MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Newlyweds, Certified Copy, Arrietty, Route 66, Sherlock … More

Love Etc.
The careers of few indie filmmakers have begun in as auspicious a fashion as Ed Burns. In 1995, “The Brothers McMullen” stunned audiences at Sundance with its fresh take on life, love and buddy-ship among young Irish-Catholics brothers on Long Island. “She’s the One” was accorded a substantially larger budget and more familiar co-stars (Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz), but critics weren’t nearly as impressed. While they didn’t exactly hate it, most pundits expected proportionally more heft from the laid-back writer/actor/director. Even so, the quirky second entry in his “Long Island Trilogy” turned a respectable profit. I suspect that his 2006 “The Groomsmen” was the film he hoped would complete the trilogy and, despite weak box-office returns, it might have been Burns’ best work in 11 years. By this time, though, his acting career had picked up steam and he had become a family man. Any son of blue-collar parents who grows up to experience fame in the movie dodge and be blessed with a supermodel bride, Christy Turlington, would be forgiven if, instead of churning out arthouse fare, he spent his free time at home with the wife and kids. Positive, negative or indifferent, “Newlyweds” won’t change anyone’s opinion of Burns’ work or lift the 17-year-old curse of other people’s expectation that he finally assume the mantle of “the Irish-Catholic Woody Allen.” Better for everyone involved, if they had accepted Burns as the Irish-Catholic Henry Jaglom, with whom he shares more positive traits.

Shot in New York City in less than two weeks and reportedly on a budget of $9,000, “Newlyweds” brought Burns back to his earliest indie roots. Like “The Brothers McMullen,” it is the kind of slice-of-life story that defies such convenient categorizations as comedy, drama, romance or melodrama. As Confucius (or his simpleton brother, Confused) once said, “It is what it is.” Like almost all of the 44-year-old Queens native’s movies, “Newlyweds” focuses tightly on several contemporaneous New Yorkers who are approaching a crossroads in life. Although none is particularly noteworthy on his or her own, each fits a recognizable post-yuppie archetype. Employing the same faux-documentary style employed on practically every NBC sitcom or cable reality show, a pair of married couples tells the audience things on the sly they won’t admit to their partners over dinner or even alone at home. Burns and Caitlin Fitzgerald play the recently married Buzzy and Katie, whose blissful newlywed status is tested to the breaking point, first, by the arrival of his emotional shipwreck of a half-sister, Linda (Kerry Bishe), and, second, turmoil in the 18-year marriage of her passively aggressive sister, Marsha (Marsha Dietlein), and aggressively dimwitted husband, Max (Max Baker). After skipping her brother’s wedding, Linda seemingly has arrived in TriBeCa both to test the bonds of an ex-boyfriend’s marriage and the patience of Katie, who’s down to her last nerve with the intruder’s inconsiderate behavior. The freakishly even-tempered Buzz attempts to steer a middle course between them, but hits two very deep potholes when Linda seduces Katie’s intrusive ex-husband and Marsha borrows surplus venom from her marriage – she caught Max getting a blowjob from a much younger client — to poison her sister’s happiness.

Insecure, for no good reason, Katie takes out her paranoia on Buzzy, a second-time husband who’s completely lost control of the situation. Can this marriage be saved? Anyone who’s followed Burns’ career with anticipation for every new project will find an answer to that question by renting a copy of “Newlyweds,” as soon as possible. Others aren’t likely to find more than one of the characters to be anything besides insufferable. If Burns’ had been allotted another few days’ time and a few more dollars – the film was commissioned at the last moment by the folks at the TriBeCa festival – “Newlyweds” really could have benefitted from a cameo by a learned parental figure, such as the one played by John Mahoney in “She’s the One” (and edited out of “Groomsmen”). The DVD arrives with an interview and making-of featurette with the auteur.

The New York City of Jill Andresevic’s often poignant documentary, “Love Etc.,” is far more all-inclusive than the one we visit in the films of Ed Burns and Woody Allen. By lacing together five stories chronicling the pursuit of lasting love, viewers are introduced to a representative handful of Big Apple residents, some married and others not, some gay and others straight, some young and others old. Apparently, the idea for the film came from executive producer Jonathan Tisch, who’d been inspired by a day he spent waiting in line with his fiancée for their marriage license. He was impressed by the diversity of the couples around them and spirit of optimism they shared on that day. Knowing the odds against more than half of the unions lasting more than a few years, Tisch understood that “Love Etc.” couldn’t be all wine and roses, without also noting the presence of the vinegar and thorns that come with time. The subjects include a middle-age single gay playwright, awaiting the birth of twins via a surrogate; a single dad, who digs the mom of one of his son’s friends, but doesn’t want to give up drinking, smoking and other habits; a teenage Brazilian immigrant, who falls in first love with an overachieving classmate, Danielle; a young Indian couple who couldn’t even wait for their wedding day to end before they begin bickering over traditional spousal duties and accepted norms of behavior; and an elderly songwriter, whose love remains in bloom even as his longtime wife begins her slow waltz with Alzheimer’s. They’re all compelling, if not particularly unusual in 21st Century America. “Love Etc.” has been shown on the OWN network, as a selection in Oprah’s Documentary Club. – Gary Dretzka

