MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: John Carter, Journey 2, Safe House, Hit So Hard, Hondo, Act of Valor, Desire, Falling Skies … More

John Carter: 2D/3D Blu-ray
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island: 2D/3D Blu-ray
This epic sci-fi adventure would have been much better served if it had been marketed as “Edger Rice Burroughs’ John Carter,” instead of simply, “Disney: John Carter.” It takes an ego the size of the Matterhorn to think audiences would feel better about seeing a movie as generically titled as “John Carter,” simply because of the Disney brand, instead of as the brainchild of one of the genre’s godfathers. Also responsible for “Tarzan,” Burroughs was similarly dissed in the campaigns for adaptations of those works, and not just by Disney. In the case of “Tarzan,” the character was the brand and would remain so through more than 80 pictures over the span of 92 years. (A new animated addition to the “Ape Man” saga, with Kellan Lutz and Spencer Locke, is expected in 2013.) For me, anyway, John Carter simply didn’t ring a bell, one way or the other. It wasn’t until the novelist’s name was dropped early in the movie that I began to see a connection between the master’s “Princess of Mars” and what was happening on the screen. Even so, it took a quick detour to the Internet to learn exactly who Carter was and why this movie should matter to me. Given the context, then, I recalled seeing illustrations from the original series, written under the pseudonym Norman Bean. Thus enlightened, I began to see “John Carter” less as a country cousin to “Star Wars” than a fully realized adventure that could stand on its own. If nothing else, it gave me a reason to care about the character and what was happening to him.

Andrew Stanton’s fantasy, also released in 3D, didn’t fare well in its domestic release. Suddenly, its $250-million price tag became more significant than anything that was happening on the screen and its failure cost one top Disney executive, at least, his job. That’s how the game is played in Hollywood. I trust that executive’s fall was cushioned by a mattress filled with money. The fact is people have been attempting to adapt the John Carter stories for more than 80 years, beginning in 1931 when Robert Clampett approached Burroughs about an animated-feature version. (Sketches from that failed venture appear in the making-of featurettes.) A video version of “Princess of Mars,” starring Antonio Sabato Jr. and Tracy Lords, was released in 2009 to know fanfare. A year later, Stanton (“Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo”) was handed the reins to “John Carter,” whose own mega-budget roots extend back to the early 1980s. The CGI technology had finally caught up to the requirements of the story, which was adapted by Stanton, Mark Andrews (“Star Wars: Clone Wars”) and novelist Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”).

So, what does $250 million buy these days? In addition to creating a reasonable facsimile of the Martian landscape in the deserts of Utah, set designers used what might have been miles of green felt to transform Shepperton and Longcross studios into Martian cities and huge flying battlewagons. Carter had arrived on Mars (a.k.a., Barsoom) after being astrally projected from a gold-veined cave in the American Southwest. After the Civil War, the Virginian had gotten into the fortune-hunting business and eventually did very well for himself. He found himself in the cave after being pursued both by Apaches and the cavalry. Once inside, he was confronted by an alien visitor, whose medallion somehow linked the cave to Barsoom and other celestial destinations. Once there, Carter (Taylor Kitsch, “Friday Night Lights”) discovered that he could leap great heights and distances, and hurl objects out of sight. These powers would attract the attention of the grasshopper-like Tharks, who were engaged in a three-way civil war with city-bound humanoids and the devious shape-shifting Therns. Caught in the tug-of-war is the spectacularly beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), who’s been forcibly engaged to a Thern, but is secretly holding out for Carter. By this time, I pretty much lost track of who was doing what to whom, preferring to focus on the ingenious architecture and pageantry, which recalls Camelot as much as anything in the sci-fi repertoire. In this way, too, it fits within the context of the futuristic visions of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The featurettes included in the Blu-ray package add needed context, as well as much interesting making-of background, deleted scenes, commentary, Disney’s Second Screen Interactive Experience and “Barsoom Bloopers.” Not having seen the 3D edition, I can’t comment on it, except to say it’s available and probably looks as good as the 2D Blu-ray, which is to say very good.

Neither does Verne get his props in the marketing material for “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” a sequel, of sorts, to the 2008 3D hit, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Instead of being drawn to an Icelandic volcano, now-17-year-old Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) is lured to a theoretically non-existent Pacific island by his Verne-obsessed grandfather (Michael Caine). Also on board for the adventure are his stepdad (Dwayne Johnson), a rag-tag helicopter operator (Luis Guzman) and his pretty teen daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). Once on the island, the team is confronted with miniature elephants, giant lizards and other wonders of science. Grandpa has discovered a jungle outpost that’s equal parts Angkor Wat, Jurassic Park and Atlantis. Grandpa believes that the island is, in fact, Atlantis and it rises and sinks, according to some ancient calendar. The problem is that the island is on the sink side of the cycle and the team needs to get off the island, pronto. And, this is where Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine comes into play.

