MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: MiB3, Lawless, Beijing Punk… More

Men in Black 3: Blu-ray

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith may be the credited stars of the “Men in Black” movies, but there’s no question what keeps audiences around the world coming back for more fun: Rick Baker’s aliens. Without these fantastical creatures, Barry Sonnenfeld would be just another has-been hack and Jones and Smith would long ago have found other meal tickets. In “Men in Black 3,” the aliens keep the narrative afloat as it inches its way to an unexpectedly sentimental conclusion. This time around, Jones’ presence is required only at the beginning and end of the movie. That’s because Etan Cohen’s story takes place largely in the past — 1969, to be exact – at a crucial juncture in Agent K’s life and career. Agent J is required to travel back in time to prevent his partner’s premature death, which is clumsily foretold in the opening scene. He’s not the only character getting a free ride on the space/time continuum, though. Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), a predatory Boglodite that K arrested on the day of the first manned lunar mission, has escaped from the LunarMax prison on the Moon and intends to reverse history by killing the agent and scuttling the flight. Although certain events in the first two “MiB” installments would seem to preclude such a thing from happening, it nonetheless provides J with an opportunity to meet the young Agent K (Josh Brolin). First, of course, J must convince K-the-Younger that time travel is possible and the next alien he attempts to arrest could be his last. To this end, the agents are introduced to a less malevolent alien, Griffin, who exists in five dimensions and has the entirety of the ArcNet at his disposal.

The relocation to 1969 New York and Florida allows for the introduction of several historical touchstones, including Andy Warhol’s Factory, a then-new Shea Stadium, Coney Island and Cape Kennedy, as it was known then. The best fight scene takes place early on, in contemporary Chinatown, where J and K stumble into a nest of very strange creatures and an authentic blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus), which looks as freaky as any alien. I haven’t seen the 3D version of “MiB3,” but can attest to the fine audio-visual quality of the 2D Blu-ray. All editions arrive with a making-of featurette, gag reel and music video by Pitbull. The Blu-ray adds a spot-the-alien game; “The Evolution of Cool: ‘MiB’ 1960s vs. Today”; “Keeping It Surreal: The Visual FX of ‘MiB3’; scene investigations; progression reels; and UltraViolet. – Gary Dretzka

Lawless: Blu-ray
Seven years ago, director John Hillcoat collaborated with writer-composer Nick Cave and actor Guy Pearce on the excellent Outback Western, “The Proposition.” They combined their talents again on “Lawless,” a slick hillbilly gangster flick set during America’s Prohibition experiment. Like “The Proposition,” “Lawless” is a smart and exciting genre that isn’t afraid to ratchet up the violence when things get too contemplative and self-consciously hip. Even more so than Hillcoat’s revisionist Western, though, his moonshine drama probably would be a better fit at a drive-in theater than an arthouse. It is, in fact, a direct descendent of the 1958 Robert Mitchum cult classic, “Thunder Road,” which was to Southern drive-in denizens what “Rocky Horror Picture Show” has been to midnight-movie freaks since 1976. Handsomely shot in the hills of rural Georgia, “Lawless” is based on events chronicled in “The Wettest County in the World,” a book written by the grandson of moonshiner Jack Bondurant (played here by Shia LaBeouf). Along with Jack’s two older, more rough-hewn brothers, Forrest and Howard (Tom Hardy, Jason Clark), the Bondurants made a very decent living transporting moonshine through the hills and hollers of Virginia’s Blue Ridge country. They got around the law by contributing the occasional case of prime booze to the local police benevolent fund.

Things tended to balance out, until outsiders discovered the operation and demanded the local yokels split the take with them, too. Here, the ultimatum is delivered by a cruel and corrupt dandy, special agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce), who wears more grease in his hair than most cars have on their ball joints. A true sadist, Charlie provides the muscle for his boss in the state’s attorney office. Having to split the take with another greedy party not only would run counter to the Bondurant’s code of honor, but it also could screw up a deal Jack has entered into with fugitive Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). For the brothers, maintaining their independence in the moonshine trade is a sacred Southern trust, even if it comes at a stiff price. Hillcoat leavens the hard-core violence, backstabbing and corruption by adding two romantic through-lines. One involves a moll-in-exile from Chicago (Jessica Chastain) and the other a Mennonite preacher’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska), who digs Jack’s fancy car and the bright-colored clothes he gives her. The filmmakers treat both of the characters with respect, only once giving in to the temptation to show off Chastain’s magnificent breasts. But, then, all of the actors perform their duties admirably, elevating the action scenes above what’s generally expected in genre fare. It also helps that special attention was paid to establishing a credible period feel. For the atmospheric soundtrack, Cave formed a country band of his own, while also enlisting the services of Willie Nelson, Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris. Before hearing it for myself, I wouldn’t have guessed that Stanley could turn the Velvet Underground’s electrifying “White Light/White Heat” into something resembling a bluegrass standard. As hipster conceits go, it succeeds pretty darn well. Featurettes included in the bonus package provide lots of interesting background on the actual activities of the Bondurants and what’s become of the family. – Gary Dretzka