Perfect Sense: Blu-ray
David Mackenzie’s dystopian romance, “Perfect Sense,” is a perfectly decent thriller, with recognizable stars in Eva Green and Ewan McGregor and a story that’s at least as exciting and credible as dozens of others in the impending-doom genre. And, yet, as far as I can tell, it played in exactly one New York City theater and a few dozen in the U.K. before being unceremoniously dumped into the DVD and Blu-ray market. It’s possible that the absence of zombies and vampires trumped even the likelihood of seeing the lead actors in various stages of undress (always a welcome diversion from catastrophy). Or, perhaps, it was derailed by a combination of the utter failure of “Blindness,” which it resembles, and recent exposure to “Contagion,” “Quarantine 2,” TV’s “The Walking Dead” and other viral-holocaust flicks. No matter, frequent renters of pre- and post-apocalyptical dramas could do a lot worse than “Perfect Sense,” in which an undiagnosed disease causes the loss of sensory functions. The attacks are preceded by intense, if temporary crying jags and violent acts of rage directed as much at loved ones as stationary objects and strangers. This is especially perplexing for McGregor’s character, who’s a master chef at a restaurant where more and more regular customers are losing their taste buds every day. Against this background, Mackenzie also has set a romance between the chef and epidemiologist played by Green, who, in a fit of rage, trashes her laboratory. Perhaps, if their love can survive the epidemic, so, too, can the hopes of mankind. The Blu-ray package adds interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Certified Copy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, one of the world’s most esteemed filmmakers, choose Italy as the place to make his first feature away from home, and the ghosts of several European arthouse masters appear to have been looking over his shoulder at every step. Like the films of Antonioni, Bergman, Kieslowski and Godard, “Certified Copy” is an intellectual puzzle that ultimately begs more questions than it answers. It demands that we remain aware of everything that’s been said and done at every step along the way, because they almost certainly will have resonance later in the narrative, as a McGuffin or red herring. In short, “Certified Copy” is movie whose impact will be felt on the brain, not in the gut. This isn’t to say, of course, that the pleasures of watching Juliette Binoche perform at the top of her game are limited to the cerebellum or that the egocentric behavior of William Shimell’s art historian won’t make viewers’ skin crawl. We have come to expect such fine work from Binoche, who, at 48, still radiates intelligence, beauty and passion, and are delighted by opera singer Shimell’s ability to stay in the same ring with her. When things get confusing, though, it’s wise to recall the central question asked by Shimell’s intellectual character in the opening scene: all other things being equal, what’s the qualitative difference between a great work of art and a great copy? His answer is, none. Moreover, with the possible exception of Leonardo da Vinci’s interpretation of her enigmatic smile, isn’t the “Mona Lisa” nothing more than a mirror image of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo Giaconda, and therefore a composite of all the women who influenced her look and demeanor? His answer is, yes. So, why get so worked up over forgeries or travel great distances to savor an original, when a good copy may be found next-door?

We meet Binoche’s Elle as she makes a stumbling entrance to room where the historian, James, is making his case before a Tuscan audience. Even though she doesn’t appear to be paying much attention, we soon learn there’s a bond between them that can’t simply be attributed to a chance meeting at her antique shop. After arrogantly dissing some of the shop’s pieces, he accepts Elle’s invitation to visit a church in the countryside. On the drive, Elle attempts to pick apart James’ theory, while also directing him how to autograph a book to her sister. Things get even pricklier when she directs him to the church’s most prized treasure, a painting long thought to be genuine, but actually an excellent copy of a lost Renaissance work. Even knowing this, the painting is draws tourists like a magnet. This would appear to work in favor of James’ argument, but he doesn’t want to listen to it being articulated by a docent. They repair to a café, where he takes a call — ostensibly from a lover – and a waitress, who assumes they’re a long-married couple, summarizes their life together in a series of cliché events. Up until this point, we assume they’re as advertised, an author and a fan. Now, however, all bets are off. The church also is renowned for bringing luck to newlyweds, whose bliss invigorates Elle and irritates James. The mystery thickens when she summons him to a room in an inn across the palazzo, where, she now believes, they spent the first night of their honeymoon. James claims not to be aware of any such thing. Again, their memory gap harkens back to the thesis of his book.

Blessedly, Kiarostami leavens the head trips with much spectacular Tuscan scenery and wonderful urban architecture, as if to challenge us to defend destination tourism if it’s merely been inspired by what we’ve seen in a movie or painting. It’s that kind of film and, despite James’ reservations, looks terrific enough on Blu-ray to prompt a visit to Travelocity. The Criterion Collection edition is supported by a new high-definition digital restoration, with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It also features an interview with Kiarostami; a making-of documentary, with the director, Binoche and Shimell, who reminds us that the greatest stars of opera are required to act, as well as sing; a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire; and Kiarostami’s rarely seen and badly damaged second feature, “The Report” (1977). – Gary Dretzka

The Secret World of Arrietty: Blu-ray
Walt Disney Video has done Blu-ray collectors here a great service by releasing three treasures from Japan’s Studio Ghibli and writer/director/producer Hayao Miyazaki, most familiar here for “Ponyo,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away.” In addition to the studio’s latest animated import, “The Secret World of Arrietty,” there are such vintage titles as “Castle in the Sky” (1986) and “Whisper of the Heart” (1995). No doubt, there will be many more to come in hi-def. “Arrietty” is an adaptation of Mary Norton’s series of novels about the wee Clock family, “borrowers” who live under the homes of human “beans.” So small they’re dwarfed by most backyard animals and can stare into the eyes of less attractive household pests, the Clocks expropriate items from the house above them to stock their cupboards and provide clothing and furnishings for their own miniature abode. Little Arrietty is a precocious teenager (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) who can’t wait to escape the confines of the cellar. Her parents (Amy Poehler, Will Arnett) think she’s ready to contribute to the household, but fear she’s more interested in exploration. She proves their point by risking exposure while making friends with the young “bean,” Shawn (David Henrie), who’s resting up in preparation for heart surgery. Meanwhile, the grown-ups upstairs have begun to notice the increasing number of missing household items, assuming only that something four-legged and undesirable is responsible for the thefts. After a first wave of attacks by exterminators, the Clocks know that they must find more secure quarters. They are, however, running out of time. The Miyazaki touch is most evident in the sumptuous vegetation that conceals the borrowers and other creatures that live close to the soil – immersive backgrounds that really come alive in hi-def — and that the hero is a girl. The story is interesting enough to hold the attention of kids and their parents should enjoy the animation, which is specific to Studio Ghibli. Another trademark is the portrayal of characters who are sufficiently vague in ethnic identity as to look either western or Asian, depending on the audience. This also allows voice actors to sound correct in any language. Among the other actors in the U.S. cast are Carol Burnett and Moises Arias. The Blu-ray package adds Japanese dialogue, music videos by Cecile Corbel and Bridgit Mendler, original Japanese storyboards and a short making-of piece.