“Journey 2” clearly is a family film, a fact that shouldn’t cause adults to dismiss it out of hand. Brad Peyton’s fantasy-adventure is well-conceived and not at all corny or cheap, even though it was made for a third the money spent on “John Carter.” In 2D, it’s easy to see where the 3D effects were meant to kick into gear and, I’ll bet, they looked pretty swell, too, especially the passenger-ready honey bees. The actors are likeable and drawn at the correct scale for such an outlandish tale. The Blu-ray arrives with an interactive island adventure, guided by Josh Hutcherson; deleted scenes and a gag reel. — Gary Dretzka


Safe House: Blu-ray
In a cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Rubén Blades and Ryan Reynolds, only one actor stands out as being indispensable and that’s Denzel Washington. “Safe House” isn’t the first movie in which the two-time Academy Award winner has played a character whose values are twisted in ways ill-befitting a protagonist. Washington seems to relish playing such tarnished souls: Frank Lucas in “American Gangster,” Detective Alonzo Harris in “Training Day” and Creasy in “Man on Fire.” Moreover, he’s collaborated with Tony Scott so often that viewers might even think the action-obsessed director had been at the helm of “Safe House.” It’s a misconception that should flatter Daniel Espinosa, for whom “Safe House” represents his first English-language feature. In the thrillers Scott churns out with regularity, breakneck action and non-stop violence override any concerns about illogical story points and Teflon-coated characters. Washington plays rogue CIA legend, Tobin Frost, who’s been in the wind for almost a decade. He recently was handed a microchip containing information that is coveted as much by officials back in Langley as a mysterious gang of mercenaries in the employ of, well, it’s hard to say.

After the first deadly sniper shots are fired at Frost’s acquaintances in Cape Town, South Africa, he high-tails it to the American embassy for protection. The spooks there move him to a CIA safe house, manned by Reynolds’ desperate-for-action agent Matt Weston. He gets all of it he can stand when the mercenaries invade the safe house – how could they possibly know he would end up there? – killing everyone except Frost and Weston. The rest of the movie is one long and exciting chase or, perhaps, three simultaneous chases rolled into one untidy package. Weston makes it his mission to bring Frost in from the cold, even as a strong professional bond develops between them. When the older operative slips Weston’s custody, the junior agent and mercenaries use similar methods to track him to the home of a master forger in a distant township. Meanwhile, the CIA official who leaked the location of the safe house that was destroyed in the first reel is on his (or her) way to the same place and for the same reason. A bloody fire fight ensues there, as well. Without giving anything away, the final scenes play out at Langley and in Paris, where we finally learn what all the fuss is about in the first place.

The Blu-ray edition benefits from the choice of Cape Town as the setting for action. It’s full of fresh locations and doesn’t look at all like Vancouver or Toronto, where too many American pictures are shot. The only problem I had was with the audio, which frequently shifted from being too loud or too soft, and required an inordinate amount of fiddling with the remote-control. Also included in the package are the interactive U-Control picture-in-picture feature and Universal Second-Screen Experience, as well as mini-docs on the making of the movie and several key action and chase sequences. – Gary Dretzka


It’s About You: Blu-ray
Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death of Patty Schemel: Blu-ray
For all his talent as an entertainer, John Mellencamp is someone I’d like to see run for office before he gets too old. As a co-founder of Farm Aid, the Indiana native has proven his populist chops 26 times there, at least. His humanistic concerns also have informed his music. There’s still a lot of it left in his Hoosier soul, but his keen observations of contemporary life and sincere concern for the problems faced by common folks are what we need in Congress. I think that Al Franken, Minnesota’s junior senator and an “SNL” veteran, would welcome the company. In “It’s About You,” the father-son team of Ian and Kurt Markus document Mellencamp’s 2009 concert tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson – neither of whom appear in the film – and subsequent recording sessions in such musical landmarks as Memphis’ Sun Studio, Savannah’s First African Baptist Church and the hotel room in San Antonio where Robert Johnson recorded his most important songs. Along the way, the Marcuses document the disintegration of once-vibrant commercial centers of cities around the South, including that of Waylon Jennings’ hometown. “It’s About You” is an extremely gritty and grainy affair, primarily because it was shot on Super 8 film and, occasionally, at an arm’s length from the sometimes stand-offish singer. It takes a while to get adjusted to the primitive technology, but, ultimately, the raw look of the film and rootsie texture of the music, as produced by T-Bone Burnett, begin to complement each other nicely. Folks expecting a concert movie might be disappointed by the doc’s many introspective moments and digressions. Fans will find in “It’s About You” an unvarnished portrayal of the artist away from the comfort and security of his Bloomington, Indiana, home. It has been shown as an appetizer before concerts on Mellencamp’s most recent tour.

