MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: In Darkness, Sherlock Holmes, Accident, Ghost Rider … More

In Darkness: Blu-ray
Nearly 67 years after the end of World War II, filmmakers continue to discover accounts of heroism in unexpected places. Lately, though, American audiences have been required to overcome their mistrust of subtitles to appreciate them. Such is the case with Agnieszka Holland’s harrowing “In Darkness,” a Polish-language film that demands comparisons with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” If the story of Oskar Schindler’s great act of courage came as a surprise to you, the humanity on display in “In Darkness” might be confused with extreme literary license. Leopold Socha was a laborer for the municipal sanitation department in Lvov, Poland – now Lviv, Ukraine — during the occupation by Nazi and supportive Ukrainian forces. He’s also been described as a petty thief, but, I suspect, many Poles were forced to live by their wits and wiles while under the thumbs of Soviet and German thugs. As the Nazis liquidated Lvov’s Jewish ghetto, transferring residents spared from summary execution to the Janowska forced-labor camp, Socha encountered a group of about 20 attempting to escape through the sewer system. Instead of reporting them and collecting a bounty imposed by the Nazis, the devout Catholic warned them against using the tunnels to escape to the river, where Gestapo soldiers were waiting. Socha advised them to remain underground until the Nazis retreated and, in return for money and jewelry to hock, he would provide them with food and other provisions.

Clearly, Socha’s motives weren’t entirely pure. He took a certain amount of money from each payment to improve conditions for his family. Except for that, he was as good as his word, even providing special foods and scavenged prayer books for religious observances. To this end, he recruited his friend Stefan Wroblewski – another Pole enshrined by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations – to ensure that life in the rat-infested sewers wasn’t entirely horrific. Not all of the Jews hiding there would survive the 13-month ordeal, but, as described by Holland, it’s a miracle any of them did. Socha, too, was constantly at risk. Buying enough food to feed a group of more than a dozen people easily could have brought his mission to the attention of Lvov’s many Nazi sympathizers, anti-Semites and opportunists looking to collect the $500 bounty. Judging from the fact that a Jewish population of some 200,000 in 1941 was reduced to fewer than 300, three years later, many people did take the Gestapo up on its demonic offer. (Native Poles subsequently would be deported when new borders were drawn to make Lvuv part of the Ukraine, USSR.) Socha might have been remembered as being something less than a hero, as well, if it weren’t for the fact that he refused to turn his back on the families when they ran out of money and other items of value. Likewise, he could have abandoned them after one fugitive’s intemperate act resulted in the death of a Nazi soldier and the Germans took their revenge by executing dozens of civilians. Instead, the undiminished faith demonstrated by the Jewish families restored Socha’s own commitment to Christian principles.

For “In Darkness,” Holland, who’s half-Jewish, but raised Catholic, was nominated for her second Oscar in the Best Foreign Picture category. (Her first of three nominations came in 1986, for “Angry Harvest.” In 1992, she was honored as the writer of “Europe, Europa.”) She and writer David F. Shamoon adapted the screenplay from Robert Marshall’s “In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival From the Holocaust,” published in 1991. At the time of production, Holland wasn’t yet aware of “The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow,” the 2008 memoir written by Krystyna Chiger, one of the survivors portrayed in the film. I don’t think you’ll find many better performances than those turned in by Robert Wieckiewicz, as Socha; Krzysztof Skonieczny, as his cohort; Benno Fürmann, as the impetuous Mundek; and supporting-cast members Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader, Kinga Preis and Weronika Rosati. Holland and Chiger appear together at the Toronto Film Festive and in interviews included in the Blu-ray package. Anyone who admired “Schindler’s List” should run out to rent “In Darkness.” – Gary Dretzka

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: Blu-ray
The less one knows about Sherlock Holmes, his colleague Dr. Watson and archenemy Moriarty, the easier it is to enjoy “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and its 2009 predecessor, “Sherlock Holmes.” I say that not as a fan of the classic mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and previous film adaptations, but as someone willing to concede that literary purists carry far less weight in Hollywood than customers willing to reward broad comedy, gratuitous mayhem and special effects. Both of the Guy Ritchie-directed adventures made a ton of money for Warner Bros., despite mostly lousy reviews and a resemblance to the anemic Will Smith remake of “Wild Wild West.” Almost all of the credit for their success belongs to the charismatic portrayals turned in by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, who, as the brainy Victorian-era crimefighters, make an extremely winning team. If anything, their chemistry is more convincing in “A Game of Shadows,” which, contrary to its title, is a much lighter affair than the original, both visually and narrative tone. The presence of the evil genius, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, of “Mad Men”), also is a plus. Beyond that, to quote Margo Channing, home-theater enthusiasts are cautioned, “Fasten your seat belt. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

“A Game of Shadows” is a mash-up of several stories in the Holmes canon, including “The Sign of the Four,” “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” “The Valley of Fear,” “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” “The Dying Detective,” “The Adventure of Bruce-Partington Plans” and “The Second Stain.” More than these titles, though, Michele and Kieran Mulroney (“Paper Man”) based their screenplay on “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” which Doyle intended to be the detective’s swan song. (It wasn’t.) By also incorporating “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the writers practically ensured a third entry to the series. After a series of auspicious events begins to make headlines in the London papers, Holmes correctly deduces that Moriarty is orchestrating a possibly catastrophic threat to peace in Europe. If he succeeds, the “Napoleon of crime” stands to profit from the chaos and carnage. Holmes and Watson’s pursuit of Moriarty leads them to a castle overlooking Reichenbach Falls, a visual reference that might be wasted on viewers whose appreciation of Holmes is limited to Ritchie’s adaptations.

