MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Marilyn Monroe, Hatfields & McCoys, Le Havre, Waves of Lust … More

Marilyn in Manhattan
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death, at 36, expect the media to peel away from the Olympics and Aurora massacre long enough to celebrate the life and career of one of Hollywood’s brightest and most misunderstood stars. Sadly, one of the central mysteries of the 20th Century – did she jump or was she pushed – isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. What we learn in the fascinating 1998 documentary, “Marilyn in Manhattan,” and Lois Banner’s new biography, “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,” is just how complex a person Monroe was and why she still matters. Although the former Norma Jeane Mortenson was strategically billed as the quintessential “dumb blond” bombshell, we already know that she was no dummy. “Marilyn in Manhattan” chronicles her secret self-imposed exile to New York, in 1955, and subsequent efforts to escape the yoke put on her by greedy executives at 20th Century Fox. In addition to studying her craft at the Actors Studio, she underwent psychoanalysis, went from baseball to Broadway on the marital front and announced plans for her own production company. As usual, her strategy was complicated by the men in her life, chronic insecurity and other complications of her fragile state of mind. Being married to such difficult and domineering men – and sleeping with others, even more powerful – conflicted with her stated hopes for something resembling a normal life and projects that would emphasize her acting skills.

Banner’s book goes into much greater biographical detail, of course, revealing secrets and separating the truth from the fiction. She could be accused and convicted of flagrant name-dropping, if it weren’t for the astonishing number of famous people who found (or insinuated) themselves in her orbit. These include members of the Rat Pack, the Mafia, Camelot and the Motion Picture Academy. Both the documentary and Banner’s book should be of special interest to people introduced to Monroe only last year, in “My Week With Marilyn” In interviews with such friends and associates as Ellen Burstyn, Ben Gazzara, Amy Greene-Andrews, business partner Joshua Greene, Susan Strasberg, Donald Spoto and columnist James Bacon, it’s clear that Monroe’s legacy extends well beyond the sexual iconography of the famous Andy Warhol serigraph, exposed-panty shot from “The Seven-Year Itch” and the skin-tight gown she wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to JFK. If only subliminally, Monroe’s had an incalculable influence on future generations of post-feminist women. Despite her many breakdowns and dalliances with predatory horndogs, that influence has manifested itself in new attitudes towards female sexuality, freedom of choice in everything from fashion to public personas, countering stereotypes and standards of beauty. If, for most of the last 50 years, the media has succeeded in clouding Monroe’s legacy, her struggle for dignity and respect would be admired by women who’ve faced similar hurdles in their own lives. Off-screen and on, she truly was an amazing woman. – Gary Dretzka

Hatfields & McCoys: Original Uncut Version
However alarming, yesterday’s headlines have become fodder for the mini-series, movies, theme parks, video games and reality shows of today. No better example of this exists than the bloody 25-year-year feud between the Hatfields of West Virginia and McCoys of Kentucky, during which a dozen family members were murdered and many others injured and/or imprisoned. The first time it was referenced directly on film was in 1905, in the single-reeler, “A Kentucky Feud,” while, in 1939, Betty Boop found herself trapped between the bloodthirsty hillbillies. Presumably, the vendetta was put to bed peacefully in 1979, on the TV game show “Family Feud,” with a weeklong competition between teams of decedents. The clans would meet 20 years later at a well-publicized reunion of the clans and, again, three years later, when some genius came up with the idea that a truce-signing would help heal wounds left over from 9/11. But, wait, there’s more.  In 2002, after being turned away from the gates of the McCoy Cemetery, Bo and Ron McCoy were required to sue the current owner of the property for access. There now exists, as well, a “Hatfield–McCoy Feud Driving Tour” and 500-mile-long trail along the Tug River, suitable for all-terrain vehicles. It boggles the mind to realize that the feud didn’t begin in earnest until an acrimonious trial was held to decide if Randolph McCoy’s hog was stolen by Floyd Hatfield, or the Hatfields had a legal right to seize and eat the trespassing swine. (Predictably, Justice of the Peace Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield ruled in favor of the Hatfields. The key witness was subsequently murdered by Sam and Paris McCoy, who avoided prosecution.) The History Channel is the latest to benefit from the contretemps, which unofficially ended in 1901 with the last of the trials sparked by the violence. The six-hour mini-series, “Hatfields & McCoys,” scored monster numbers for the cable network in its first foray into the form. The newly available DVD, “Hatfields & McCoys: Original Uncut Version,” adds either significantly more bloodshed or gratuitous tobacco spitting to what already was a pretty messy affair.