As easy as it would be to pigeonhole “Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death of Patty Schemel” as yet another cautionary tale about life in rock ’n’ roll’s fast lane, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. At the top of her game, drummer Patty Schemel controlled the pulse of Hole, a take-no-prisoners Seattle band fronted by Courtney Love. At its conclusion, the redhead musician was just another homeless junkie haunting the crack dens of L.A. Why bother making a cautionary tale if no one in the intended audience is going to listen? Unlike Amy Winehouse and several dozen other rockers, Schemel lived to tell her tale. It probably would have been impossible for anyone not to become addicted to one substance or another while living and playing alongside Love and Kurt Cobain for as long as Schemel did. The whole Grunge scene was awash in hard drugs in the early 1990s, so any attempt find shelter from the storm was doomed to failure. More than the drugs, however, Schemel’s descent into rock-’n’-roll hell was fueled by the erratic behavior of Love and a record producer who thought nothing of replacing the heart-and-soul of the group with a session drummer. In Love’s opinion, Schemel shouldn’t have taken it personally. In fact, she took the diss very personally.

It didn’t take long before Schemel would split for L.A. and burn through whatever money she had saved. Once homeless, she could only rely on the mercy of strangers, of which there was precious little. Finally, a much younger musician recognized her and opened an avenue toward recovery. P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ very compelling bio-doc chronicles Schemel’s rise, fall and every step in between them. Necessarily, then, it also describes Seattle’s Grunge scene, which began as an anti-everything movement, but finally succumbed to the music industry’s siren song. “Hit So Hard” is enhanced by much video footage and other archival material recovered from the wreckage of Nirvana, Hole, Cobain’s suicide, Love’s self-destructive personality and the implosion of Grunge. Home movies of Cobain, Love and their baby, Frances Bean, are especially heart-wrenching. The aptly titled film also describes how Schemel found the support she needed to get clean in Los Angeles’ gay-and-lesbian community. It’s a harrowing story, but, blessedly, one that doesn’t end in a rocker’s death or lifelong struggle with schizophrenia. That makes it a rare commodity in the genre. – Gary Dretzka


Hondo: Blu-ray
Although not one of John Wayne’s most-recognized Westerns, “Hondo” features one of his best performances in any genre. It also represents one of the best-written of all of Duke’s movies. The action, of which there’s plenty, never overpowers the flow of the story and the characters are drawn with rare precision and complexity. Wayne plays Hondo Lane, a government dispatch agent who, one day, out of the blue, walks onto the homestead of a pretty settler, Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page), who’s been awaiting the return of her husband for several months. Hondo needs a horse, a meal and place to stay for the night, in exchange for which he promises to break her horses and do odd jobs around the house. He also makes fast friends with her son, Johnny. Hondo, who’s “part Indian,” finds it difficult to understand how Angie has managed to avoid being kidnapped or killed by Apache marauders. The Indians are in an especially pissy mood because the American government has once again broken one of its promises. Nevertheless, Angie’s willingness to allow the Apaches to water their horses on her land has paid dividends. Impressed by her son’s fearlessness, the chief of a Chiricahua band has made him a “blood brother” and vowed to protect him. This simple act of paternal kindness ultimately results in Hondo’s life being saved. In this way, at least, “Hondo” is a far cry from the depiction of Indians in “The Searchers” and the many other Westerns in which they’re portrayed as being “cold-blooded savages.”

Because the cavalry is determined to confront the Apache nation and drive them into Mexico, a violent confrontation is inevitable. Before that happens, however, viewers not only are made fully aware of the racism that threatens the Indians’ ancient lifestyle, but also the humanity they’re capable of showing to friends and their senses of humor. Hondo’s relationship with Angie is tested by the realization that he killed her despicable husband, after the varmint ambushed him and his faithful dog. Other things happen, of course, but not in ways one necessarily would expect.

