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Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Talk About Kevin, more

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Blu-ray
The Aggression Scale: Blu-ray
At a time when the mass murder of students, office workers and family members has become an almost weekly occurrence in the United States, we no longer can dismiss each new slaughter as the act of someone “going postal” or aping what they’ve seen on a video game. In Lynne Ramsay’s chilling “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” we’re introduced to parents, Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly), whose first child is completely unmanageable, almost from the day he was born. His first assault on his mother’s nerves is in his incessant crying, which tends to stop when dad gets home. Soon enough, Kevin begins glowering at her from his crib and, it seems, consciously daring her to nurture him. Later, Kevin’s obstinacy manifests itself in bypassing the toilet and defecating in his pants when Eva is least able to cope with it. Other, more demonic acts include putting his sister’s pet hamster in the garbage disposal and shooting out her eye with an arrow. Mom tries her best to deal with the little monster, but she’s well past the breaking point and completely outwitted by the boy. In the infrequent instances when Franklin observes the horrors, he simply considers them to be perfectly normal behavior for a growing boy. He suspects, however, that Eva may be too fragile to cope with him. (Because the younger daughter is perfectly normal, this seems an unlikely possibility.) The only thing that lights a spark in Kevin’s eyes is the archery lessons and equipment provided him by his dad. Here, too, the father misses all of the signs that Kevin has less noble intentions than someday being invited to join the U.S. Olympics team. When the inevitable catastrophe occurs – imagine Columbine with bows and arrows — viewers will appreciate Ramsey’s restraint in not dramatizing it. Her point already has been made.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a hugely disturbing film, if only because all parents conjure worst-case scenarios for their children. Most also worry, at times, that they might not be up to the task of dealing with a problem child. In their separate portrayals of Kevin’s psychological devolution, Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller are nothing less than frightening. For his 10th birthday, I probably would have petitioned the Church for an exorcism, not bought him a more advanced archery set, as does Franklin. I strongly disagree with the observations made in the commentary and other bonus material, suggesting Eva’s depression might have manifest itself in hatred toward the boy and her actions might somehow have fed his malevolence. Again, I doubt it. Not having read the source novel, I don’t know how Eva was intended to react to the provocations. We’re led to believe that she feels as if she’s being held captive in the suburban “castle.” Franklin thought it would be a perfect place to raise kids, but ignored his wife’s love of the stimuli provided by city life. She also could have benefited from a nanny or assistance from a family member. In the one instance Eva surely could be accused of child abuse, the correct diagnosis would temporary insanity caused by a conscious act of cruelty by Kevin.

Ramsey is a terrific director and writer (“Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar”), who’s criminally underemployed in an industry chronically short of fresh ideas and risk-takers. She knows exactly how she wants her pictures to look and gets it from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”). Here, she’s elected to tell Eva’s story largely in flashback form, through dream-like reflections on better times, and Kevin’s in a more straight-forward manner. Later, the reaction of her neighbors to her tragedy and the town’s ordeal couldn’t have been more venomous if she were the lead defendant in the Salem witch trials. Critics lauded the movie, but audiences weren’t in the mood for such heavy lifting, Using 20/20 hindsight, it seems clear that it was a mistake to open “Kevin” two weeks before Christmas, in one theater, to qualify for awards consideration. By the time it was launched on more than a dozen screens simultaneously, Valentine’s Day was on the horizon and the glowing reviews were long since forgotten. Perhaps, if Swinton had been nominated for an Oscar, in addition to her Golden Globe and BAFTA nods, it might have made a bit more money. Without one, “Kevin” was dead in the water.

This brings me to a much less demanding picture, “The Aggression Scale,” which also features a deeply troubled youth, who’s been accorded as much treatment and sympathy as he’s ever likely to get. It’s closer to Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Orphan,” a slick thriller in which Vera Farmiga plays the mother whose greatest fears about an adopted Russian girl are ignored, until it’s too late. It made decent money in wide release, but also could have qualified for arthouse-horror status.

Don’t let the fact that “Aggression Scale” went straight-to-DVD, because it’s a surprisingly effective thriller. After doing something nasty that demanded he be locked up in a psychiatric institution – where his propensity for aggressive behavior was off the charts – Owen (Ryan Hartwig) is allowed to move into the estate-like home of his reconstituted family. While he isn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of sharing space with a stepmom and stepsister, he’s relishes the opportunity to test some new ideas on them. No sooner does he get there than he begins creating makeshift weapons and bobby traps. Before long, however, a gang of thugs invades the home, where they suspect the father has stashed a cache of money belonging to their boss.  They don’t care who they kill and in what order, as long as someone is left alive to lead them to the money. For Owen, though, their appearance is like Christmas and Halloween combined. These are people he can torture, without fear of any consequences. Without options of her own, stepsister Lauren (Fabianne Therese) decides that collaboration is the better part of valor and joins forces with her demented stepbrother. Together, they make a formidable team. “The Aggression Scale” has already been likened to a horror version of “Home Alone” in genre blogs and I think it’s a fair comparison. The weaponry differs only in its ability to inflict real damage on the home invaders, instead of the kind seen in Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. There even are funny sight gags involving the monstrous size of the intruders and wee dimensions of the kids. If Owen and Lauren had met Kevin in treatment, before he was able to take out his aggression on his classmates, no one could have stopped them. – Gary Dretzka

