre, director Doug Freel records the observations of such kindred musicians as Trent Reznor, Jonathan Davis, Dave Navarro, Ogre Nivek, Lemmy, Jello Biafra, David Yow and former and current members of Ministry, of which there are many. If none of these names are familiar, “Fix” probably isn’t the movie for you. (Although listed as a co-producer, Jourgenson sued when denied final-cut privileges). The DVD adds extended interviews and footage. – Gary Dretzka

Donald Glover: Weirdo: Live From New York
Comedian Donald Glover is best known for his role as the nerdy junior-college student, Troy Barnes, in the NBC sitcom, “Community.” Before landing that job, however, he wrote for “The Daily Show” and “30 Rock,” and did sketch work on stage and bits on late-night television. He also records hip-hop music as Childish Gambino. In “Weirdo: Live From New York,” Glover spends most of his time telling stories from his childhood and describing what it’s like to be a kid. I’m not partial to this brand of comedy, if only because one generation’s iconography is another’s trivia. Bill Cosby made a great pre-“I Spy” living telling stories about Fat Albert and other friends from his neighborhood, but I doubt they resonant much with kids living there today. In some neighborhoods, Chris Rock’s memory sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris” probably seems hopelessly out of date, as well. That’s not to say “Weirdo” won’t appeal to anyone over, say, 25. Glover has an appealing nature and confident stage presence, and much of his material is very funny. Glover’s comparisons of visits to Toys ‘R’ Us and Home Depot, from a kid’s point of funny, are hilarious. His reverence for Cocoa Puffs, a source of amusement since 1958, is shared by several generations of Americans. The DVD adds an interview with Glover. – Gary Dretzka

The Witches of Oz: Blu-ray
Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous

Shown outside the U.S. as a television mini-series, “The Witches of Oz” made a brief appearance in theaters in our Midwestern tornado belt before shipping into DVD and Blu-ray. The latest updating of L. Frank Baum’s enduring legend finds aspiring writer Dorothy Gale (Paulie Rojas) in New York, where a big-time publisher hopes to sign her and make hay of the Oz stories she learned from her grandfather. Although Manhattan, New York, is a long way from Manhattan, Kansas, Dorothy is anxious to get a taste of the Big Apple in all of its cosmopolitan glory. Far from being a shrinking violet, she spends her first night in town at a cocktail lounge, where she tries to pick up a young Scotsman. The next morning, her agent gives her a sophisticated new hairdo and a flashy outfit. Somehow, news of Dorothy’s big break reaches the Wicked Witch of the West, who, contrary to what Dorothy has been led to believe, is very much alive and anxious to add Earth to her real-estate holdings. “The Witches of Oz” is full of young adults who are much more attractive than those in the beloved 1939 classic. In fact, it’s as much “Gossip Girl” and “Hannah Montana” as it is Judy Garland and Victor Fleming. I don’t think it will play well with anyone older than 14, but that leaves a lot of room for success. The special effects look pretty spiffy in Blu-ray. Other cast members include Billy Boyd, Sean Astin, Ethan Embry, Mia Sara, Lance Henriksen and Christopher Lloyd. Although she’s petite enough to be blown to Nebraska by a stiff Kansas wind, star-to-be Rojas has enough pep and verve to light up the entire city of New York in a blackout.

Shout! Factory has released the second installment in Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s continuation of the “X-Men” saga, animated to resemble the uneven pacing, muted color palette and dotty texture of graphic novels and motion comics. In “Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous,” the heart-breaking death of a student at the Xavier Institute reveals a greater threat to destroy the organization from within its walls. As such, the evil force already knows the weaknesses and tendencies of the various mutants. This follow-up to “AXM: Gifted” encompasses the events described in Issues 7 through 12 of Whedon and Cassaday’s 2004 comic book series for Marvel Comics. It’s divided into six 12-minute episodes and, in addition to our favorite “X-Men” characters, the “Fantastic Four” make an appearance. – Gary Dretzka