“Hondo” was shot and initially released in 3D. It didn’t last long in theaters in that format, however, as the fad had already played itself out. In this regard director John Farrow’s inclination not to go overboard on the effects proved prescient. In 2D, it’s sometimes difficult to tell where the 3D action kicked in: a knife fight, a spear thrust, a fired bullet and kicked clumps of dirt, among them. What truly holds the movie together, though, is the screenplay by Wayne’s friend and frequent collaborator, James Edward Grant, working from a short story by Louis L’Amour. It’s worth taking the time to enjoy the making-of featurettes, which examine everything from the Chihuahua location, to Wayne’s relationship with perennial co-star Ward Bond, Grant and John Ford, who was called in to direct the final battle scenes. – Gary Dretzka


How to Live Forever
Mark Wexler’s fascinating documentary, “How to Live Forever,” asks several important questions at the same time. Ostensibly, the documentary discusses both the science and reality of longevity, while also speculating on the reasons some people live past 100 and others don’t make it to 60. (It rarely requires adhering to a healthy or green lifestyle.) To this end, Wexler interviews really old people in nursing homes around the country and travels to Okinawa and Iceland to collect data on diets, environmental conditions and other variables. While it’s easy enough to envy these old-timers and hope to duplicate their feat, the director also asks us to consider the downside of living to 200 or more, or being reawakened from a cryogenic sleep when it becomes feasible scientifically. Certainly, there isn’t much to be said for living to a biblical age if you’re in feeble condition or have outlived all of your friends and family. To that end, Wexler has also interviewed several experts – and so-called experts – in the emerging science of reversing aging. Among them are futurist Ray Kurzweil, comedian Phyllis Diller, a 101-year-old chain-smoking marathon runner, actor and hormone promoter Suzanne Somers, the late Jack LaLanne, author Ray Bradbury, new-ager Marianne Williamson and food writer Jonathan Gold. – Gary Dretzka


David E. Talbert’s A Fool and His Money
The latest release from David E. Talbert’s entertainment factory is quite a bit more dependent on scripture than previous parables, which sweetened their message with the sugar of romantic comedy and slightly bawdy humor. In “A Fool and His Money,” the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a velvet sledgehammer. Here, a blue-collar family is about to lose everything it has to recessionary forces beyond its control. Their problems, otherwise, aren’t all that much different than those faced by other families with teenage kids, unpaid bills and unsavory relations. A miracle occurs in the form of a million-dollar call from a local radio station. Suddenly, these no-longer-poor folks experience the kind of problems money can’t solve. Grandma predicted as much while quoting from the bible, but no one believed things could devolve to the point they do. The typically nimble cast includes Michael Beach, Cindy Herron-Brags, Chyna Layne, Mishon Ratliff, Ann Nesby, Willy Taylor and comedian Eddie Griffin, who steals the show as the black-sheep brother. Dressed in vintage-Superfly, he arrives within seconds of the good news becoming public, but leaves a hero. Once again, the story plays out on a single stage set and in front of a poorly miked audience. There’s a bit more singing in “A Fool and His Money,” as well. The DVD adds an interview with Talbert, for whom the play is semi-autobiographical, and a set visit. – Gary Dretzka


Act of Vengeance: Blu-ray
Act of Valor
Apart from being well-acted and technically proficient, “Act of Vengeance” (a.k.a., “Five Minarets in New York”) is as confounding a movie as I’ve seen in a long time. Clearly reflecting a post-9/11 world, Mahsun Kirmizigul’s international thriller takes a decidedly Turkish point-of-view on such weighty topics as terrorism and counterterrorism, the separation of mosque and state, jihadists vs. moderate Islamists, vengeance and justice, and the complexities of balancing national security and civil liberties in the United States. In doing so, the director/writer/composer/co-star also does something rarely seen in Hollywood movies: gives a fair shake to America’s Nation of Islam as a force for peace, reason and security. (They don’t all adhere to Louis Farrakhan’s stormy rhetoric, apparently.) If any of this sounds anti-American, know that our country is mostly portrayed as an island of tolerance in a world full of haters, as well as a giant, juicy target for those who aren’t keen on such a concept. An FBI agent played by veteran hard-guy Robert Patrick gives voice to anti-Islamic prejudices that are prevalent in military and law-enforcement sectors, but, eventually, he also sees the light. “Act of Vengeance” is the cinematic equivalent of a tight-rope walker attempting to bridge the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls, without the benefit of a net.