Memorial Day: Blu-ray
Released on Blu-ray and VOD outlets in time for the holiday, “Memorial Day” is both a salute to the men and women who’ve put their lives on the line when their country called and a reminder of what can happen to a soldier called upon to make decisions that impact everyone from their buddies, to the outcome of an assignment and the enemy combatant who’s lying at their feet slowly bleeding to death. There’s plenty of action in director Samuel Fischer and writer Marc Conklin’s debut feature, but it’s also informed by the bond between a grandfather, who’s seen the worst of what the world has to offer, and a grandson who will experience such things on his own. Like so many other members of the so-called Greatest Generation, Grandpa Bud (James Cromwell) has elected not to share his memories of World War II with anyone, except, perhaps, the guys at the VFW post. It isn’t until 13-year-old Kyle discovers a locker containing “souvenirs” from the war gathering dust in the garage that the old man agrees to share that part of his life with anyone in the family. Bud reluctantly allows Kyle to open the case, from which he can pick three items for review. After setting certain parameters, Grandpa describes how they came to be in his possession. As dramatized, the souvenirs are far more than mere mementos. In the man’s mind, they instantly recall the horror of the war. Flash forward to another Memorial Day, several years later, and we watch as Kyle is required to make some of the same decisions made by Bud and in similar circumstances. The primary difference being, of course, that Grandpa spent his war years in Holland and Belgium fighting “krauts” and Kyle is in the Middle East facing “hajis.” Like Grandpa, Kyle collects souvenirs of clashes, large and small, and makes a couple of decisions based on what he learned on that Memorial Day long ago and far away. Unlike Grandpa’s war, which had a genuine purpose and foreseeable endgame, no such attempt is made here to make sense of the war in Iraq. It’s enough to know that our fighting men and women are brave, occasionally heroic, and someone in Washington decided they’ve earned the right to die for someone else’s concept of freedom. The acting is good and the war scenes look realistic, despite what must have been a tight budget. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a very brief making-of piece. – Gary Dretzka

Take Me Home
Valley of the Sun
Sometimes, the less we expect from a movie, the more appreciative we are of its small pleasures. These days, such surprises tend to come from movies released straight-to-DVD, or virtually so, by independent distributors willing to roll the dice. From Monterey Media and Monarch Home Entertainment, respectively, comes a pair of exceedingly modest entertainments with several nice things to recommend them. “Take Me Home” stars Sam Jaeger (“Parenthood”) as a struggling New York photographer, Thom, who buys a decommissioned taxi cab for his personal use, but is required by poverty to add the accessories that would make it look street-legal. On the night the driver is kicked out of his apartment, Thom picks up a pretty woman distraught after catching her husband at home, practically in the arms of his pretty young assistant. To make matters worse, Clair’s about to learn that her father is in critical condition, after suffering a heart attack, in San Diego. Before falling asleep in the cab’s back seat, the thoroughly wrung-out business executive throws a wad of cash at Thom, demanding that he “just drive.” When she wakes up the next morning, Claire (Amber Jaeger) is stunned to learn the cab is on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. “You said, ‘Just drive …,” Thom reminds, after she accuses him of running up the fare. As you might be able to guess, Claire hates flying enough to pay Thom to drive her to California, with a stop in Las Vegas to pick up her mom, who’s also estranged from her father. I doubt anyone would accuse me of spoiling anything by revealing that Claire manages to lose her bag — containing everything from her cellphone and wallet, to her bra and panties – and Thom doesn’t have a pot to piss in, either. It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine the kinds of things that happen on their trip west – sans money — with some degree of accuracy. In his first shot at writing and directing a feature, Jaeger (Amber’s husband) anticipates the clichés and spins them into something fresh and amusing … for the most part, anyway. Jaeger and Jaeger aren’t likely to be confused with Tracy and Hepburn any time soon, but they look comfortable together and credible when their characters are fussing, feuding and making up. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