Fans of the first “Sherlock Holmes” might be distressed to learn that the formidable Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is pretty much a non-factor in in “A Game of Shadows.” So, too, is Watson’s new wife (Kelly Reilly), who is given an unceremonious heave-ho on their honeymoon. In their place is the Gypsy fortune-teller, Madam Simza Heron, a character so poorly drawn that it’s sometimes difficult to discern why she’s there in the first place. Simza is portrayed to no great effect by Noomi Rapace, best known for her unforgettable turn as Lisbeth Salander in the “Dragon Tattoo” trilogy. Stephen Fry adds a bit of levity with his impersonation of Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft, while Geraldine James and Eddie Marsan return as Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade. As for Blu-ray bonus features, only those viewers with advanced machinery will be able to access the background and picture-in-picture material. Behind-the-scenes video also is available by downloading a movie app to your mobile device or tablet, then syncing it with the film. – Gary Dretzka

Accident: Blu-ray
Try to imagine a Hitchcockian thriller, as choreographed by Rube Goldberg, and you might have an idea what to expect from Pou-Soi Cheang’s perversely clever “Accident.” Set largely in the bustling streets of Hong Kong, the award-winning import describes how a tightly-knit gang plots elaborate hits on people targeted by a mastermind known as the Brain (Louis Koo). The trick is to make the murders look as if they’re accidents, so the client is able to collect insurance money and the assassins can avoid arrest. In the “accident” that opens the film, a commuter is outraged by a woman’s refusal to pull her car to the curb when she experiences a flat tire. As soon as he’s able to sprint past her, a truck sloshes dirty water over his windshield, blinding him to oncoming traffic. He’s further infuriated by a banner that falls from a cable spanning the street and, again, obscures his vision. While loudly demanding to know who’s responsible for the banner, a window above him shatters, scattering shards of glass on everything and everyone below it. As the seriously wounded target lies on the sidewalk, the ambulance sent to rescue him is tied up in the same jam caused by the woman with the flat tire. This intricately designed scene ends when a co-conspirator calls his boss and reports that it’s OK to collect the fee from his client.

If all “Accident” had going for it was a parade of similarly amazing hits, it could be enjoyed as a black comedy in the Hong Kong tradition. Instead, Cheang reminds us that the best schemes of mice and men often go awry and, when they do, it’s sometimes impossible to tell the difference between an act of God, a botched assignment and a double-cross. Just such a dilemma confronts the Brain, when, one rainy night, a bus slides out of control, taking out a gang member instead of the intended target. Already paranoid, the Brain recalls the death of his wife under similar circumstances and becomes convinced that the “accident” is too perfectly choreographed to be accidental, but clearly not of his design. If so, he begins to wonder, should he have identified his wife’s death as a warning from enemies unknown? For his own protection, the Brain embarks on an investigation of his own, this time of the man from whom he takes his orders. When reality and delusion collide in the movies – as they do here and in Cheang’s possible inspiration, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” — the audience almost always comes out on top. If “Accident” is any indication, Cheang (“Dog Bite Dog,” “Shamo” and “Love Battlefield”) is another Asian filmmaker ready to make his name known on the international scene. The Blu-ray edition takes full advantage of the nighttime cinematography – especially when it rains — and atmospheric lightening design. It arrives with a pretty good making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Seeking Justice: Blu-ray
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: Blu-ray
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell when Nicolas Cage is following instructions or acting in the only way he knows how: like a car rolling out-of-control down a steep hill. After taking home a richly deserved Oscar for his harrowing performance in “Leaving Las Vegas,” Cage has accepted more roles as cartoonish action heroes — or outright head cases — than as a character requiring a bit more subtle interpretation. This worked in “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call,” if only because Werner Herzog’s vision was crazier than anything Cage could have re-invented for himself. Usually, though, his embellishments clash with the notions of the CGI techs. Here are two pictures that are representative of his body of work in the last decade, or so. Shot in New Orleans, one of Cage’s adopted hometowns, “Seeking Justice” concerns a high school teacher, Will Gerard, who agrees to a deal that promises revenge for the beating and rape of his wife, Laura (January Jones), but leaves him indebted to the leader (Guy Pearce) of a gang of vigilantes. When it comes time to collect on the IOU, Will is forced to choose between acting on his basic principles and killing a man he’s been told is a child molester and making it look like an accident. In fact, though, the victim is a journalist about to expose the mysterious gang and his resistance is caught on a camera that was supposed to have been broken. Will’s deal with the devil also stipulated that police wouldn’t be able to identify him and press charges. No sooner does the interrogation begin, however, than a police lieutenant allows him to escape. In Will’s mind, the reason for such generosity isn’t because he’s innocent — he knows he isn’t – but because a target has been painted on his back and it’s easier to stage an accident when he’s in the wind. By this time, too, Laura is being used by the gang and police, alike, to force him to surface. That’s because the closer he comes to discovering what the journalist knew, the more dangerous he is to the underground plotters. Cage probably could play the teacher in his sleep, but, typically, he pours a lot of unbridled energy into the portrayal. Although director Roger Donaldson nicely captures the different tastes and textures of New Orleans – from Mardi Gras to the whims of what arguably is the nation’s most corrupt police force — he can’t keep all the story’s loose ends from coming together in a recognizable pattern. Even as the final credits begin to roll, it’s clear the only person Will can completely trust is his wife, and I doubt “Seeking Justice” was intended to have a sequel.