Slaughter Tales
The Day: Blu-ray
The Apparition: Blu-ray
6 Degrees of Hell
Considering that “Slaughter Tales” is the creation of a 14-year-old first-time filmmaker, I wavered between reviewing it and sending him a report card. If I were the faculty adviser of his middle school’s A-V club, I would be inclined to give Johnnie Dickie an “A,” both for execution and chutzpah. How many teenagers, after all, would have the brass even to attempt a feature-length horror anthology as their debut production? Moreover, how many of his peers could pull it off on a budget of something north of $65? The only other person in the same category that I’m aware of is Austin native Emily Hagins, who, at 12, made the horror movie “Pathogen” and, seven years later, sent out the funny horror/comedy “My Sucky Teen Romance.” I’m sure that Hagins had a healthier budget than Dickie with which to play. As a critic, however, all I’m willing to say about “Slaughter Tales” is that I’ve seen a lot worse horror flicks from far more accomplished directors. Visually, it’s possible to see every penny of that $65 on the screen, which admittedly is something of a left-handed compliment. Even so, I think teenage viewers would get a bigger kick out of the movie than adults, many of whom would be distracted by the off-color language and over-the-top violence. Anyone wondering if Johnnie’s parents knew what was going on in their kitchen when they were away and he was supposed to be doing homework might be interested to know that his mom makes a cameo, in which she’s killed.

As the story goes, a teenager shoplifts a cheesy VHS cassette and, even before he can insert it into his machine, is cautioned about its contents by a ghostly apparition. Needless to say, the kid can’t resist the movie’s magnetic pull and potential for evil kicks. It inspires him to go on a killing spree, from which the five short films in this anthology derive. The tales, which reflect a geeky affection for 1980s-vintage horror and slasher pictures, benefit from Dickie’s complete disregard for mainstream taste and decorum. The props consisted of items found lying around the house, dollar stores or at garage sales, while lights seem to have been limited to flashlights. The special makeup effects were created from things found in a pantry. For a 14-year-old, Johnnie also seems to have assimilated 40 years’ worth of camera, lighting and acting techniques unique to the genre. For all I know, kids around the world are creating similar movie to “Slaughter Tales” using little more than a cellphone and Halloween makeup kits. If not, though, Dickie and Hagins have a big leg up on everyone else to come. (There’s a parody of “Slaughter Tales” called “Pizza Tales” already on YouTube.) And, yes, I’m pretty sure Steven Spielberg started exactly this way. It comes with behind-the-scenes featurettes and commentary.

The Day” is a movie made by adults and starring such established young actors as Shawn Ashmore, Ashley Bell, Michael Eklund, Dominic Monaghan and Shannyn Sossamon. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama in which five attractive survivors are required to stave off an assault by hungry cannibals (zombies with a pulse) while hiding in an abandoned house in the country. The cannibals see in the new arrivals a chance to sustain themselves for a few more days, even though no one seems to have considered foraging or gardening as an option. The healthy survivors are looking for food, as well, but are required to use their guns to kill the cannibals, instead of deer or rabbits. The way things are going, they have about 24 more hours to escape. The best thing about “The Day” is its washed-out look, which is consistent with the tone of the story. This will appeal mostly to the women-with-guns crowd.

The Apparition” is one of those haunted-house thrillers that beg the question early on as to the wisdom of anyone spending more than five minutes in a building populated with evil spirits. It doesn’t take very long before characters played by Ashley Greene and Sebastian Stan discover that they’re not alone in their new home, even if they can’t see what it is. First a neighbor’s dog dies while staring into the corner of their laundry room and, then, they find themselves unable to keep a door locked for more than five minutes. Turns out, the boyfriend neglected to mention to his sweetie pie that he had recently participated in a college parapsychology experiment, in which a spirit was conjured and released into the corporeal world. By the time this bit of news is revealed, their house is in danger of being engulfed in black mold and his girlfriend is extremely pissed. The scariest thing about the apparition is what’s going to happen to the house’s resale value after the mold turns up in an inspection report.

