MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Nicholas Ray, Rolling Stones, Dust Bowl, Speechless… More

Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again/Don’t Expect Too Much: Blu-ray
Whenever the roll of movie mavericks is read up yonder, no one has to wait very long before Nicholas Ray’s name is called. Like Sam Fuller, he stuck out like a sore thumb in Hollywood, if only because he’d already lived a hugely eventful life before committing to film and understood the power of the medium to separate the truth from fantasy. In what some of his peers probably considered a fatal flaw, Ray had very little interest in compromising his artistic vision for the sake of commercial and personal gain. Even so, he made movies for mass consumption, not strictly for the arthouse crowd familiar with his past connections to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, folk-music archivist Alan Lomax, Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie, producer John Houseman, director Elia Kazan and other key players in the progressive New York theater scene in the 1930s. If he somehow managed to avoid being rounded up in Red Scare dragnet, his sentiments remained clearly on the side of outcasts, the downtrodden and rebellious youth. Ray’s influence on the French New Wave has been duly noted, as have the many bad habits and artistic ticks that contributed to his inability to find much work in the 1960-70s. If Ray had been a teenager in 1955, some other director might have modeled James Dean’s character in “Rebel Without a Cause” after him. Thanks to the miracle of DVD and Blu-ray, we’re now able to reassess what might have been his most personal and sadly illuminating film, “We Can’t Go Home Again,” alongside Susan Ray’s documentary, “Don’t Expect Too Much,” which chronicled the often tortuous process of getting the radically experimental student project made †naand seen. The restoration of the former title borders on the miraculous.

One of the points made in the area reserved for interviews in Oscilloscope’s two-disc package is that Ray never treated his students at Harper College in the early 1970s with the kind of condescension that so often comes with age and experience. Nor did he cynically dismiss their post-hippie customs, naivete and pretenses, or remind them that none of them would ever be as cool as he is. With his wild shocks of white hair, eye patch, ever-present cigarette and addictions to drugs and booze, he could have written the book on the joys and pitfalls of being terminally hip. If he remained a pariah in Hollywood, his notebook full of A-list phone numbers told a more interesting story. He joined the staff of the Upstate New York school after spending much of the previous decade in Europe, where he was worshipped as an icon of the cinema. He had recently become reinvigorated by the emerging counterculture, many of whose participants might have been weaned on “Rebel Without a Cause” and the significantly more nihilistic “The Wild One.” He was in Paris during the tumultuous 1968 uprising and protests surrounding the firing of Cinematheque  Français founder Henri Langlois, and then returned to the U.S. to document the trial of the Chicago 8. For him, “it was like putting James Dean on trial,” observed his daughter, “Nicca, in a Vogue interview. Instead of coming out of the experience with a movie, he suffered an aneurism in his eye. Dennis Hopper, with whom he was crashing in Taos, was able to arrange for the teaching position. Ray demanded of the students that they rotate jobs on the set and accept his theories on acting, which had germinated in the mid-1930s, during his tenure with the Theater of Action and Group Theater. To their frequent dismay, he expected the same kind of commitment from the students as he did from Hollywood actors and crews, who, at least, were rewarded for the long hours with money. Ray also asked them to reveal parts of themselves they didn’t know they had.

“We Can’t Go Home Again” is interesting mostly for Ray’s anticipation of the kind of elliptical, non-linear, split-screen storytelling that would become a hundred times easier to pull off in the digital age. In addition to the performances by students, the film contained images from political and countercultural events on and off campus – manipulated by Nam Jun Paik’s video synthesizer — and close ups of the actors working out their personal angst in soliloquies and spontaneous freak-outs. If its plot didn’t really go anywhere specific and the actors’ lives weren’t terribly interesting, “We Can’t Go Home” aptly demonstrates the students’ growth as filmmakers and individuals. At the same time, it’s easy to see how Ray’s rebellious personality and willingness to swap everything from stories to bong hits with the students might have contributed to the ill-fated product. The companion documentary, “Don’t Expect Too Much,” uses much rarely seen footage to describe the directors’ life with the students and futile attempts to find a buyer for the movie in New York and in Cannes. The best part, though, is the addition of recently conducted interviews with the now-graying students and anecdotes told by filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Victor Erice and Walter Murch. The Blu-ray package adds extended interviews and short films that demonstrate just how daring Ray could be. – Gary Dretzka