Any movie that cost upwards of $75 million to produce can’t rightly qualify for grindhouse status, but the “Ghost Rider” flicks have all the right ingredients down pat. Cage returns here as the cursed stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (a.k.a., Ghost Rider), who, in selling his soul to Satan, becomes Hell’s most effective bounty hunter. In the sequel, “Spirit of Vengeance,” Blaze desires nothing so much as to have this curse lifted from him and never again breathe hellfire at 80 miles per hour. Apparently, since the release of the first “Ghost Rider,” the doomed biker has been laying low in Romania and Turkey, avoiding the devil (Ciaran Hinds) and his commands. No matter how reluctant he is to transforming himself into the flame-consumed Ghost Rider, Blaze hopes to have the curse lifted after snatching a boy being recruited by a mysterious order of monks. In an appropriately freaky touch, the holy men have scripture tattooed on their faces and store some of the world’s rarest wines live in a remote monastery carved out of strange rock formations. Suffice it to say, “Spirit of Vengeance” leaves sufficient room for a second sequel. Co-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (“Crank”) keep things moving at a breakneck, 3D-friendly pace, adding a few humorous touches along the way. The scenes shot outdoors are quite spectacular to look at, but only viewers versed in the mythology of the Marvel comic book are likely to understand what the heck is going on from one scene to the next. The Blu-ray adds extended commentary, and behind-the-scenes featurettes. The 3D also offers “Riding Into Another Dimension.” – Gary Dretzka

Any straight-to-video title that uses Danny Trejo’s scarred visage as a marketing tool likely is attempting to sell a movie that is loaded with grindhouse action and homeboy cachet. And, in “Ranchero,” the self-described “ex-con turned icon” does play yet another L.A. gang-banger. What’s different here, however, is that Trejo’s role is incidental to almost everything else that happens in director Richard Kaponas and writer Brian Eric Johnson’s freshman feature. Trejo plays Capone, a wheelchair-bound OG who shows up late in the story – his gravelly voice precedes the rest of him by two reels – as a pimp and loan shark in a vice-infested neighborhood. Where “Ranchero” differs from several dozen other movies in which Trejo has appeared is in the duties assigned to the protagonist, Jesse (Roger Gutierrez), a former ranch hand who’s the polar opposite of Capone. Jesse was raised on a sprawling ranch in northern California and spent his adulthood there, as well. After his father dies, he decides to move south to join his boyhood pal, Tom (Johnson), in the big city. Jesse practically defines the term, “fish out of water.” He doesn’t seem to have watched many Los Angeles-based police dramas on TV, let alone any of Trejo’s trademark action flicks. Although strong enough to load hay and muck stalls until the cows come home, Jesse is one cowpoke who’s more conversant with his camera than a gun. He sports Elvis Presley sideburns and listens to country music on the radio of his pickup truck.  It isn’t until the movie is almost over that he picks up on the fact that the girl he digs, Lil’ Bit (Christina Woods), is a prostitute and his pal, Tom, is a worthless junkie.

Jesse is such an unassuming character that viewers can’t help but hope he doesn’t end up being just another victim of seemingly random urban violence. While his photography shows great promise, Jesse’s natural propensity to champion the underdog sets him on a collision course with Capone. It’s a pity, then, that “Ranchero” displays most of the problems that accompany debut features by indie filmmakers. It too often zigs, when it should zag, and forces the characters to do things they might have delayed in the course of normal development. These flaws are far from fatal, however. Patient and forgiving audiences should find something so unexpected in “Ranchero” that it justifies their investment in time. The DVD comes with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Something’s Gonna Live
Whenever a movie favored by younger viewers gets dissed by the Academy Award voters, fans and the media are quick to blame the organization’s senior citizenry, some of whom, we’re led to believe, may not have seen a film they’ve liked since “Lawrence of Arabia.” Nostalgia goes a long way in Hollywood, no matter if it extends back to “Gone With the Wind,” “Star Wars” or pre-CGI special effects. Although Director Daniel Raim doesn’t wallow in nostalgia in “Something’s Gonna Live,” it’s tough to avoid. That’s because the movies being discussed by some of the medium’s finest practitioners are among the very best ever made. The longtime friends gathered here by Raim are art directors Robert Boyle (“North by Northwest,” “The Birds”), Henry Bumstead (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sting”) and Albert Nozaki (“The War of the Worlds,” “The Ten Commandments”), storyboard artist Harold Michelson (“The Graduate,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”) and master cinematographers Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Medium Cool”) and Conrad Hall (“In Cold Blood,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). Raim isn’t satisfied with merely assigning these men seats at a round table and asking them to swap yarns about the famous directors and stars with whom they’ve collaborated. Instead, the conversations are informed by archival clips, sketches and other visual aids. He asked Boyle and Michelson to return with him to Bodega Bay, where they worked so closely with “Hitch” on “The Birds,” a movie that redefined horror forever.

The way the marketing system is built today, audiences are encouraged to forget just how collaborative a medium movie-making really is. The one exception is Oscar night and, even then, the nominees and winners in the so-called “technical” categories are virtually ignored by the journalists and photographers backstage. At publicity junkets, reporters willingly buy into the lie that movies spring fully blown from the brows of the directors and stars they’re about to interview. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. The men and women who worked behind the camera in the so-called Golden Age probably weren’t accorded much attention outside the studio, but, in an analog world, they never were required to play second-fiddle to a computer or green screen, either. Sadly, in the 10-year period it took to complete “Something’s Gonna Live,” five of the six men we meet here were called to the big soundstage in the sky. At a time when freelancing and contract work is the norm, it’s fair to wonder if today’s generation of designers, artists and cinematographers will be able to share similar memories. Among the special features are Raim’s Oscar-nominated short film about Robert Boyle, “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose”; deleted scenes; an excerpt from Boyle’s “AFI Master Class: Production Design Checklist” and “Working With Hitchcock”; a conversation between Hall and Boyle, “Life After Film School”; Wexler discusses the doc on KPFK; artist biographies; and a PDF of Boyle’s original “Production Design Checklist.” – Gary Dretzka