From what I know about the feud, the mini-series seems faithful to both the history and legend of the Hatfields and McCoys.  The actors cast to play the wildly unkempt men and their humorless womenfolk certainly look the part. As William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy, Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton could hardly be more representative of a period in American folklore, seemingly before bathtubs and soap reached the American frontier and killers could quote biblical scripture to justify any atrocity. Among the various imaginatively drawn characters are Tom Berenger (almost unrecognizable as the hairy sociopath Jim Vance), Powers Boothe, Andrew Howard, Ronan Vibert, Jena Malone, Sarah Parish, Lindsay Pulsipher and Mare Winningham. They’re excellent, as are the contributions of the various designers and technicians. Standing in for the hills and hollers of West “Almost Heaven” Virginia is Romania, a beautiful country that has seen its own share of vendetta killings and savagery in the name of the Lord. “Hatfields & McCoys” was directed by Kevin Reynolds, whose previous work with Costner includes “Waterworld,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Fandango.” The DVD adds background historical and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Redemption: For Robbing the Dead
Any history of the American West wouldn’t be complete without some discussion, at least, of the role played by Mormon settlers in what would become the state of Utah. The only thing I can remember being taught is that the strait-laced pilgrims practiced polygamy and seagulls saved them from a plague of grasshoppers. The real story is significantly more complex and fascinating. The founding of a major city on a key route west was noteworthy for all sorts of practical reasons, but it’s in the Mormons’ relations with Native Americans and settlers of other faiths where things get complicated. Although I don’t recall hearing the word, “Mormon,” in the surprisingly compelling “Redemption: For Robbing the Dead,” the circumstances upon which it is based were strongly influenced by doctrine and faith. The overtly Christian message most viewers will take away from “Redemption” may not be exclusive to Mormon teachings, but it probably helped clear the way for the hands-on participation of student interns from the BYU Theater and Media Arts Department. Beyond that, however, “Redemption: For Robbing the Dead” is a terrific Western in the classic mold, wonderfully acted and shot.

Writer/director Thomas Russell couldn’t help but be drawn to the almost unbelievable story of Jean Baptiste, whose infamous crimes earned him the distinction of being “The Ghoul of Salt Lake City.” Mystery surrounds much of Baptiste’s background, but it is believed he moved there in the 1850s with his wife, Marlys (Margot Kidder), who he met in Australia. The death of their child pretty much scrambled Marlys’ brain and Baptiste probably had a few screws loosened in his head before taking a laborer’s job at the Salt Lake City Cemetery. The specifics about how it was discovered that Baptiste (David Stevens) had been digging up coffins and stealing the burial clothes of as many as 300 bodies is a tad on the complicated side. If it weren’t for a chilling series of coincidences, he might have gotten away with it for several more years. Suffice it to say that the revelation caused much revulsion and anger among the citizenry, who feared the fiend might have taken other ghastly liberties with the corpses. Being a frontier town, demands for Baptiste’s immediate trial and execution became the consensus response to the crime. The legal remedies were far vaguer, however. The question of how to respond to such horror even reached Brigham Young – not portrayed here – who observed, shooting him “would do no good to anybody but himself. … If it was left to me, I would make him a fugitive and a vagabond upon the earth,” which, much to the displeasure of the public, is essentially what happened. Before Baptiste could be lynched, a judge ordered that Baptiste be exiled to a large, desolate island in the Great Salt Lake and left to fend for himself. This, after having his ears “cropped” and the words, “For Robbing the Dead,” tattooed on his forehead.

Police officer Henry Heath, whose daughter was buried in the cemetery, was given the responsibility of making sure vigilantes didn’t follow Baptiste to Antelope Island – some did, anyway – and he wouldn’t be able to escape. Against his better judgment and the will of Salt Lake residents, Heath (John Freeman) also takes it upon himself to make sure Baptiste is provided with food staples, medicine and water on a regular basis. This act of Christian charity prompts members of an aggrieved family to import an assassin from Kansas to teach the lawman one final message before he dies. The more hatred directed at him by his neighbors and enemies, the more adamant Heath becomes on reminding them of what Jesus might have done under similar circumstances. (Instead of hitting us over the head with a bible of Book of Mormon, Russell lets the message slowly wash over those in his audience.) Russell invents an ending that doesn’t square with the facts of Baptiste’s exile, but it’s better than leaving viewers with the same question historians have been attempting to answer for 150 years. It isn’t likely Baptiste was able to escape the island – he couldn’t swim – and he wasn’t heard from again. In any case, the movie is less about the criminal than the man, Heath, who found redemption for his own sins according to the teachings of Christ. In addition to telling Heath and Baptiste’s story in a compelling manner, “Redemption” is often staggeringly beautiful. Russell takes full advantage of the magnificent vistas available to him from the barren shore and sunbaked hills and rangeland of Antelope Island State Park. Apart from the introduction of bighorn sheep and a thriving herd of buffalo very little has changed since Baptiste was put there. Wonderful performances are provided, as well, by Hollywood veterans Barry Corbin, Edward Herrmann, Rance Howard, Jon Gries and Robyn Adamson. The DVD adds interviews and a making-of featurette that partially explains how such a handsome Western could be made on a budget of only $200,000. Western buffs should find a lot to admire in “Redemption,” while teachers looking for a movie to stir lively debate about personal ethics could hardly find a better starting point. – Gary Dretzka

Going for Gold
This appropriately sappy movie debuted last week in England, just before the 2012 Summer Olympics got underway and another generation of athletes began their quest for honor and glory. It’s likely that many old-timers in the viewing audience remember the events described in the heart-warming BBC-TV drama as if they occurred yesterday, instead of 54 years ago. If the enthusiastic crowds that gather each day on the lake at Eton Dorney are any indication, however, young fans are well-versed in the history of British rowing, as well. In 1948, the UK was struggling to recover physically, emotionally and economically from the devastating effects of World War II and the citizenry really needed something to cheer. As is made clear in David Blair and William Ivory’s “Going for Gold” (a.k.a., “Bert & Dickie”), there was no guarantee the country could pull off such an event, let alone walk away with gold metals. The money simply wasn’t there to build training facilities and event venues, and there was no guarantee anyone from the world at large would show up to buy tickets, dine in restaurants and fill hotel rooms. Even if they did come, what would they eat? British athletes were expected to remain fit, even though food rationing limited them – and most everyone else – to a 2,500-calories-per-day diet. (A special waiver would allow them to add another 1,100 calories, just like the country’s miners.) Indeed, more money was spent on the fireworks display at the 2012 Opening Ceremony than the entirety of the 1948 Olympics. “Going for Gold” is set against this background of sacrifice, austerity and a class system that German rockets and bombers couldn’t shake.  (Richard “Dickie” Burnell’s partner in the double-scull, Bertram “Bertie” Bushnell, even was temporarily refused access to the “posh” private club at which the finals were held.)

