MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Jeff at Home Project X, The FP, Nine Muses … More

Jeff Who Lives at Home: Blu-ray
A decade ago, Mark and Jay Duplass helped create a niche in the indie world commonly referred to as “mumblecore.” Generally speaking, these are low-budget, largely improvised productions, populated by characters that would be considered unexceptional and treated as invisible, unless, perhaps, they lived in the apartment next door, occupied a cubicle beside you at work or dated one of your kids. This isn’t to imply these people lead meaningless lives; only that almost everything they do falls under the loose heading of “normal.” If there’s been a hipster cachet attached to mumblecore titles, it’s because what’s considered commonplace by most mainstream standards can be revelatory when observed by viewers in similar circumstances and when photographed in credibly natural fashion. In the movies, as in life, one needn’t be rich or famous to be of significance to someone. In the 10 years since the guerrilla movement was identified and pigeonholed, several of its early disciples – on both sides of the camera – have been recognized by mainstream producers and assigned to pictures with much larger budgets. Among these them are Greta Gerwig, Katie Aselton, Joshua Leonard and the Duplass’ fellow multi-hyphenates Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton and Andrew Bujalski.

No strangers to independently made films featuring quirky characters, Jason Segel and Ed Helms play an unmatched set of brothers in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” In the title role, Segal is completely recognizable as a chronically unemployed slacker, who discovers the interconnectivity of life in the Internet, his bong, his dick and chance occurrences. Jeff isn’t simple-minded, but neither is he broadcasting on the same wavelength as most other folks. The marriage of his brother, Pat, and sister-in-law, Linda (the always welcome Judy Greer), has entered crisis mode and, instead of fixing the problem, Pat is more interested in catching his wife cheating and placing blame. Meanwhile, their frustrated mother (Susan Sarandon) has been given reason to believe she’ll soon be swept off her feet by a secret e-mail admirer in her cubicle-filled office and taken to a paradise of waterfalls and rainbows.

It’s through blind luck and random happenstance that the largely oblivious Jeff provides the catalyst for positive change in this defective family unit. The roller-coaster ride begins when he is mistaken for “Jason” by a person who’s dialed a wrong number. Jeff takes this as an omen that someone named Jason will have a significant impact on his life and it will pay dividends to find him, whoever and wherever he might be. While on an errand requiring a bus ride, Jeff spots an African-American teenager with “Jason” stitched on his shirt, follows him to a playground, where they play some hoops and ends up getting mugged by the kid’s older friends. This leads him to believe that this Jason probably wasn’t the one who placed the call. Yet, he perseveres. Before the end of the movie, Jason’s imaginary trail intersects with the paths taken that day, as well, by Pat, Linda, his mother and her secret admirer, and a family in far more desperate straits than anyone else in “Jeff, Who Still Lives at Home.” Some critics decided that the movie ended on too pat a note, but it worked perfectly well for me. Anyone who believes that order can be found in even the most random of circumstances should find a lot to like here. The picture looks excellent in Blu-ray, but the only bonus feature is a UV digital copy. – Gary Dretzka

My Afternoons With Margueritte
In this surprisingly tender story about life in small French town, residents still make time to enjoy the small things in life, such as gardening, reading and feeding pigeons in the park. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows each other’s business and no one forgets the slights and injuries they experienced in grade school. On the other hand, ancient grievances rarely prevent anyone from helping a neighbor out of a jam. It is against this placid background that Jean Becker’s “My Afternoons With Margueritte” plays out in a very short 82 minutes. An enormous Gerard Depardieu plays Germain Chazes, a nearly illiterate man who’s been the butt of other people’s jokes for almost as long as he’s been on Earth. One day, he shares a park bench with an elderly woman named Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus), who’s reading excerpts from a novel out loud. Germain enjoys listening to the stories and discussing the pigeons with her. Their daily sessions inspire him to visit the library and give reading another try. Her approval serves to build his confidence to the point where he can match wits with his nemesis at the bar and stand up to his nasty, crazy mom. Becker’s generous enough, as well, to provide Germain with a younger girlfriend who’s perfectly normal and attracted to his gentle personality and sincerity. (Some critics have confused illiteracy and clumsiness for being simple-minded, which he isn’t.) When Margueritte’s nephew decides he can’t afford to keep paying for an apartment in an upscale retirement home in the town, the relationship between the polar opposites takes what could be a turn for the worst. If the ending is predictable, it’s far from clichéd. “My Afternoons With Margueritte” is exactly the kind of movie that adults say Hollywood should be making. It deserves a better shot in DVD than it got in its theatrical run. – Gary Dretzka

Guy Maddin, the bard of Winnipeg, is as challenging a filmmaker as there is in the business. If he makes movies that are so deeply personal they sometimes require a map to follow, it’s because his creative eye remains unclouded by the rituals and remedies imposed by a film-school education. I don’t think Maddin assumes viewers will necessarily be interested in what he has to say about growing up in Winnipeg, where the distances between places and people can be great and modernity is a state of mind. If they are, fine; if not, also fine. Maddin’s latest, “Keyhole,” reminds me of his similarly haunting documentary, “My Winnipeg,” in that it is informed by ghosts, distant memories and gauzy images. Here, though, the apparitions are trapped within four walls, instead of borders determined by men, history and rivers. The vastly underutilized (probably by choice) Jason Patric plays Ulysses Pick, a gangster who’s just returned home from a botched bank job with drowned teenage girl and bound-and-gagged young man in tow. The ghosts of relatives and former cronies come alive upon Pick’s arrival, performing chores and obsessing over things that have occupied them since their passing. At first, it’s not clear the residents are spirits, but, gradually, their howls, anxiety and sudden disappearances indicate as much. The more time passes, the more we learn about Pick, including the unhappiness towards him felt inside the dwelling. I’m not an expert in cinematography, but the monochromatic look of “Keyhole” accentuates both the supernatural activity and conceits of gangster noir. Also prominent in the cast are Isabella Rosselli and Udo Kier, whose foreboding presence in a film usually is significant in one way or another. “Keyhole” was commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. Such financial backing allows challenging artists to work without fear of having notes sent to them every morning by nervous producers and studio functionaries. Even so, the support of adventurous distributors – here, Monterey Video — movies like “Keyhole” would be shown at a few film festivals and disappear from view very quickly. – Gary Dretzka

