MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

DVD Gift Guide Redux: The Story of Film, Qatsi, Ice Age, The Point … More

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
If there is such a thing as a no-brainer gift this holiday season, it’s “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” I can say this here, without fear of being contradicted, because anyone already drawn to a website dedicated to movies would certainly relish spending all 916 minutes in the company of Mark Cousins as he chronicles the history of the international cinema. First shown on the British digital television channel More4, “The Story of Film” is divided into 15 chapters loosely arranged by periods, but also taking into account technical innovations, personalities, national cinemas, studios and influences. Decidedly non-linear, the series frequently shifts direction in mid-chapter, crossing borders of time, place and genre to advance a particular theory or keep a train of thought rolling. The effect can be dizzying, especially when Cousins jumps from an objective stance to one overtly subjective and not always backed up by the facts. In addition to expounding on all of the usual touchstones of the medium, the Irish director and film historian demonstrates convincingly how the American movie industry has never existed in a cultural vacuum, but as the sum of many disparate parts. Hollywood has always served as a crucible into which ideas and dreams are thrown, some turning into gold and others into dross. While there is no question that studio products continue to dominate the international box office, no matter how vibrant the local cinema may be, Cousins goes to great lengths to show how one culture influences another and great stories transcend all borders. Foreign filmmakers have come to Hollywood to escape tyranny, economic deprivation and to afford the luxury of seeing their dreams come true. In addition to suitcases, they’ve carried with them memories of every film they’ve watched and scenarios impossible for their American peers to conjure.

To this end, Cousins visits such far-flung sites as Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, Cinecitta Studios, the Beijing Film Academy and Shaw Brothers Studio, Bollywood and Calcutta, Teheran, Senegal and Buenos Aires, conducting interviews, gathering clips and finding the original locations of significant films. It’s a humbling experience to be reminded of how many wonderful titles we’ve yet to see. One might expect, then, that “The Story of Film” would push an anti-Hollywood agenda, favoring arthouse treasures over movies that are determinedly commercial. That isn’t the case, however. The changes in Hollywood economics and its technological imperatives are duly noted, but Cousins’ opinions aren’t of the one-size-fits-all variety. The series’ greatest limitations mostly involve the directors’ strangely bland narrative, which is capable of lulling of viewers into sleep one minute and jolting them with wild leaps of hyperbolic faith the next. Factual errors and barely founded exaggerations creep in occasionally, but not often. Indeed, some will inspire lively debate among home viewers. In addition to the many clips from the movies he’s discussing, the documentary is informed by interviews with such artists as Stanley Donen, Kyoko Kagawa, Gus van Sant, Lars Von Trier, Wim Wenders, Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Towne, Jane Campion and Claudia Cardinale. Cousins doesn’t demand that we accept his points of view or methodology. Rather, he seems to be inviting us to use them as starting points of our own. It’s an amazing document, as informative as it is entertaining. A perfect companion gift to “The Story of Film” would be a subscription to Netflix or Facets. – Gary Dretzka

The Qatsi Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Decasia: The State of Decay: Blu-ray

The release of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass’ truly amazing collaboration, “The Qatsi Trilogy,” would be an event worth celebrating even if its care and packaging weren’t entrusted to Criterion Collection. Knowing that it is, however, only makes the handsome box set that much more recommendable as a gift for your more culturally enlightened friends and relatives. The three thematically and musically linked films describe the evolution of man’s place on Earth from the period when nature wholly controlled our fate to its current devolution, brought on by technology, pollution, consumerism and greed. Yes, we’ve witnessed the negative effects of so-called progress in other documentaries, but rarely is the evidence presented in such an eloquent way. Absent all narration, we’re left to ourselves when it comes shaping opinions about what we’re being shown. Glass’ scores, while evocative, are free of editorializing, as well. Throughout the “Qatsi” series, Impressionistic images of everyday life – the good, bad, ugly and indifferent – come together as epic poems. The music seems to grow organically from what’s being shown, whether it’s an army of miners excavating a pit by hand or a fiesta with dancers in native dress. The expressions on the many anonymous faces we’re shown provide more information about their lives and times than a narrator could possibly supply. The first entry, “Koyaanisqatsi” (1983) is taken from the Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.” The basic translations of 1988’s “Powaqqatsi (“life in transformation”) and 2002’s “Naqoyqatsi” (“life as war”) pretty much sum up their essence, as well. People and things are born and, unless they are able to adjust to their environment and circumstances, they die and decay sooner than other people and things. In the end, what’s left behind for future generations is what matters most.