“Whisper of the Heart” involves a quiet schoolgirl, Shizuku, who is obsessed with reading and writing, but finds it curious that all of the books she wants to check out have already been read by a mysterious kindred spirit, Seiji. At first, Shizuku finds the boy irritating. Later, their fertile imaginations take them to places unimaginable before they met. He aspires to being a violin maker, like his grandfather, while Shizuku begins writing a story about Baron, a magical cat figurine belonging to Seiji. Miyazaki’s third film, “Castle in the Sky,” follows a young boy and girl, Sheeta, who are searching for a floating castle identified with a lost civilization. First, though, Sheeta must convince Pazu to help her evade sky pirates, soldiers and government secret agents. Their adventure requires the use of several flying machines inspired by Jules Verne. Disney’s new English dub features Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek and Cloris Leachman. – Gary Dretzka

Mutant Girls Squad: Blu-ray
Plot of Fear (E Tanta Paura)
It’s safe to say that fewAmerican horror fans, unless they’re already hip to Japan’s Sushi Typhoon studio, will have seen anything quite as outrageous as “Mutant Girls Squad.” The closest American equivalent to Sushi Typhoon is Troma, except there’s much less of a do-it-yourself look to the products. In addition to being wildly inventive and overtly subversive, the movies are cartoons come to life. “Mutant Girls Squad” combines the riot-grrrl power of “Charlie’s Angels” and mutant conceit of “X-Men,” with the type of monsters seen in the “Men in Black” movies and grindhouse gore championed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, all in the context of a J-Horror epic. I can’t even begin to explain what the film’s plot might be, except to suggest that it involves a war between the mutants and representatives of police agencies and anti-mutant forces. Unlike the characters in “X-Men,” these mutants aren’t at all reluctant to unleash extreme splatter, disembowelments, amputations and beheadings, most of which are hilariously rendered. The creative conceit here is combining the talents of three of Japan’s top cult filmmakers in one epic gorefest: Noboru Iguchi (“RoboGeisha,” “The Machine Girl”), Yoshihiro Nishimura (“Tokyo Gore Police,” “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl”) and Tak Sakaguchi (“Death Trance,” “Samurai Zombies”). It was written by Jun Tsugita (“Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead,” “Horny House of Horror”), from a story and characters created by Noboru Iguchi (“The Ancient Dogoo Girl”). The heroines are played by Yumi Sugimoto, Yuko Takayama and Suzuka Morita, who couldn’t be any cuter if they were made of sugar, spice and everything nice. If “Mutant Girls Squad” is a mess thematically, it also is a lot of fun. The Blu-ray comes with plenty of interviews, opening-day festivities, a half-hour-long making-of featurette and the 16-minute spin-off short, “Yoshie Zero.”

Made in 1976, the unfortunately titled “Plot of Fear” (“E Tanta Paura”) is a truly wacky, if suitably violent and kinkily sexy hybrid of Italian giallo and poliziotteschi … horror and crime detection. Police are stymied by a rash of seemingly unrelated murders involving prominent citizens. Even when they determine that the deaths were staged to resemble drawings in a children’s book, “Shock-Headed Peter,” they still can’t recognize the connective tissue. A beautiful model (Corninne Clery) helps the lead cop, who conveniently lives in the same apartment building as she does, by describing what happened one night at a villa frequented by men belonging to the Fauna Lovers. It involves a Bengal tiger and blood diamonds, smuggled into the country simultaneously, and a too-observant party girl. Both figure into her completely unexpected demise. I’ve seen many better examples of both genres, but “Plot of Fear” has a several very decent things working in its favor. Besides Clery (“The Story of O”) and other soft-core honeys, the cast includes, for no good reason, Eli Wallach and Tom Skerritt, and the movie was directed and co-written by Paolo Cavara, who previously helmed “Mondo Cane” and “Black Belly of the Tarantula.” The DVD arrives in nice shape, with long interviews with co-writer Enrico Aldoini, Cavara’s son and actor Michele Placido. There’s also an appreciation by Chris Alexander, editor of Fangoria magazine.

The producers of the half-assed, if occasionally hilarious 1976 parody, “Gums,” hoped to profit from the lingering sensation that was Steven Spielberg’s epochal blockbuster, “Jaws.” As the title also suggests, “Gums” borrowed ideas from the nascent porn industry, especially “Deep Throat.” Here, an orally fixated mermaid (Terri Hall) gummed her victims to what must have been a temporarily pleasurable death, at least. If you recall the plot of “Jaws,” you’ll have a fighting chance of following what happens in “Gums.” The truly strange New York-based comedian Brother Theodore plays the crypto-Nazi seaman, Captain Carl Clitoris, who makes it his mission to capture Mermaid and use her for mineral and oil exploration. Sheriff Rooster Coxswain makes it his business to close the resort area’s beaches, while his wife stays busy servicing any man too afraid to risk sex with the mermaid. For good measure, there are horny lesbians and horny puppets. Apart from Zac Norman, who would go on to be a regular in Henry Jaglom’s films, the only person memorable in the cast and crew is composer Brad Fiedel, who would go on to score the music in dozens of big-budget action pictures. The version I saw was of the soft-core persuasion, with cartoon balloons covering the naughty bits of soon-to-be devoured sailors and fishermen. – Gary Dretzka

