MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: War Horse, Zoo, Miss Bala, Chinatown, Tyrannosaur…

War Horse: Blu-ray
I’d be willing to bet that horses have been the subject of more memorable movies than any other animal, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin notwithstanding. Among the 30 best titles, compiled by the editors at, are “Seabiscuit,” “Phar Lap,” “National Velvet,” “Into the West,” “The Horse Whisperer,” “Hidalgo,” “Dreamer” and “The Black Stallion.” Clearly, no one’s bothered to update the list lately, because Steven Spielberg’s equine epic, “War Horse,” has yet to be added to it. The Motion Picture Academy included it among the eight movies nominated for this year’s Best Picture, and it competed in five other categories. Adapted from a popular novel and hit play, “War Horse,” tells the story of Joey, a rambunctious colt blessed with both the brute strength required to pull a plow through a rock-strewn field and the nerves of steel needed to lead an officer into battle in an old-fashioned cavalry charge. Unfortunately, both for Joey and the cocky British officer, front-line German soldiers in World War I weren’t about to be intimidated by mounted swordsmen. The Huns feigned surprise and beat a hasty retreat to a nearby tree line, where a dozen or so machine guns laid in wait. The swift and sure slaughter anticipated a war that wouldn’t be contested by gentlemen on horses or rows of brightly clad infantrymen marching smartly into battle. Joey would survive the debacle, only to be put to work by an enemy with no respect for his royal bloodlines. Through an unusual series of events, Joey soon would find temporary refuge in the home of a French farmer and his granddaughter. After being re-captured, the Thoroughbred was forced to drag cannons up hills and wade through mud, carrying supplies to the bloody Battle of the Somme. When Joey finally managed to break away from the Germans, his only escape route was littered with steel barriers, potholes, dead bodies and gas canisters. Only an act of divine mercy and human kindness, though, could save him from being strangled by barbed wire and crushed by a tank. Other miracles were yet to come. How any of this action could be contained on a stage remains for me to be seen.

A large part of the appeal of Spielberg’s adaptation is its majestic sweep and the great physical beauty of the Devon countryside, where Joey was born, broken and first put to work by a boozy farmer (Peter Mullan) who couldn’t resist a bad deal when he saw one. Instead of purchasing a plow horse, Ted Narracott finds it necessary to engage in a bidding war with his tight-fisted landlord (David Thewlis) for the Thoroughbred, which he neither can afford nor expect to break ground for crops. All too aware of his dad’s shortcomings, his son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), takes it upon himself to train Joey to cut rows for turnips. After a summer storm destroys the crop, the desperate old sod breaks the boy’s heart by selling Joey to an army captain (Tom Hiddleston) in need of a war horse. Albert decides to joins the infantry, as much to reconnect with Joey as to spite his father and serve his country. Finally, though, all either of them wants to do is return home.

It may not take a crystal ball to anticipate a happy Spielbergian ending for “War Horse,” but nothing that happens between the auction and the credit roll is predictable or routine. The battle scenes are as gruesome as the Devon countryside is beautiful. “War Horse” has been compared with films of John Ford, whose films often combined spectacular landscapes with stories of common folks forced by circumstances to make heroic stands. In a making-of featurette, Spielberg says that he was constantly attuned to changes in weather over the moors — “the skies here are as dramatic as the story” – and would stop production on a scene to capture a cloud formation or sunset on film. The Blu-ray presentation does an excellent job capturing the brilliant cinematography of Spielberg regular, Janusz Kaminski, and the artistry of his design team. Apart from the amazing performances by the horses – there were several Joeys – it’s the overall look of the movie that will remembered most by the audience. In addition to the interesting and informative background features, digital copy and DVD, the Blu-ray package adds “Through the Producer’s Lens,” in which Kathleen Kennedy shares photos she took during filming; “War Horse: The Journey Home,” with Spielberg and members of the production team and cast; “A Filmmaking Journey,” in which Spielberg describes what compelled him to make the movie; “Editing & Scoring,’  with Spielberg, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams; and “The Sounds Of ‘War Horse,’  with sound designer Gary Rydstrom.” Given the recent uproar over the loss of horses in the production of HBO’s “Luck,” it’s interesting that the featurettes devote so much time on the Humane Society’s role on the “War Horse” set. – Gary Dretzka