The decision to team the 6-foot-4 Burnell and 5-foot-10 Bushnell, whose glasses made him look like Harold Lloyd, was made only a month before they would be expected to compete against the world’s best rowers. To a small but noticeable degree, Bushnell was resentful of Burnell’s privileged background and suspected they were partnered to enhance his chance of winning a medal, as his father had in 1908. For his part, Burnell was reluctant to listen to the technical advice proffered by his partner, believing it couldn’t be any more sound than that of the man hired to build the scull. In fact, Bushnell’s father had passed along his extensive knowledge of boat building to his son and had been forced to give up rowing at the amateur level to support his family. Their relationship would strengthen after the modifications were made and their times kept improving. Every so often, the filmmakers leave the Thames behind, so we can watch British politicians and Olympics organizers fret about the possibility that the Games might give the government a black eye by falling short of their already low expectations. They needn’t have bothered, as the world was anxious to put the war behind them and celebrate victories that didn’t require bloodshed. Other, more melodramatic touches were added to “Going for Gold,” probably to lighten the mood, but none compromises the excitement of the races or prevents us from admiring the technical achievements. Although the blurbs on the cover of the DVD would have us believe that “Going for Gold” is a virtual sequel to “Chariots of Fire,” Blair and Ivory allow their story to stand on the remarkable accomplishments of their characters. Both films deliver the goods, but, simply put, they’re not cut from the same swath of fabric. This, however, shouldn’t keep admirers of sports movies from seeking out “Going for Gold.” It sure beats watching skeet shooting and synchronized diving. – Gary Dretzka

Le Havre: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If the 55-year-old Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki had only made the exceedingly offbeat “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” and “Total Balalaika Show,” he would still deserve the admiration of film buffs around the world. Blessedly, though, he’s decided not to rest on his laurels or join the migration to Hollywood to make movies about comic-book superheroes. It would be nice if American audiences returned the favor by supporting their local arthouse when his new movies find their way here and sampling earlier successes, such as “The Match Factory Girl,” “The Man Without a Past,” “Lights in the Dusk” and most recently, “Le Havre,” on DVD and Blu-ray. Just because he may be more recognizable in Cannes than in Helsinki doesn’t mean mainstream audiences in the United States can’t see in his movies what the judges and critics do. In his case, anyway, adjectives like “enigmatic,” “wry” and “quirky” aren’t necessarily synonymous with “dark,” “challenging” and “impenetrable.” No matter where one lives, there are few hot-button subjects more relatable across-the-board than illegal immigration. In “Le Havre,” Kaurismaki puts us in the center of the debate, without making us take sides or bemoan our inability to find a solution. He assumes we understand how illegal immigration and the smuggling of refugees from poverty can facilitate terrorism, drug trafficking, white slavery, organized crime and the promulgation of bigotry and can put our political beliefs aside long enough to be entertained. Here, he defangs the issue by telling a story about a young African refugee who simply wants to join his mother in London, but finds himself stuck in the French port city of Le Havre. Unlike the adults with whom he shared the misdirected container, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) is able to dodge police and find refuge in the home of shoe-shiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a friendly fellow who appreciates the boy’s pressing need to go to England. Understandably, local immigration authorities have adopted a rigid stance on the subject of illegal immigration and one cop, in particular, immediately suspects that Marcel either is harboring the refugee or knows where he is. While both men are doing what they think is right, only one is willing to bend the rules to make the game more fun. What the cop doesn’t know is that the Marcel’s neighbors and friends are more likely to accept their friend’s word on the boy’s character than a lawman’s arguments about the boy’s potential harm to society.

The boy’s arrival coincides with Marcel’s wife, Arletti (Kati Outinen) being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and her being admitted to a hospital for longterm care. Marcel needs someone to take care of his dog and keep people’s shoes shined while he spends time with her at the hospital, and having nothing better to do, Idrissa is happy to help him out. Between the cop’s persistence and pessimism of his wife doctors, Marcel needs a diversion, so he takes it upon himself to solve Idrissa’s problem. To give you an idea of how Kaurismaki’s mind works, he has the women who visit Arletti in the hospital read to her from a book by Franz Kafka. He also conceives of a concert, arranged by Marcel to raise money to pay a smuggler to get Idrissa to England, featuring an actual French rockabilly legend, Little Bob. The white-haired singer, who’s probably in his 70s, looks like a cotton swab in red leather. Like Wanda Jackson and Jerry Lee Lewis, he can still kick it. The ending may be purposefully fanciful – its alternate title is “Miracle in Le Havre,” after all — but it could hardly be more satisfying. The handsome Criterion Collection Blu-ray includes interview sessions from the Cannes Film Festival, where “Le Havre” won the FIPRESCI Prize and was nominated for a Palme d’Or. (The writer/director is a bit cantankerous in both.) Little Bob is given a spotlight on two songs and there are extended discussions with Kaurismaki regulars Outinen and Wilms. – Gary Dretzka