Goodnight for Justice: Measure of Man
In his second of three “Goodnight for Justice” Westerns for the Hallmark Channel, Luke Perry’s circuit-riding Judge John Goodnight arrives in dusty frontier town just as it’s about to have its bank robbed by the Spradling Gang of cold-blood killers. In the resulting shootout, one of the gang is killed and a teenager is arrested. Unbeknownst to the teenager and judge, the kid is Goodnight’s son by former Chicago showgirl Callie Bluepoint (Stefanie von Pfetten). Coincidentally, she also lives in the town where her long-ago boyfriend is temporarily assigned. That’s a lot of coincidences for the first 15 minutes of an 88-minute movie. It leaves a lot of room for old-fashioned Western action and intrigue, including the very real possibility that the boy will reject the father he didn’t know he had and stick with his criminal mentors in the gang. The “Goodnight for Justice” pictures never would be confused with a Clint Eastwood movie, but they’re a good fit on Hallmark. – Gary Dretzka

Dark Shadows: Fan Favorites/The Best of Barnabas
Logan’s Run: The Complete Series
Adam 12: Season Seven
Doctor Who: The Daemons/Carnival of Monsters

By the time the otherworldly soap “Dark Shadows” arrived on ABC, viewers had already fallen in love with “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family.” Even so, its success was anything but assured. In the mid-’60s, the demographics of daytime TV were significantly different than those associated with prime-time sitcoms. Fewer women worked in full-time jobs and they tended to control buying patterns at the supermarket. Romance in the afternoon was blooming and it didn’t include fangs and capes. Even so, Dan Curtis’ brainstorm would enjoy a six-year run, thanks, in large part, to support from teenagers who rushed home from school – or, so we’re told – to enjoy the kinky storylines and handsome undead characters. It was as different from “The Guiding Light” and “The Days of Our Lives” as “American Bandstand” was to “Lawrence Welk.” The DVD compilations “Dark Shadows: Fan Favorites” and “Dark Shadows: The Best of Barnabas” have been released in advance of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp adaptation, set for May 11, and simultaneous to the super-duper, all-inclusive “Complete Original Series: Limited Edition,” priced to sell at $500-plus. In this way, newbies and diehards both have been given an appetizer for the main course to come. Fans always will be the harshest critics of any adaptation or re-imagining of a beloved show or movie, so it remains an open question as to how closely their expectations meet those of critics and admirers of Depp and Burton. Both “Fan Favorites” and “Best of Barnabus” run about 180 minutes, minus commercial breaks, so they serve well as primers on “Dark Shadows.” The early episodes were shot in atmospheric black-and-white, on a set that must have seemed elaborate at the time, but now looks pretty basic. Color episodes would test the work of makeup artists, but, by then, the storylines were firmly established. Neither would Jonathan Frid’s debonair vampire be required to carry the weight of evil-doing alone, as he would eventually be joined by a zombie, werewolf, ghosts and witches. It remains great fun. The episodes are introduced by a still-gorgeous Kathryn Leigh Scott, a.k.a. Maggie Evans.

Sci-fi fans of a certain age will remember with fondness – if only for Jenny Agutter’s skin-tastic performance – the futuristic confection, “Logan’s Run.” Set in 2274 and set in a giant crystal dome, citizens were allowed to live as they wanted until they were 30, when they would be terminated. Those who balked and tried to escape their doom were called “runners” and their goal was to elude the killer Sandman. A year later, MGM and CBS decided to see how a spinoff series would fly, even if the network found it difficult to commit to a single day and timeslot. The series only lasted a year, adding a cult-like sheen to its memory. The setup is basically the same, with Gregory Harrison playing a turncoat Sandman, Logan, and Heather Menzies-Urich taking over for Agutter in the runner role. In another deviation, a few “elders” were allowed to survive and run things in secret. Approaching 30, Logan and another enforcer decide to split the dome in advance of their termination date. Look for such cast regulars and guest stars as Donald Moffat, Randy Powell, Mariette Hartley, Christopher Stone, Spencer Milligan, Kim Cattrall, Ellen Weston, Nicholas Hammand, Linden Chiles, Leslie Parish, Angela Cartwright, Paul Shenar and Melody Anderson.