Almost Kings
Kill Speed
It’s never easy for a younger, smaller brother to measure up to the accomplishments of an older, more athletically accomplished sibling. This is especially true when a parent is removed from the picture and the older boy requires space of his own. In Philip G. Flores’ coming-of-age drama, “Almost Kings” (a.k.a., the Wheeler Boys”), Ted is a struggling high school freshman, living in a small California town alongside the football-star, Truck, and their father, whose partial paralysis has turned him into a bitter alcoholic. Dad is the kind of miserable prick who would force his son (Lorenzo James Henrie) to stay home from an event, for the sole purpose of helping him place bets on the weekend’s football games. In desperate need of a positive father figure, Ted hopes to be accepted into Truck’s gang, the Kings, where he can absorb the facts of teenage life and gain the confidence he needs to overcome his diminutive size. Truck (Alex Frost) may be uncomfortable with this role, especially considering that their dad’s health isn’t likely to hold out much longer and he’ll be required to do double-duty as father and brother, but he is sympathetic, at least. As devoted Kings, however, Truck and his mates also see in Ted a way to improve their lot in the gang. That’s because one of their objectives is to seduce as many freshman girls as is possible and take proof of their virginity back to the clubhouse as a scalp. The results of this competition are then posted in a yearbook, of sorts. Because Ted is becoming increasingly more popular – for his scholastic ability, as much as his status in the Kings – the other members count on him to serve as their pimp. Because it is a role the far more sensitive Ted doesn’t feel particularly comfortable playing, ultimately it causes a rift between the brothers. Henrie and Frost are extremely credible as the siblings and Flores’ depiction of the dynamics among bored teens feels legitimate, as well.

For the first half-hour, or so, “Kill Speed” resembles a low-budget combination of “Top Gun” and “Revenge,” Tony Scott products that benefited from several exciting aerial dogfights and the casting of ridiculously charismatic actors in key roles. To include Kim Bass’ straight-to-video thriller in such lofty company may qualify as an extreme reach, but it’s somewhat justified by the entertaining chases involving hi-tech prop planes. Here, though the planes are piloted by drug runners and egotistic DEA agents. As in “Revenge,” the antagonist here is a corrupt Mexican businessman who feels untouchable in his secluded villa, while the protagonist is a hot-shot pilot. If the civilian fliers in “Kill Speed” had opted to work for Uncle Sam, instead of trafficking in meth and money for anonymous druglords, they’d easily qualify for Top Gun school. Unfortunately, once the chases stop, the baloney piles up like so many crushed cars in a junkyard. Among other things, the lead pilot of the team (Andrew Keegan) falls for an undercover federal agent (Natalia Cigliuti), who, between b.j.’s, has the time to scour his computer for information that could lead to the capture of the stud-muffin Mexican crime czar. Naturally, the feds blow the opportunity by underestimating the criminal, leaving an agent behind as a prisoner. After the amateur pilots are busted, the feds enlist them in a scheme not only to bust the gangster, but rescue the tortured agent, as well. Most of Bass’ background is writing for television and it shows. Instead of logic and credible story development, she relies almost exclusively on coincidence, shortcuts and charisma to advance the story. No matter how well “Kill Speed” opened, it couldn’t have ended in more ludicrous fashion. – Gary Dretzka

Project X: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
Some movies write themselves. If “Project X” is any indication, they now are able to shoot themselves, as well. Ten hours of footage were captured – organically, if you will — by cast members and extras using smartphones. (I wonder how that little trick passed muster at the ASC.) Anyone who’s been to a pop-music concert lately knows how many amateur cinematographers there are out there, today. Any crowd scene involving teenagers, then, should necessarily contain p.o.v. shots captured by phones. In “Project X,” there may be more shots of kids taking pictures of other kids, themselves taking pictures of kids, than at any other time in cinematographic history.

The concept behind the movie is simplicity itself: to raise their profile at school, a trio of nerds throws a house party that goes completely out of control. That’s hardly an original idea, as such parties were the centerpiece of “American Pie,” “House Party,” “Weird Science,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Superbad” “Teen Wolf” and at least one Blake Edwards comedy. Those parties served their stories in ways the soiree in “Project X” isn’t required to do, because the party is the movie. Admittedly, the knuckleheads don’t anticipate their party turning “epic,” but that’s exactly what happens. In “Risky Business,” the pussy party and furniture-napping could have proved disastrous for Tom Cruise, but everything magically was restored by the time his parents came home from their vacation. Here, it would take a home-makeover team a month to get even half of everything back to normal. The teens know it even before the audience does. With nothing more to lose, then, the party just grows more epic.

According to legend, “Project X” was inspired by a similar incident, in Australia, which made headlines around the world before the smoke even cleared. Apparently, a young chap named Corey posted the address of his house party on MySpace, thereby attracting the attention of hundreds of revelers, who caused $20,000 in property damage. I’ve heard the same story told about parties in the U.S. and England. In “Project X,” the nerds were so unsure of their ability to draw a crowd that they advertised it at school and on the radio. Word spread to the point where an estimated 2,000 kids – 200 extras made to look like 2,000, anyway – showed up. Police were overwhelmed and the media sent helicopters to capture it live.