Waves of Lust
Except for about 15 minutes of expository material, the 1975 erotic thriller “Waves of Lust” takes place on or directly below a yacht, where two pairs of attractive swingers seem destined to bang each other’s brains out will cruising the seas off Sicily. Based solely from that description, fans of Italian giallo — of which erotic thrillers are an offshoot — already know that what happens next will have nothing to do with romance. Clothes will be shed before the yacht reaches open seas; one of the characters, at least, will emerge as a cruel puppet master; and at least one table will be turned before the movie ends. Ruggero Deodato, whose credits include “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man,” does a nice job building suspense in a waterlogged plot most viewers have seen several times. When wealthy industrialist Giorgio (John Steiner, a dead-ringer for John Holmes) isn’t taunting and terrorizing his masochistic lover, Silvia (Elizabeth Turner), he’s drooling over the prospect of trading up to a liaison with Barbara (Silvia Dionisio). In return, he tempts Barbara’s lover, Irem (Al Cliver), with the implied promise of a night of bliss with Silvia. The women don’t seem to mind the arrangement, even though they seem to prefer each other’s company. A control freak and alcoholic, Giorgio makes it clear to his guests that he’ll be making all the sleeping arrangements on his schedule and they have no say in the matter. If not as claustrophobic as “Dead Calm,” “Open Water” and “Donkey Punch,” the sexual charge is palpable.

What Giorgio doesn’t know is that the Barbara and Irem aren’t the docile hippies he thinks they are and Silvia has taken all the abuse from him she can. The first sign that things might not be going as planned for the cocky millionaire is when his scuba tanks begin malfunctioning in mid-dive. He’s so full of himself that he can’t imagine anyone outsmarting him. The more he drinks, however, the stupider he gets. Dominating the story, though, are the sex scenes, especially those involving Silvia and Barbara and sumptuous meals. The ending leaves one big question unanswered, at least, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. A lengthy interview with Deodato and writer Lamberto Bava is included in the bonus features. In it, the director says that he agreed to the project only after learning that his bombshell wife, Dionisio, had accepted the role of Barbara and would be spending much of the production naked. Even then, he admits, it wasn’t easy being behind the camera while the missus was swapping spit with her co-stars. Like most other RaroVideo releases, “Waves of Lust” looks about as good as it’s ever going to, again. It also comes with commentary, biographies and filmographies. – Gary Dretzka

Hijacked: Blu-ray
The Liquidator
Former UFC champ Randy Couture has a head that looks as if it were sculpted from granite, a chin that could repel a RPG strike and a body that would challenge any costume designer’s ability to keep from splitting at the seams during fight scenes. If he isn’t likely to compete for a Best Actor trophy, his fans don’t demand much more from him than kick-ass action and threatening poses. In “Hijacked,” however, someone had the bright idea to add a love interest that distracts him from the tasks at hand and demands we pay attention, too. This would be fine if we were talking about a woman like Lucy Lawless or Gina Carano, but Tiffany Dupont is about as credible as Couture’s ex-fiance, Olivia, as Sophia Loren would be, albeit for different reasons. Having her on board a hijacked plane, while his security-specialist character, Paul Ross, is attempting to overpower a group of terrorists, makes Couture vulnerable and that isn’t what we pay to see.

Even so, the biggest problem with director Brandon Nutt and co-writers Declan O’Brien and Scoop Wasserstein’s script is that it looks as if it were pieced together from other straight-to-video movies starring former fighters and body builders, and such star vehicles as “Air Force One” and “Executive Decision.” This means, as well, that the same clichés and mistakes are repeated. Bullets don’t fly far enough to tear through the skin of the fuselage and, no matter how many pilots are knocked unconscious, the plane is able to maintain an even keel. Another curious decision involves veteran tough guy Vinnie Jones, who seems to have been given a substantial role in “Hijacked,” but is killed in a dumb shootout between security forces in the first 15 minutes of the movie. Likewise, Couture and Olivia become annoyed with each other’s presence on board the private 747 — owned by the billionaire target of the attack – even though they’ve been invited separately, coincidentally and for business purposes. (It is strange, however, that it only took Olivia 12 hours to go from jobless to a passenger on the plane of one of the world’s most powerful people, yet feels comfortable enough to bring a reporter friend along for the ride.) Neither is Couture’s required to break a sweat, even while dispatching foes who actually are capable of fighting back and defusing a bomb that is discovered way too early in the movie. This leaves plenty of time for a surprise ending that’s as preposterous as it is unsatisfying. By now, Couture should be able to demand more from the scripts he accepts. This one needed a complete re-write.

Jones’ fans will get even less satisfaction from “The Liquidator,” in which the former English Football League “hard man” plays an international assassin for about 10 minutes total time. Nonetheless, his glowering visage is prominent on the cover of the DVD. Otherwise, “The Liquidator” is interesting primarily for being shot exclusively in Kazakhstan, with a largely Kazak cast and crew. It was produced with local money and is in Russian. The revenge thriller involves the killing of an investigative reporter and the efforts of his brother, a former special-forces soldier, to eliminate those responsible. Powerful interests want to bury evidence of their corrupt behavior, so they hire an international hitman, Silent Killer (Jones), to neutralize their new enemy. Being silent allowed Jones to avoid learning his lines in Russian, a benefit that doesn’t extend to non-Kazak fans of the movie, who won’t be able to understand a word of the making-of featurette. For some reason, it isn’t subtitled. – Gary Dretzka

Fortress: Blu-ray
Cross the computer wizardry of the History Channel’s “Dogfights” with an old-fashioned war picture, in which male bonding is as important as destroying enemy positions, and you have “Fortress.” The story chronicles what happens to the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress both in the skies above Italy and at their base in northern Africa. What differentiates “Fortress” from every other World War II movie we’ve seen are the CGI effects, which allow for the introduction of wave after wave of vintage planes and midair combat that looks and feels hyper-realistic. Although there’s plenty of room left for buffs to seek and find mistakes in the construction, operation and handling of the B-17s, there’s no denying that the re-creation of the bombers from inside-out is pretty darned impressive. If anything, the claustrophobic conditions experienced by actual B-17 crew members in combat are understated. If small allowances weren’t made for camera positions, the filmmakers would have been limited to using pinhole and hand-held devices. The hard work pays off. Too bad, the story itself is so generic.