Although Corey Feldman gets top billing on the cover of “6 Degrees of Hell,” his paranormal-investigator role is limited to listening to a cop relate gruesome details in the murder of a teenage girl. My problem with Joe Raffa and Harrison Smith’s movie is that the many flashbacks ruin all sense of a narrative flow and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the dead from the dying. That said, however, the setting for this low-budget indie is damn near perfect. Much of it takes place in a very old building in rural Pennsylvania, where one of the characters stages annual haunted houses at Halloween. In the past, it served as a hotel, a hospital and mental institution, a fact that is known to the locals and adds to the fun. In real life, the same Lake House Hotel is believed to be haunted by the spirits of people who committed suicide there in the 1920-30s. It, too, is used at Halloween for haunted-house tours. The place is littered with leftover artifacts from previous incarnations. A woman is scared to death by an apparition early in the movie and this leads to the murder investigation that attracts Feldman. Her death is somehow related to an earlier killing, which yet another investigator hopes to share with his local-access TV audience. Ultimately, there are too many people doing the same thing and it’s likely that half of them, at least, are vampires or zombies. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and a behind-the-scenes piece with Feldman; a walk-through of the real Hotel of Horror with Raffa; and something shot at the world premiere. – Gary Dretzka

Beijing Punk
The more one learns about China – four decades after Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger stopped there for take-out — the more fascinating it becomes. It seems as if a documentary maker need only poke the lens of his camera into a shaded corner to find something new and, often, in direct contradiction to what we’ve assumed since Tiananmen Square. Should we be surprised that there’s a flourishing punk scene in a country that’s portrayed as being so rigidly controlled? Probably, no more so than what we discovered about the rock-music scene in Tehran in “No One Knows About Persian Cats.” What makes “Beijing Punk” so interesting is how the people we meet deal with everything from getting high on codeine to advocating personal freedom in their music, while avoiding overtly political lyrics. Shaun Jefford’s film was made coincidental to the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, which dominated all media and government activities. If there’s an overly familiar vibe running through “Beijing Punk,” it’s only because every emerging pop-cultural trend shares common scene. It’s likewise important to remember how isolated these musicians and their fans must feel in such a regimented environment, especially now that they have access to music and fashions from around the world. The music is pretty good, even by comparison to that produced in countries with a strong musical heritage. If the lyrics, often song in English, sound clichéd and dated, the sentiments behind them are universal and, in some ways, thrilling, — Gary Dretzka

Ike & Tina Turner: On the Road: 1971-72
Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements
Pato Banton: Live and Seen
Before the publication of her autobiography, “I Tina,” and the film adaptation, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Ike & Tina Turner were as inseparable in the minds of R&B fans as Sam & Dave and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. While there was no question over which of them audiences came to see during the 15-year existence of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Ike was a terrific musician and arranger in his own right and, without him, Anna Mae Bullock may never have struck gold as Tina Turner. By 1976, though, Ike’s drug habit and abusive behavior convinced his wife to take a powder from the Revue and attempt to put together a solo career. It would take another seven years before Tina found her way back to the top of the heap, but, when she did, no act in the world was a hotter ticket. To their credit, the distributors of Bob and Nadya Gruen’s bare-bones documentary “Ike & Tina Turner: On the Road: 1971-72” don’t pretend to have scratched the surface of the Turners’ tumultuous relationship. What makes it entertaining, though, is the coverage of the Revue at a time when it was cultivating crossover success. The off-stage moments reveal nothing of the domestic strife that finally would tear the band apart. Tina prepares food and minds the children, while Ike works on arrangements for group. Time also is allotted for limousine rides, airport waits and backstage preparations. Among the 19 songs performed are “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Shake a Tail Feather,” “Respect,” “Proud Mary,” “”I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Try a Little Tenderness.”

In the alchemy of rock-’n’-roll, there’s nothing more cherished than purity of purpose. Look at any year-end top-ten list by a respected critic and, more often than not, at least half of the selections will be completely unknown to the majority of readers. Listen to the albums and it’s just as likely that you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about, after all. The critical search for integrity and clarity, along with the need to explain it in words, often runs counter to what’s being expressed in the music. Why write, when you can dance? Why intellectualize, when you could be stage diving? “Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements” reminded me of this disconnect between head and gut when it comes to criticism. The Minneapolis punk band, a.k.a., Mats, disbanded in 1991, without a great deal of commercial success, but its legacy extends to this day. The rise and collapse of the Replacements are recalled in this 2011 documentary by Gorman Bechard. He found dozens of people, ranging from critics to hecklers, anxious to comment on the band and what it meant to them. Indeed, more than half of the quotes and anecdotes they provide would provide sufficient cause not to delve more deeply into the subject. Their favorite memories of the Replacements seem nightmarish by the usual industry standards, which demand semi-sobriety, at least, and a certain regard for themselves, their music and the audience.