The Dead Inside
Watching Travis Betz’ ambitious musical comedy, “The Dead Inside,” I was reminded of how many things — story, music, characters, actors, timing — had to come together at exactly the right moment for “The Rocky Horror Show” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to become international pop sensations. Even after Richard O’Brien’s genre-straddling production became a hit in London, moving from a 73-seat venue to the 500-seat King’s Road Theater in six months, “Rocky Horror Show” was the furthest thing from a no-brainer. Lou Adler brought the musical to the Los Angeles’ Roxy nightclub, where it played to adoring crowds for 10 months, before shuffling off to the big leagues. Broadway audiences weren’t impressed and “Rocky Horror Show” closed after 45 performances. By this time, however, Fox already was committed to turning the stage musical to “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It laid a huge egg in standard engagements, everywhere except Los Angeles, and even flopped in college towns. It wasn’t until Fox agreed to give the movie a shot on the burgeoning midnight-movie circuit that it exploded at the box office. Still in a few venues after 37 years, it’s become the longest-running theatrical release in movie history. It’s returned nearly $140 million – not counting soundtrack-album and licensing revenues – on budget estimated to be $1.2 million.

“The Dead Inside” may not be the second coming of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but Betz deserves a “B” for effort, at least. People have been attempting to capture the same flash of lightning in a bottle ever since the first midnight showing on April 1, 1976. With the popularity of “The Walking Dead” and new zombie movies opening every weekend, you’d think audiences would be clamoring for a live undead experience. Made on the cheap, “The Dead Inside” has several positive things going for it: appealing actors, a decent score and book, and a malleable premise. The primary characters are Wes and Fi, a wedding photographer and author of zombie novellas who’ve become disenchanted with waiting for their ships to come into port. We don’t have to wait very long for the first zombies to make their appearance. In a funny twist, the husband and wife become frustrated by their inability to get past the locked bathroom door, either because the woman inside has outfoxed them or they’re in a hurry to use the facilities. (No, I haven’t seen a zombie take a dump, either.) Soon, however, it becomes clear to Fi that the creatures are manifestations of her tortured imagination. Wes is sympathetic with her bad case of writer’s block, but has his own problems. Compounding Fi’s dilemma is the growing likelihood that she’s become possessed with the spirit of a sexy ghost dying to come back to life. Original music by Michael Brake and Joel Van Vliet reflects the couple’s emotional roller-coaster ride and they’re nicely interpreted by Sarah Lassez and Dustin Fasching. I may be cutting “The Dead Inside” a bit too much slack here, but it isn’t often that something this original and eager to please comes my way. With a little time, effort and imagination, it could go on to something bigger. The DVD includes an extensive making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Bringing Up Bobby
Dutch-born actor-model Famke Janssen makes her debut as a writer-director in “Bringing Up Bobby, an unpretentious dramedy about a gorgeous short-con artist, Olive, and the 10-year-old boy who’s following in his mom’s crooked footsteps. If that description makes “Bringing Up Bobby” sound dangerously close to being a cross-gender version of “Paper Moon,” well, there are a lot worse movies to emulate. Standing in for Ryan and Tatum O’Neal here as itinerant grifters are Milla Jovovich (“Resident Evil”) and Spencer List (“Bereavement”). Like Jovovich, Olive left the Ukraine to pursue her dreams in America, where there’s a sucker born every few minutes. Instead, Olive became indentured to a scumbag crook, who retains an emotional hold on her, and the single mother of a son who’s devoted to her for all the wrong reasons. Bobby’s enthusiasm for the criminal life finally convinces Olive to put down stakes for a while in Oklahoma City. Bobby has already experienced more adventures than most of his classmates will ever have, so he has trouble adjusting to domesticity. Although he’s a straight-F student, he is a nice kid and far from ignorant. When Olive’s past catches up to her in Oklahoma, she leaves him in the care of a wealthy couple, Mary and Kent (Marcia Cross, Bill Pullman), who she had tried to scam after Bobby was involved in a minor accident.