Except to extend the aura of verisimilitude, I wonder why director Mike Phillips and writer Adam Klein gave themselves the freedom to go out with an R-rating. Sure, airmen cuss like sailors, but why lob f-bombs when it’s the ones that explode on Italian soil that count most in the narrative. I’m pretty sure that “Fortress” could have escaped with a PG-13, even allowing for some rough language and the stomach-churning wounds inflicted on airmen. It would have broadened the potential audience, certainly, and not harmed the picture. Fans of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” might find it amusing that the flight crews depicted in “Fortress” actually believe that Pentagon brass would send them home once they fly 25 successful missions. In reality, the promise was about as realistic as every other one made by officers, from time immemorial, to appease the troops. The extremely high attrition rate among B-17 crews made it highly unlikely most of these guys would make it home in one piece, no matter how many missions they completed. And, of course, while American factory workers could churn out planes at will, it wasn’t so easy to replace the crews and pilots. The DVD also offers some interesting demonstrations of the technology used to make the film. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Season
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIV
If Jimmy Buffet had executive-produced a horror movie, it might look a lot like “Dead Season” and be subtitled “Zombies in Paradise.” Director Adam Deyoe certainly would have benefited from the loose change Buffet carries around in his pocket for cheeseburger emergencies, but it probably wouldn’t have saved “Dead Season” from straight-to-DVD purgatory. If there isn’t anything particularly fresh or unusual here, however, at least the scenery in this zombie-apocalypse flick is different. A worldwide viral outbreak has devastated the population of the world and opened the floodgates for an infestation of undead “walkers” – “shufflers” would be more accurate — all of whom look as if they were recruited from Central Casting. A paramedic named Elvis (Scott Peat) and a computer-savvy emo girl, Tweeter (Marissa Merrill), manage to escape Florida by boat, destination unknown. They land on an island that looks as if it might have been home to a Club Med in happier times, but are quickly rounded up by a band of heavy armed survivalists. The leader sees the benefit of keeping Elvis around their makeshift fortress for his paramedic skills – Tweeter’s allowed to babysit and protect the guy’s teenage daughter — so they aren’t immediately thrown off the island or fed to the walkers. Although an island would appear to be the perfect refuge for survivors, a ship full of undead tourists capsized offshore and several were able to reach shore. (Even though technically they’re dead, zombies seem to reproduce like rabbits.) They threaten the compound by popping up whenever they sense an opportunity for mayhem, forcing the leader to assert himself a bit too aggressively for Elvis and Twitter’s comfort. “Dead Season” is as gory as modern makeup techniques allow and frequently quite entertaining, as these things go. The DVD adds commentary, a making-of featurette, interviews and outtakes.

No strangers to the undead, the crew of the Satellite of Love introduces us to fiends from Russia, Mexico and Japan in the new “Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIV” compilation. The selections include “Fugitive Alien,” “Star Force: Fugitive Alien II,” “The Sword and the Dragon” and the long-awaited “Samson vs. the Vampire Women,” the final Comedy Central episode with Frank Conniff as TV’s Frank. (He ascends into Second Banana Heaven during intermission.) The movie, itself, could pass for a traditional low-budget vampire movie, if it weren’t for the presence of the masked luchador hero, Samson (a.k.a., Santo el Enmascarado de Plata), who’s called upon to save the ravishing daughter of a nutty professor from being kidnapped and forced to marry an ancient fanged deity. As one of the wise-guy robots notes, the fights between Samson and the vampires resemble a Keystone Kops fire drill. “The Sword and the Dragon” (“Ilya Muromets”) is a Soviet-era historical fantasy – in Sovscope, no less — which was re-purposed by Roger Corman for distribution here.

And, speaking of repurposing, the semi-infamous Sandy Franks is represented here with the 1978 Japanese TV series, “Fugitive Alien,” which he bought, combined to make two movies, dubbed and, nine years later, released in the U.S. One segment was worse than the other and neither was any good, anyway. The story is nearly incomprehensible in any language, although it appears to have been inspired (a.k.a., ripped off) by “Star Wars.” Naturally, “Fugitive Alien” and “Star Force: Fugitive Alien II” were immortalized on “MST3K.” The crew’s shabby treatment of such a classic resulted in a feud between Frank and the robots. As usual, the bonus material is worth the price of admission here. It includes an introduction by August Ragone, “You Asked for It: Sandy Franks Speaks,” MST “hour wraps,” Conniff’s “Life After MST3K,” shorts, “Lucha Gringo: K. Gordon Murray Meets Santo” and lobby cards. – Gary Dretzka