Individual narrative threads can be recognized throughout the movie, not that they supersede any of the pyrotechnics or topless coeds. One involves a stolen troll figurine, containing hundreds of hits of Ecstasy; another chronicles the host’s efforts to break his cherry. Beyond that, however, the only question left to answer is how far director Nima Nourizadeh and writers Matt Drake and Michael Bacall can stretch the mayhem, before someone loses an eye and the parents scurry home. Considering the fact that “Project X” was produced by Todd Phillips, who pulled off the same trick in “The Hangover” – OK, there, a tooth was lost early on — it’s safe to guess that most of the movie qualifies as genuinely funny, in an anarchic sort of way. One needn’t be a teenage boy to enjoy “Project X,” but it helps if adults recall a time in their lives when the destruction of someone else’s property was a viable option to boredom. The Blu-ray extras are of the making-of variety, with special attention paid to how the party was pulled off cinematically and how much it would have cost to repair the house, if an insurance company so desired to pay for it. – Gary Dretzka

The FP: Blu-ray
Movies set in the dystopian future have become so commonplace that they’ve spawned sub-genres of their own within the horror/sci-fi sub-genre. Besides mass destruction and pestilence, the post-apocalyptic future promises everything from zombie domination and cannibalism to interplanetary warfare and robot cops (we already have robotic politicians). Independently made on a microscopic budget, “The FP” is a refreshing departure from the norm. Brandon and Jason Trost have set their dystopian fantasy in the actual town of Frazier Park, California, which is situated among the mountain communities of the Tejon Pass. If its name is familiar, it’s because nearly everyone who has driven between northern California and L.A., on a near-empty gas tank, has considered stopping there for a couple of gallons of overpriced gasoline. Bizarrely dressed youths from Frazier Park clash with members of rival gangs for domination of the area, but not in ways one might expect.

When a simple fistfight won’t solve a problem, the bad-asses compete against each in Dance Dance Revolution video games, which are to dance what karaoke is to singing, only much faster. Early on, local heroes BTRO and JTRO are pitted against the savage outsider L Dubba E, who not only is a world-class gamer but also beats up his girlfriends, who he routinely hooks on drugs. After brother BTRO is killed in competition, brother JTRO retires from competition, leaving L Dubba E in charge of the FP while he licks his wounds. In time, of course, JTRO will find it necessary to defend the honor of the FP and the girlfriend he shares with the bully. Not satisfied to accept the verdict dispensed by the Dance Dance Revolution machine, the loser takes his hostility out in a neatly conceived street fight that threatens to rip apart the FP. While the movie is every bit as crazy as it sounds, it works surprisingly well as a feature film. The Blu-ray adds an interesting making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Nine Muses
My Reincarnation
65 Red Roses
Tent City USA
Born in Ghana and raised in London, John Akomfrah makes documentaries that are demanding both as commentaries on timely social and cultural issues and as essays on music. That quality is what distinguishes the films in Icarus’ “The Nine Muses,” which also includes “Seven Songs for Malcolm X” and “The Last Angel of History.” Although all three films address different aspects of the Pan-African experience, they’re all informed by music, poetry and rhetorical brilliance. At 90 minutes, “The Nine Muses” is the longest and most demanding experience. It plays out against two very different visual backgrounds: the frozen Alaskan wilderness and ghettos shared by immigrants in the Pan-African diaspora. Laid over these contrasting images are short readings from the works of Homer, Dante Alighieri, Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, John Milton, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Shakespeare, Sophocles, Dylan Thomas, Matsuo Basho, T.S. Elliot, Li Po, and the Bengali polymath, Rabindranth Tagore. Immigration may be an issue as current as today’s newspaper headlines, but, as we hear in Homer’s “Odyssey,” the history of displacement and migration is as old as time, as is prejudice and resistance to change. Frankly, I’m not sure how Alaska figures into the equation, except as a representation of the open spaces sought so urgently by explorers and pioneers, as well as the formidable challenges met by those who do settle there. The poetry cycle requires patience and a love of literature, along with an open mind to see the correlation between the beautiful parts of world and the cold, hard facts on the ground in are teeming cities.

Released in 1993, less than a year after Spike Lee’s “X,” Akomfrah’s “Seven Songs for Malcolm X” tells a remarkably similar story, but through the recollections of people who knew him, his writings and FBI files. Rather than trod the well-worn path towards accepting Malcolm X’s legitimacy as an African-American spokesman and teacher, the film documents the personal journey he took from the streets of Detroit, to prison, the Nation of Islam, Africa, Europe and, finally, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. It also chronicles the events that led directly to his assassination, which came as a shock to everyone, except, perhaps, Elijah Muhammad, the gunmen and law-enforcement agencies, who must have known it was going to happen, but did nothing to stop it. Malcolm X’s involvement with the fire-breathing Elijah Muhammad and Nation of Islam was well known and used against him by the media, white politicians and moderate black leaders, including Martin Luther King, who didn’t invite him to speak at the March on Washington. Less well known, of course, was his embracing of a more expansive world view, which lots of people saw as a threat to American (capitalist) interests abroad. (MLK faced the same hostility when, later, criticized the war in Vietnam.) Even after he was killed, the media bought the FBI line that Malcolm X was incapable of change and not a person who deserved an outpouring of grief. The witnesses assembled by Akomfrah remember things quite differently, of course, and the songs reflect the sense of loss felt by the black community.

In “The Last Angel of History,” several writers and avant-garde musicians – George Clinton, Sun Ra, Kodwo Eshun and Goldie, among them – describe how jazz, R&B and the blues have been directly influenced by visitors from outer space. The emergence of such an idea was precipitated by such funk pioneers as Clinton and jazz visionary Sun Ra. It’s also argued that such otherworldly magic contributed to brilliance of Robert Johnson and other artists who were attuned to its language. As silly as all this may sound to the uninitiated, the musicians and critics interviewed never are made to sound like crackpots and the music is allowed to speak for itself.