Although the movie opens with a prayer, the peace is quickly broken by a loud and violent police raid on a highly fortified staging area for Turkish terrorists. The target of the failed raid is a notorious terrorist known only as ”Dejjal.” When it’s somehow determined that Dejjal is, instead, hiding in New York, a pair of crack government agents is sent there to arrest and return him to Istanbul, with our government’s blessing. The distinguished Turkish actor, Haluk Bilginer, plays the suspected terrorist leader, known here as the religious teacher, Haci. Anxious only to get rid of a Muslim trouble-maker and the unwelcome detectives, the FBI doesn’t spend much time questioning the evidence or preparing for the suspect’s safe transference to authorities at the airport. In a remarkably quick and easy ambush, Haci is grabbed from the van carrying him to JFK and rushed to a safe house by parties unknown. In fact, Hasi has been rescued by men who likely are soldiers in the Nation of Islam’s Fruit of Islam wing. (While the connection isn’t directly made in the film, the suits, bow-ties and sparkling-white shirts give them away.) In a neat twist, the dogged Turk cops also find themselves in the hands of the FOI. As directed by Danny Glover’s religious leader, Marcus, and Haci, the Turkish agents will be treated as “guests” and lectured to about the unlikelihood that Haci could be anything but a man of peace and tolerance. Indeed, he’s even married to a Christian woman (Gina Gershon) and his daughter’s wedding is to be celebrated in both a Catholic church and mosque.

Haci agrees to return to Istanbul with the agents, but not before he convinces one of them of his innocence and raises doubts in the other, whose hatred for the man will later be traced to a family vendetta. There’s no need to spoil what happens upon their return to Turkey, except to say that it requires a huge suspension of disbelief, which some viewers will find worth the effort. Kirmizgul is best when he juxtaposes the many faces of Islam against government intolerance in the U.S. and Turkey, as well as a rush to judgment on the part of everyone, except Haci and Marcus. Depictions of such religious ceremonies as the Sufi Mevlevi Sama Ceremony (a.k.a., whirling dervishes) are marvelously rendered and beautifully set. “Act of Vengeance” is an interesting, if not particularly coherent movie that says a lot more about Turkey and other secular states in the Middle East than the United States and its war against Al Qaeda.

At the risk of sounding heartless and unpatriotic, “Act of Valor” strikes me as being less a movie than a combination video game and infomercial for the Navy SEALs. I don’t mean to denigrate the heroics of actual SEALS – several of whom star in the film – because we already know how important they are to the security of our country. Conceived in the direct wake of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, the Pentagon agreed to cooperate with the filmmakers thinking it would attract recruits worthy of carrying the torch. By dramatizing missions the public may never know even took place, “Act of Valor” potentially could appeal to more young men and women than another “Be all you can be …” commercial on ESPN. Hollywood, though, has a way of cheapening all acts of heroism and selflessness, largely by portraying the enemy as cartoonish fanatics and the good guys’ missions as being harmless to civilians, children and their pets. Such was the case with “The Green Berets,” which turned the Vietnam War into a John Wayne Western and portrayed the North Vietnamese government as an obstacle to the progress of man. “Act of Valor” goes down much easier than “The Green Berets,” if only because Al Qaeda makes the Vietcong look like candidates for sainthood. Moreover, the jihadist who’s made the SEALs primary target is in league not only with the Chechnyan resistance, but also Central American drug dealers and weapons smugglers, Somali crooks, Filipino suicide bombers and Mexican drug cartels, without whose help a dastardly plot against American civilians couldn’t be successful.

As if to solidify our appreciation of the SEALs, they are continually portrayed as family men, who attend beach parties with their buddies and their loved ones, never utter profanities or smoke cigarettes, carry folded flags into combat and almost never miss a kill shot. (Directors Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy especially love to show heads exploding into a thick mist of red particles.) The enemy fighters are in it either for the money or to join their relatives in paradise. There’s no question that the action sequences are exciting, but, again, they appear to be choreographed to resemble a point-and-shoot video game. Made on a budget of $12 million, “Act of Valor” grossed nearly $70 million at the domestic box office. I suspect it will do well in video, as well. Hollywood producers also rushed to dramatize the story of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who the government wanted us to believe was killed in a firefight with Taliban loyalists. They had to slam on the brakes, however, when it became clear that he was the victim of so-called friendly fire and miscommunication between units. The documentary, “The Tillman Story,” related the truth about the incident and cover-up and played on no more than 28 screens simultaneously. You do the math. – Gary Dretzka


Like the films of Catherine Breillat, “Desire” explores sexuality in young men and women as if it’s something a bit more complex – and, therefore, infinitely more interesting – than the tingle that comes with a hit-and-run assignation after too many cocktails or during a night of bliss when the parents aren’t at home. Laurent Bouhnik’s intimate dramedy isn’t resistant to such rushed and often meaningless couplings, but, here, they aren’t merely included to add spice to rom-com or titillate teenage boys. This isn’t to say “Desire” (a.k.a., “Q”) is remotely clinical or an exercise in psycho-sexual melodrama, either. If Breillat hadn’t already used the title, “Sex Is Comedy,” it might have served the same purpose here. Just when it seems as if the sexual provocateur, Cecile (Deborah Revy), is about to become a victim of her untamed desires, Bouhnik turns the tables on us by demonstrating how sex, for its own sake, can be therapeutic, liberating and, yes, funny.