Give Me the Banjo
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance
The banjo is to Steve Martin what the clarinet is to Woody Allen, and it’s his presence as narrator that the producers of “Give Me the Banjo” hope will drive interest in their entertaining and informative documentary. The multifaceted comedian is shown performing with his band, the Stone Canyon Rangers, but not at the expense of director Marc Fields’ scholarship or the many archival clips of the instrument’s masters. Anyone who’s seen Sascha Paladino and Bela Fleck’s wonderful exploration of the banjo’s roots already knows how deep they grow in African soil. Fleck sat in with musicians there, jamming and observing how songs played on crude stringed instruments might have influenced American slaves allowed the small freedom of artistic expression on hand-crafted banjos. (Drums were forbidden by plantation owners who feared they would be used to send messages to other slaves.) He also appears on “Give Me the Banjo,” which picks up at the point in U.S. history where the banjo was associated almost exclusively with slaves and freed slaves. It wouldn’t take long for southern whites to pick up the instrument and apply it to pre-bluegrass mountain music. The broad popularity of minstrel shows, however repulsive they seem now, not only would introduce the banjo to mass audiences, but also showcase the talents of African-American entertainers. (As was the case in the Blaxploitation era, stereotypical roles were better than none at all.) This would lead directly to instrument’s incorporation into Southern blues, gospel and country music. It also would become a staple of groups performing at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

Hollywood took notice of the banjo’s populist appeal, as did music publishers in New York and radio programmers in Chicago and Nashville. A bit further down the line, Fleck and other top practitioners would test the limits of the banjo against the boundaries of jazz, pop, rock and country. Besides Martin and the clips of such early pioneers as Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole, Gus Cannon, Dock Boggs and Etta Baker, “Give Me the Banjo” is informed by interviews with and performances by Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka, Taj Mahal, Mike Seeger, Alison Brown, Sonny Osborn, Don Vappie, Cynthia Sayer and Abby Washburn. The documentary is a byproduct of the Banjo Project, described as a “cross-media cultural odyssey.” The DVD adds extended interviews and performances.

If there was any justice in the world of entertainment, profits from such shows as “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars” would be diverted from network coffers to struggling modern dance and ballet companies throughout the U.S. Moreover, whenever Madonna or Lady Gaga decide to court media attention by flashing their naughty bits on stage, they’d be forced to contribute money, as well. This isn’t to say one form of dance is better or more noteworthy than another discipline, only, in a perfect world, the fruits of commercial success would be used to sustain the artistic goals of struggling troupes. I say this immediately after watching “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” which chronicles the history of one of America’s most prominent ballet companies, from its founding in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, to the present. At a time when American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet kept their eyes focused on Europe and the classic repertoire, the Joffrey dared to give dance an American face, with male dancers assigned to do more than lift and support the prima ballerinas. It also was the first to comment on contemporary culture and politics in newly created dances. Bob Hercules’ film doesn’t ignore the uphill battles the company has been required to fight, simply to stay alive. “Mavericks of American Dance” contains many interviews with past dancers, critics and benefactors, as well as excerpts from such singular Joffrey works as “Astarte,” “Trinity” and “Billboards” and collaborations with choreographers Kurt Jooss (“The Green Table”) and Leonide Massine (“Parade”). The DVD adds a 12-page booklet, full dress rehearsal of “The Green Table Ballet,” a making-of featurette and deleted scenes (including one on the making of Robert Altman’s “The Company”). – Gary Dretzka

Demoted: Blu-ray
So many members of the “Demoted” cast have done better work in similarly themed comedies that it’s legitimate to wonder when they figured out how self-defeating an exercise this movie would become. Sean Astin and Michael Vartan play chronically bored salesmen at a company manufacturing automobile tires. Despite the fact they’re world-class pranksters, Mike and Rodney enjoy the support of their boss (Robert Klein). When he suffers a fatal heart attack after a night of carousing at a local strip club (where else, right?), the lads are punished for their years of playing tricks on his replacement by being “promoted” to the secretarial pool. This sets up an altogether different set of obstacles for Mike and Rodney, who now must endear themselves to the secretaries they’ve punked over the years. Mike and Rodney’s pranks were mild, though, compared to abuse being dished out by the new boss, Ken (David Cross), so the secretaries rally behind them. Rodney’s greatest problem, though, is keeping on the good side of his fiancée (Sara Foster) and her perverted father (Patrick St. Esprit) and this means keeping them in the dark about his diminished status. Blue-collar comic Ron White is on hand to add some redneck humor as company’s CEO, but the legitimately funny bits in “Demoted” are few and far between. I blame director J.B. Rogers (“The Pool Boys”) and screenwriter Dan Callahan (“College”) for wasting my time, not the actors. – Gary Dretzka

Don’t Go in the Woods
If you can imagine how a hybrid of “Glee” and “Friday the 13th” might look, give “Don’t Go in the Woods” a shot. If that proposition doesn’t sound very appetizing, though, you probably will be as appalled by Vincent D’Onofrio’s directorial debut as the critics who panned it. In a musical twist to the old killer-in-the-woods conceit, members of rock band head for the hills to find the time and space necessary to create new songs. Naturally, in the rush to get to the campground, the young men and women ignore the large sign warning them against entering the woods. Everything beyond that sign is entirely predictable, except for the ferocity of the killings and the frequency with which the musicians break into song. The juxtaposition of extreme bloodletting and Sam Bisbee’s tunes is almost always disconcerting, regardless of the fact that some of the ditties actually are quite good. There’s no reason to expect that an actor new to the slasher sub-genre, even one as accomplished as D’Onofrio, would understand its conventions and conceits on his first directorial go-round. Unfortunately, the target demographic for “Don’t Go in the Woods” isn’t as clueless or undiscerning as some people assume them to be. Because the masked killers who stalk the musicians act with no rhyme or reason, the violence feels unnecessarily arbitrary and gratuitous. Normally, when a stalker attacks teenagers necking in a car or a naked girl in a shower, there’s at least a method – however sick or perverse – to their madness. Not so, here. From the interviews included in the DVD, I get the sense that “Don’t Go in the Woods” was made while D’Onofrio was waiting for something else to come through and, as such, it was something of an impromptu affair. – Gary Dretzka