By the time Olive gets out of jail, Mary’s managed to convince Bobby that the straight-and-narrow path isn’t so square, after all. Even so, mom’s return threatens to undo all the positive changes made to his attitude and behavior. Olive acknowledges the problem and allows Mary and Kent to remain as guardians. She tries hard to adjust to the straight life, but is limited to crappy minimum-wage jobs. Finally, Olive must decide if her love for her son is best served by taking him out of school and hitting the road again, or leaving him with Mary and Kent while she tries to get back on her feet. It’s a harrowing decision for a mother to make, but, in this case, mitigating circumstances allow Jannsen to craft an ending that’s both clever and credible. “Bringing Up Bobby” feels right at home on the small screen, where actors and models with an urge to work behind the camera can make a mistake and not be chastised for it. It’s as good as anything on the Lifetime Movie Network – no slight intended there, either way – and the audience would be exponentially larger than the ones attracted to its miniscule theatrical run and festival appearances. – Gary Dretzka

Zorro: Blu-ray
Contrary to what most baby boomers believed in the 1950s, Zorro was not a creation of Walt Disney and Guy Williams was just one of many actors to play the swashbuckling swordsman. The character was introduced 40 years earlier in Johnston McCulley’s story, “The Curse of Capistrano,” which was serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. It inspired Douglas Fairbanks to produce and star in “The Mark of Zorro,” which, in 1920, became the first feature distributed through United Artists. The hit Disney television series was the version most of us remembered, until, possibly, the 1998 Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins collaboration. Very few Americans have seen Duccio Tessari’s 1975 comedy-adventure, “Zorro,” starring Alain Delon. Considering the number of American-made adaptations, it’s not surprising that it didn’t find a home here. The only real change made to the Zorro legend by Tessari is relocating the setting to a Spanish colony in northern South America, possibly Venezuela. The effect is the same. Shot in Spain, “Zorro” has the look of a spaghetti western, right down to over-the-top action and a musical score that has one of the most ludicrous theme songs in the history of the cinema. (“Here’s to you and me/Here’s to being free/La la la laaa la la/Zorro’s back.”)

Delon’s is quite acceptable as Zorro and the swordplay is excellent, as well. His climatic fight with Colonel Huerta remains exciting throughout its 5-minute-plus length. Even as a novelty, “Zorro” is a lot of fun to watch. The DVD adds an original trailer, radio spots, Alain Delon and Dario Tessari biographies, a photo gallery and restoration clip comparisons. – Gary Dretzka

The Rolling Stones — Under Review: 1975-1983
As astonishing as it sounds, the Rolling Stones will begin celebrating their 50th anniversary next week with concerts in London and, two weeks later, in New York. The band has been together, in one form or another, longer than some countries have been in existence. The Stones are probably better off financially than half of the countries in the UN and their history is more interesting, to boot. Add to that the fact that they’ve basically had two leaders in all that time – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – and you’ve got a story that is equal parts fairy tale, survival epic and corporate report. Chrome Dreams and MVD Visual’s “The Rolling Stones – Under Review: 1975-1983” is the third in an ongoing series of critical documentaries of the band and one of nearly three dozen “Under Review” titles in the distributor’s catalogue. Although limited by lack of access to the musicians and copyrighted material, I can’t think of a better way for a music buff to understand the musicians behind the hits and their motivations. The second volume ended with the death of guitarist Brian Jones, the catastrophic Altamont concert and the release of “Let It Bleed.” The new documentary picks up in 1975, with the band in disarray and fans moving on to other, more relevant artists.

While acknowledging the great albums and hit songs released during the so-called Mick Taylor years, “Under Review” also describes how hard drugs and jet-setting were causing serious creative problems and personality clashes. It’s at the point where Taylor announces that he’d prefer to play his guitar elsewhere that the film begins to take shape. With Taylor gone and a recording studio booked in Germany, the Stones surreptitiously used the sessions as an audition for candidates to join the band. Ronnie Wood, who’d already recorded with Richards not only had the inside track, but also had dreamed of ending up with the Stones. He wasn’t ready to leave the Faces and lead singer Rod Stewart at the time of Jones’ death, but knew in 1975 that another chance might not come his way. In fact, he was a natural for the gig. His style already matched that of the Stones, he could have passed for Richards’ twin brother and he definitely knew how to party. The whole show might have closed in 1977, however, if Richards had been convicted of bringing heroin into Canada, as charged.