In “Valley of the Sun,” a superstar in the Los Angeles porn industry suffers a nervous breakdown after being asked to perform yet another twin-spin with a matched set of blond bimbos. After running around the Valley naked for an afternoon, Andy Taggert (a.k.a., Vick Velour) is rescued from a psychiatric facility by his parents (Barry Corbin, Beth Grant) and taken back to their home in an Arizona retirement community. Andy’s dad is a gruff old coot who gave up on his son, even before learning he was doing was porn, while the missus still thinks he’s acting in commercials and soaps. The old man needs some help in his plumbing business, which makes him visible in the self-contained city, and Andy is happy to lend a hand. It isn’t long before the neighbors realize why he looks familiar to them and what his presence could mine to them. For an unctuous, bible-banging community leader, it gives him a whipping boy and opportunity to intimidate everyone else. Other residents see in “Vick Velour” their last opportunity, perhaps, to regain their sexual edge and add some joy to their golden years. The first person he helps is an old-timer (Garrett Morris) who can’t keep it up anymore, but whose heart is too fragile for the little blue pill. He tests Andy’s organic prescription on the randy wife of the sanctimonious community leader and word of the miracle cure spreads quickly through the neighbors. Seems, there are as many sexual dysfunctions as there are elderly couples on the premises and Andy reluctantly agrees to help them. He also meets a sweet young woman (Heather Burns) who works at the local drug store and pretends she’s never seen Vick Velour in action. It isn’t until a meeting is called to determine if Andy’s parents should be forced to sell their home, for harboring an agent of the devil, that he learns what his advice has meant to the residents and his parents. Given an opportunity to backslide into the world of Vick Velour, Andy finds support in another unlikely place. Just as is the case with “Take Me Home,” co-writer/director Stokes McIntyre finds enough room to navigate around the clichés and make our investment in time worthwhile. Watching the elderly residents jump start their sexual batteries – in a completely non-graphic sort of way – is a lot fun. – Gary Dretzka

Coriolanus: Blu-ray
Despite the potential for extreme battlefield action, Ralph Fiennes’ interpretation of “Coriolanus” is the only version of the tragedy that has found its way into theaters. Not being a Shakespearian scholar, I would be hard-pressed to say why that’s the case, except to theorize that it demands too much work on the part of the audience. The motivations of the protagonist are far from obvious and the allegiances of everyone else change with wind. Then, there’s the dialogue, which requires intense attention to every line. Americans, especially, no longer are patient enough wade through prose, however glorious. In fact, though, “Coriolanus” tells a story that should be familiar to anyone with a textbook knowledge of modern history. We live at a time when traditional rules of warfare no longer apply and an tinhorn despot with enough assault rifle and RPGs can hold an entire nation hostage. It’s not even clear what they’re attempting to gain. In his modern-dress version of the play, Fiennes also portrays Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman general who returns from battle a hero, but, when handed the reins of power, treats his constituents as if they were a new enemy. After his former allies in the Senate decide that the rioters in the street are making legitimate demands, they conspire to oust Coriolanus most unceremoniously. The temporarily humbled Coriolanus forms an alliance with his greatest foe, the Volscian leader Aufidius (Gerald Butler), to retake Rome. Once a megalomaniac, always a megalomaniac. It’s interesting that Fiennes chose to shoot the movie in Serbia and Montenegro and adopt uniforms and weaponry familiar from the Bosnian War. The food riots that preceded the toppling of the Allende government in Chile — orchestrated by that country’s fascist opposition, with the support of American agencies – seem to have influenced Fiennes interpretation, as well. Also contributing mightily to the production: screenwriter John Logan (“Gladiator,” “Hugo”), cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”) and an all-star cast that includes Jessica Chastain (“The Help”), Vanessa Redgrave (“Isadora,” “The Bostonians”), Brian Cox (“L.I.E.”) and James Nesbitt (“Bloody Sunday”). At 123 minutes, it doesn’t require the same stamina as a night of Shakespeare on stage. The Blu-ray adds Fiennes’ commentary and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Life Without Principle
Johnny To’s latest crime thriller is set in Hong Kong as the collapse in the world’s stock markets and global economy threatened to turn millionaires and small-time players, alike, into paupers. Just as in the United States and other western countries, Chinese investors had continued to blow air into the stock-market bubble, right up to moment it exploded. And, when it did, Triad bosses, pensioners and adults who’d just invested their life savings in a condominium all woke up with more pessimistic outlook on their future. Everyone was made aware of the risks, but few appreciated the danger ahead. Simply put, investing in the stock market had become a game and no few people could resist the possibility of getting rich quick. As we now know, bankers were only too happy to create financial vehicles that would carry their best customers to riches or ruin at equal velocity. In “Life Without Principle,” brokers and bankers not only were adept at finding new ways to please their clients, but they also hit them with fees I’m not sure would be legal here. As long as everyone was making money, they advised the punters, there was plenty enough to go around.