Zoom Up: The Beaver Book Girl
Eros School: Feels So Good
One needn’t be a card-carrying pervert to enjoy the newest releases from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection. Flexibility on fantasies involving rape, cotton panties, water sports and other scatological activities is essential, though. “Zoom Up: The Beaver Book Girl” contains all of that nasty stuff, but its validation derives from the source material: the dark manga stories of Takashi Ishii. In them, women troubled by the psychological effects of sexual violence often take out their frustrations and hostility in overtly transgressive ways. While it’s fair to ask where vengeance ends and exploitation begins, why bother? Many of the movies in the studio’s Roman Porno line bear comparison to the comix art of R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, whose outrageous depictions of women of all shapes, colors and political leanings – and men acting out their fetishes and fixations in grotesque ways — have been applauded and condemned in almost equal measure. Here, a mysterious model comes to the rescue of a photographer who specializes in bondage. If the woman is supposed to look familiar to him, it’s because she once was the “queen of the skin magazines.” What the photographer doesn’t quite grasp, however, is that the model has an ax to grind against the head of the man who raped her three years earlier.

The same caveats apply to “Eros School: Feels So Good,” whose redeeming value may be more difficult to discern. It describes the efforts of nearly every male at Eros High to rob the school’s champion athlete and class president, Misa, of her virginity. Gender-identity issues surround the girl’s achievements, but some of the movie’s best moments come during confrontations between students and teachers. That and the enigmatic presence of a pet pig make “Eros High” a singular experience. – Gary Dretzka

Shallow Grave: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
With the critical and commercial success of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” Danny Boyle must feel as if he’s sitting on top of the world. T’wasn’t always the case, of course. After the Manchester native made his indie bones with “Trainspotting,” he took the bait laid before him by Hollywood. Unfortunately, he hit rock bottom with the high-profile turkeys “A Life Less Ordinary” and “The Beach.” The zombie thriller “28 Days Later …” made a lot of money in 2002, but nothing hit real paydirt until “Slumdog Millionaire,” which almost was released straight into video. Now, Boyle’s first feature, “Shallow Grave” has been accorded a Criterion Collection facelift and Blu-ray polish. It’s a terrific little picture that starts off as a black comedy, but, half-way through, turns very suspenseful, indeed. Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Peter Mullan were among the largely unknown actors cast in the story about yuppie roommates who have fun mocking applicants looking for a place to rent, but don’t seem to have much to recommend themselves. No sooner does the fellow they select move into the flat than he dies of an overdose, which isn’t detected for several days. The roomies inherit a suitcase full of money, but are required to stash the body in a place that won’t link them to the corpse or the money. It isn’t easy, of course, but the more torture that’s inflicted on the corpse, they more changes the roommates experience in their own personalities. Their dilemma multiplies when the deceased roommate’s cronies come looking for him. The Criterion package includes the digitally restored transfer, supervised by director of photography Brian Tufano; audio commentaries by Boyle and writer John Hodge. (Boyle’s unusual color scheme is greatly enhanced in hi-def.) There also are new interviews with Eccleston, Fox and McGregor; producer Andrew and Kevin Macdonald’s video diary; “Digging Your Own Grave,” a 1993 documentary by Kevin Macdonald; teaser trailers for “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting”; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp. – Gary Dretzka

Fastest: Blu-ray
I have no idea how popular MotoGP racing is in the United States. Certainly, it doesn’t enjoy the same appeal here as it does in Europe and Asia, where serpentine Gran Prix courses accommodate both disciplines equally, and bicycle races still draw a crowd. Watch “Fastest,” especially in Blu-ray, and you’ll see the reason for its popularity. Unlike NASCAR, Indy, Formula 1 and truck racing, the only thing protecting a racer from broken bones and brain damage is a leather outfit and helmet. The breakneck speed and tire-to-tire action demand the same skills and courage from MotoGP contestants as those possessed by pilots of four-wheelers, as well as an ability to use knee pads to maintain equilibrium and balance. In many corners of the world, such champions as Valentino Rossi and Jorge Rossi are accorded the same reverence as Dario Franchitti, Jeff Gordon and Sebastian Vettel. The racers tend to be younger, if only because the wear and tear adds up quicker. (MotoGP motorcycles are built specifically for the racing circuit, while Superbike entries are specially tuned versions of vehicles available for sale to the public.) Narrated by motorcyclist enthusiast Ewan McGregor, “Fastest” was shot at venues around the world during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The racing action is punctuated with interviews, pit visits and profiles. Sadists will enjoy watching the many amazing high-speed crashes, in which riders fly off their bikes like ragdolls in a tornado. Survival rates would be much lower if riders weren’t required to wear crash-activated air bags under their leathers. – Gary Dretzka

Miss Minoes
Normally, I’m allergic to live-action movies in which dogs and cats act and speak as if they were human. In the almost terminally cute Dutch export, “Miss Minoes,” a perfectly average kitty cat turns into a human being, after lapping up a chemical compound from the spout of steel drum that’s fallen off a truck. In fact, Minoes has retained almost all of her feline attributes, including the ability to land on her feet when she falls. I don’t think the 2001 family favorite, dubbed into English here, would be half so appealing if it weren’t for the casting of Carice van Houten, who soon would win international acclaim for her work in “Black Book” and “Valkyrie.” Through her, Minoes’ adaptation to life as a fresh and foxy human is extremely natural, as is her interaction with her still-feline friends. She also helps a geeky human friend recover his groove as a reporter. “Miss Minoes” won’t turn dog people into cat people overnight, but its charms won’t be lost on kids anticipating their first pets. – Gary Dretzka