The First Beautiful Thing
When in doubt, a chronicler of family dysfunction can always pin the blame on Mom, be they Jewish, Irish, Italian or Inuit. Dads tend to get a break here, if only because they disappear after taking out their aggressions and frustrations through violence and/or infidelity. That leaves Mom to deal not only with the complexities of her own psyche, which can range from relief to despair, but also salve the wounds of her children. Some movie moms can carry the weight, while others fail miserably. Stepmoms also are burdened with the damage inflicted on them by warring parents and separation anxiety. Dads and stepdads, not so much. Given the uniquely close ties that bind Italian mothers to their male offspring, it should come as no surprise to learn that the son in “The First Beautiful Thing” is a complete mess and he has refused to visit her since a nasty argument while still in his teens. Viewers are allowed the freedom both to like the woman and understand her limitations as a mother. Paolo Virzi film clearly struck a loud chord in Italy, because it was chosen to represent the country at the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony and nominated for 18 awards at Italy’s David di Donatello Awards, winning Davids for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. At 122 minutes, “The First Beautiful Thing” – the title refers to a song shared by mom and the kids when times get desperate — probably is too long and contains too many severe mood swings to suit the tastes of most American audiences. Fans of European melodramas, however, should be left with a smile and, perhaps, a tear or two. When we first meet Anna Nigiotti (Micaela Ramazzotti), she is about to be crowned the winner in what can only be described as an annual competition to choose Livorno’s most beautiful MILF. She didn’t volunteer to compete in the contest, but the recognition thrills Anna and her young daughter, Valeria. Not so, her jealous husband, Sergio (Mario Michelucci), and chronically glum pre-teen son, Bruno (Francesco Rapalino), both of whom stew silently in advance of the volcanic eruption that’s sure to come when they get home. It won’t be long before Anna grabs the kids and checks into a low-rent apartment in another part of the coastal town to avoid further abuse. It will be the first of many moves the children will be required to endure as mom attempts to find a soft place to fall. Among the homes in which they later will find temporary refuge are a seaside villa owned by a fickle movie star, and the basement workspace of a local businessman Anna fancies. For a brief period of time, as well, they are “rescued” by their father and his stern new partner. If this isn’t a recipe for dysfunction, what is?

We know that the adult Bruno’s been permanently damaged by the experience, because we’ve already been introduced to a couple of his hang-ups in the opening sequence. Still chronically glum, he’s a published poet and professor at a less-than-prestigious university in Rome. This night, though, he’s chosen to while away a few hours, lying on his back in a park staring at the stars through a narcotic haze. Bruno, now played by Valerio Mastandra, is a lackadaisical teacher and a lousy boyfriend. Just as he’s in the process of being evicted from his lover’s apartment, Bruno receives a call from Valeria (Claudia Pandolfi), informing him of their mother’s imminent death in a hospice. He reluctantly agrees to return to Livorno, if only as a formal nod to the cycle of life. His unexpected appearance, as emotionally reserved as it is, lifts Anna (now, Stefania Sandrelli) out of her downward trajectory, allowing her to enjoy the short amount of time left to her. More to the point, though, it allows Virzi the opportunity to flash back continually to the family’s past and add a few fresh twists to the present. Viewers who’ve made it this far into the narrative will be rewarded with a series of revelations and events that make “The First Beautiful Thing” something very special, indeed. It’s unlikely anyone will see them coming. If nothing else, the David nominations and wins should attest to both the fine acting on display in the movie and its production values. Livorno has provided Virzi with more than a dozen wonderful locations, perfectly suited to the diverse collection of the characters we meet. – Gary Dretzka

Twenty years ago, Josef Rusnak’s uneven supernatural thriller, “Beyond,” might have been accorded a weekend of two in the local megaplex to prove itself, before enjoying a productive afterlife on VHS, Today, unfortunately, intense competition for available screens and limited marketing dollars have convinced distributors that such risks outweigh the potential for discernible returns on their investment on marginal productions. A single TV ad and newspaper listing cost more than a movie can be expected to make. Finding gems among the dross at the local sometimes can be worth the effort, though. The best things about “Beyond” are that its recognizable stars – Jon Voight, Teri Polo, Dermot Mulroney, Julian Morris (“Pretty Little Liars,” 24,” “ER”) – haven’t phoned in their performances and Anchorage is a swell place to shoot a movie. Even if the script has more than a few holes built into it, there are enough genuinely scary moments to satisfy casual fans of the genre. Voight plays a veteran police detective who specializes in finding kidnaped children. Known and shown to be quick on the trigger, the cop has become a liability for the department and has been asked to retire. Before that can happen, however, someone decides to snatch the chief’s niece and, of course, that simply won’t be tolerated. He orders his detective to postpone his departure and bring the wee lass home, sooner than later, in the same shape she was before she was abducted. OK, no problem. The girls’ parents aren’t nearly as willing to trust the police with such a delicate assignment, however, and take their nanny up on her suggestion that they consult a popular local psychic. This doesn’t sit well with Voight’s by-the-book cop, who prefers to dig through several years’ worth of files to find likely suspects. As things turn out, however, the girl has psychic abilities of her own and her bedroom is full of clues only a medium might be able to identify. After passing a series of tests, the cop and the Internet psychic form an alliance that leads not only to the girl, but also clues to a mystery that’s been festering for years inside the older man. The paternal interest Voight finally takes in the psychic feels genuine and adds another level of interest to “Beyond.” – Gary Dretzka