To’s characters represent the diversity of the Hong Kong residents who played the game in the days leading up to news of the Greek economic collapse. It would be an event that rocked the markets and added another layer of fear to investors, already shaken by events of 2008. Unlike the martial arts movies we expect to see from Hong Kong, the action and violence result from financial transactions gone sour. “Life Without Principle” isn’t the most coherent of To’s pictures, but that, too, is a function of the subject matter, which almost no one completely understands. What it lacks in narrative logic, however, it makes up for in off-the-wall characters and tick-tock decision-making. One gangster’s race to stake $5 million of his boss’ money on the ebb and flow of the Hang Seng Index is only slighted impeded by the long ornamental needle driven into his chest as a warning of what failure could mean. It’s funny, in a horrifying sort of way. There’s other violence in the movie, but nothing compared to the Hong Kong bloodbaths to which genre fans have become accustomed. The pursuit of greed translates into every language and these characters would give Gordon Gekko a good run for his money. – Gary Dretzka

Silver Tongues
A Necessary Death
Here are first features by foreign-born filmmakers who came to America to live the dream of making a movie. Once upon a time, before every city large enough to have a post office also wanted a film festival to call its own, audiences for movie like “Silver Tongues” and “A Necessary Death” were limited to university screening rooms and family gatherings. Now, anyone with a cellphone not only can make a movie, but also stage screenings whenever and wherever they may be. If they’re very lucky, someone who knows somebody at a distribution company will see the film and agree to press a few thousand discs. Competition among the nation’s many film students for the comparatively few real opportunities open to them is so great as to be Sisyphean. In a perfect world, these dramas would find a larger audience.

Simon Arthur’s “Silver Tongues” began its life in Scotland, as a short film, and was expanded to feature length here. Neither a thriller nor a mystery, it’s a chronicle of a man and woman’s attempt to escape the boredom of everyday life in truly bizarre ways. That’s OK … caper films are fun, too. Just as we get used to that idea, though, Arthur pulls another section of rug out, from under our feet. Lee Tergesen (“Army Wives,” “The Big C”) and Enid Graham (“Boardwalk Empire”) play Gerry and Joan, who travel around New England assuming false identities, seemingly to mess with the minds of strangers. Although they don’t steal money from the people they meet or torture them psychologically, Gerry and Joan are adept at locating the chinks in their armor and exploiting them. They do what they do and split, raising the stakes at every new stop. Not every viewer will be fooled by their act, but, I think, most ultimately will be surprised.

If Daniel Stamm’s “A Necessary Death” is more problematic a film, it also is quite a bit more demanding. Even describing what happens in a few of its 101 minutes could spoil the dramatic impact on viewers. So, I’ll try to work around the edges of the movie. Let’s just say, a group of L.A. film students have chosen for their final project a documentary in which a terminally ill person agrees to commit suicide before their camera. They begin their quest by taking out an ad on Craig’s List seeking volunteers. Before the service pulls the ad, several people do take them up on the offer. A likely candidate is chosen – there’s no hope his brain cancer can be reversed and a painful death is assured – and filming begins. Turns out, no one at the college wants to have anything to do with the project and an offer from a company in Texas dissolves, as well. Naturally, too, a crew member gets cold feet as she begins to fall for the candidate and it splits the team. No need to spill the rest. Viewers are left to decide for themselves whether or not what they’re seeing is true or faux. It isn’t as easy as you might think. Either way, the movie is creepy as hell. It asks many of the same questions as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” but the stakes are much higher here. – Gary Dretzka

New York Stories: Blu-ray
D.O.A.: Blu-ray
Spaghetti Western Double Feature: Grand Duel/Keoma: Blu-ray
Even if it seems like a millennium has passed since the release in 1989 of the anthology, “New York Stories,” it’s worth remembering that directors Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola were only approaching the middle of their careers and, of course, they’re still productive. As the title argues, each of the half-hour-plus episodes is set in Manhattan and speaks to a New York state of mind. Coppola’s career was stuck between disappointments “Tucker” and “The Godfather III,” while Scorsese was exiting the furor over the vastly misunderstood “The Last Temptation of Christ” and preparing for his revisualization of gangland New York in “Goodfellas.” Allen was in the midst of one of his non-funny periods, with “Another Woman” and the brilliant “Crimes and Misdemeanors” Nevertheless, fans of the directors anticipated “New York Stories” with the same optimism as usual. The anthology format had been popular in Europe in the 1960s, with “Boccaccio ’70,” “Spirits of the Dead” and “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (one director, different writers for each segment) and would be again, years later, with “Three Extremes,” “Eros” and “Paris, je t’aime.” In “New York Stories,” Allen contributed “Oedipus Wrecks,” which addresses several of his most memorable characters’ neuroses and mother issues. “Life Without Zoe,” co-written by 18-year-old Sophia Coppola, borrows from Kay Thompson’s “Eloise” stories, which are about a rich girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel (here portrayed by the Sherry-Netherland), while giving her a broader world view. Most critics agreed that Scorsese’s “Life Lessons,” was the pick of the litter. It stars Nick Nolte as a Soho artist, whose hipster cachet attracts pretty young acolytes to his loft, even as his volcanic jealousy eventually drives them away. Rosanna Arquette is the primary object of the painter’s attention here and, if he’s fixated with the ornaments of her beauty, he can’t bring himself to make her feel anything but small in his presence. Look for Steve Buscemi, Peter Gabriel, Illeana Douglas, Deborah Harry, Richard Price and Brigitte Bako in small roles. Although the movie wasn’t well-received 23 years ago, the current dearth of movies for grown-ups makes it look a whole lot better.