Last Days Here
By all rights, rockers Keith Richards and Bobby Liebling should be dead by now, victims of a rock lifestyle that’s brought less hardy musicians to their knees. The primary difference between Richards and Liebling – besides tens of millions of dollars stashed away in a vault somewhere — is that one already is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, and the other probably would have to buy a ticket to get into it. This isn’t to say Liebling didn’t, at one time, have as much of a chance of being immortalized there as, say Ozzie Osbourne, just that he blew any chance of that happening long ago. When Liebling began making music in the 1970s, his band Pentagram was one of the pioneers of “doom metal,” which, itself, was a darker offshoot of the brand of heavy metal popularized such groups as Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep,  Deep Purple, Judas Priest, UFO and Sir Lord Baltimore. Anyone considering suicide or starting a heroin habit before attending a concert by a doom- or death-metal band might very well be dead or addicted by the time the encore began … or, anyway, that was the myth. Eventually, the genre would be stretched to include death metal, thrash metal, speed metal, goth, industrial and a half-dozen other head-banging offshoots, but Pentagram still is credited with legitimizing heavy metal as a commercial entity.

Liebling was as charismatic a singer as there was in the 1970s. He had a great voice, knew how to stalk the stage and introduced hand gestures that separated metal-heads from Deadheads. Sadly, though, he became his own worst enemy. The Virginia native was the kind of over-demanding band leader who sought perfection, but wouldn’t recognize what it sounded like if Bob Dylan bit him in the ass. His refusal to accept the word of producers, colleagues, critics and record executives cost him the loyalty of fellow band members and put him on the road to hell. By the time Don Argott and Demian Fenton (“Rock School,” “The Art of the Steal”) began shooting their documentary, “Last Days Here,” he looked like a corpse waiting to die. He lived in the basement of his parents’ home and occupied his time smoking crack, shooting heroin, listening to music and attempting to convince himself that he could resurrect his career, as loyal fan and future manager Sean Pelletier believed. Against all odds, Pelletier’s persistence eventually was rewarded when Liebling cleaned up, married and appeared on stage. This didn’t mean there wouldn’t be potholes along the path to complete recovery, but, at the very least, Liebling didn’t die in the course of shooting the movie. That uncertainty is what makes “Last Days Here” such a compelling entertainment. The DVD adds deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Isa: The People’s Diva
If the classically trained opera singer and much-celebrated interpreter of Yiddish songs, Isa Kremer, had lived long enough to be heard on modern radio stations, her career would be sliced, diced and processed to fit a very small niche on classical stations or the NPR segments reserved for ethnic music. Sadly, that’s the way things are today, and the gifted soprano wouldn’t be alone in fearing her legacy would disappear with the death of her last elderly fans. Blessedly, first-time documentarians Nina Feinberg and Ted Schillinger thought enough about Kremer to capture her music and tell her story on film, in “Isa: The People’s Diva.” Isabelle Yakovlevna Kremer was born in 1887 in the Bessarabian town of Belz, which then was part of the Czarist Empire. Her commitment to music, poetry and revolutionary ideals opened many doors that normally would have been closed to Russian-Jewish girls from the sticks. Her future husband, the much older newspaper editor Israel Heifitz, subsidized her musical training in Italy, where she would make her debut in 1911 and begin touring foreign capitals. Upon her triumphant return to Russia, she would join a circle of Jewish intellectuals, one of whom convinced her of the continued historical relevance of Yiddish folk songs. At the time, many influential Jews, not just in Russia, were running away from their humble beginnings and Yiddish simply wasn’t cool. Kremer, though, took her music directly to people who weren’t interested in hiding their roots and it made her an international star.

Kremer had the great misfortune to live at a time when Jews, especially those of the leftist persuasion, were forced to stay one step ahead of the fascist wave breaking over Europe and South America. She also was forced to confront the broken promises, bigotry and anti-intellectualism of the communist revolution in what would become the USSR. This pattern would continue for most of the rest of her life. Moreover, in addition to institutionalized anti-Semitism, she met resistance from Jews who feared reprisals from Nazi henchmen for listening to the forbidden music and embracing their backgrounds through music. This was as true in pre-war Berlin, where she broke the law by singing in Yiddish, as it was in post-war Israel, where she was encouraged not to sing the songs that weren’t in Hebrew. Upon her return to her final home, Argentina, she and her psychiatrist husband were blacklisted by the Peronist government. (Her fan and protector, Eva Peron had died, opening the door for right-wingers to bully Jews, populists and leftists.) “Isa: The People’s Diva” was made in 2000, for the niche Jewish Channel. It has been refurbished by the folks at Facets Video, who also added an interview with Schillinger and performances of Yiddish songs made popular by a Chicago klezmer band. – Gary Dretzka