Spunky and aggressively sexual, Cecile has been compared to the Terence Stamp’s character in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s enigmatic “Teorema.” Her arrival in a historic coastal city — Cherbourg, perhaps – coincides with a crippling labor stoppage and an outbreak of hormonal overload among the idle youth. Cecile isn’t a raving beauty, but, in addition to having a body that won’t quit, she’s absolutely fearless when it comes to actualizing her passions. She also possesses an uncanny ability to determine how to help other people break out of their shells. Cecile isn’t without hang-ups of her own, but, once identified, they’re relatively easy to fix. One of Bouhnik’s running gags involves a Greek chorus of naked women, shot at waist level in a shower room. The ladies openly discuss their carnal desires, as well as those of their partners. Viewers should try mightily to get beyond the shock of having this many mons pubis shoved in their face at one time, so they can focus on what the anonymous women are saying. Their commentary will help explain what to expect next in “Desire.” Somehow, I doubt such candid conversations actually do take place in such settings. When the punch line is revealed, however, the nudity won’t seem nearly as gratuitous. – Gary Dretzka


Where Evil Lives
To suggest that films from the Troma catalog might not be to everyone’s taste is like saying it might not be a good idea for a Parisian ched to serve escargot and foie gras to a roomful of American tourists. No shit, Sherlock. In some eyes, a Troma title might be considered a delicacy, but, assuredly, not many. Today, “Where Evil Lives” is known primarily — if at all — as the final feature film made by the great character actor, Claude Akins. A veteran of more than 100 films and nearly 200 TV episodes, the big and burly Georgia native was blessed with the kind of booming voice that could be interpreted as intimidating or jolly, depending on the role. He wasn’t given much to do in “Where Evil Lives,” besides acting as an on-screen narrator for the trilogy of short horror films, but he’s easily the most memorable person in it. Made in 1991 and rarely shown since then, “Where Evil Lives” is also notable for the fact that two of its writer/directors made only one film and called it a day, while the other, Richard L. Fox, has continued to labor as an AD. Otherwise, it’s the same old Troma slaughter-fest, with a demented serial killer, sexy vampire and cop-friendly witch. – Gary Dretzka


Private Romeo
In “Tomboy,” 10-year-old Laure allows herself to be mistaken by other kids her age for a boy named Mikael. She’s a newcomer to the town and school doesn’t begin again for a couple of months, freeing her to be anyone she chooses to be. With her still-flat chest, enthusiasm for sports and Jean Seburg haircut, circa 1960, Laure/Mikael fits the classic definition of a tomboy. Mostly, she maintains the ruse to remain close to the neighborhood’s Alpha-female, Lisa, who begins to suspect that something is amiss when the list of classmates is posted and Mikael’s name isn’t on it. Laure’s mother isn’t pleased with her daughter’s game, if only because she knows a reckoning will come and it won’t be pleasant. Otherwise, the father and younger sister are solely interested in Laure’s happiness. It’s entirely possible that she someday will choose to live the rest of her life as Mikael, but it’s difficult to predict how puberty will affect the child, one way or the other. In any case, Laure’s already cleared the first hurdle. In the capable hands of writer/director Celine Sciamma (“Water Lilies”), gender-identity issues affect boys and girls, alike, and they needn’t be traumatizing. As the tomboy, French newcomer Zoe Heran could hardly be better. She naturally passes for boy, without also suggesting androgyny or being required to affect a voice or mannerisms to sell the character. The other kids are very good and everyone fits comfortably in the leafy suburban setting.