We Bought a Zoo
Terry Thompson didn’t do filmmaker Cameron Crowe any favors when, immediately before committing suicide last October, he freed his collection of exotic pets into the wilds of Zanesfield, Ohio. Thompson did far more harm to the 48 animals — lions, cougars, leopards, bears, monkeys, wolves and 18 Bengal tigers – that paid the ultimate price for their owner’s financial problems and emotional instability. Seven of the animals survived the ordeal, but man’s tendency to harness everything that’s wild and foreign to him had already prevailed. Even with a two-month buffer between the outrage and launch of Crowe’s warm family dramedy, “We Bought a Zoo,” the barrage of horrifying headlines and photographs almost certainly took their toll at the box office. Such terrible coincidences are nothing new in Hollywood and damage-control experts made sure that potential customers understood the differences between a private preserve, a wildlife refuge and a public zoo. The movie is based on a memoir by British newsman Benjamin Mee, who saved Devon’s Dartmoor Zoological Park from financial ruin, much in the same way as Matt Damon’s Benjamin Mee saves a broken-down zoo in California. Unlike the real Mee, Damon’s Mee has the great good fortune of working alongside a zookeeper who looks exactly like Scarlett Johansson. He’s also been given a beyond-cute 7-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and a 14-year-old son (Colin Ford), who Mee fears has gone to the dark side since the recent death of his mother.

In the movie, Mee faces two possible barriers to the zoo’s re-opening. One, of course, is the unexpected amount of money required get such a facility in shape to protect both the animals and patrons. Two, the official (John Michael Higgins) responsible for accrediting zoos has an unpleasant history with an employee of the Rosemoor Wildlife Park and his OK to re-open it is anything but a done deal.  Otherwise, the crew Mee inherited from the former owners displays the kind of kooky traits usually associated with blue-collar types in the movies; parallel love stories emerge, linking Mee and the pretty zookeeper, and his son to her bright-and-sunny cousin (Elle Fanning); and the animals face significant crises of their own. Pretty standard stuff for a family entertainment, but competently rendered by Crowe and his cast. The director’s touch also is evident on the soundtrack, which overflows with songs from artists as well-known as Neil Young, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Yusef Islam (Cat Stevens) and Randy Newman and such hipster faves as Temple of the Dog, jonsi, the Bronx and Quantic.

“We Bought a Zoo” probably made money, but didn’t produce the kind of numbers desired from a Christmas release with A-list stars. It’s impossible to say whether its underperformance can be pinned on the Ohio animal slaughter, an ineffective marketing campaign or the mostly indifferent reviews from critics who still can’t forgive Crowe for making them sit through his last bomb, “Elizabethtown.” It’s not in the same league as “Jerry Maguire” or “Almost Famous,” but I can’t imagine anyone reading the script and thinking it would be. Mostly, it’s a very decent family film – in the broadest sense of the term – that should do lots of business in DVD and Blu-ray. The bonus package adds commentary with Crowe, co-star J.B. Smoove and editor Mark Livolsi; featurettes on the Mees’ actual zoo and the creation of Mees’ movie zoo; a bunch of delted scenes; and a gag reel. – Gary Dretzka

Chasing Madoff: Blu-ray
Almost everything one needs to know about the inability of federal regulators to prevent a financial catastrophe during the run-up to the collapse of this nation’s economy can be found in this alarming documentary. Although “Chasing Madoff” sticks primarily to the bungled handling of Bernard Madoff’s worldwide Ponzi scheme, it clearly demonstrates that such a massive fraud didn’t happen in a vacuum. Agencies created after the last Great Depression to protect investors were allowed to take a nearly 30-year, post-Reagan snooze, while Wall Street predators routinely picked the pockets of clients, homeowners and people looking forward to retirement. The scope of Madoff’s arrogance, along with the familiar names of many of well-heeled clients he swindled, ensured headlines for months and years to come. In fact, though, his scheme represented only the tip of an increasingly visible iceberg. Jeff Prosserman’s film describes how Boston-based securities analyst Harry Markopolos came to smell a rat 10 years before Madoff’s arrest, but couldn’t get any of his bosses to take the investigation to the next level. The scheme may appear hopelessly complicated to a layman, but the evidence was there all along for anyone with a business degree to see. In fact, after a decade without any movement – even the Wall Street Journal refused to believe the scoop of the crime — Markopolos began to fear that his findings were being deliberately swept under the rug and his life was in danger. Only after the story finally was printed and Madoff was arrested did congressional oversight committees find the time to put SEC flunkies on the hot seat. Still, only a handful of people involved in the overall economic disaster have been penalized and neither President Obama nor any of his potential opponents seem comfortable pursuing bankers and other business executives they might want to hit up later for campaign contributions. Madoff likely will spend the rest of life in prison, while investors scramble to rebuild their dreams and con artists are formulating the next big swindle. “Chasing Madoff” is structured like a good detective story, with a palpable level of suspense throughout it. If any of the corrupt wheel-dealers who were bailed out by taxpayers had been prosecuted and jailed, alongside Madoff, Prosserman’s documentary might have had a far more satisfying ending. – Gary Dretzka

Miss Bala
The Yellow Sea

The Hidden Face

The Double Hour

If the DVD and Blu-ray revolution has taught film buffs anything, it’s that the international cinema is far more productive and worthy of our attention than previously thought. Every week, new foreign titles are released into the domestic marketplace that may only have been shown here in festivals or extremely limited release. Although these films are readily available through subscription services and VOD, Americans’ reluctance to read subtitles is reflected in anemic sales and rental revenues. Neither is there much money invested by distributors in marketing. One of the encouraging signs, however, is the willingness of some new companies to take a risk on our desire for something besides action, horror and rom-coms … not that those genres aren’t explored, as well, by artists around the world.