House of Boys
Gay-centric movies set in the late 1970s-80s necessarily share a common trajectory. Because the period was as much about coming-out as being-out, many of the key characters cross the threshold after discovering they no longer can live at home and remain happy as an out-homosexual. Once they hit the big city, they revel in their new-found freedom, haunting the clubs and experiencing the roller-coaster ride that comes with easy access to drugs, clubs, fashionable shops and sexual partners, as well as sudden jolts of disillusionment and rejection. Then, like night to day, comes the mysterious “gay cancer,” which effectively puts an end to the party. After that, the movies become battles for survival.

John-Claude Schlim’s coming-of-age drama “House of Boys” opens thusly, in 1984, when a handsome blond runaway from Luxembourg arrives in Amsterdam, quickly moving from bartender to featured attraction at the cabaret owned by Madame (Udo Kier). The club promises attractive go-go boys, accomplished drag acts and dark corners where hit-and-run liaisons can take place. Early on, the dark spots (a.k.a., bruises) that blossom on some of the boys are easily covered up by stage makeup. The more debilitating symptoms of AIDS can’t be camouflaged as easily. What begins in fun and fulfillment ends in tragedy, splitting the movie in half. Even documentaries from the period – most recently, “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston” – end up that way. “House of Boys” is sexually explicit, without also being particularly graphic or remotely exploitative. The club scenes and music are particularly well rendered. — Gary Dretzka

You’ll Know My Name
The producers of the micro-budget indie, “You’ll Know My Name,” would love for us to see in their film the makings of an east-coast Western. That’s because everything that happens during the first two-thirds of the movie anticipates a showdown between a notorious brawler and an upstart with a chip on his shoulder. Standing in between them is a pretty blond, whose flirty behavior aggravates the rift. It’s “Shane,” as interpreted by the cast of “Jersey Shore.” Like Snooki & Company, the antagonists are semi-literate denizens of the so-called Garden State, who have little more to do with their free time than working out at a gym and perfecting their macho posturing in front of a mirror. Joe Raffa, who wouldn’t look out of place on the MTV reality show, wrote, directed and stars in “You’ll Know My Name.” He plays Nick, the young gunslinger who realistically doesn’t stand a chance against the larger, stronger and more seasoned fighter, Mike (Alexander Mandell). If he weren’t so seriously pissed off over Mike’s braggadocio about Christina’s more skanky qualities, Nick would have trouble mounting a defense against the older man, let alone a credible offense. The film’s greatest flaw is that it’s difficult to side with either opponent. Both of the young men exude uselessness and boredom, and there isn’t a discernible ounce of chivalry in them, either. ‘You’ll Know My Name” isn’t awful, but it is kind of pointless. – Gary Dretzka

Monster Brawl: Blu-ray
Wrestling fans have never needed a passport to pass between the worlds of horror and professional grappling. Hand an ax or butcher knife to any WrestleMania contestant and you’ll find a slasher waiting for his call to duty. “Monster Brawl” combines both disciplines in an even less prosaic setting than the usual direct-to-video horror flick or SmackDown. Indeed, compared to the WrestleMania XXVIII mega-production, “Undertaker vs. Triple H: Hell in a Cell,” Jesse T. Cook’s “Monster Brawl” is a walk in the park. That’s not to say that kids won’t enjoy the faux rumble, just that I can’t imagine anyone who’s seen an actual WWE event – or Universal’s “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman,” for that matter –finding anything fresh in “Monster Brawl.” Designed to resemble a pay-per-view event, the death match is contested by Lady Vampire (Kelly Couture), Frankenstein (Robert Maillet), Witch Bitch (Holly Letkeman), Zombie Man (Rico Montana), Mummy and Wolfman (both R.J. Skinner), Swamp Gut and Cyclops (both Jason David Brown). Canadian superstars Dave Foley and Art Hindle narrate the festivities, with appropriate tongue-in-cheek earnestness, while Jimmy Hart adds commentary via his trademark megaphone. In between bouts, we get up-close-and-personal with the re-animated monsters. – Gary Dretzka

Missing/Scandal/GCB: The Complete First Season
It’s difficult enough for a TV series that debuts in September to make the cut in May, when renewals and cancelations are announced. Shows picked up for September launch benefit from a summer’s worth of hype and teaser commercials, not to mention kissy-kissy interviews with the stars on talk shows. Series that launch at midseason receive much less nurturing. People conversant with the fast-forward function on their TiVo may not even know the new shows exist, as they can skip through commercials and promos. “Missing,” “Scandal” and “GCB” all made their entrance after the February sweeps period, when less is at stake for the networks. ABC must have thought it was playing with a pat hand with “Missing,” if only because it starred Ashley Judd as a former CIA agent required to find her son, after he disappears while studying abroad. Like Liam Neeson, in “Taken,” Judd’s Becca Winstone calls in favors from former colleagues, foes and ex-lovers. Given the European locations, “Missing” couldn’t have been cheap to produce. Viewers didn’t seem to care, however, as its ratings didn’t qualify it for renewal.