My Reincarnation” would be an amazing documentary, if only because Jennifer Fox (“Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”) had the patience and foresight to spend more than 20 years on a project that she hoped would justify the expenditure of time and effort. Her film began as a bio-doc of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, who, after escaping the war between Tibet and China, moved to Italy, where he recognized his calling as a Buddhist Master. The title doesn’t refer to his evolution as a teacher of the Dharma. In spite of the fact that he married an Italian Catholic and their son wasn’t routinely shipped to a monastery in India, Norbu developed a large and loyal following of European-born converts to Buddhism. His story would have been interesting, even if Fox limited it to his teachings and flock. What’s truly remarkable about “My Reincarnation,” though, is watching the evolution of the son, Yeshi, from average Italian boy, addicted to rock music and soccer, to an adult willing to accept his own calling as a teacher. During our first encounters with Yeshi, he admits to being jealous of the time his father spent with worshippers and his willingness to address their problems, but not his. Faced with the likelihood of his father’s death to cancer as a young adult, Yeshi was required to spend a great deal of time transporting him around Italy and caring for his other needs. By the time the old man’s cancer went into remission, Yeshi had already realized that the ministry, along with Norbu’s legacy, would quickly collapse under its own weight.

One of the reasons his father gives for not paying as much attention to Yeshi’s questions is his belief that the boy is the reincarnation of his master, who was killed after being tortured by the Chinese. As such, Norbu felt any advice he gave would be the equivalent of the student teaching the teacher and, therefore, an insult. Yeshi had been recognized as the reincarnation of the dead master after passing certain tests as a boy. His dreams also took him places that could only be found in Tibet. Even as Yeshi took a job in the corporate world, Norbu assumed his master would lead Yeshi to his intended path as soon as he was ready, which, seemingly, is exactly what happened. Fox captured all of this and his visit to Tibet, where he was received with great fanfare and reverence. (Just being allowed to shoot openly in Tibet qualifies as a blessing.) Today, he tends to his own flock, answering questions with the same ambiguous aplomb as his father. The DVD adds deleted scenes, an extended interview and highlights from New York premiere.

The two new entries in the OWN Documentary Club may be more traditional than the titles already covered here, but no less effort went into them. Philip Lyall and Nimisha Mukerji’s sad, if ultimately life-affirming “65_RedRoses” chronicles the life-and-death struggle of Vancouver native Eva Markvoort, who has cystic fibrosis and requires a double lung transplant to survive. It isn’t pleasant to watch Eva endure the wait for organs that fit her requirements. What’s far worse, though, is witnessing what happens when the lungs of someone with WF fill with mucous and require a painful cleansing. What distinguishes Eva’s story from others we’ve seen on the same topic is her nurturing of an on-line family of women with CF that supports her in ways her parents can’t. At a time when the social media are being turned into bulletin boards for pet owners, proud parents and companies in desperate need of being “liked,” Eva and her friends found ways to use them to bolster their spirits and keep hope alive in the darkest of times. Anyone weighing the question of checking the organ-donor box on their application for a driver’s license ought to watch “65_RedRoses” before rejecting it off-hand.

Steven Cantor’s “Tent City, U.S.A.” also goes the distance in its patient documentation of one group of homeless people’s struggle to maintain a community of their own and restore their dignity while they’re at it. The setting is Nashville, where about 100 men and women built makeshift homes on an unclaimed patch of land under a viaduct. Some of the residents lived there for several years before a raging river flushed out the encampment – erected on a flood plain — and put them on the streets again. Instead of giving up, however, the residents combined their disparate resources to form a council and petition the city to add a homeless person to the board administrating relief funds and lobbying the mayor. Even in a city where the Grand Ol’ Opry has a home, it isn’t easy for poor people to be heard when they sing the blues at the top of their lungs. Their perseverance, and that of the filmmakers, pays big dividends for viewers. – Gary Dretzka

Even if the title of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s very strange coming-of-age drama, “Attenberg,” doesn’t sound particularly Hellenic, it was chosen to represent Greece at this year’s Academy Awards. In this regard, and others, it can fairly be compared to Yorgos Lanthimos’ similarly challenging “Dogtooth,” which was nominated for an Oscar last year, as well. Indeed, Lanthimos plays a key role in “Attenberg,” possibly in return for Tsangari’s help in producing “Dogtooth.” (Greece is a very small country, except when the fate of the European economy is at stake.) Anyway, back to the title. “Attenberg” confuses the spelling of Sir David Attenborough, whose nature documentaries play on a constant loop inside 23-year-old Marina’s head. She watches them with her fatally ill father and expertly mimics the sounds and actions of the birds and animals on the shows. (It’s also possible that she’s a fan of “Monty Python,” because the silly walks she performs with her best friend, Bella, would make John Cleese smile.) What she’s less sure about is her place in the cycle of life of her own species. Almost pathologically naïve when it comes to sex and indifferent to most men, Marina barely keeps her lunch down while practicing kissing with Bella. Just as Attenborough’s camera focuses tightly on the rituals of animal life, Tsangari analyzes Marina’s evolution as a sexual being and woman able to survive on her own in the wild. All of this takes place in a tiny seaside village dominated by the aluminum mining operation, for which her atheist father has labored most of his life, and an apartment building for its workers. Knowing he’s about to die, the father imparts enough of his wisdom on Marina as any parent in the animal kingdom anticipating the departure of an offspring. “Attenberg” benefits from some terrific acting and beautiful views of the Corinthian Gulf and the surrounding mountains. That said, “Attenberg” is very much an arthouse film and the usual warnings apply. – Gary Dretzka