Fox International Productions and Fox World Cinema are relative newcomers to the game of co-producing and co-distributing interesting foreign-language movies. If FIP’s support of a 2009 Japanese remake of Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” didn’t exactly set the world on fire, recent releases demonstrate how far the strategy has come in a short time. The offbeat crime thriller “Miss Bala” not only was Mexico’s nominee in the 2012 Academy Awards’ foreign-language category, but it’s also an extremely topical story. Gerardo Naranjo’s film describes how weird things can get when the trajectories of a violent drug gang and contestants in a beauty pageant cross paths in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, Tijuana.  Stephanie Sigman plays the painfully shy and withdrawn Laura Guerrero, who may be one of the least prepared contestants in a beauty pageant, anywhere. After checking in at the auditorium, Laura and a friend agree to meet at a disco frequented by Baja Norte’s flashiest men and women. While powdering her nose in the ladies’ room, she hears automatic-weapons fire on the dance floor and catches sight of an assault team dressed in ninja gear. Even though Laura’s seen by one of the gunmen, she’s allowed to escape the carnage. Unnerved by the experience, she attempts to contact police to discover the fate of her friend. It’s just her luck that the policeman she chooses to tell her story is in cahoots with the gang, to whom she’s promptly delivered. It’s at this point where things begin to get really strange. Instead of silencing her forever, the ruthless leader of the gang hands her keys to an Escalade and instructs her to follow him and park it in front of a consulate. We assume that it’s loaded with explosives, but don’t know if Laura will be allowed to survive the blast. Instead of turning Laura into toast, gang leader Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez) returns her to the pageant venue and pulls the strings necessary to get her back on the program. In fact, he hands her a wad of cash and tells her to go on a shopping spree for an appropriately glamorous gown. Every time Laura attempts to escape, Lino or one of his guys picks her up and gives her another dangerous assignment to perform. Once completed, she’s again returned to the pageant, which, by now, we know is demonstrably fixed. “Miss Bala” is an extremely violent movie, as befits the times in Mexico’s drug war, but Lino’s determination to give Laura her shot at stardom borders on the hilarious. By the time she gets to the interview stage, Laura can barely remember her name. Naranjo uses Tijuana as well as Steven Soderbergh did in “Traffic” and the cruelty of the perpetrators of the violence is palpable throughout the movie. While it’s definitely not something for the faint of heart, fans of new Mexican cinema should get a charge out of it.

Likewise, Na Hong-jin’s “The Yellow Sea” is extremely violent, wickedly entertaining and occasionally darkly comic. Ha Jung-woo plays Gu-nam, a Korean-born taxi driver living in a lawless province of northern China. He’s cursed with a huge debt, a gambling habit and a missing wife he fears is turning tricks in Seoul, instead of making money to send home to support their daughter. To pay off his debt, the driver accepts an assignment from a local vice lord to sneak into Korea and assassinate one of his enemies, bringing the man’s severed thumb home as proof of his success. If he has any time left before the next smuggling ship leaves port, the reluctant assassin hopes to track down his errant wife. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that Gu-nam has been lured into the web of a vicious spider and his odds of escaping border on nil. When he isn’t waiting outside the apartment of his target, freezing his ass off, Gu-nam is being chased through the streets of Seoul by police and two opposing gangs, at least. It’s easy to get lost in the conspiracies here, but the real fun comes in watching Gu-nam avoid being captured. To that end, nearly as many cars and trucks are sacrificed in “The Yellow Sea” as the “The Blues Brothers.” And, given the choice of weapons employed by the gangsters, this is one movie in which “getting medieval” actually means something.

The less revealed upfront about what happens in Andres Baiz’ pyscho-thriller “The Hidden Face,” the better the experience will be for viewers. As it is, the trailer gives away far too much of the plot. On the off chance you see it coming, hit the skip-ahead button. Any appreciation of “The Hidden Face” requires buying into a plot twist that’s worthy of an Edgar Allen Poe story and isn’t predictable 10 minutes ahead of the reveal. The movie’s protagonist certainly doesn’t see it coming. Adrian is an up-and-coming Spanish symphony director, who’s awarded a year-long residency with the Bogota orchestra. He brings his jealousy-prone girlfriend along to keep him company. After Belen determines that he’s cheating on her with a violinist, she decides to test his loyalty. The estate’s owner, who was married to a Nazi war criminal for several decades, comes up with deliciously devious idea, which we won’t discuss. As could be predicted, the test backfires on Belen, leaving Adrian vulnerable to the advances of a pretty Colombian waitress, Fabiana, who’s rescued him from a drunken stupor. Those are all the hints you’re going to get. Fans of the genre won’t be disappointed by this terrific thriller, which is a feast for the mind, as well as the eyes.