ATM: Blu-ray
There’s a certain fear that comes naturally whenever you’re required to take money from an ATM machine, at night, and the only other person in sight is the guy standing six feet behind you. That’s pretty much the premise of “ATM.” Here, though, three young adults become afraid to leave an enclosed, brightly lit kiosk, in the middle of a deserted mall parking lot, after seeing a guy in cold-weather gear pummel a security guard and man walking his dog. Unlike them, the fiend is dressed appropriately for the weather, which is hovering around 0-degrees Fahrenheit. Even though they’re dressed for a baseball game in May, they’ve parked their car 100 feet from the ATM. For most the movie’s 90 minutes, the only thing standing between the guy in the parka and the people in the kiosk is a door that requires an ATM card to open. Somehow, it discourages the guy from invading their space. Anyone willing to buy into such an unlikely scenario might see enough potential in “ATM” to justify a rental. I would suggest, however, the “Seinfeld” episode, “The Secret Code,” in which George reluctantly gives his ATM card and password to a man whose arm in caught in the machine and could be caught in a fire. “ATM” stars Brian Geragthy, Alice Eve and Josh Peck, who all try mightily to look frightened but can’t really pull it off. It was directed by first-timer David Brooks and written by Chris Sparling, whose previous exercise in claustrophobia was “Buried,” with Ryan Reynolds. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette that’s more interesting than the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Misfits: Season One
Lifetime: Surviving High School
Lifetime: Jodi Picoult Collection
Marvel Anime: Blade/Wolverine: Animated Series
Transformers Prime: One Shall Stand
About halfway through the first episode of “Misfits,” I couldn’t help but wonder when MTV or some other youth-oriented cable network would remake the spunky British import and dilute it to the point where it’s unrecognizable. The same thing happened with MTV’s adaptation of “Skins,” the excellent British series that dared to portray teens and young adults as sexual beings. The howls of censorial watchdog groups are probably still ringing in the ears of programming executives. That disaster notwithstanding, MTV is planning to air an American version of “The InBetweeners,” as well. How it will deal with the show’s coarse language, sexual effrontery and “wanker” jabs is anyone’s guess. That hilarious Brit comedy features a group of typically horny freshmen boys, caught between the cool crowd and total dweebs. “Misfits” puts a different spin on kids from essentially the same age group. The teenagers here are working-class droogs who’ve gotten in trouble with the law for various reasons and are working off their punishment doing menial public-service assignments. After a freak storm passes over London, the kids discover they have acquired superpowers that correspond with their deepest insecurities. They may not be the only ones impacted by the electrical storm, but they’re ones in whose laps the fate of the city rests. Its entertaining blend of sci-fi, rude comedy and angsty drama went over well in England and could succeed here if the kids weren’t required to clean up their acts too much.

From Lifetime Television comes a starter kit of original movies designed to prepare teenage girls – their moms, too — for some of unseemly things they might encounter during their high school years. From 2005, “Odd Girl Out” examines the issue of female aggression and bullying, as seen through the eyes of a popular and well-adjusted middle-schooler (Alexa Vega), who gets a rude awakening in high school. In “Augusta, Gone” (2006), Sharon Lawrence plays a woman struggling with divorce, financial problems and a 15-year-old daughter who’s suddenly turned into a self-destructive monster. “The Perfect Teacher” (2010) stars Megan Park as 17-year-old who falls in love with a handsome math professor (David Charvet) and is willing to go to extremes to make sure he pays attention to her. Based on actual events, “For One Night” (2006) tells the story of a Southern teenager (Raven-Symone) who hopes to reverse decades of officially sanctioned racial prejudice by combining the traditionally segregated proms at her high school.

Another new compilation from Lifetime combines adaptations of best-sellers written by Jodi Picoult. In “Salem Falls” (2011), James Van Der Beek plays a teacher/coach who tries to outrun his past by taking a job at an all-girl’s prep school. Naturally, it catches up to him when a student (AJ Michalka) develops a crush on him and it causes a witch hunt. Salem … witch hunt … get it? First shown in 2004, “Plain Truth” stars Mariska Hargitay as a high-profile criminal attorney who goes slumming in Amish country, where a teenager (Alison Pill) is on trial for murdering her newborn baby. Megan Mullally is center stage in “The Pact” (2002), which describes what happens when one young participant in a “suicide pact” survives and the parents must come to grips with the root causes of the arrangement.

“Marvel Anime: Blade: Complete Series” and “Marvel: Wolverine: Animated Series” represent the second release of titles made primarily for consumption by Japanese fans of the Marvel characters. They were shown there on Animax outlets and, here, on G-4. “Blade,” which began as a comic and evolved into an action-movie franchise, takes the anime route, with half-man, half-vampire Eric Brooks/Blade voiced by Harold Perrineau. In “Wolverine,” Logan (Milo Ventimiglia) continues his quest to rescue his kidnapped lover, Mariko (Gwendoline Yeo), from Japanese crime lords. Transformers Prime: One Shall Stand” collects seven episodes from the “One Shall Fall,” “One Shall Rise” and “Orion Pax” story arcs. They have been re-edited as a stand-alone movie. Fans should know that about half of the material has been released in the Season One compilation, with Season Two soon to follow. – Gary Dretzka

Beautiful Planet: England & the Low Countries: Blu-ray
Beautiful Planet: Germany & Austria: Blu-ray
Anyone who would love to see more of England than is visible in NBC’s coverage of the Olympics should enjoy “Beautiful Planet: England & the Low Countries,” which takes us on a hi-def tour of some of the country’s most beautiful and historic palaces and gardens. With all the emphasis on London and other industrial cities, where the soccer matches are taking place, it’s easy to forget how lovely a country England still is. The Brits are obsessed with gardening and it shows here. The “Low Countries” half of the Blu-ray presentation focuses on the windmills of Holland and medieval city of Bruges, in Belgium.