The Hidden Blade: Blu-ray
Released in 2004, “The Hidden Blade” was nominated in 12 different categories in the Japanese equivalent of our Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film. It took home the award for Best Art Decoration. Although the title suggests that “The Hidden Blade” might contain non-stop action and brilliant swordplay, in fact, the opposite is true. There’s exactly one excellent swordfight, near the very end of the film, so Yoji Yamada (“The Twilight Samurai”) clearly had other things on his mind. Like Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai,” Yamada’s romantic drama is set on the cusp of Japan’s embracement of western technology and the diminishment of the role of the samurai. Masatoshi Nagase, who some viewers might recognize from his turn in “Mystery Train,” plays a loyal Samurai who’s been promised a key position in a distant shogungate, where being a samurai still carries some weight. While there, he’s also trained to use modern artillery and guns. The transition is quite amusing to watch. When Munezo returns home, things have changed considerably in his family and among his former clan members. For one thing, the young woman, Kie (Takako Matsu), who took care of his family’s home – and for whom he harbors a secret flame — has married a brutal business man whose family treats her as if she were a prisoner. Additionally, his mother has died, a sister has married one of his best pals and another close samurai friend, Yaichiro (Yukyoshi Ozawa), has been hired by a clan about to come out on the wrong end of a political power play.

Munezo rides to Kie’s rescue, even knowing that his low caste would prevent him from marrying her. When he gets back, he learns that Yaichiro has been arrested and sent home in a cage. After he escapes solitary confinement, Munezo is suspected of complicity. To clear his name, Munezo must track down his old friend and kill him. Knowing he isn’t as skilled with the sword as Yaichiro, Munezo consults their former teacher, who offers advice and a long -hidden sword. He’d prefer not to fight his friend, but has no option short of hara-kiri, a privilege refused Yaichiro. Also left to fate is the resolution of Kie and Munezo’s forbidden romance. In some ways, “Hidden Blade” feels very much like an American Western, in which traditional notions about virtue, honor and loyalty are tested by seismic shifts in cultural norms. Besides all that, though, “Hidden Blade” is gorgeously shot, with attention to period detail and the lush natural environment. If the 81-year-old Yamada, better known for his long-running “Tora-san” series of comedies, made a misstep in “Hidden Blade,” I didn’t see it. – Gary Dretzka

A Bag Of Hammers: Blu-ray
The title for this offbeat indie dramedy derives from Michael J. Fox’s advice to children who’ve been dealt the same bad hand he was, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease: “If life gives you a bag of hammers — build something.” Conmen Ben and Alan (Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig) offer this bit of wisdom to 12-year-old Kelsey, who, because his mother committed suicide, now faces eight years of life in foster homes. Even before that happened, though, he was treated with barely disguised contempt by his mother (Carrie Preston) and never learned the identity of his father, who refused the woman’s pleas for help. Up until the time of her death, Ben and Alan treat Kelsey like a sidekick. For money, they pose as valet parking attendants and steal the most expensive car made available to them. They disagree over the notion of bringing Kelsey into their household and raising him together. Ben, who retains emotional scars from being raised under similar conditions as Kelsey, decides not to tell child-welfare authorities that he’s taking responsibility for the orphan. When they do find out, Kelsey once again will have his fade decided by people who have no vested interest in his well-being. Writer/director Brian Crano’s screenplay won’t stand up to close scrutiny, but Ritter and co-writer Sandvig are likable enough to convince us of their sincerity, if not their ability to make a career out of fooling mourners inclined to believe that valet parkers are hired to work the cemetery circuit, even in California. They get strong support from Chandler Canterbury, as Kelsey, and Rebecca Hall, as a waitress who works at the kind of waffle house where waitresses are expected to perform a stupid dance for their customers before taking their order. – Gary Dretzka

The Disco Excorcist
Headspace: Director’s Cut
Kids Go to the Woods … Kids Get Dead
Ilsa: The Wicked Warden
There’s almost no way to synopsize “The Disco Exorcist” without making it sound far less entertaining than it actually is. After all, when was the last time anyone cared enough about the 1970s’ disco scene to make an exploitation movie about it, let alone invest the energy it would take to watch it? There’s also the matter of the film stock, which looks as if it expired at about the same time as Studio 54 was closed. Somehow, though, writer/director Richard Griffin (“Nun of That”) managed to keep his tongue positioned firmly in cheek, while balancing the conventions of parody, horror and sexploitation. His protagonist, Rex Romanski, is a bargain-basement Tony Manero, blessed with all the right moves on and off the dance floor. He makes a love connection with the lovely dance-aholic Rita Marie (Ruth Sullivan), but makes the mistake of getting his boogie on with another babe at their favorite disco. This causes Rita to put a curse on Rex and everyone else associated with him. The parody doesn’t end on the dance floor, though. It continues at an outrageous porn shoot and on various mirrors, from which mountains of cocaine are ingested. The set adds a deleted scene and interviews.

And, while we’re on the subject of retro-horror, what in the name of all things unholy are Olivia Hussey, Dee Wallace, Sean Young, Udo Kier and William Atherton doing in a 2005 supernatural thriller re-released on DVD in 2012. “Headspace” is a movie that stretches the borders of credulity, but still offers enough cheap thrills to recommend it … with or without the hired guns. As a boy, Alex (Christopher Denham) witnessed the death of his mother at the hands of his father. Mom is possessed by some kind of demon, so the homicide was justifiable. Nevertheless, it’s never good to see such things, at any age. Totally freaked out, Dad put Alex and his brother up for adoption. Flash forward a couple of decades and Alex is still deeply troubled. Moreover, he’s smart as hell and getting brighter by the day. There’s got to be a reason for such a miracle, but the price he pays for such knowledge is powerful seizures, during which he visualizes horrible things. On the flip side of the good news that he’s become an overnight chess sensation, he begins to fear that he’s responsible for a series of vicious murders in the neighborhood. There’s an explanation for all this, but I’m not sure I picked up on it. Neither could I pinpoint exactly what was added to the “Director’s Cut” edition. There’s a pretty good making-of featurette included in the DVD.