What makes “Color Me Obsessed” stand out among the growing crowd of musical documentaries is the complete absence of music. Bechard has said that he fully intended his history of the band to be absorbed without the distraction of recordings or music videos. This decision doesn’t seem to have worked in his favor. (I recommend watching the doc alongside a computer with easy access to YouTube.) It could just as easily have been explained by a reluctance to pay licensing fees, however. Boiled to their essence, the recollections and war stories – attempting career suicide on “SNL,” for example — are what rock is all about, not the many complaints we hear about being underappreciated, unpublished and underpaid. Among the many witnesses here are members of Husker Du, Babes in Toyland, the Decemberists, Hold Steady, Archers of Loaf, Titus Andronicus and Goo Goo Dolls; celebrity admirers Tom Arnold, Dave Foley, George Wendt, David Carr; and critics Greg Kot, Jim Derogatis, Robert Christgau and Matt Pinfield. A second disc adds 19 deleted scenes, extended interviews, commentaries and trailers.

I pretty much lost track of the reggae scene when NFL players began wearing dreadlocks and it became impossible to distinguish one Marley offspring from another on the radio. The bio-doc and performance film, “Pato Banton: Live and Seen,” reminds me that the wonderfully infectious musical genre is alive, well and in very good hands. British singer and “toaster” Pato Banton (a.k.a., Patrick Murray) is profiled in the two-part ReggaeTV package, which aired on some PBS stations. It adds a nicely shot live performance, in San Diego, which includes such songs as “Legalize It,” “Gwarn,” “Now Generation,” “Light & Life” and “My Opinion.” The show reflects his outgoing personality, as well as his social, political and religious beliefs. – Gary Dretzka

Call the Midwife: Season One: Blu-ray
Hot in Cleveland: Season Three
If the ancient practice of midwifery isn’t as familiar in North America as it remains in other parts of the world, the lack of knowledge can be traced to a time in the early 20th Century when doctors and medical associations successfully lobbied for a virtual monopoly on obstetrical care. They convinced government officials and expectant parents that midwives were poorly trained practitioners of folk medicine and wouldn’t know what to do in case of an emergency. This argument, of course, was largely based on the physicians’ desires to keep fees and, later, insurance money flowing directly into their pockets. One of the successes of the women’s movement was to convince a growing number of women to trust their instincts, by assigning pre- and post-natal care, and deliveries, to trained and accredited midwives and nurses. The hit British TV series, “Call the Midwife,” describes the lives and cases of a group of young women attached to an order of nursing nuns at London’s Nonnatus House. They provide care to families in a working-class section of city in the early 1950s. Through them, we meet a wide variety of women, including a non-English-speaking woman on her 25th pregnancy, a 15-year-old pregnant prostitute and several with dangerous pre-conditions. As in any good soap, time is devoted to the personal lives of the midwives, as well. The imported series, based on the memoires of Jennifer Worth, is currently playing on PBS stations here and has already been renewed for a second season on the BBC.

TV Land made its bones as a cable network dedicated to once-popular sitcoms, dramas and variety shows. Now 16, it has expanded its coverage to include shows that don’t cater specifically to the Baby Boomer audience, adding more recent fare, movies and original programming. Not content merely to dine off the hand feeding it, TV Land now occasionally bites it, as well. Beginning with “Hot in Cleveland,” the network has launched a slate of original sitcoms. Now entering its fourth season, the show has courted and won a dependable audience of viewers who grew up on shows starring younger versions of Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. Far fewer would acknowledge remembering the first sitcoms in which Betty White appeared, but her appeal defies demographic boundaries. For the uninitiated, the younger women ended up in the Midwest after their plane from L.A. to Paris required service in Cleveland. I can’t remember how they ended up at the rooming house run by the still-frisky White, but they were so impressed by the reception they received from local manly-men that they decided to stay. In some parts of Cleveland, even White is treated like a spring chicken. In Season 3, the ladies were joined by such guest stars as Sean Hayes, Kathie Lee Gifford, Sandra Bernhard, Don Rickles, John Mahoney, Laura San Giacomo, Joan Rivers, David Spade, Cybill Shepherd and Regis Philbin. Returning guests include Jennifer Love Hewitt, Susan Lucci, Huey Lewis, Joe Jonas and Jon Lovitz. – 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