Given his addiction, the arrest surprised hardly anyone familiar with the band’s offstage life. Instead of being found guilty of importing the smack into the country, though, Richards was given a suspended sentence when it was determined he’d purchased it getting through customs. In the year between arrest and the dropped charges, lots of people had lost interest in the Stones, switching their allegiances to David Bowie or the growing punk movement. From here on in, the group would make most of its money in lavish international tours – reprising old songs — not the occasional hit single or album. The DVD is informed with the usual array of critical opinion, clips and recollections of people close to the band. – Gary Dretzka

Go Go Crazy
China is a country not known for its tolerance of gays and lesbians and flexibility on issues related to homosexuality. It’s this unforgiving attitude that makes “Speechless” such an intriguing production. Hong Kong-based writer/director Simon Chung (“End of Love,” “Innocent”) knew that Chinese authorities wouldn’t give him permission to shoot his picture there, let alone exhibit it in theaters, but he decided to do it anyway. By moving the production to the port city of Shantau, in Guangdong province of southeastern China, Chung was able to shoot in anonymity without a permit. He got permission from university and church officials to use their facilities, but neglected to mention its subject matter. As the movie opens, police arrest a young Western man who is found passed out and naked on a riverbank and, upon questioning, stays mute. Luke is taken to a hospital, where he remains unresponsive to the point where hospital officials decide it makes more financial sense to send him to a mental institution. The nurse’s aide who’s been assisting Luke knows what happens to people in such facilities and decides to risk everything by taking the patient to his uncle’s country home. It’s here that the cause of the man’s trauma reveals itself and Chung decides to describe it from different perspectives. In the flashback scenes, Luke is given his speech back.

We learn that Luke, a college student, had gotten between a fellow student and his girlfriend romantically and the two men’s relationship ended very badly. Chung based the story on an actual case of traumatic amnesia which involved an unidentified man who washed ashore in England. While in a mental institution, the man began playing the facility’s piano with uncanny talent, providing investigators a key to discovering his identity as a gay German musician who’d suffered a nervous breakdown. Chung said he transplanted the story to China “because I wanted to see what would happen to such a character there. The film goes both ways: it is about homosexuality in China from a Western perspective, and also about Chinese perception of Westerners.” “Speechless” is a very well made drama that should have made the jump from the gay-and-lesbian-festival circuit to art houses. It deserves a better afterlife on DVD.

From genre specialist Fred C. Caruso (“The Big Gay Musical”) comes the moderately entertaining send-up of TV talent shows, “Go Go Crazy.” The comedy’s biggest problems are its familiarity with other such spoofs and “Chorus Line” wannabes, and the inability of the characters to add anything new to the subgenre. The setting is a modest drag nightclub in Philadelphia, if I’m not mistaken, where five not-all-talented guys compete for go-go glory and a meager $1,000 prize. The judges’ panel is comprised of people who are only slightly more freakish than the ones on “American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Got Talent.” The best thing in the movie, by far, is real-life drag star Hedda Lettuce, who plays the show’s ribald mistress of ceremonies. If the DVD makes a dime from the production, Hedda Lettuce deserves at least two cents of it. It adds several additional songs, deleted scenes, auditions and a “Celine Di-Off.” – Gary Dretzka

PBS: The Dust Bowl: Blu-ray
Transformers Prime: Season Two: Blu-ray
Ancient Aliens: Season Four: Blu-ray
In the 1930s, it was very easy for deeply religious people to feel as if the plagues described in the Book of Exodus were being visited on Americans living in the southern Plains states and elsewhere. Not only had the Great Depression devastated the economy, but a decade-long ecological calamity had begun to lay a carpet of dust on land once ripe with wheat. Those disasters were compounded by severe drought, intense winds, a massive die-off of livestock and crops, thousands of cases of “dust pneumonia” and hordes of rabbits, locusts and greedy bankers. Unlike the events detailed in the bible, God gave the American pharaohs little choice in the matter. The Depression was caused by greed and a lack of foresight. The Dust Bowl’s blame could be laid at the feet of farmers who failed to listen to sound scientific advice and turned native grasslands into fields tilled by machines to accommodate short-rooted wheat. This would have been OK if the declining price of wheat made the effort worthwhile in the first place – it wasn’t – and if the skies had produced anything close to a normal amount of rainfall, which, sadly, didn’t happen either. When the wheat failed, nothing kept the distressed soil from being lifted by the winds and carried from New Mexico to all points east, including New York and Washington. Ken Burns’ latest documentary series for PBS, “The Dust Bowl,” exists both as a highly compelling recollection of one of the world’s greatest manmade disasters and a cautionary tale, told to discourage thirsty corporations from depleting our precious water supply. Burns’ methodology hasn’t changed much since making “The Civil War.” Interviews with survivors, historians and scholars complement the archival photographs, period music, newsreel footage and the no-nonsense narration of Peter Coyote. Like any Disney cartoon or Hallmark holiday special, “The Dust Bowl” should be considered essential family viewing. The Blu-ray adds six deleted segments and making-of featurettes.