With a title like, “Kids Go to the Woods … Kids Get Dead,” what’s left to explain, except how well it holds up against all the other movies that could have been titled, “Kids Go to the Woods … Kids Get Dead.” The only fresh trick here is having everything that happens to the teenagers be prophesized in the novel being read by the younger brother of one of the campers. This includes the arrival of the crazed killer, whose disguise combines the scarier elements of scuba gear and a Hazmat uniform. If anyone survived the slaughter, which isn’t limited to the outsiders, I can’t remember who it was. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Freshman writer/director Michael Hall adds a nice twist to the cliché device of having soiled virgins and their lovers die first. Here, all of the men believe they’re going to get laid, primarily because the ladies lead them to believe they’re hot to trot. Instead, the only campers to get lucky are the lesbian couple, much to the delight of the voyeuristic brother.

Ilsa, the Wicked Warden” would be a worthy addition to anyone’s collection of cult classics, if it weren’t for the fact that all of the scenes in which pubic hair once was visible have been excised, as if this was the version intended for Cinemax. That isn’t to say there isn’t much boobilicious fun to be had here, though, because there is. So much footage has been snipped from the shower and torture scenes that watching “Ilsa” on DVD is like listening to a phonograph with one long scratch etched into the vinyl. Purists also will argue that “Wicked Warden” isn’t truly a chapter in the “Isla” saga, because writer/director Jesus Franco intended it as a spinoff, with a hospital administrator named Greta playing the sadistic warden. With Dyanne Thorne on board as Greta, however, it must have seemed fair to rename the movie after her trademark character. Otherwise, “Wicked Warden” follows a familiar blueprint. A sexy young woman, Abbie (Tanya Busselier), checks herself into the mental hospital lorded over by Greta/Ilsa, so she can investigate the disappearance of her sister. Apparently, Abbie’s sister was about to blow the whistle on Ilsa’s scheme to film prisoners having sex with male prisoners and selling the movies to porn enthusiasts. (“Wicked Warden” was completed before VHS cassettes would make such rackets obsolete and redundant. It’s worth noting that Franco cast his lover, cult-queen Lina Romay, in the key role of a lesbian prisoner. Her presence is worth the price of admission, alone. – Gary Dretzka

In some parts of the world, you probably could be beheaded for possessing a copy of “Profane,” let alone watching it in mixed company. That’s because writer/director Usama Alshaibi uses the Koran as a tipping point in his drama about a Jordanian-born dominatrix, Muna, who’s struggling to find a way to bridge the sacred and profane elements of her life. When she isn’t whipping the backsides of hooded johns in the high-rise apartment buildings lining Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, Muna studies the Koran and prays according to Muslim law. Even though she believes that she’s being targeted by Djinns hoping to steal her soul, Muna (Manal Kara) isn’t about to quit a job she enjoys or stop ingesting drugs and alcohol. What she wants more than anything is to find someone to help her read the Koran and understand where it should be taking her. To this end, Muna befriends a devout Chicago cabbie, Ali (Dejan Mircea), who believes he can save her, even knowing how she makes her living. Ali is far from a fundamentalist, so it’s easy to understand his embarrassment and anger when Muna and her lover, Mary (Molly Plunk), insult an imam with their nakedness. Muna’s is one story among millions of others about Muslims attempting to find a niche in communities where they’re distinctly in the minority. She knows all too well how her decidedly liberal approach to sexuality would be received if she were to return home. If the Koran offers guidance on how a woman most people would consider to be promiscuous could square her sex drive with her religion, she hasn’t found it. “Profane” doesn’t offer any answers, either. It only makes sense to think the Djinns will find a way to use her appetite for drugs and dangerous sex to knock her off the tightrope she’s been straddling since arriving in the U.S. The DVD adds deleted scenes and brief interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Four Lovers
The sexy French export, “Four Lovers,” tells the story of a pair of swinging couples, living in an upscale suburb of Paris, who agree, seemingly without giving it much thought, to swap partners and see where the chips fall. Unlike the knuckleheads on TV’s “Wife Swap,” who exchanged partners for a couple of weeks and then returned home, the attractive men and women in Antony Cordier’s relationship drama come and go as they please, domestically and sexually. They take vacations together, with their kids in tow, and often enjoy dinners for four and nights on the town. It takes a while for the inevitable fissures to show, but, even then, nothing much seems to be at stake. And, that’s the problem with “Four Lovers.” What’s to be learned from people like this? Included in the Oscilloscope package are two American educational films from the early 1950s, in which actors act out common relationship issues. Divorce carried a much greater stigma, then, and it was believed that a little knowledge could go a long way toward saving a marriage. Although they lack the nudity of “Four Lovers,” there’s quite a bit more drama in these films than the feature attraction. – Gary Dretzka

Red Scorpion: Blu-ray
Watching this relic from the Cold War today is an exercise in nostalgia. It was released in 1989, just in time for the Berlin Wall to be demolished and the Iron Curtain to be lowered for the final time. Thus, its portrayal of Red Army hard-asses and joint Soviet-Cuban operations in Third World countries now look as if they were created specifically for the benefit of purveyors of action comics. Even the so-called controversy surrounding its production feels prehistoric. In the late 1980s, American companies were expected to honor the boycott of South Africa, whose black and colored citizens were still under the yoke of Apartheid. Among the people listed on the credits is writer and producer Jack Abramoff, who, 15 years later, would be convicted of influence peddling and other corrupt lobbying practices in Washington, D.C. He arranged for the South African government to finance “Red Scorpion” via the International Freedom Foundation, chaired by Abramoff, an organization that actively sought to discredit the African National Congress and future president Nelson Mandela in countries outside Africa.