“Romeo and Juliet” has been bent, folded and, yes, mutilated so many times and in so many different ways, it’s possible that Shakespeare might not even recognize it. “Private Romeo” could never be confused with Franco Zeffirelli or Baz Luhrmann’s adaptations – let alone, with “West Side Story,” “Tromeo and Juliet” or “Gnomeo & Juliet” – but it’s unmistakably Shakespeare. In Alan Brown’s iteration of the tragedy, eight male cadets at an otherwise empty military academy are left behind to study and perform their normal duties, while the other students are away on a four-day field exercise. Even unsupervised, they take seriously the responsibility of memorizing “Romeo and Juliet,” and continue to recite their lines outside the classroom. Being young, inquisitive and sexually unformed, the cadets can’t help but see how the story of star-crossed lovers might apply to their budding concepts of romance and heartbreak. Brown demands they play the exercise straight (no pun intended) and show all due respect to the bard’s words, even the ones that so easily pass for double-entendres. A few songs also are lip-synched along the way, to good effect. Seth Numrich, who starred in the Lincoln Center production of “The War Horse,” is the most prominent actor in a cast of up-and-coming New York stage performers. Purists might not approve of “Private Romeo,” but others should find something to like here. – Gary Dretzka


TV to DVD Wrap:
Falling Skies: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Workaholics: Seasons 1&2
Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Second Season
Rags to Riches: The Complete Series
White Collar/Burn Notice
Babar: The Classic Series: The Complete First Season
Team Umizoomi: Umigames
G.I. Joe: Renegades
The second season of Robert Rodat and Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi series, “Falling Skies,” begins next week on TNT. Already up to my ears in extraterrestrials and near-apocalyptic thrillers, I took a pass on the show in its first go-round. Now that I’ve caught up with it on Blu-ray, I’m still not sure I’ll reserve a spot for it on my Tivo to-do list, but I won’t rule out the possibility, either. Set in Massachusetts, six months after an army of multi-legged “skitters” and “mech” drones touched down on Earth, “Falling Skies” is informed equally by the history of the American Revolution, William Castle’s “The Tingler” and 60 years of alien-invasion archetypes. Although viewers aren’t told everything they’ll need to know about the cockroach-like killers, it’s clear that a resistance movement has been mounted and the aliens are most interested in controlling young Bostonians. They’ve accomplished this by attaching a parasitic harness to the kids’ spines – a la “The Tingler” — and making their demands known through them. The 10-episode series stars Noah Wyle (“E.R.”) as a former Boston University history professor, who’s made second-in-command of the 2nd Massachusetts Militia Regiment. His son is among the children attached to a harness. The aliens aren’t invincible, thank goodness, and the militia even is able to capture one or two of them. Sci-fi fans and other Comic-Con veterans are the target audience for “Falling Skies” and, my guess is, they’re anxiously awaiting the start of Season 2. It also stars Moon Bloodgood, Jessy Schram, Seychelle Gabriel, Maxim Knight and Will Patton. The Blu-ray adds commentaries on five episodes, footage from a Comic-Con panel, a look at the Dark Horse comic-book adaptation, a sneak peek at the second season and look at the creation of a skitter.

Comedy Central’s ironically titled “Workaholics” may not be playing in the same league as “The Office” and “Office Space,” but it holds its own against most other cable sitcoms. Contrary to what’s implied in the title, the show’s “heroes” practically define what it means to be a slacker in the workplace. Anders (Anders Holm), Adam (Adam DeVine) and Blake (Blake Anderson) live together in a giant man-cave, share a broken-down car and are employed by a telemarketing firm. Typically, telemarketers are quick to hire and quicker to fire when an employee isn’t producing, so survival is part of the on-going storyline. Naturally, too, the boys are stoners and horn-dogs. Decidedly crude and lewd, “Workaholics” is a perfect fit for Comedy Central’s male demographic. The two-season, 20-episode Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and alternate takes; cast interviews; original digital shorts and skits; bloopers; and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The ABC Family series “Pretty Little Liars” is based on Sara Shepard’s series of best-selling mystery novels for young adults. Like the books, the TV series involves four high school girls who once formed a clique, but drifted apart after a fifth member disappeared. They re-unite when the missing friend is found dead and the girls begin receiving menacing letters from someone calling him- or herself, “A.” The messages threaten to reveal the teens’ darkest secrets and they don’t take this dire possibility lightly. Undaunted, they commit themselves to solving the murder. Although the DVD compilations are broken into seasons, “Pretty Little Liars” has enjoyed an almost steady run since debuting in June, 2010. Its third season debuted this week, two months after the second one ended. Like most other shows targeted at teen girls, the characters here are fashionable and uncommonly hot. There’s plenty of music and other tie-ins to products on display.