If, like me, you have no idea where to find the Hub channel on your cable grid, the existence of “Transformers Prime” in any configuration might come as a surprise. The release on DVD (this week) and Blu-ray (next week) of a second-season compilation might come as even greater news. The CG-animated series is far more character-driven than Michael Bay’s story- and effects-driven features. Many longtime fans prefer the TV series to the movies, which play to the largest possible audience and aren’t as extricably linked to the toys and comic books. Season Two picks up after Unicron has been defeated and the misery continues for the Autobots. Optimus Prime has lost all memory of his previous life and reverts back to when he was the data clerk Orion Pax. When Megatron tricks “Orion” into joining the Decepticons, the Autobots turn to the Vector Sigma computer to restore the Matrix of Leadership as well as Optimus’ memories. New characters introduced include the Autobot Smokescreen, Decepticons Shockwave, Dreadwing and a swarm of Insecticons. The Blu-ray adds “Optimus Prime: Up Close and Personal,” during which Larry King interviews Optimus Prime voice actor Peter Cullen in front of a Comic-Con panel; and a discussion about Season Two with the creative team.

Peruse the comments of fans of History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” juggernaut and you’ll discover another great conspiracy theory. It’s based on the absence of Blu-ray editions of the second and third volumes of the four-season series. Why the first, fourth and a best-of collection, but not two and three? Could contemporary aliens have invaded the A&E Home Video warehouse and stolen the entire hi-def inventory? And if so, why were they trying to prevent viewers from discerning a secret code in the binary 0s and 1s? Probably, not. In Season Four, the weekly topics included the Mayan and other Doomsday conspiracies, Leonardo Da Vinci, Bigfoot, the pyramids, dinosaurs, Puma Punku, NASA and the Greys. There were times during the presidential race that I thought ancient aliens had kidnapped the candidates and replaced them with robots. – Gary Dretzka

Prep & Landing: Totally Tinsel Collection: Blu-ray
Unlike Christmas trees, holiday movies and TV specials are expected to enjoy a good, long life after December 25. Today, thanks to the evergreen complexion of digital recordings, even the scrawniest of the lot are hauled out in mid-November and crammed onto the shelves of video outlets everywhere. Baby Jesus gets one day each year, while Santa, Rudolph and the elves can count on at least a month on the charts. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair. Nonetheless, some evergreens are greener than others. The folks at Disney Animation struck gold in 2009 with the CG-animated “Prep & Landing,” which tweaked the legend of Santa and his elves by hipping up the relationship. What began as an idea for a theatrical short would go on to win four Emmys and three Annies for ABC. Moreover, it would set the stage for the sequel, “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice,” which arrived two years later and would win its own share of awards. They’re both delightful, no matter how often they’re shown and what time of the year. In addition to the release of the new Disney Blu-ray package, “Prep & Landing: Totally Tinsel Collection,” the original short will be sent out again on December 19 with “Monsters, Inc. 3D.” “Totally Tinsel” adds several entertaining bonus features, including the seven-minute “Operation: Secret Santa,” in which Wayne and Lanny are assigned a secret mission assigned by Mrs. Claus (voiced by Betty White); 10 animated North Pole commercials; a very short short, “Tiny’s Big Adventure,” in which the pint-sized elf tries to make coffee; “Behind the Jingle,” with voice actor and singer/songwriter Grace Potter; “Kringle Academy,” a series of training videos for aspiring elves in training; and newsreels from “North Pole News.” – 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