Annabelle Jankel and Rocky Morton’s 1988 romantic thriller, “D.O.A.,” borrows its plot, if not the west-coast setting from Rudolph Mate’s 1950 noir classic, which, itself, was inspired by a 1931 movie. All three involve a man who discovers after it is too late that he’s been exposed to a lethal, if slow-acting dose of radioactive toxin. The delay literally allows him the time he requires to find his own murderer and, perhaps, discover why such a thing happened to him. Dennis Quaid plays a burned-out writer who turned to teaching at UT-Austin after his books stopped selling. One of his students commits suicide after the instructor breaks his promise to read his manuscript for a novel. If only out of spite, his rich benefactor (Charlotte Rampling) becomes a likely suspect in the poisoning, but it seems as if new ones pop up every five minutes. None of their grudges appear to be serious enough to warrant such a dire punishment. It’s isn’t until other people around town are killed that the professor begins to think he may only be a sidebar in a much larger story. Even as he’s counting the hours toward his final breath, the professor finds time to enter into an affair with a lovely freshman (Meg Ryan), who’s been trying to get him in bed all semester. Where he gets the stamina is a miracle of Hollywood science. “D.O.A.” works pretty well, even when the professor’s actions begin to defy logic. Anyone who enjoys this “D.O.A.” ought to check out the Edmund O’Brien version. Also in the cast: Rob Knepper, Jane Kaczmarek and Daniel Stern.

In advance of Quentin Tarantino’s revival of the Django legend, slated for Christmas 2012, Mill Creek Entertainment has dusted off a prime pair of Spaghetti Westerns in its catalogue and sent them out on Blu-ray. “Keoma” and “The Grand Duel” were released into foreign territories very late in the sub-genre’s heyday, 1977 and 1974 respectively, and both have more alternate titles than some franchises have sequels. At various times, Enzo G. Castellari’s entertaining “Keoma” has been known as “Django Rides Again” and “The Violent Breed.” That’s because the famously blue-eyed Franco Nero played the original coffin-dragging gunslinger and, ever since then, promoters of his Westerns have attempted to make associations that weren’t always there. (He’ll appear in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” in some capacity, as well.)  “Keoma” stars Nero as a “half-breed” veteran of the Confederate Army who returns to his hometown to discover that his stepbrothers have joined forces with a local despot, who treats former slaves like dirt and exiles plague victims to caves. Lots of people get killed in the battle to save the populace and Nero is accorded the privilege of playing the movie’s Christ figure.

Another Spaghetti legend, Lee Van Cleef, stars in the Giancarlo Santi’s “The Grand Duel,” which also has been marketed as “The Big Showdown,” “Hell’s Fighters” and “Storm Rider.” (I can imagine it playing at the same drive-in, on the same night, under three or four of those titles. After 10 p.m., who would know the difference?) ) In it, Van Cleef plays a tough frontier sheriff, who helps a known fugitive elude bounty hunters. Their trail leads to the same town, where the cowboy’s crime allegedly was committed. The score was provided by composer Luis Enrique Bacalov, who’s contributed music to movies ranging from “Django” and “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew,” to “Kill Bill” and “Assassination Tango.” Although the package doesn’t offer much in the way of extras, the Blu-ray presentation adds a lot to the experience and both movies are crazy in a very good way. – Gary Dretzka

Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song
Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston
The venerable singer/actor/activist/humanitarian Harry Belafonte has been a part of the cultural fabric of America for most of the last 60 years. Now 85, Belafonte has spent the last decade or so, focusing on political and humanitarian causes. He’s appeared in only one film in the last 16 years and “retired” from singing almost 10 years ago. Few men and women, though, have lived as full and productive a life as Belafonte, who, well before the American folk revival, became famous singing calypso, blues and work songs. If you pick up “Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song,” he’ll tell you all about it. The film, written and directed by Susanne Rostock, may best be classified as an “auto-bio-doc.” It unspools like an as-told-to autobiography, but is informed by much archival footage and interviews with family members, including former wives; activists from the civil rights and peace movements; and such entertainers as Sidney Poitier, Tony Bennett, the Smothers Brothers and Diahann Carroll. Far from being self-serving, “Sing Your Song” demonstrates how it felt to confront racism at every rung of the ladder to success and even be spied on for the FBI by his own accountant, who was the husband of his psychiatrist. He reminds of how crucial it was for celebrities to stand up and be counted, with their personal and financial support, during the marches and sit-ins of the 1960s. This was at a time, of course, when even President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy treaded softly before the Southern voting bloc in Congress. Much of the archival footage has rarely, if ever been this widely disseminated and the performance material simply wonderful. If Belafonte doesn’t reveal many of his own warts – and there are some – what’s here remains as historically relevant and inspirational as ever. It’s also possible that Belafonte, while still vibrant, sees in “Sing Your Song” an opportunity to write his own obituary, instead of relying on some wet-behind-his-ears reporter to remember his greatest contribution to humanity wasn’t making “Day-O” a top-10 hit.

There was a time, in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the American-born fashion designer, Halston, was almost as famous for his ubiquity in the New York disco scene as for his groundbreaking designs and broad influence on the industry. Sadly, it was the cocaine-fueled nights he spent at Studio 54 with Liza, Bianca, Andy, Truman and an entourage of models that he’s most known in 2012. “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston” reminds us of what made Halston deservedly rich and famous, without ignoring the debauchery and excess. Besides demanding that designers in France, especially, pay attention to their American peers, he also made clothes that were affordable and appealing to average American women. Even today, they stand out in a crowd for their simple elegance. “In Search of Halston” is relevant as cultural history, both for its description of the designer’s impact on a valuable American industry, but also for reminding us of the toll paid for “divine decadence” by lots of people who engaged in risky behavior. The witnesses include Liza Minnelli, Diane Von Furstenberg, Andre Leon Talley, Anjelica Huston, Bob Colacello and Billy Joel.—Gary Dretzka

River of No Return: Blu-ray
National Parks Exploration Series: Yosemite/Grand Canyon
Before high-definition television was an affordable household option, exhibitors at the annual Consumer Electronics Show would whet the appetite of retailers by putting nature footage on their screens. In fact, it was produced specifically for such purposes and not yet available to the public, so a certain amount of cheating was required. The images were purposefully dazzling and rich in detail. As consumers would soon learn, however, not all shows shot in HD are created equal. I’m always reminded of this harmless ruse while watching shows like PBS’ “Nature,” the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and travelogues in the “National Parks Exploration Series.” For various technical reasons, nature programming and live sports still look better on HDTV than sitcoms, dramas and pre-Blu-ray movies.

No such problem exists in the titles represented here. The locations surveyed in “Yosemite: The High Sierras” and “The Grand Canyon: A Wonder of the Natural World” couldn’t present a greater challenge for new home-theater systems. There’s more to look at and study in an hour spent here than in a month’s worth of shows on the Travel Channel. Besides the lovely scenery, each “virtual tour” offers a comprehensive look at the parks’ magnificent geological and ecosystems. Although rangers and various other experts are on hand to explain how the parks evolved, the science never gets in the way of the cinematography, which is marvelous throughout Mill Creeks’ “National Parks Exploration Series.” In “Yosemite,” the cameras travel beyond borders of the park to explore several other reserves in the High Sierra, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon. It also revisits the Gold Rush and watches climbers take on the cliffs where “modern technical rock climbing” was invented. “Grand Canyon” necessarily spends a great deal of time at the nation’s foremost tourists. It also relates the geological conditions that created the vast Colorado Plateau and how water and wind combined their strengths to carve cathedrals in stone, shape giant arches and provide homes for the Anasazi. Viewers are advised to keep a knapsack handy for quick escapes.
River of No Return” focuses on one couple’s personal story and how it played out in the nation’s least-known wilderness reserve. When wolf expert Isaac Babcock and his new bride, Bjornen, considered places to share their honeymoon, one location stood out among the other choices. They agreed to spend a year roaming Idaho’s Frank Church: River of No Return Wilderness, part of the largest roadless area left in the lower 48 states. While photographing the seasonal activities of the native wildlife – especially the thriving population of wolves – they literally were following the footsteps left by members of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The pioneers and natives knew better than to attempt fording the rugged Salmon River and the Babcocks, who were toting a hi-def camera, tent and provisions weren’t about to risk defeat, either. Blessed with a great bounty of wildlife and 2.5 million acres of unspoiled wilderness on both sides of the river –and a long-distance lens – nature came to them. As beautiful as the meadows, cliffs and river might be in any season, it was the thick clouds of mosquitoes that caused the Babcocks to briefly regret their choice of honeymoon destinations. – Gary Dretzka