Samuel Goldwyn Films can also be counted on to deliver stimulating entertainments from around the globe. Giuseppe Capotondi’s debut feature “The Double Hour” is a complex and occasionally bewildering thriller that reminded critics of Guillaume Canet’s international sensation, “Tell No One,” but probably owes a great deal to Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg. After opening with a mysterious suicide, a speed-dating party and a quick roll in the hay, “The Double Hour” abruptly transitions into a psycho-drama in which all easy assumptions are challenged and the characters never betray the intelligence of viewers by dropping easy-to-read hints. One minute, Slovenian immigrant Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport) is chatting with a guest whose bathroom she’s cleaning; the next, the maid is staring down on the patio upon which the women took a header. Apparently, the suicide didn’t cause her any lasting trauma, because the next time we see Sonia, she’s interviewing potential suitors at a speed-dating event. Among them is recent widower Guido (Filippo Timi), a former Turin cop and current security guard at a fabulous palazzo outside the city. Their five-minute chat wouldn’t qualify as “meeting cute,” by any means, but they convince each other that an impromptu snog wouldn’t hurt anything. After an awkward late-night goodbye, Sonia and Guido actually do spark. Their romance is upended, however, when armed thieves interrupt a stroll they’re taking through the grounds of the estate and tie them up among the treasures being ransacked. During a skirmish with one of the gunmen, a fatal bullet exits Guido’s chest and wounds Sonia, leaving her in a coma. After that, everything we see happening on the screen is open to question, but in an entirely satisfying way. Don’t expect to figure things out in one sitting, though. Some clues are provided in the deleted scenes and making-of featurette, but not many. – Gary Dretzka

Chinatown: Blu-ray
It’s taken a while for “Chinatown” to arrive in Blu-ray, but its continued presence on all other formats –and repeated airings on premium cable – have probably kept fans from going through withdrawal. It’s nice to report that “Chinatown” looks and sounds spectacular on Blu-ray and a third, fourth or fiftieth revisiting is definitely recommended. Moreover, there’s no reason to think that the experience could get much when the next new technological wonder arrives. The story and dialogue remain the same, of course, but everything around them is better. In no previous iteration has the overworked term, “California noir,” made so much sense. That includes Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, which was completed in a mere nine days and sounds splendid in TrueHD 5.1. The hi-def transformation isn’t discussed in the featurettes, but the decisions that allowed “Chinatown” to be the perfect candidate for a Blu-ray facelift are fully explored. Because of this, I recommend to return viewers that they savor the making-of featurettes – borrowed from two previous DVD editions – before re-screening Roman Polanski’s classic mystery. I hadn’t studied them previously, but took the time this time around to learn some things I hadn’t previously known about one of my favorite movies. Robert Towne and David Fincher’s commentary plays like a clinic in the art of making all pieces of a cinematic jigsaw puzzle come together in seamless fashion. The 78-minute documentary, “Water and Power,” explains how thin a line there is between truth and fiction in “Chinatown.” Many of the same issues that caused the split between Noah Cross and Hollis Mulwray continue to be heatedly debated today, especially by conservationists and folks who would have enjoyed the kind of water sports Kern Lake might have accommodated had the water not been diverted to faucets in L.A. In “‘Chinatown’: An Appreciation,” directors Steven Soderbergh and Kimberly Peirce, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer James Newton Howard offer their observations on “Chinatown” and why it continues to be an important and influential drama. “‘Chinatown’: The Beginning and the End” describes how the movie came to be made in the first place and how it was envisioned as a trilogy, covering more than 30 years in L.A. history. It includes the reminiscences of Polanski, Towne and Jack Nicholson. The same guys contribute to “Legacy,” which looks back at the success of the “Chinatown.” The Blu-ray package also includes a booklet with text and photos. – Gary Dretzka

Truth or Dare: Blu-ray
Nicole Kidman/Gwyneth Paltrow/Renee Zellweger: 4-Film Collection

It’s fitting that “Truth or Dare” is being released on Blu-ray just as Madonna is about to embark on another world tour, in support of a new album.  It will be interesting to see if she’s as spry, at 53, as she was in 1991, when the so-called Material Girl enjoyed a following of “Madonna wannabes” as loyal as any of Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters.” In addition to becoming a gay icon and tormentor of David Letterman, Madonna made people care about dance as much as anyone since Chubby Checker, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (Michael Jackson was from a different planet, altogether.) Today, Gaga is the reigning queen of pop music and Madonna may have to do something more radical than grab her crotch and invent new ways to abuse crucifixes. While both Gaga and Madonna continue to re-invent themselves in public, it is Madonna’s insistence on rubbing her private life into the noses of fans and non-fans, alike, that keeps her profile high. When “Truth or Dare” launched, Madonna was at the top of her game and commanded every stage on which she appeared. She was dating the much older Warren Beatty, then, instead of men closer to her daughter’s age.