Kristin Chenoweth is cute as a drawer full of buttons, but it would have taken a hybrid clone of Mary Tyler Moore and Candice Bergen to overcome the negative press that followed the disclosure of the first title announced for “GCB.” Who would admit to watching “Good Christian Bitches,” while standing around the water cooler at work? Besides Chenoweth, the series’ greatest claim to fame was being birthed by Darren Star Productions (“Sex and the City”). The show was set in an upscale Dallas community, where none of the residents, no matter their age, displays any redeeming qualities. No matter how hard it tried, however, “GCB” couldn’t out-skank the reality shows in which actual Lone Star bimbos shop ’til they drop, inject gallons of Botox into their foreheads and compete with the their teenage daughters for the attention of the golf and tennis pros at their country clubs. It also stars Leslie Bibb, Annie Potts, Marisol Nichols and Miriam Shor. Nope, it didn’t make the cut, either.

More fortunate were the producers and fans of “Scandal,” which will return next season. Created by the same folks who gave us “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” “Scandal” follows a Washington, D.C., crisis manager as she struggles to make scandals disappear as quickly as our tax dollars on a congressional fact-finding mission to Tahiti. It stars Kerry Washington (“A Thousand Words”) as former White House communications director Olivia Pope. The more problems Olivia fixes, the more powerful she becomes. And, yes, all of the women in her firm are as hot as she is. That’s so you can tell that “Scandal” is fiction. All three of these packages from ABC include making-of featurettes, interviews and other background material. – Gary Dretzka

The Tribe: Season One
History: Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, Season Two
A&E: Dog the Bounty Hunter: Taking It to the Streets
One of the rites of literary passage in American high schools is a close reading of William Golding’s survivalist drama, “Lord of the Flies,” which also was adapted into a very exciting movie by Peter Brook. It imagines what could happen if a planeload of English schoolboys crash-landed on an uninhabited island and were left to their own devices for an extended period of time. Golding, along with several generations of English teachers, demands we consider such issues as individual welfare vs. the common good, pack behavior vs. democratic initiative and the limits of human evolution. If Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” is a bit more suited to college-level interpretation, the introduction of imaginatively plumed and thoroughly anarchic “droogs” extended the metaphors introduced in “Lord of the Flies,” while adding an inventive new language and other countercultural conceits to the debate. A double-feature of Brooks’ “Lord of the Flies” and Stanley Kubrick’s re-imagining of “A Clockwork Orange” might have left the theater in ruins, several dozen viewers dead or crippled, and everyone else speaking in “Nadsat” or chanting “Kill the pig, cut his throat, bash him in.”

Shot in New Zealand, “The Tribe” resembles those movies is several obvious ways, with bits of “Mad Max,” “Mallrats” and “Degrassi High” thrown into the stew for good measure.  It was introduced in 1999 as an entertainment for adolescents and teens, but the enthusiastic international audience grew to include adults, as well. (It was shown here on Encore’s WAM! channel.) The long-running series was set in a dystopian society completely absent of adults, who, in advance of a toxic cloud, were required to send their children to the Kiwi countryside. As the survivors grow older and the cloud lifts, the kids form gangs distinguished by tribal costumes, hairstyles, makeup, colors and political philosophies. They drift toward the deserted cities, where the malls, homes and stores can be scavenged for provisions. Like every other contemporary soap opera, the storylines deal with such familiar issues as pregnancy, date rape, suicide, divorce, racism, sexism, alcoholism and anti-intellectualism. If much of what transpires is predictable – the show was written by adults, after all – its messages remain applicable to teens everywhere. Shout! Factory has released the first season in two multidisc packages.  The second one includes a making-of featurettes.

It’s possible that conspiracy theories have existed for as long as mankind has been around to question why one person has more food or possessions than he does. The oldest one probably involves the disappearance of dinosaurs from the face of the Earth, with new ones emerging every day. If you look at conspiracy theories as commodities, it’s also possible to see how maintaining a sense of mystery in our lives can be rewarding to purveyors of them. Has anyone gone broke questioning the evidence revealed in – or withheld from – the Warren Report or Air Force reports on the Roswell UFO incident? Fox turned “The X-Files” into an industry simply by adding such phrases as “The Truth Is Out There,” “Trust No One” and “I Want to Believe” to the show’s mythology. Since then, cable television has turned conspiracy theorizing into a spectator sport, with shows questioning everything from the events that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor to the cost of coffee beans in the international marketplace. History’s “Brad Meltzer Decoded” is hosted by the author of popular thrillers that profit from every new theory and boneheaded decision made in Washington and Wall Street. The show follows a team of chronically curious investigators – disguised as average, inquisitive Americans – as they probe the great mysteries of our day. (In their Fort Knox episode, everyone from the mayor of the nearest city to a waitress is quizzed about the possibility no gold is being stored at the army base … like they’d know.) Other Season 2 episodes are devoted to mysteries surrounding the Declaration of Independence, Mount Rushmore and the deaths of General George S. Patton, Billy the Kid, Harry Houdini and Pope John Paul I. All suspicions aside, conspiracy theories are endlessly fascinating – perpetrated, as they are, by our government’s obsession with secrecy — and even half-assed interrogations can produce interesting answers, such as they are.

Dog the Bounty Hunter: Taking It to the Streets” offers only four news episodes/cases for the enjoyment of the show’s fans. They include a midnight raid in a Hawaiian rain forest, pursuits of a Colorado meth deal and longtime fugitive, and the creation of a hoax to nab a felon protected by family members. The package doesn’t address many of the issues that apparently have caused fissures within the Dog pound and ultimately led to the recent cancelling of the show. Fans probably will already be familiar with the cases covered in this digest.