The movie stars Dolph Lundgren a tall, muscular Swede who became familiar to American audiences two years earlier in “Rocky IV.” As a member of the Soviet army’s elite Special Forces, his Lt. Nikolai Rachenko is considered to be a human “killing machine.” He’s assigned to infiltrate a team of African guerrillas and take out its anti-communist leader. When that mission fails, Rachenko is given a second opportunity to serve the Motherland. This time, after being left to die in the Namibian desert, he is rescued by an African bushman, who also teaches the Russian how to survive in extreme conditions. Coincidentally, a Soviet gunship wipes out small villages, populated by people who present no threat to anyone. Disillusioned and enlightened simultaneously, Rachenko turns the tables on his former comrades, by waging a one-man war against them.

“Red Scorpion” didn’t break any new ground in 1989 and, today, it probably would have been released straight-to-video. Even so, Lundgren fans should appreciate Synapse Films’ 2K high-definition transfer of the “uncensored” version, containing footage never before seen in the U.S. It also includes fresh interviews with Lundgren, Abramoff and makeup-effects artist Tom Savini, behind-the-scenes footage, an animated stills gallery and liner notes by French filmmaker Jérémie Damoiseau. – Gary Dretzka

Hopelessly in June
As director, co-writer, star, producer and executive producer of “Hopelessly in June,” Vincent Brantley appears to be sending out flares to Tyler Perry and David E. Talbert, warning them of his presence on their turf. If he wants to compete for the so-called urban audience, however, he’d better be ready to churn out movies every few months and dial down the number of f-bombs and other blue material. The only R-rated films that score big are those aimed directly at the young-adult and gangsta market. “Hopelessly in June” is a very odd movie in that it borrows freely from “Las Cage Aux Folles,” while also relying heavily on the presence of devout Christians and lots of white folks. (The cast is huge.) It also begs credulity to think that Brantley’s protagonist would give up on finding the girl of his dreams one minute, then, almost overnight, wind up with up someone as smart, foxy and successful as Carolyn Neff. (Imagine Al Roker stealing Halle Berry from Terrence Howard.) Apart from several other rom-com conventions, “Hopelessly in June” imagines a scenario in which the African-American parents of the groom are conservative and homophobic, while the bride’s adoptive parents are white and unabashedly gay. These things come out of nowhere, without any apparent rhyme or reason. – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD:
Franklin & Bash: The Complete First Season
Web Therapy: The Complete First Season
Dan Vs.: The Complete First Season
Hey Dude, Season 3
If the broadcast networks really wanted to do America a favor – not to mention justify their broadcast licenses – they’d simply cut a deal with their cable subsidiaries and let them program their summer prime-time schedules. I wouldn’t even mind if they ran such shows as “Franklin & Bash,” “Royal Pains,” “Rizzoli & Isles,” “The Killing,” “Fairly Legal,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Closer,” “Leverage” and other such basic-plus cable shows that have driven TiVo sales over the past decade. (This was done not long ago with “Monk” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”) Generally speaking, their seasons run 10 weeks and none includes the kind of nudity and profanity that would offend broadcast audiences. Instead, so-called “free TV” is flooded with reality shows, talent and cooking contests, and reruns of the networks’ most popular shows. They are to television what mosquitos are to picnics. This isn’t to imply the shows we watch on A&E, TNT, AMC, FX and USA don’t employ formulas of their own, but, at least, they give their characters room to breathe and fresh twists on old clichés. As hybrids, they blur the lines separating “buddy” and “workplace” shows and dramas and comedies. Producers of workplace shows encourage their characters to get out of the office and take advantage of their locations. As is the case on “White Collar” and “Burn Notice,” subplots introduced in the pilot episode aren’t wrapped up after 60 minutes. The intrigue can extend through entire seasons, with recurring characters popping in and out as necessary, and room left over for weekly stand-alone adventures. It the protagonists wouldn’t last 10 minutes in the real world, so what? Most of our co-workers are boring twits, not buddies we’d want to be seen with outside the office. Almost everyone in the casts is funny, attractive and capable of getting the job done.

TNT’s “Franklin & Bash” stars Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar as an unconventional pair of lawyers, who spend far more time inventing new ways to enjoy themselves than they do clearing cases, which they manage to do, anyway. The always excellent Malcolm McDowell plays a senior partner at a far more traditional law firm, who’s willing to turn a blind eye to the stunts F&B perform to win their cases. Perhaps, they’ll attract a different class of paying clients to his firm. They must be doing a good job, because the show was renewed for a second season, which began this week. Among the guest stars to be found in the Season One package are Jason Alexander, Beau Bridges, Harry Hamlin, Tom Arnold and Tricia Helfer. The DVD package adds behind-the-scenes and making-of material, character profiles, office and “man cave” tours and a glossary of legal terms.

Meanwhile, over on Showtime, the beyond-offbeat comedy “Web Therapy” is about to open its second season, as well. The sadly underrated Lisa Kudrow plays a snooty psychotherapist who communes with her patients over the Internet, but limits their interaction to three-minute sessions. This is because Dr. Fiona Wallice has no patience with their problems, which only seem to complicate those of her own. Among them is her desire to sell the web-therapy concept to investors. Before “Web Therapy” was green-lit by Showtime, it was a hit on the Internet. The television iteration has added new sessions and material from Wallice’s private life to meet the standard half-hour sitcom format. She is abrupt, acerbic and often hits the nail right on the head. In another interesting twist, Kudrow has invited several of her celebrity friends to guest star. Among them are Bob Balaban, Courtney Cox, Alan Cumming, Minnie Driver, Rashida Jones, Jane Lynch, Rosie O’Donnell, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Steven Weber, who seems to be everywhere these days.