Her 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour was distinguished by the kind of masturbatory dance routines that caused Canadian police to threaten her with arrest, as well as her extravagantly pointed bras. Off-stage, we watch her mother-hen the young dancers with whom she shares the stage, going so far as to hold pre-show prayer circles and nightly tuck-ins for the fortunate few. While in Detroit, Madonna requires that we join her on a visit to her mother’s grave and asks the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to her dad. In other stops, she has great fun dissing Kevin Costner, for the sin of calling her show “neat,” and barely tolerates the presence of her best childhood friend, whose letters Madonna has continually ignored. The music’s as good as expected, but, otherwise, there isn’t a moment in “Blond Ambition” when something resembling spontaneity is allowed to prevail. The Blu-ray presentation does justice to the both the performance and off-stage segments, which alternate between black-and-white and color, and the music sounds fine in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Also crystal clear is Beatty’s observation, “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there existing?”

And, while we’re on the subject of divas, Lionsgate is taking advantage of its year-old distribution deal with the new owners of Miramax by repackaging films made by company faves Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Renee Zellwegger. None of the titles in the four-packs is particularly underrepresented in DVD, but, at $19.98, the price is right. I don’t know if or when the same material will be repackaged in all-Blu-ray sets.

The Kidman package includes Alejandro Amenabar’s stylish, suspenseful and often downright scary thriller, “The Others”; John Cameron Mitchell’s emotionally draining family drama, “The Rabbit Hole”; “Dogville,” Lars von Trier’s taxing story of a woman attempting to hide from gangsters in a Colorado mining town; and Anthony Minghella’s intricately re-imagined adaptation of Charles Frazier’s best-seller, “Cold Mountain.” Kidman received a Best Actress nomination for her performance in “Rabbit Hole.”

“Cold Mountain” also shows up in the Zellweger four-pack, which is appropriate because it is the picture for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Although Zellwegger hasn’t had much luck lately finding comparable roles, the DVDs remind us that she made a big splash in “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” alongside Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She was accorded the same honor for her turn as Roxy Hart in Rob Marshall’s splashy musical, “Chicago.” “New in Town” is the clinker in this group, as the fish-out-of-water story was trashed by most mainstream critics and quickly forgotten by fans.

With the exception of Harvey Weinstein, Paltrow was the public face of Miramax in its heyday. She took home the Best Actress prize for her delightful performance in “Shakespeare in Love,” the period rom-com that stunned Hollywood by stealing the Best Picture Oscar from heavily favored “Saving Private Ryan.” Two years later, she rejoined then-boyfriend Ben Affleck in “Bounce,” an offbeat romance that split critics down the middle. Paltrow may have been a tad out of place as the title character in the Jane Austen adaptation, “Emma,” although no more so than Zellwegger in “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” “View From the Top” is the turkey plucked clean by critics. Along with Christina Applegate, Kelly Preston and Candice Bergen, Paltrow plays a flight attendant with sky-high ambitions. – Gary Dretzka

Del Shores’ My Sordid Life
Sebastian Maniscalco: What’s Wrong With People

In addition to his skills as a writer, playwright, director and producer, Del Shores is a heck of a monologist and raconteur. Among the award-winning plays on his list of credits are “The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife,” “Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got the Will?),” “Sordid Lives,” “Cheatin’” and “Southern Baptist Sissies.” Extremely funny and great story teller, Shores has contributed to such TV series as “Queer as Folk,” “Dharma & Greg” and “Sordid Lives: The Series.” “Del Shores’ My Sordid Life” spans his rural Texas boyhood and success as an in-demand Hollywood writer. Openly gay and married to his longtime lover, Shores draws from a barrel full of recollections about growing up in a wildly eccentric Southern Baptist family and making a living among the loony-tunes in Hollywood. They’re gay-centric, but completely accessible to straight viewers, as well. Filmed in front of a largely gay and lesbian audience – peppered with actors who’ve acted in his productions – he’s preaching to an enthusiastic choir.

In “What’s Wrong With People?,” Sebastian Maniscalco demonstrates that the kind of observational humor that killed ’em in the 1980-90s still can work today … even without flurries of dick jokes and f-bombs. His material sounds like pretty standard stuff – growing up Italian-American, picking up girls in club – but he’s surprisingly adept at making it sound fresh and relateable. I don’t remember him being as funny when he was touring with “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show.” The bonus features, “Getting to the Stage,” “Sebastian’s Fans,” “Photo Shoot” and “Pictures With Fans,” may not add much to the package, but they’re pretty harmless. – Gary Dretzka