Rose Tattoo: Live in 1993
Divinyls: Live
The dynamic Aussie hard-rock ensemble, Rose Tattoo, is one of those bands its fans won’t allow to die, even though five of its former members have moved on to rock-’n’-roll heaven.  Formed in 1976, the Tats instantly recall the Rolling Stones – minus the more introspective tunes – and such American acts as the Black Crows and Guns N’ Roses. The concert recorded on “Rose Tattoo: Live in 1993” took place at the notorious 110-year-old Boggo Road Jail, which had recently been de-commissioned. The original line-up of Angry Anderson, Peter Wells, Geordie Leech and Mick Cocks reunited for the occasion, along with replacement drummer Paul di Marco. Among the songs performed here “Assault & Battery,” “Tramp,” “Out of This Place” and a raucous cover of the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.

Also on the Boggo Road menu that night was the Divynyls, an Aussie band that enjoyed a few moments of controversy here with “I Touch Myself.” Formed in 1980, the band’s most prominent member is singer Chrissie Amphlett, a saucy wench who’s raised the temperatures of a generation of Australian head-bangers with her naughty outfits and take-no-prisoners stage persona. Watching her must have been worth the price of admission, alone, to teenage boys in Oz. The set her includes hits from the Divynyl’ five albums, including “Boys in Town,” “I Touch Myself,” “I’ll Make You Happy,” “”Only Lonely” and “”Pleasure and Pain.” – Gary Dretzka

Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials
Floating amid the cream of last year’s cream of the DVD crop was Shout! Factory’s “The Ernie Kovacs Collection,” a six-disc set that neatly summarized the all-too-brief career of one of television’s true creative geniuses. “The ABC Specials” has been cut from that collection as a self-contained introduction to what might be considered his crowning achievement. They represent five of the eight specials Kovacs produced in the months leading up to his death in a car accident on January 13, 1962. The final show aired a week after he died, with an introduction that noted he would have wanted it to be shown in his absence. And, why not? The skits and blackouts that filled each show were brilliantly innovative and remain hilarious both as comedy and the art of illusion. Even so, Kovacs sometimes was a hard sell to audiences. As his friend, Jack Lemmon, noted, “He was always 15 years ahead of everyone else.” Among those who recognized his gift were comics and talk-show hosts, who freely admit to borrowing from the best. It isn’t difficult to see the influence on Johnny Carson, the producers of “Laugh-In,” David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. Unlike previous shows, the specials were recorded on video tape. They allowed Kovacs and his team greater creative freedom and less time in the editing bays. Among the things that make the ABC specials so entertaining is the music – the original “Mack the Knife,” in German, and a Hungarian take on “Mona Lisa,” among others – that plays over the anarchic skits. The DVD adds a compilation of commercials produced for Dutch Masters cigars, all of which are of a piece with the material in the show and very funny. – Gary Dretzka<

Maverick: The Complete First Season
Rookie Blue: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Drop Dead Diva: The Complete Third Season
Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 6
That “Maverick” is one of the most cleverly conceived and thoroughly entertaining series in television history is an indisputable fact. That it also helped shape ABC into a viable broadcast network is also true. In the mid-1950s, the fledgling network had money and affiliates but little to offer audiences hungry for fresh genre fare. Soon, Warner Bros. studio would position itself as a valuable resource, providing as much as 10 hours of character-driven programming each week. Besides “Maverick,” they included “Cheyenne,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Surfside 6,” “Bronco,” “Colt .45” and “Hawaiian Eye.” Typically, the shows’ handsome protagonists attracted viewers who wanted to move on from sitcoms and variety shows dominated by older actors, who’d made the transition from radio to television. (Kids and parents also flocked to “Disneyland” and “Walt Disney Presents.”) James Garner perfectly fit the mold of an actor who could carry a show based on his charismatic personality, alone. Fortunately, he didn’t have to do that, as the adventures of gentleman-gambler Bret Maverick were supported by wonderfully intelligent writing, attractive co-stars, ever-changing settings and a balance of humor and drama. If there was never a question that Maverick was most interested in making money, it was also clear that he would go out of way to rescue a damsel in distress or turn the table on a corrupt politician or crooked gambler. His code of honor included never cheating in a card game – he rarely needed to – and always sharing the profits from his cons with those who needed the money most. “Maverick: The Complete First Season” marks the first time the show has made the leap to DVD and not much has been lost in the passage of time. It isn’t until Episode 8 that brother Bart is introduced. Although Jack Kelly’s character only was to make a single appearance, the chemistry between Bart and Bret prompted series creator Roy Huggins to make him a fixture. Kelly’s presence afforded Garner some relief from the demands of a grueling production schedule and gave the writers another long hook upon which they could hang plot twists and through-lines. The first season also saw the first appearances by repeat characters Big Mike McComb (Leo Gordon), Dandy Jim Buckley (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), Doc Holliday (Gerald Mohr) and Samantha Crawford (Diane Brewster), who made the move from “Cheyenne.”