Reportedly, the creators of the animated series “Dan Vs.” – Dan Mandel and Chris Pearson — based the personalities of their show’s lead characters on their own worst qualities. As such, Dan (voiced by Curtis Armstrong) is a revenge-minded s.o.b. with a massive chip on his shoulder against such perceived enemies as his dentist, ninjas, Canada, baseball, Ye Olde Shakespeare Dinner Theatre and the entire state of New Mexico. His accomplice in these schemes is Chris (Dave Foley) is a gawky oaf with an enormous appetite and a tendency to fall asleep while on duty. Chris’ wife, Elise (Paget Brewster), is alternately the voice of reason and co-conspirator. Elise’s parents make occasional visits, along with a host of other guest stars. Her father (Michael Gross) owns a cupcake business and Mom (Meredith Baxter) is secretly part of the Mafia. It’s that kind of show. It airs (cables?) on the Hub channel.

Hey, Dude” is a Western comedy series that ran on Nickelodeon between 1989 and 1993, long enough ago to have been the network’s second original series. Things have changed greatly at Nickelodeon, even if the episodes collected in the third-season package haven’t. Last year, it was revived on TeenNick. Set on the fictional Bar None Dude Ranch near Tucson, it follows the escapades of the ranch’s owner (David Brisbin), his son (Josh Tygiel), a ranch hand, Lucy (Debra Kalman) and diverse collection of teenage summer employees. – Gary Dretzka

Nova: Hunting the Elements
Nature: The White Lions
Frontline: The Real ‘CSI’
I’ve come to the conclusion that 90 percent of what I learned in high school, way back when, could today be boiled down to a couple of week’s worth of constant viewing on PBS and cable television. My continuing education conveniently coincides with the weekly delivery of non-fiction titles on DVD. The hour I spent absorbing the “Nova” documentary “Hunting the Elements,” alone, could have raised my grades in chemistry and physics from marginal to “not bad.” Viewers benefit from graphic aids and animation long unavailable to slackers of my generation. Maybe if I’d paid attention I would recall more about these building blocks of nature … where they came from, what distinguishes one from the other and why their mating is sometimes so explosive. I recommend it wholeheartedly to parents who don’t feel qualified to help their kids with their science homework. Think of it as family entertainment and the medicine won’t taste quite so bitter.

From “Nature” comes “The White Lions,” which, amazingly, wasn’t shot in the wilds of Las Vegas, but on the vast savanna of South Africa’s Kruger Park. The first thing to know about these extremely rare cats is that they aren’t considered to be albino, rather their white coat is caused by a recessive color-inhibiting gene. The second is that being white is no blessing in the wild, where any their coats stand out against the natural background. That’s what makes “The White Lions” such an extraordinary documentary. If either of the sisters we watch grow up before our eyes had been killed, the show would be over prematurely. Instead, we’re allowed to eavesdrop on their development within the pride and admire their evolution as individual lions in a frequently hostile environment. It’s also fascinating to watch the pride’s interaction with the park’s other species.

It’s always disconcerting to learn that some things we take for granted – as well as others we accept as the gospel truth – aren’t what they appear to be. One is the infallibility of fingerprints, of which no two are said to be alike. The same is said, based on similar conjecture, about snowflakes. The “Frontline” production, “The Real ‘CSI,’” not only questions the validity of fingerprint identification, but also shows us instances of men being wrongly convicted of murder and rape based solely on the so-called science. Indeed, sometimes as many as three acknowledged experts came to the same conclusion as the first. The other point made in the show is that many of the men and women called to testify as experts in trials lack the qualifications it would take to stand up before a judge in traffic court. There is an organization that claims to test and qualify expert witness, but, apparently, the only way one can fail the test is if their check doesn’t clear. DNA evidence is considered to be unassailable here, if only because it truly is based on science, not legend. – Gary Dretzka

Radio Rebel
Teen Spirit
Reel Love
The Disney Channel movie “Radio Rebel” reminds me of the Christian Slater hit, “Pump Up the Volume,” in that an anonymous disc jockey causes a huge stir at high school, where the administration has nothing better to do than listen to the radio. Tara (Debby Ryan) is a painfully shy junior, who uses the medium to regain her confidence and voice. Like Slater, Tara begins her career narrowcasting to her fellow students, picking on the cliques and cool kids. Where Slater used “pirate radio” to spread his subversive message, Tara begins by podcasting. When her radio executive stepdad discovers what she’s doing and calculates her popularity, he offers Tara a regular radio gig. The school’s principal threatens to cancel prom if her identity isn’t revealed, thus putting Tara in a position where she could be blamed for killing everyone’s fun.

The producers of ABC Family’s “Teen Spirit” borrowed a page from the scripts written for “Drop Dead Diva” and “Heaven Can Wait,” when they made their protagonist a newly dead teenager who’s given a chance to save her soul by returning to Earth. Amber (Cassie Scerbo) is the quintessential high school princess, whose sole goal in her short life has been to elected prom queen. To secure the crown, Amber has given new definition to the word, “bitch.” It works against her chances of staying in heaven, after she’s killed in a car crash. Her eternal happiness depends on her ability to make over one of the school’s girl geeks, so she can be voted most-popular and win the heart of Amber’s old flame. Lisa (Lindsey Shaw) is reluctant to mount a campaign she considers unwinnable, but warms to the thought of getting Nick (Chris Zylka) to crush on her.

CMT gets into the act this week with “Reel Love,” another original movie that feels suspiciously familiar to previous rom-com fare. Like Reese Witherspoon before her, LeAnn Rimes plays a successful big-city professional who returns to her sweet home, Alabama, where she rediscovers her roots. This time, however, the lawyer is there to minister to her father (Burt Reynolds), who’s had a heart attack. The title of the movie refers to Dad’s obsession with bass fishing, something, I assume, everyone in the key CMT demographics does in their spare time. – 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