Time flies: when “Rags to Riches” was launched on NBC in 1987, publicist and critics compared it, favorably and unfavorably, with “Annie.” Now that it has finally become available on DVD, the blurbs on the jacket compare the music-filled series to “Glee.” All shows in which someone breaks into song are automatically likened to “Glee” or “High School Musical.” The “Annie” comparison holds more water, here. Joseph Bologna portrays a playboy bachelor and business mogul in desperate need of an image makeover to close a big deal. To this end, he adopts five girls, ranging in age from 8 to 17. As evidence that he hasn’t thought this thing through thoroughly, Nick has forgotten the part about being a father to the orphans, as well as a benefactor. It doesn’t take long before he senses the value in having such a talented family. The series is set in the early 1960s, so the songs the girls sing to advance the plot are very poppy. The set includes all 20 episodes, including the pilot movie.

At a time when the broadcast networks are struggling to maintain network share and save money by only programming six nights of entertainment, their rivals on the cable side continue to create series that are unpredictable, easy on the eyes and lots of fun. “Burn Notice” and “White Collar” share several common traits, including a central conceit that has remained unresolved from the first to the most-recent episode. Rather than dwell on that aspect of the narrative, though, new stand-alone mysteries are introduced each week. The key protagonists may be of the male persuasion, but women are as crucial to the series evolution as they are. The sidekicks are both funny and integral to the crime-solving. Coming into the fifth season of “Burn Notice,” CIA operative Michael Weston continues his search for the person or persons who “burned” him and caused him to be drummed out of the agency. Meanwhile, on “White Collar,” the FBI’s conman-for-hire, Neal Caffrey, is still trying to figure out how to profit from the U-boat load of stolen art he stole with Mozzie. Both DVD sets include bonus material.

Babar: The Classic Series: The Complete First Season” is a long way of saying that the partial-season DVDs released last year are now redundant. The animated series, based on Jean de Brunhoff’s illustrated books for children, first were shown on HBO in the early 1990s. The ever-optimistic king of elephants is the feature attraction in this set of 13 digitally restored and re-mastered episodes.

Nickelodeon and Nick Jr.’s “Team Umizoomi: Umigames” is comprised of four episodes, filled with math missions, music and interactive games. The show is targeted at pre-schoolers still mastering such skills as counting, sequencing, shapes, patterns, measurements and comparisons.

Any resemblance between the G.I. Joe of my youth and the ones in “G.I. Joe: Renegades” is purely coincidental. The Hub and Netflix series, currently on hiatus, is based on a mythology so complex and exhausting that I pretty much gave up trying to figure it out. From what I can tell, however, the animated series combines conceits from “The A-Team” movie and “Transformers: Prime.” – Gary Dretzka


BBC: Civilization: The West and the Rest
If Rudyard Kipling were alive today, I wonder if he would attempt to retract the observation, “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” In effect, the BBC documentary, “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” does it for him, in absentia. Professor Niall Ferguson examines how, over the course of five centuries, western countries came to dominate the global economy, mostly by exploiting the resources of undeveloped countries and requiring they buy into western ideas of food, religion, politics and culture. Ferguson suggests that this was accomplished using six “killer apps”: competition, science, property, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. He also argues that such domination came with a price and whatever was accomplished then is now being reversed by developing states. Has the twain already been met? Stay tuned.

Among the many other tele-docs available this week are: “PBS: The Polar Explorer,” which takes us along on a trip through the Northwest Passage; “PBS: Violin Masters: Two Gentlemen of Cremona,” about the competition between neighbors Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu to create the world’s greatest and most valuable musical instruments; “PBS: Craft in America: Threads,” which documents how the needle arts continue to evolve and involve contemporary culture; and “Frontline: Murdoch’s Scandal,” a primer on the growing scandal in the U.K. over illegal eavesdropping and influence peddling. From A&E comes “American Pickers: Volume Three,” during which Mike and Fritz scour the nation’s attics, basements and dustbins for discarded treasures. This time around they visit a long-abandoned amusement park and geodesic dome. – Gary Dretzka


New York Giants: Road to XLVI
For a football team that was about to be put on life support going into the final month of the regular season, the New York Giants did pretty well for itself on the road to its second Super Bowl upset victory in five years. Like the Green Bay Packers in 2011, the Giants had just enough steam to make the playoffs as a wildcard team, then went on to beat the Falcons, Packers, 49ers and Patriots, who they also faced in SB XLII. It was another in a long line of exciting championship games. The new NFL Productions collection includes network broadcasts of the Giants’ entire 2011 playoff run, as well as and 2012 Super Bowl. “New York Giants: Road to XLVI” is also available in Blu-ray. – 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