Rookie Blue” is the rare television drama that already has survived two seasons as a summer-replacement series and is now in its third. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about a cop show that uses young and sexy actors to attract prime-time viewers. While it would be unfair to characterize the average police recruit as being less than movie-star handsome or glamorous, today’s breed of TV cops seems to have chosen law-enforcement as a career only after failing to impress the producers of “Girls Gone Wild” or “The Bachelor.” This isn’t to say that the majority of cops under 30 lack a certain pulchritudinous quality, only that they don’t look like people who’ve spent their off-hours at L.A. Fitness or the cosmetics bar at Macy’s. That said, the rookie cops here aren’t any less credible than the doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.,” which also air regularly on Thursday nights during the fall season. The Blu-ray adds several short featurettes of little consequence: “Shots Fired: Inside the Season Premiere,” “Horsing Around,” “Cops on Coffee,” “Travis Talk,” “Disorderly Conduct” and “Split-Screen, Behind-the-Scenes Footage.”

One way to gauge how hip a show is considered to be is the number of guest stars it attracts to play small, but juicy parts. In Season 3 of Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva,” this included Paula Abdul, LeAnn Rimes, Wendy Williams, Lance Bass, Kathy Griffin, Brandy, Wanda Sykes, Clay Aiken, Patti Stanger, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Australia’s Thunder From Down Under. For those as yet unacquainted with it, “DDD” tweaks the basic “Heaven Can Wait” concept by having the spirit of pretty blond airhead re-introduced into the body of a homely, overweight lawyer who no longer needs it. Given that this likely is the only opportunity Jane (Brooke Elliott) will have for re-mortality, she must adjust not only to being considered the opposite of beautiful by mainstream standards, but also deal with being a professional in a job that doesn’t require modeling. In Season 3, as well, she’s asked to play wedding planner for her former fiancé’s nuptials while also working on cases involving botched breast-implant surgery gone wrong and a Death Row inmate, attempting to redeem himself. Unlike “Rookie Blue,” “DDD” is less a handy summer-replacement series – of which there should be more – than a reason to stay in and watch TV on a hot, humid night.

In Season 6 of PBS’ “Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century,” a series that introduces viewers to important emerging artists, the focus is on change, boundaries, history and balance. The international collection of artists represented includes Marina Abramovic, Ai Weiwei, David Altmejd, El Anatsui, assume vivid astro focus, Lynda Benglis, Rackstraw Downes, Glenn Ligon, Robert Mangold, Catherine Opie, Mary Reid Kelley, Sarah Sze, and Tabaimo. – Gary Dretzka

As the story goes, 2012 Masters champion Gerry Lester Watson Jr. was given the nickname, Bubba, by his father, who admired the great collegiate and NFL player, Bubba Smith. In the South, it is a term of endearment that suggests its bearer is large, athletic and someone who might someday also be accorded the title “good ol’ boy.” It’s been said many times, incorrectly, that the membership of Augusta National Golf Club is an organization comprised strictly of good ol’ boys, all of whom are rich and well-connected. It wasn’t until 1990 that club members allowed an African-American to join the fun, and, then, only under intense media scrutiny. Women, even those who’ve broken through the glass ceiling of companies that sponsor the classic tournament, still aren’t allowed to join. It’s only appropriate that a Bubba has finally been accorded elite status among the good ol’ boys, even if the rich and famous man for whom he was (nick)named could never have become a member.

Before being fitted for the ceremonial green jacket that goes to the winner, Watson came out on top of one of the most entertaining and exciting Masters in its 76-year history. The leader board may not have included Tiger Woods and other likely candidates, but the match was hotly contested between a senior (Fred Couples), a three-time winner player (Phil Mickelson), a foreigner (Peter Oosthuizen) and the Floridian, Watson. All weekend long, keeping up with the dramatic pace required exceptional shooting, quick recovery from mistakes and nerves of graphite. Late Sunday afternoon, it would take another two holes to determine the winner. Suffice it to say, Bubba is a popular champion, as much for his skill as for the kind of personal and professional backstory the saps at CBS love to report. My only problem with the hot-off-the-presses “Highlights of the 2012 Masters Tournament” is that it’s only available in standard-definition, when golf is a game best appreciated in hi-def. With its wonderful architecture and splendid vegetation, the Masters has become a yearly treat on HDTV. Every ripple of the greens and roll of the fairways bears witness to the players’ task. The DVD, which was produced by Augusta National Inc., includes coverage of the outdoor green-jacket ceremony, champion’s press conference, honorary starters and press conference with past champions Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. – 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