During the seven-year run of NBC’s hit police-procedural “Adam-12,” public attitudes toward uniformed officers ran the gamut from respectful to downright hostile. It didn’t help that rank-and-file cops were being required to do the dirty work of conservative politicians, moralistic preachers and parents who’d lost control of their kids. They took the brunt of the abuse, often returning it in kind. In addition to nipping real crimes in the bud and capturing hardened criminals, they often were ordered to don helmets and beat the crap out of students protesting the Vietnam War and harass blacks and Hispanics whose only crime might have been standing in front of a liquor store drinking beer. Hippies had become fair game for impromptu searches and candidates for office demanded a tougher stance on law-and-order issues. “Adam-12” was different from its sibling series, “Dragnet,” only in that its primary characters wore crisp blue uniforms, while detectives Joe Friday and Bill Gannon were allowed the luxury of cheap suits and hideous sport coats. Both series did a pretty good job humanizing the cops, without delving very deeply into the issues dividing them from those assumed to be guilty, even when proven innocent. By the time the seventh and final season of “Adam-12” rolled around, Joseph Wambaugh’s novels and NBC’s “Police Story” had waded far more deeply into the muck surrounding the job and difficult situations at home. As representative as Martin Milner and Kent McCord’s characters might have seemed, it was impossible to envision them howling at the moon, alongside the other “choir boys” of the LAPD, in Wambaugh’s breakthrough novel.

Both “Doctor Who: The Daemons” and “Doctor Who: Carnival of Monsters” are from the Jon Pertwee years, 1970-74, and are highly regarded by fans and collectors, alike. In “The Daemons,” the Doctor is laying low in a rural England burg known as Devil’s End, favored by diehard pagans and archeologists interested in the nearby burial mounds. The Doctor recognizes them as being of alien origin and things get even more complicated when a local preacher shows up, looking very much like the Master. In “Carnival of Monsters,” a test drive of the TARDIS delivers the Doctor to a cargo ship, seemingly steaming through the Indian Ocean in 1926. He’s joined on the ship by Lurman entertainers Vorg and Shira, turned away from the planet Inner Minor. They’re in control of a “miniscope” peepshow plinth, which has imprisoned the TARDIS crew, along with a dinosaur and various Orgons, Cybermen and Drashigs. The DVD sets contain a plethora of bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Inside Nature’s Giants: Sperm Whale
PBS: Secrets of the Manor House

The latest DVD offerings from PBS are a curious lot. “Inside Nature’s Giants: Sperm Whale” devotes most of its time to a makeshift autopsy of a beached sperm whale. To say it’s graphic is only to scratch the surface of the show’s strange appeal, especially for those viewers who enjoy watching the deconstruction of once-living things. Sperm whales are particularly interesting because they’re able to dive to extreme depths and stay there for more than an hour collecting food for themselves and nourishment for their calves. Besides that, they’re able to withstand the extreme cold of the depths and the tentacles of giant squid. In this episode, the researchers are forced to do their digging below the surface of the blubber only when the tide’s out, which complicates things considerably. Even so, the corpse does reveal several deeply held secrets … even a few booby traps involving trapped gas and other noxious artifacts. (Fortunately, the whale had starved to death and not much was left to spoil.) Another researcher, located near the Azores, collects bones, teeth and ambergris, a substance that is as valuable as a truffle and can only be found in a whale’s rectum. It’s used in the production of some of the world’s most expensive perfumes. Arriving next week, “Inside Nature’s Giants: Monster Python” examines what one large snake enjoyed for its last dinner. Considering how pythons have now become a menace in Florida, this episode is especially scary.

The title, “Secrets of the Manor Born,” is a bit misleading in that no mysteries are solved and the juiciest details already are recorded, such as the huge discrepancy between the wages paid the servants and annual income of their bosses. It’s more of a national shame than a secret. What’s truly wonderful, though, are the manors and estates visited in the report and some of the stories about the privileged few who could afford them. (Many have been turned over to the National Trust and their maintenance is afforded through tourist revenues.) The show is especially timely now that we’re between seasons of “Downton Abbey.” The history of the manors corresponds directly to the rise and fall of the British Empire. – 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