Machine Gun Preacher
The release of “Machine Gun Preacher” on DVD dovetails with the recent furor caused by the release of a video on Youtube that documents both the plight of Ugandan and Sudanese children kidnaped to be soldiers and sex slaves for the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and the lack of material support given African leaders attempting to capture and/or kill the cruel and probably insane guerrilla leader. It also corresponds with news out of Africa that a high-ranking LRA leader has been arrested and currently is being interrogated as to Kony’s likely hideout. “Machine Gun Preacher” is the based-on-fact story of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a former outlaw biker, drug addict and ex-con, who, after finding Jesus, was called to perform relief work in south Sudan. Once there, Childers witnessed first-hand the horrors perpetrated by the LRA and made it his mission to build an orphanage where children could feel safe and get an education. It was no easy task, considering how badly Kony wanted to countermand the American’s influence and how little money he had. Undaunted, Childers also knew that he couldn’t depend on local forces to combat the LRA. In support of a loyal cadre of local soldiers, he picked up an automatic weapon and went on the offensive against the guerrillas, many of whom are as old as the children at the orphanage. After several setbacks, including the destruction of the first orphanage and school, Childers finally is able to complete what today is the Children’s Village Orphanage, in Nimule, South Sudan. It was constructed through the support of the Angels of East Africa, founded by Childers and his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), portrayed here as former stripper who also found her salvation in God. He’s written a book and produced a documentary, which he uses to solicit donations from churchgoers, relief organizations and governments around the world.

In the hands of director Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace”) and writer Jason Keller, in his freshman feature, Childers’ story is roughly divided in half, with material from his former life sometimes getting in the way of the African footage. There’s no question that Childers was a bona-fide bad-ass before he saw the light, but it’s the wise and patient Lynn who wears the halo throughout “Machine Gun Preacher.” Whenever her husband’s faith in the project is pushed to the breaking point, Lynn is there to ask the musical question, “What would Jesus do?” Even if the religious subtext is presented accurately, the lack of spark on the part of the parishioners — as they react to Childers and other ministers — makes us wish we were somewhere else. These are some dull-ass believers. By contrast, the endangered African children greet Childers and his mission with the optimism and joy that comes with knowing the Lord has given them a new lease on life. As channeled through Butler, Childers appears to have been constructed from parts left over from the movies made about Rambo, Buford Pusser, Billy Jack, Dirty Harry and Audie Murphy. Whenever his African cohorts begin to sense that his blind dedication to the cause has turned the corner on recklessness, Forster inserts a LRA atrocity into the narrative to remind them that no one messes with American superheroes. (After a nurse suggests that Childers’ methodology is beginning to resemble that of Kony, who once was considered to be a hero in parts of Uganda, a rebel belts her in the mouth with the stock of his rifle.) Nevertheless, it’s the larger-than-life characters who capture the attention of American audiences, especially those who’ve shown no inclination to care about genocide in Africa or anywhere else, for that matter. There’s nothing wrong with Butler’s interpretation of Childers and another excellent job is done by Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”), who his longtime buddy. Kathy Baker is largely wasted as Childers’ pious mom and Monaghan is only required to act in spurts. The end credits add photographs and footage collected by Childers in South Sudan. Lovers of action and righteous violence should have plenty to like in “Machine Gun Preacher.” – Gary Dretzka

Worried About the Boy
Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
Grateful Dead: Dawn of the Dead
95 Miles to Go
The title of director Julian Jarrold and writer Tony Basgallop’s surprisingly entertaining Boy George biopic harkens to “Mad About the Boy,” a biography about the wildly eccentric 1980s’ pop star, a.k.a. George O’Dowd, as well as a song written by Noel Coward, who might very well have approved of Culture Club’s singer. “Worried About the Boy” is the condition shared by his fans when his taste for drugs and demands for attention nearly kill O’Dowd. His father and mother began worrying about him long before the tabloid press predicted his death and stood vigil outside his home, waiting for it to happen. “WATB” flashes backwards and forwards in time, from the period before Culture Club hit the charts to the first of his many desperate cries for help. George always was out of step with the other kids in his Kent hometown. Even in high school, he sported unisex outfits, was impeccably made up and outrageously coiffed. He embraced England’s New Romanticism movement and, once in London, found kindred spirits galore in the notorious Warren Street Squat, where he occasionally lived, and Blitz nightclub, where he hung coats and made friends with people in the entertainment community. Although he didn’t immediately strike gold as a singer, he found in Culture Club musicians capable of blending reggae, New Wave, soul, disco and soft rock into songs all sorts of people wanted to hear in clubs, on car radios and at work, no matter how the singer looked. Obsessed with celebrity and fame, George had a difficult time dealing with them when he became one of the most visible entertainers in the world. He still makes the occasional headline with his indiscretions, but continues to attempt to return to the stage. “WATB” reminds me favorably of “Falco,” a German biopic of the similarly outré singer who couldn’t handle his fame, either. Neither movie found distribution here.

Inside the singular Broadway sensation that is the 91-year-old Carol Channing are a thousand platinum-haired drag queens waiting for her to retire, so they can climb out and steal her diamond-studded act. As is pointed out in “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life,” no up-and-coming actress would dare aspire to becoming the “next Carol Channing,” unless it was clear they’re honoring the star with their impersonations, not trying to fill her pumps, which would be impossible. Here, Dori Bereinstein (“Gotta Dance”) has crafted a glowing appreciation of the indefatigable diva, mostly through the testimony of fellow artists and friends, as well as admirers who sit in the expensive seats or dance alongside her in the chorus line. They include Barbara Walters, Marge Champion, Betty Garrett, Jerry Herman, Debbie Reynolds, Chita Rivera, Bruce Vilanch, Tommy Tune and Lily Tomlin. There’s also a generous number of performance clips. The only warts revealed are those belonging to her ex-husbands. She’s nearly inseparable here from her fourth mate, a childhood sweetheart Channing married in 2003. (He, too, has since died.) It’s a charming film and the DVD includes plenty of extended and deleted interviews.