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
The timing for the release of the bio-doc, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” couldn’t be much better. With last week’s release on DVD and Blu-ray of “The Muppets,” it’s likely that several young viewers, at least, will wonder if they have the talent it takes to make a living at puppetry or, best case, Muppetry. Growing up in a middle-class Baltimore family, Kevin Clash defied the expectations of his African-American neighbors and friends – anyone who doesn’t aspire to a career in sports or music must be gay — by sewing puppets and giving them personalities and voices of their own. This happened even before “Sesame Street” launched on PBS, changing his life forever. Before long, Clash’s puppets would be entertaining kids in the neighborhood and contributing to a local kiddies’ show on one of Baltimore’s leading stations. To make his dream come true of working with Jim Henson and his gang, Clash invested part of his class trip to New York in visiting the Muppet workshop there, making friends and learning secrets. That trip eventually would lead to a regular gig with “Captain Kangaroo” and odd jobs in the Muppet universe. Flash-forward only a few years and the kid with a dream has grown into the man behind one of the world’s most popular foam-and-felt characters: Elmo. Constance Marks’ inspirational documentary chronicles Clash’s longshot bid for the coolest job in the world and the honor of breaking bread on a daily basis with heroes Henson, Frank Oz, Bill Barretta, Fran Brill and Caroll Spinney.  It took Clash a while to realize that he was spending far more time with his puppet creations than his wife and daughter, but he made time to rectify the situation before it was too late. He also decided to become a mentor to aspiring performers, just as he benefitted from the kind advice of strangers in the Muppet Workshop.  The DVD adds interviews and a Sundance Q&A with the filmmakers and extended footage. – Gary Dretzka

The Kate Logan Affair
At first glance, Alexis Bledel appears to be the least likely actor to play a cop. At 30, the thin and willowy brunette still could pass for a virginal freshman at an Ivy League college, as she did in “Gilmore Girls.” In the movies, anyway, anything is possible, so one willingly suspends disbelief for a reel or two of “The Kate Logan Affair.” When we first meet rookie cop Kate Logan, she’s about to arrest a handsome French conventioneer she mistakes for a wanted serial killer. He’s not, of course, so it’s not surprising that she’d be profusely apologetic. What we don’t expect, however, is that Kate would show up later at his motel, practically demanding that they go out for dinner. One thing leads to another and the married actuary (Laurent Logan) agrees to be her boytoy for a couple of nights, not anticipating that Kate might be as nutty as Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction.” After her gun accidentally discharges in his motel room, Kate convinces him they both would be in jeopardy if the truth came out. So, they escape through the bathroom window just as her cop cronies are about to enter. It’s best to leave what happens in the next half-hour unexplained. Writer/director’s sophomore feature probably wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny on the big screen, but on DVD, at least, it’s quite convincing. Bedel turns out to have been an inspired choice. Here’s one case where still waters actually do run deep. – Gary Dretzka

Dysfunctional Friends
Black Butterfly

In Corey Grant’s overly crowded ensemble drama, “”Dysfunctional Friends,” a group of college friends gathers for the funeral of a well-liked comrade who died too young.  The group is so disparate that it’s difficult to imagine any school that could accommodate their many interests and majors. Because they’re all African-American, the characters don’t immediately remind us of the ones we met in “The Big Chill,” which this movie admittedly resembles. At the funeral, they’re told that their friend left behind an estate valued at $13 million, but they all would have to spend five days and nights together, without anyone getting fed up and fleeing, to share it. Naturally, the characters all are undergoing crises of their own and have old scores to settle, several of the romantic variety. Among the actors in the young and attractive cast are Datari Turner, Stacey Dash, Terrell Owens, Hosea Chanchez, Persia White, Christian Keyes, Jason Weaver, Stacy Keibler (George Clooney’s current squeeze), Wesley Jonathan, Tatyana Ali and Reagan Gomez-Preston. Their fans may not be surprised by what happens in “Dysfunctional Friends,” but they probably won’t be disappointed, either.

As family melodramas go, “Black Butterfly” is about as subtle as a hand grenade or sledge hammer. If there are any shades of gray in this story about crime and punishment in an extended African-American family, my eyes couldn’t discern any. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, only that potential viewers should expect to be manipulated within an inch of their heart strings. When we meet her, Ariel (Mahogany Monae) is a perfectly normal American teenager with a jock boyfriend and dreams of representing her country as an Olympics-level swimmer. She’s immediately likable and the rape she suffers early in the movie is so upsetting it nearly causes “Black Butterfly” to derail before it’s even left the station. We’ve already met the rapist, a cop, who threatens to harm her family if she reveals what happened. The truth eats on Ariel’s soul and conscience to the point where she finds it difficult to practice her sport, feel close to her boyfriend or answer the growing concerns of her parents. Meanwhile, the cop commits another rape and murders a fellow officer who becomes suspicious of him. There’s more, but you get the point. After writer/director Mark Harris convinces us of the antagonist’s unredeemable evil, he demands that we take a side on vigilantism. Again, without revealing everything, he stacks the deck in a most unconscionable way. The largely untested cast almost succeeds in maintaining a grip on the unwieldy narrative, but, more often than not, the script leaves them handcuffed. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Truth About Kerry