Other new releases from A&E include, “Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved,” in which the entire ship and 15-square-mile debris field are explored for first time, revealing stunning new images; “Gene Simmons Family Jewels: Season 6, Parts 1&2,” during which Gene and Shannon weigh their options for the future, ahead of committing to marriage; and “Pawn Stars: Volume 4,” a show whose mission and longevity speaks for themselves. – Gary Dretzka

BBC: Top Gear 18
BBC: The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Fifth Season
BBC: Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death/Resurrection of the Daleks
There are few more entertaining and informative reality shows on television than the BBC’s long running “Top Gear.” Simply listening to the names of the automobiles on display each week can make enthusiasts salivate in anticipation of seeing the vehicles put through their paces. They include production vehicles, ranging from pedestrian to ultra-luxurious; cars intended to be raced at high speeds or over rough terrain; prototypes, some of which will never see the light of day; and curiosity pieces. Season 18 kicks off with Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May visiting India under the guise of promoting British trade and attempting to navigate some of the most crowded streets and highly elevated in the world. Together and separately, the lads also drive supercars across Italy; direct a car chase for a movie; investigate the emerging Chinese car industry; design their own off-road mobility scooters; re-evaluate the relevance of NASCAR; and attempt Rallycross motor racing on a pauper’s budget. Among the celebrities who lined up to compete in time trials staged in “reasonably priced cars” are, Ryan Reynolds, Slash, Matt LeBlanc, Michael Fassbender and Matt Smith.

One of Doctor Who’s most beloved companions is the journalist, Sarah Jane Smith, played by the estimable Elisabeth Sladen. Created in 2007 by “Doctor Who” showrunner, Russell T Davies, “The Sarah Jane Adventures” began its life on Children’s BBC, as a spinoff series that may or may not have included the robotic wonderdog, K-9 Mark 1. Naturally, it attracted the attention of longtime fans of the series, as well as uninitiated kiddies, and spawned a marketing powerhouse of its own. In Season Five, Sarah and the starchild Sky settle into Bannerman Road, where they discover she has telekinetic powers. The problem is, she has no idea how to use them.

The latest “Special Edition” releases from the “Doctor Who” catalogue are “The Seeds of Death,” from the Patrick Troughton years, 1966-69, and “Resurrection of the Daleks,” from the Peter Davison years, 1982-84. The former is set in the late 21st century, when Ice Warriors capture the T-Mat and threaten the future of an Earth wholly dependent on goods delivered by the system. In the latter, the TARDIS is dragged down a time corridor linking Earth with a battle cruiser containing the Doctor’s oldest enemy, the Daleks. The special-edition discs have been digitally re-mastered from previous DVD iterations and contain bonus features that are new to these packages. – Gary Dretzka

Chicago in Chicago: Blu-ray
More than 40 years ago, a band unknown outside of its hometown released a double album as its debut on the international music scene. Its brassy profile allowed Chicago Transit Authority to stand out against a background of the guitar-heavy psychedelic groups, without also being locked to an R&B sound already owned by James Brown and performers in the Stax/Volt revues. It was an immediate hit, if primarily with white suburbanites. Someone at City Hall decided that this band of long-haired youths wasn’t an appropriate representative of the grimy El-train system and temperamental buses that carried the city’s disgruntled commuters to work each day. The city’s loss proved to be Chicago’s gain. The band didn’t maintain its headquarters in Chicago, so it never was as associated with the Windy City scene as electric blues and folk. Even so, they always manage to draw huge, enthusiastic crowds for every homecoming. “Chicago in Chicago” was recorded for airing last fall on the HDNet service, which prides itself in delivering technically brilliant concert material to subscribers. Recorded lakeside at the Charter-One Pavilion – a.k.a., Northerly Island and Meigs Field – the band played its biggest hits and were joined by the Doobie Brothers on “25 or 6 to 4,” “Free” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” The band’s lineup includes Robert Lamm, Jimmy Pankow, Lee Loughnane, Jason Scheff and Ray Herrman. The Blu-ray adds interviews. – Gary Dretzka

When last we saw bodyguard-turned-auteur Tino Struckman, he was leading a one-man assault on a gang of heavily armed white-slavers in the otherwise unremarkable, “Chained: Code 207.” In the similarly bewildering World War II rom-drama, “Normandy” (a.k.a., “Red Rose of Normandy”), Struckman once again is front and center as co-writer/director/producer/star. He plays a battle-hardened German infantry officer, Klaus, who somehow manages to escape certain death at the hands of the revitalized Red Army. Wounded, but still gung-ho, Klaus is transferred to France, where he’s asked to test the defenses against the imminent invasion. In addition to finding the weaponry, bunker system and soldiers sadly lacking – a contention Allied D-Day survivors might dispute – he’s reacquainted with the love of his life and her recently drafted father, who hates him. Klaudia is stationed nearby as a field nurse, so, instead of working 24/7 to tighten security, Klaus takes her on picnics above the beach. Meanwhile, a Gestapo officer spends the days before June 6, 1944, making life miserable for Klaus, Klaudia and her dad. Even as the Allied soldiers are storming the beach, Brahams is more interested in raping Klaus’ future bride than defending the Fatherland. Amazingly, Steven Spielberg left that particular incident out of “Saving Private Ryan.”

While you have to give Struckman props for attempting to find a new approach to D-Day, even if it risks alienating viewers who won’t find a rooting interest in the quest for love and struggle for survival of a German soldier. Perhaps, too, if Klaudia (the filmmaker’s muse, Claudia Crawford) wasn’t tarted up to resemble Courtney Love, their romance may seem a tad more realistic. She tends to wounded soldiers in a uniform that stops midway between her knees and her crotch. Struckman would be more believable, as well, if Klaus or any of the German and Russian characters didn’t sound as if they were from Tennessee and L.A., where “Normandy” was shot, or looked as if they might have been too old to be drafted. Moreover, there’s simply no way Struckman could have hired enough extras and leased enough vintage equipment to cover a two-front war on film, as well as the greatest amphibious invasion in history, and not make it look too easy a task. – 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