If any American rock band ever needed no introduction – or, for that matter, further analysis – it would be the Grateful Dead. Along with the whole San Francisco scene of the 1960s, the band has been accorded icon status. It came as a pleasant surprise, then, to discover how enjoyable a history lesson is delivered in “Grateful Dead: Dawn of the Dead,” which opens several years before the disparate roots of the band formed a trunk from which other musical branches could spring. Unlike unauthorized biodocs from the same company — Sexy Intellectual, via MVD Visual – “Dawn of the Dead” is enhanced by many pieces of music, not the usual mélange of music videos, TV variety shows and film clips in the public domain. The Dead has always made its live music accessible to the masses, without fear that pirates could render their records redundant or their fans might skip a performance due to overfamiliarity with the product. Interviews with critics old enough to remember when the Dead was the Warlocks set the political and cultural context of the period, without genuflecting before the altar of Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady, going overboard on the influence of Flower Power on future generations, or musing on the historical significance of LSD. Neither are they reluctant to offer their true, sometime negative opinions on the early albums. The biography doesn’t follow the band’s path until the death of Jerry Garcia or even that of Pigpen. That surely will arrive in the due time, as well.

Back in 2004, when “95 Miles to Go” was new, “Everybody Loves Raymond” was still a full season away from signing off and Ray Romano’s popularity was such that an unsuspecting collection of conventioneers would go wild upon learning that he would be entertaining them. After eight years, Romano can still fill any room in Las Vegas and knock ’em dead on the road. Apart from his Sisyphean struggle with golf, as witnessed annually at the pro-am tournament in Pebble Beach, and his frequent contributions to the “Ice Age” saga, he has invested most of time into writing, producing and starring in the excellent TNT series, “Men of a Certain Age.” For my money, it was one of the best dramedies on television. As directed by fellow comic and longtime pal Tom Caltabiano, “95 Miles to Go” is a weak attempt to find the “real” Ray Romano, as he exists on the road. Theoretically, it’s where the men comics are separated from the boy comics, but, besides some harmless and completely valid grumblings, the journey is a walk in the park compared to the ones documented in such films as “I Am Comic,” “The Comedians of Comedy,” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” and “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show.” This isn’t to say that “95 Miles to Go” isn’t funny, because it frequently is. The performance material in the film and bonus features – a complete show in Kansas City – is far better than anything else on display in the feature documentary, however. – Gary Dretzka

Lethal Weapon: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
Whenever a new tech platform enters the home-entertainment marketplace, the industry’s hype machine grinds out promises that it will be the last piece of playback or recording hardware anyone will every need. Such was the praise that was heaped on Blu-ray at the beginning of its short, if expensive war with purveyors of HD-DVD. And, yes, the movies clearly looked and sounded superior to the same titles on DVD. What wouldn’t come to the fore until early adopters were able to watch Blu-ray discs on advanced HDTV sets and hi-def monitors was the reality that perfection had yet to be attained, primarily because the entertainment software was only as good as the effort put into it by the labels and studios anxious to make back their investment. It would take a while for consumers to get over the fear of having yet another new format shoved down their throats and, even now, only one in four homes has a Blu-ray player or similar electronic device. If that doesn’t sound particularly impressive, know that sales in the fourth quarter of 2011 were up 47 percent from the similar period in 2010. DVD penetration, by comparison, continues its slow steady climb to unanimity, reaching 91 percent of available households.

I only mention these statistics because they help explain why such hit movies as those in the “Lethal Weapon” series are re-released every couple of years in supposedly new and improved editions. What, they weren’t perfect the first time? In fact, tech-savvy fans of the ground-breaking buddy-cop action/comedies – which, of course, all starred Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and were directed by Richard Donner – soon realized that the Blu-ray and HD-DVD editions weren’t as good as they could be, given the available technology and when compared to more patiently produced discs. While, in 2006, it was nice to finally have a director’s-cut edition of “Lethal Weapon,” with seven previously unavailable scenes, buffs wondered why they couldn’t enjoy the deleted scenes and a fully realized digital upgrade without having to wait years, sometimes, and an additional financial contribution to studio coffers. In effect, Hollywood continues to ask the same question, “Do you want to own the latest Blu-ray blockbuster now or can you wait until it’s as close to technically perfect as it can be?” As was the case with VHS, Beta, Laserdisc and DVD, consumers seem willing to pay for the luxury of having both options open to them. Until that situation changes, consumers might as well keep their wallets open.

Last January, tech-savvy fans were relieved to hear that the UK edition of the “Lethal Weapon: The Complete Collection” did, in fact, measure up to their expectations. This boded well for the U.S. edition to be released in five months, but there are no guarantees in life or the consumer-electronics industry. And, yes, the good news from people who study such things is that the U.S. edition of the “Lethal Weapon Collection” is now worth paying the price to own it. Besides the noticeably better audio-video presentation, which won’t make a bit of difference if your playback equipment isn’t up to the task, there’s a fifth disc that contains a cornucopia of newly created featurettes. They are: “Psycho Pension: The Genesis of Lethal Weapon,” in which Donner, Gibson, Glover, writer Shane Black and significant others describe the genesis of the series; “A Family Affair: Bringing Lethal Weapon to Life,” another creation-of documentary, this time from the other side of the camera; “Pulling the Trigger: Expanding the World of Lethal Weapon,” which recalls the decisions made in anticipation of building a franchise in the home-video age; and “Maximum Impact: The Legacy of Lethal Weapon,” producer Joel Silver, Donner, Gibson, Glover, co-star Rene Russo and other members of all four films’ production teams discuss the lasting impact of the series and why it still matters. This represents nearly two hours of fresh meat for fans to chew, while pondering what kind of a miracle it would take to resurrect Gibson’s career in time to attempt a fourth sequel. (Or, if “MiB3” succeeds, there could be a prequel/sequel in which the stars introduce their successors.) Otherwise, there’s the usual array of deleted scenes (not all in HD), uninspired making-of EPKs, music videos (“It’s Probably Me,” with Sting and Eric Clapton), trailers, Donner-centric commentaries and “Pure Lethal! New Angles, New Scenes and Explosive Outtakes,” a half-hour’s worth of condensed action and comedy, hosted by Glover. – Gary Dretzka