With his second screenplay and in his directorial debut, Paddy Considine has delivered a protagonist very much like the ones he’s played in such films as “Dead Man’s Shoes,” “Stoned,” “My Summer of Love” and “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980.” In his place stands Peter Mullan, another British actor who demands our attention with every new performance. (He plays the boozing Devon farmer in “War Horse.”) “Tyrannosaur” is less a story than a character study. Mullan plays Joseph, a man filled with rage and prone to violence. He drinks to excess and willingly puts himself in the way of potential harm. After very nearly pushing his luck to the limits of its elasticity, Joseph reluctantly seeks redemption and forgiveness in the hands of a saintly woman, Hannah (Olivia Colman), who works at a Christian-charity thrift shop. If her nature tells her to take Joseph under her wing and protect him from himself, Hannah’s insanely jealous husband orders her to keep her distance from all men and punctuates his demand with a punch to her face. Because of this, Joseph is required to take a windy path to rehabilitation. In addition to working out his own inner demons, he could solve Hannah’s problems simply by playing to type and beating the life out of the husband. Instead, Considine adds a twist that offers Joseph hope for salvation and Hannah an opportunity to become whole, again. “Tyrannosaur” isn’t an easy movie to watch, but the acting, alone, rewards the effort.

Set in a remote Irish fishing village, “The Truth About Kerry” is being promoted as a psycho-thriller with paranormal overtones. In fact, though, it’s only slightly more suspenseful than your average sweeps-month episode of “Desperate Housewives.” In it, a young American woman, Emma (Stana Katic), travels to Ireland to investigate her friend Kerry’s suspicious death. Police ruled it a drowning, but the weird behavior of the locals toward her suggests otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with Emma’s investigation, per se, even if it basically goes nowhere fast (84 minutes). The problem is that Emma is prone to hysterics and the ghost she sees is leading her in the wrong direction. Anyone who’s watched more than few “Law & Order” episodes will guess the “truth” about Kerry, even if Emma doesn’t. On the plus side, County Kerry is a lovely place to set a mystery and Katic is easy on the eyes. The one truly interesting thing about “Kerry” is its journey to the screen. Shot in 2004, it wasn’t screened at a festival until 2010 and is only now showing up on DVD. In the meantime, according to her making-of featurette, writer/director Katherine Torpey shed 140 pounds and husband/collaborator Shaun O’Sullivan. Before feeling confident enough to finish the project, she decided it was necessary to disappear from view and “find herself.” Good for her. – Gary Dretzka

Alien Opponent: Uncut
I’m not all that familiar with cable’s Chiller network, but, solely judging from the evidence presented in “Alien Opponent,” I can only guess that it’s competing with SyFy for the honor of airing the least competently made horror flicks. That I’m making that judgment based on the “Uncut” edition, made available by Shout! Factory, I dare not imagine how bad the “cut” version must have been. Like almost every basic-plus network carrying original movies and mini-series, Chiller is required to pull back on extreme gore and horror – and merely hint at nudity and normal human sexuality – in order not to rouse the ratings gods and various parental watchdog groups. In doing so, these channels often appear to be more prudish than PBS and BBC America. The best thing about the hugely derivative “Alien Opponent” is the assault of the slug aliens that threatens the happiness of a bunch of hillbillies who spend most of their lives hanging out at a rural junkyard. At approximately the same moment as the son-in-law of the junkyard’s owner kills his blond wife’s lover, and is himself murdered by the older woman, a space vehicle crash lands in a nearby cornfield. In the morning, it becomes clear that the aliens are up to no good and need to be exterminated. Their presence is first manifested in the appearance of slugs that make a beeline to any human orifice not protected by a cork or mouth gag. If these atrocious creatures weren’t sufficiently obnoxious, the junkyard owner puts a bounty on the robots controlling the slugs and using her toolshed to invent new weaponry. On paper, then, “Alien Opponent” displays a sliver of originality. In execution, however, Colin Theys and John Doolan (“Banshee!!!”) have delivered a movie that looks as if it were intended as parody, but someone forgot to add the laughs. The only stars anyone is likely to recognize are former wrestler Roddy Piper, as a crazed priest, and Jeremy London (“7th Heaven,” “Party of Five”). – Gary Dretzka

BBC: Great Expectations: Blu-ray
BBC: Torchwood: Miracle Day: Blu-ray

Call Me Fitz: The Complete Second Season

Designing Women: The Complete Sixth Season

Top 21 Best Episodes of ‘21 Jump Street’