In “Beautiful Planet: Germany & Austria,” we visit the historic and architecturally significant cities of Bamberg, famous for its beer and seven hills, and 2,000-year-old Speyer. In Austria, we’re introduced to the spectacular city of Hallstatt, which sits on a magnificent lake and in the shadow of Alpine peaks. Another stop on the tour is the amazing Schonbrunn Palace, which served as a home away from home for Habsburg monarchs. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent. – Gary Dretzka

10,000 More Ways to Die: Spaghetti Western Collection
Ultimate Rin Tin Tin: 8 Classic Movies Collection
Ultimate Civil War Series: 150th Anniversary Edition
WWII: Waking the Sleeping Giant
Now that the hype machine is fully engaged in the promotion of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” it’s probably a good time to revisit the Spaghetti Western genre and get reacquainted with what made it so much fun. Many of the movies released in DVD collections such as “10,000 Ways to Die” and “10,000 More Ways to Die” never found distribution here, despite frequent appearances by familiar Hollywood stars. For example, I wasn’t aware of the existence of “The Deserter,” a superlative Western of the Apaches-vs.-the-Cavalry variety that was directed by Burt Kennedy (“The Rounders”) and starred, among other actors, Richard Crenna, John Huston, Chuck Connors, Ricardo Montalban, Woody Strode, Brandon de Wilde, Slim Pickens, Albert Salmi, Ian Bannen,  Patrick Wayne and the immortal Yugoslav leading man, Bekim Fehmiu. Although the Indian characters are cut a pretty raw deal in the script, the “Dirty Dozen” approach to their slaughter works exceedingly well. Cut-rate production values diminish the full impact of the story of a U.S. Army captain (Fehmiu) who goes rogue after his wife is brutally murdered by Apache warriors. The captain believes that the cavalry is partially to blame, because its troops were ill-equipped to fight a guerrilla war. He is offered amnesty in exchange for training a select squad of soldiers in the Apache way. The men don’t like it one bit, but General Miles (Huston) doesn’t give them any options. Under Kennedy’s grip, this is one Spaghetti Western that looks as if it was catered by American chefs. The Django name lives on in “Django, Kill … If You Live, Shoot!,” if only in the movie’s title. Here, the wonderful Cuban-American actor Tomas Milian plays the “Stranger.” It is a very strange Western, even by Italian standards, in which outlaws are punished with crucifixion; gay gunslingers dress in Cisco Kid drag; a surgeon strikes gold inside the body of seriously wounded man; and a vampire bat is used as an implement of torture. This “Django” is best enjoyed stoned. Other movies in the Mill Creek compilation include “Seven Devils on Horseback,” “7 Hours of Gunfire,” “Ride and Kill,” “The Shadow of Zorro,” “The Federal Man,” “Dead Men Don’t Make Shadows,” “Fistful of Lead,” “White Comanche” (with William Shatner and Joseph Cotten), “Dead for a Dollar” and “3 Bullets for Ringo” (with Mickey Hargitay and the ubiquitous Gordon Mitchell).

Last year, the story of “wonder dog” Rin Tin Tin’s journey from the killing fields of Europe in World War I to Hollywood stardom was recounted in the New Yorker magazine and a new biography. It was terrific stuff. The new Mill Creek compilation, “Ultimate Rin Tin Tin,” is a collection of mostly hour-long films, in which Rin Tin Tin Jr. and RTT III took over the reins from Dad. Look for a 14-year-old Robert Blake in “The Return of Rin Tin Tin” (1947). The first thing to know about “Ultimate Civil War Series: 150th Anniversary Edition” is that it’s not the one that was produced by Ken Burns and usually is repeated during PBS pledge months. The two-disc mini-series covers much of the same territory, however, using first-hand accounts — through diaries, letters and memoirs – special visual effects and dramatic re-creations. As the title implies, “WWII: Waking the Sleeping Giant” makes a pretty good case for the theory that Axis powers’ greatest mistakes was pissing off the American people enough to convince them to drop all the isolationist rhetoric and take revenge on the Japanese for the raid on Pearl Harbor. Hitler’s decision to disrupt Allied supply lines by destroying U.S. ships and killing our citizens backfired, as well. The 11-part documentary series uses first-hand accounts and archival materials to explain Japanese pre-war strategy and continues on to the decision to drop atomic bombs on non-combatants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also tackles attempts to bring Nazi War criminals to justice. – Gary Dretzka

Twinkle Toes: The Movie
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Fantastic Gymnastics Adventure
As far as I can tell, Grace “Twinkle Toes” Hastings is the first cartoon character inspired by a line of footwear for kids, Skechers’ Twinkle Toes. Boomers will recall, however, that, for most of the last century, Buster Brown shoes were synonymous with the Buster Brown comic strip and other media spinoffs, most notably the kiddie show, “Andy’s Gang.” (“Plug your magic twanger, Froggie.”)  In this all-new, feature-length movie, TT is forced to overcome her terrible stage fright and fulfill her destiny as an inspiration for aspiring dancers everywhere.

Just in time for the Olympics, Nickelodeon star Dora the Explorer is awarded a special Rainbow Ribbon, which she’ll wield in a series of gymnastics competitions. Naturally, prankster Swiper absconds with the ribbon, forcing Dora and Boots to call on viewers to help them recover it. Their adventure includes a walk over Crocodile Lake on a balance beam, a trampoline jump through the Flowery Garden and ring-swing to the sight of the Games. There’s even a horse show for Pinto the Pony. – Gary Dretzka

The Autism Enigma
According to this potentially groundbreaking documentary, shown on Canada’s “The Nature of Things,” autism is the fastest-rising developmental disorder in the industrialized world, registering a 600 percent rise over the last 20 years. The cause remains a mystery, but theories include the possibility that genetic vulnerability could be triggered by environmental factors. Moreover, the producers of “The Autism Enigma” argue, 70 percent of children with autism exhibit severe gastrointestinal symptoms. This has led an international group of scientists to take their search in an entirely direction. Parents are advised to reserve their excitement over the Bacterial Theory, but a flicker of hope is better than none at all. – 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