POV: Racing Dreams: Coming of Age in a Fast World: Blu-ray
Nova: Cracking Your Genetic Code
Nova: Deadliest Tornadoes
I don’t know what was more frightening in “Racing Dreams: Coming of Age” in a Fast World”: the sight of children not yet old enough to apply for a learner’s permit navigating a road course in glorified go-karts travelling at speeds illegal in all 50 states; or, eating the hideously fattening meals prepared for them by their not-quite-obese moms. Both activities court almost certain death at every turn, yet are completely legal and sanctioned by parents living vicariously through their offspring. Documentarian Marshall Curry (“Street Fight,” “If a Tree Falls”) follows 11-year-old Annabeth, 12-year-old Josh and 13-year-old Brandon as they compete for the championship in the World Karting Association’s National Series. All harbor ambitions of someday joining the NASCAR circuit, just as several previous champions have made the leap. Meanwhile, Curry also describes the coming-of-age process that kicks in when any child, teenager or young adult suddenly is faced with the reality of not ever being able to reach their lofty goals. Implied, but largely left unasked is the question of whether kids who’ve only been exposed to one or two career options can make decisions that will affect them throughout the rest of their lives. The same, of course, holds true for any pre-teen who excels at sports, acting or math. The Blu-ray edition of “Racing Dreams” is resplendent in colors and pageantry that accompany all racing events in certain regions of the country and, of course, the excitement of wheel-to-wheel competition. The kids themselves are as poised and articulate as Curry could have hoped.

While on a visit to Chicago recently, my sister asked if I would agree to fill a small plastic vial with my saliva. She would then forward it to a lab, where it would be analyzed to determine its genetic code. Ostensibly, she said, such data could reveal whether we’d inherited a genetic abnormality that could be intercepted before it has time to strike or we might discover a link to royalty, for whatever good that would do us. I’m pretty sure that my sister’s interest in our shared DNA was sparked by “Cracking Your Genetic Code,” not the network series where celebrities feign shock at being related to some lofty personage or pretend not to be disappointed that their lines are completely modest. In Spain, where Inquisition-era priests routinely kidnaped Jewish children and gave them to child-deprived Catholics, the tests are proving to be far more than fodder for dinner-time conversation.

The release on DVD of “Deadliest Tornadoes,” also from “Nova,” coincides with the first anniversary of catastrophic EF5 multi-vortex tornado that struck Joplin, Mo, leaving at least 160 people dead and 25 percent of the city destroyed. Last spring was a particularly dangerous time for people living in Tornado Alley. In April, alone, more than 360 people in the Midwest and South were murdered by Mother Nature at her temperamental worst. The crack team of researchers at “Nova” explains how a perfect confluence of meteorological events could have formed at this particular time and place. Of course, they also kept a weather eye on the possibility that global warming and other climatological phenomena might be at play. If so, what might scientists do to prevent such occurrences or warn residents in the path with even greater precision? – Gary Dretzka

Route 66: The Complete Series
Sherlock: Season 2
The River: The Complete First Season
My Babysitter’s a Vampire: The First Season
Teen Wolf: The Complete Season One
S.W.A.T.: The Final Season
There’s great news for anyone looking for a welcome present for their dads or granddads on Father’s Day. Shout! Factory has collected all 116 episodes of the semi-anthology series, which ran from 1960-64, in an extremely giftable 24-disc package. “Route 66,” which never was designed to take place exclusively on America’s Mother Road, began its life at the most opportune time possible. Americans born during or immediately after World War II had begun to awaken from the deep sleep imposed on them by Eisenhower-era media and other power brokers who demanded of them conformity to mainstream ideals and adherence to pre-war values. Construction of the Interstate Highway System had begun, but crossing the country by car still required much stop-and-go driving and stops at restaurants, stores, gas stations and landmarks unique to their region and people. The American voice had yet to be corrupted by disc jockeys and news readers who had forsaken their natural accents and mocked those who had yet to do the same. Jack Kerouac had convinced tens of thousands of young people that heading out on the road for the sole purpose of meeting new people and seeing new things was a perfectly acceptable way to kill a view years of their life. (He considered suing the show’s producer, Sterling Silliphant, for plagiarism, but was talked out of it.) Moreover, owning a Corvette was — and still may be — the ultimate dream of all red-bloodied American men and boys … and not a few women, who wanted to sit in the driver’s seat, instead of riding shotgun while on a date. In the adventures of Martin Milner’s Todd, George Maharis’ Buz and, later, Glenn Corbett’s Lincoln, more vicarious thrills could be experienced than at a season’s worth of ballgames and the vast majority of Hollywood movies. It greatly helped CBS and its sponsors that the boys were clean cut, chivalrous and cute. Each succeeding episode found the characters in a new town, surrounded by people who needed their help addressing issues that ranged from topical and socially relevant, to comedic and romantic. All were smartly written and featured guest stars already familiar from the movies or soon to be stars in their own right. Among them were Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, David Janssen, William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Jack Lord, Rod Steiger, Robert Duvall, Lee Marvin, James Caan, Julie Newmar, Anne Francis, Tuesday Weld, Ethel Waters, Suzanne Plechette, Joey Heatherton and Rin Tin Tin. Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre appeared together in a themed show, as did Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Edgar Buchanan and John Astin. Lest we forget, after discovering that Bobby Troupe’s classic (“Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” would cost too dear a price, Nelson Riddle was commissioned to write what would become one of the most unforgettable theme songs in TV history and a top-30 hit. Fans who’ve already purchased full-season packages are cautioned that the episodes collected here are virtually the same as those they already possess. It remains to be seen when and if a separate fourth-season package will be released.