Knowing that Gillian Anderson was born in Chicago and attended high school and college in the Midwest, I’ve wondered how it’s come to be that most of her recent work has either been filmed in England or has roots there. Even amid the hysteria surrounding “X-Files” and its unworthy sequels, Anderson was commuting between Hollywood and London. In fact, though, she spent a great deal of time in England in her youth, returning to America with a decided British accent. If the BBC ever wanted to adapt “Laverne & Shirley,” she and fellow ex-pat Elizabeth McGovern could star as the characters, now employed by Watneys Red Label, or moms of L&S II. In the latest remake of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” – not counting the Mike Newell version, arriving later this year – Anderson plays one of the great characters in English literature, Miss Havisham. The three-part BBC mini-series currently is currently being shown on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classics,” which no longer airs on Los Angeles’ KCET-Ch. 28, but can be seen on outlying  KOCE and KLCS. She is joined by Douglas Booth, as Pip; Ray Winstone, Abel Magwitch; David Suchet, as the lawyer Jaggers; Paul Rhys, as Compeyson; Mark Addy, as Pumblechook; and Dickens’ great-great-great-grandson, Harry Lloyd, as Herbert Pocket. (The names, alone, are worth the price of admission to any Dickens’ story.) Your Blu-ray will be tested by the production’s dark and moody tones. For the uninitiated, “Great Expectations” follows the young Pip, who, after being talked into helping an escaped convict, manages to steal a meat pie, instead. He wants to work at his brother’s forge, but, again, fate intervenes, this time in the form of the rich recluse, Miss Havisham. Through his eccentric neighbor, Pip is introduced to her devious adopted daughter, Estella, who likewise has a chip on her children about men. Pip’s path takes him to London, where, through the kindness of a strange, he is able to lead a fat life and envision a bright future. It isn’t to last, however.

Also from the Beeb comes the fourth season of the hit sci-fi series, “Torchwood,” whose story arch was labeled “Miracle Day.” Ever hear the old bromide, “Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true”? The wisdom in it is tested on the day convicted child killer Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman) is executed, but doesn’t die. And, neither does anyone else. In fact, people around the world start not-dying at an alarming frequency, causing a rush on medical and food supplies that threatens our ability to respond to normal comings and goings, as well as the occasional disaster. In the course of investigating the phenomenon and possible links to the disbanded Torchwood institution, CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) follows a path of crumbs back to Washington and officials in his own organization. To save humanity, Rex is required to make contact with surviving members Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and the mysterious Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), both of whom were introduced in “Doctor Who.” The hi-def bonus package adds a behind-the-scenes special, iTunes intros and a “Web of Lies” motion comic.

Call Me Fitz” is a wildly profane, unabashedly sacrilegious and often very funny Canadian sitcom, set around the nation’s most ethically challenged used-car dealership. Jason Priestly plays the boss’ thoroughly unwanted son and the survivor of automobile accident that, we learn, would have killed anyone with a conscience. Lacking one, the Almighty provides Fitz with the next best thing: a guardian angel/brother who desperately attempts to make him see the error in his ways, mostly with women. In the second season, Larry is given 73 days to clean up Fitz’ act and have him make amends to the many people — again, mostly women – he’s hurt. Adding to the intrigue is a sexy, red-haired temptress, Dot Foxley, who would love to see him fail. But, then, so would his rotten-to-the-core father and off-the-wall sister. Features include, “Profanity as Art,” “Fitz Family,” “Meet Dot Foxley,” behind-the-scenes material, interviews, bloopers and selected audio commentaries.

The sixth season of “Designing Women” was noteworthy for a couple reasons, not the least of which was the forced departure of Delta Burke, a.k.a. Suzanne Sugarbaker, and voluntary exit of Jean Smart. In their place would arrive Julia Duffy (“Newhart”) and Jan Hooks (“Saturday Night Life”). The changes would test the series’ popularity with loyal viewers, insomuch as the original ladies all had distinct personalities and strong opinions. At the same time, creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband, Harry, were becoming integral members of fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. As unofficial media advisers, they produced the documentary film, “The Man From Hope,” which won Clinton more votes than the windy speech he gave at the Democratic National Convention. The season debut of “Designing Women” drew a huge, publicity-driven audience, but, in hindsight, it also probably spelled the beginning of the end for the show.

The recent theatrical re-imagining of “21 Jump Street” garnered surprisingly positive reviews, as well as decent, if not great box-office returns. Originally co-created by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell, the TV series became one of the first hits on the fledgling Fox Network and a magnet for the much-desired teen audience. Best known today for its role in launching the career of Johnny Depp, it also was one the first TV series to take the problems of contemporary teens seriously and tell stories from their point of view. Full-season packages already are in circulation, but “Top 21 Best Episode” pretty much cuts right to the chase for those who’ve only seen the movie. Among the highlights in the three-DVD collection are Johnny Depp’s last appearance, several themed episodes and a roster of guest stars that includes Brad Pitt, Christina Applegate, Vince Vaughn, Jason Priestly, Shannen Doherty, Josh Brolin and Blair Underwood. – 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