While there’s no shortage of psychics and mentalists helping police to solve crimes on American television, the BBC trumps all them with its updating of the “Sherlock Holmes” mysteries. It’s also substantially more interesting – if less bombastic and dependent on CGI – than the movies in which Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law impersonate Holmes and Watson. Not only is the mini-series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original vision, but it demonstrates how easily the author could have fit in among the best of today’s writers for television and the movies. Shown here as part of PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” series, “Sherlock: Season 2” offered fans a little bit of everything: drama, comedy, horror, monsters, hi-tech sleuthing, low-tech deduction and a cliff-hanger season finale. The more-complete BBC episodes include adaptations of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” “The Hounds of Baskerville” and “The Reichenbach Fall,” in which Holmes, Watson and Moriarty (Andrew Scott) engage in a battle of wits that demands of Emmy voters that they pay attention to it when ballots are distributed. It’s that good.

Nothing pisses off mainstream critics more than having their expectations raised by the imprimatur of an A-list filmmaker as executive producer – Steven Spielberg, being the prime example – and learning, after a few hours of screening time, his influence probably was limited to co-owning the production company or showing up on the set every so often. I mention this because Spielberg has lent his exec-producer title to such TV shows as “United States of Tara,” “The Pacific,” “Falling Skies,” “Terra Nova,” “Smash” and “The River.” In the same period, he executive produced a theme-park ride; a made-for-TV movie and documentary; nearly a dozen high-profile movies; and, most notably, directed “The Adventures of Tin Tin,” “War Horse” and the yet-to-be released “Lincoln.” If Spielberg is able to get away with having his name exploited as a marketing tool, it’s only fair to require the names of the dozens of other exec-producers be mentioned almost as prominently. As the critics were quick to point out, rightly so, “The River” owes infinitely more to the participation of such “Paranormal Activity” veterans as co-creators Oren Peli and Michael R. Perry, and some of the people who brought us “Lost.” Indeed, those are the series “The River” most closely resembles visually and thematically. In it, Bruce Greenwood plays a TV host and wildlife expert who, early on, disappears into the Amazonian rain forest. A rescue effort is launched by wife (Leslie Hope), estranged son (Joe Anderson) and friends. Beyond the banks of the great river await mystery, magic and monsters. Watch it and you’ll have no trouble identifying the “Paranormal Activity” influence. The set adds previously unreleased material. Spoiler alert: the show’s been canceled.

My Babysitter Is a Vampire” arrived at the Disney Channel by way of Canada’s French-language Teletoon network. The series’ title pretty much sums up its conceit, which won’t be unfamiliar to youthful American TV viewers. Ethan Morgan (Matthew Knight) is a geeky freshman – is there any other kind? – whose crush object is an exotic-looking vampire, Sarah (Vanessa Morgan), chosen to babysit his little sister. Conveniently, Ethan and his best friend harbor mystical powers of their own. Two other teen vampires often join them in their adventures. The show’s second season arrives this summer.

Over on MTV, the teen protagonist is a werewolf. Based on a 1985 movie of the same title, “Teen Wolf” follows the adventures of a geeky high school boy, who, once bitten by wolf in the woods, becomes far more interesting a person than anyone thought he would be. Much of his time is spent searching for the source of his mania and separating the Alpha from the rest of the pack. The full-season DVD adds an extended version of the Season Finale episode, “Code Breakers”; deleted, alternate and extended Scenes; a gag reel; and
the featurette, “Season 1: Shirtless Montage.”

The second and final season of ABC’s mid-1970s series, “S.W.A.T.,” is now available on DVD. Like most shows produced by Aaron Spelling (“Charlie’s Angels,” “Starsky and Hutch”), it bears as much resemblance to reality as a Hostess Twinkie does to food. This one was a bit more violent than his other cop shows, however. The series was spun off of “The Rookies” and would inspire other such shows in which ridiculously handsome and pretty law-enforcers battle ugly felons. Not only did it spawn a hit theme song, but “S.W.A.T.” also lent its title to a 2003 theatrical film and a straight-to-DVD spinoff of its own. – Gary Dretzka

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Alpha: Blu-ray
In what is basically a long infomercial for the tactical-shooter video game “Ghost Recon Future Soldier,” “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Alpha” alerts fans of the likelihood that Russian “ultranationalist” Boris Chevtchenko is still alive and in possession of a dirty bomb capable of devastating Moscow and setting back post-Soviet reforms forever. In the United States’ new role as policeman of the world, it’s left to the Ghosts of the army’s Company D, 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, stationed at Fort Bragg, to come to the aid of Russia and the capitalist gangsters who’ve made it safe for the proliferation of McDonald’s restaurants and oil barons. In the short time we’re allowed to observe the Ghosts, we’re introduced to several weapons designed to change the course of warfare. Because Clancy probably is more deeply wired into the bowels of the Pentagon than President Obama, it’s likely that everything we see on display in “Alpha” pretty much already exists in one form or another in our arsenal. This includes “stealth” soldiers and aerial drones that look like Frisbees. The making-of featurette is every bit as interesting as the sneak preview. – 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