One of things that struck me while watching “Qatsi” is the immense difference that still exists between how work is done in first- and second-world countries and the almost ancient techniques still employed by those in undeveloped nations. Outside of the capitals, resorts and other populated areas, only the satellite dishes on adobe homes tell us that we’re in the 20th Century. The religious rituals and seasonal holidays look as if they’ve been celebrated the same way for centuries, but, then, who knows how many tourists were standing behind the cinematographer? No matter, it makes for a good show and the point remains the same. The “Qatsi” set contains, as well, a large bundle of special features, including “Essence of Life,” an interview program with Reggio and composer Philip Glass on “Koyaanisqatsi”; a new interview with cinematographer Ron Fricke about “Koyaanisqatsi”; an early 40-minute demo version of “Koyaanisqatsi,” with a scratch soundtrack by Allen Ginsberg; a new interview with Reggio about the first film’s original visual concept, with behind-the-scenes footage; “Inspiration and Ideas,” an interview with Reggio about his greatest influences and teachers; “Anima Mundi” (1992), Reggio’s 28-minute montage of images of over 70 animal species, scored by Glass; a video afterword by Reggio on the trilogy; “The Making of “Naqoyqatsi,” a brief documentary featuring interviews with the production crew; a panel discussion on “Naqoyqatsi” from 2003, with Reggio, Glass, editor Jon Kane and music critic John Rockwell; an interview with Glass and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; television spots and an interview with Reggio relating to his 1970s multimedia privacy campaign in New Mexico; and a booklet featuring essays on the trilogy by film scholar Scott MacDonald, Rockwell and author and environmentalist Bill McKibben.

The films of Bill Morrison are in the same vein as “Qatsi,” in that they blend images and music to make a point about modern life. “Decasia” arrives on the heels of Icarus’ release of “The Miners’ Hymn” and related short films, all of which reflect Morrison’s amazing ability to salvage extremely rare, nearly lost and thoroughly distressed film footage and turn it into a symphony. “Decasia” was created as a visual accompaniment to Michael Gordon’s powerfully discordant and relentlessly rhythmic orchestral piece of the same title. Here, Morrison uses found footage to address the tragedy of how much of our cinematic history has gone up in flames and deteriorated due to age, neglect and improper storage. Anyone who’s watched organic objects decay in time-lapse films knows how fascinating and strangely beautiful the process can be, when it isn’t flat-out horrifying, anyway. In “Decasia,” people who are passionate about the medium will find the effect to be profoundly depressing, as well as hypnotic. The 70-minute audio/visual “symphony” is accompanied by a short created, as well, by found footage. – Gary Dretzka

Ice Age: Continental Drift: Blu-ray
For my money, two of the most effective cautionary tales about global warming are as different from “An Inconvenient Truth” as “The Da Vinci Code” is to the Baltimore Catechism. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” both involve children being forced to deal with the effects of dramatic climate change as fact, not scientific theory. Images of the prehistoric aurochs emerging from the melting glaciers haunt Hushpuppy in ways that the melting glaciers in the Al Gore documentary frightened adults. In “A.I.,” the final shots of the robot boy, David – drowned beneath the waters that claimed Coney Island, but never to die — are even more harrowing. Although “Ice Age: Continental Drift” isn’t at all disturbing, it does share with “A.I.” and “Beasts” dramatic images of the effects of rapid climate and tectonic change on the landscape and its inhabitants, in this case prehistoric animals. It may not be pretty, but, as disaster movies go, it’s a hoot. Once again, Scrat’s obsession for acorns inadvertently wreaks havoc with Earth’s geophysical timeline. From an innocent everyday act by a hyperactive squirrel literally comes the separation and drifting of the continents. Everything else involves the struggle to keep the clan united and facing in the direction of the future. In this way, too, the story resembles a typical Hollywood disaster epic. The same motley crew of characters that populated previous “Ice Age” installments is divided here by just such an acorn-induced tectonic shift. The sea level had already been rising noticeably before a land bridge was destroyed by fissures, compounded by giant waves. Left on one side of the rapidly crumbling land mass are Sid (John Leguizamo), Diego (Denis Leary) and Manny (Ray Romano), while, on the other, stands Manny’s wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer). All other escape routes have been destroyed, so the males are required to mount their rescue effort at sea. Before that can happen, they are confronted by Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), an ape who rules the waves from his pirate-ship iceberg. In the end, the good guys require the help of a friendly whale – shades of “Pinocchio” – to facilitate the mandatory happy ending. Parents may or may not want to inform young viewers of the many factual errors in the story’s timeline, as the license taken by the filmmakers is far less than poetic. “Continental Drift” is entertaining and, on Blu-ray, a pleasure to watch. It arrives in 3D and 2D, with an array of featurettes, interactive games and shorts. – Gary Dretzka

Hans Christian Andersen: Blu-ray
Babes in Toyland: Blu-ray

Somewhere, back in the dark recesses of my brain, resides a memory of watching, or, at least, hearing the songs featured in the 1952 film musical “Hans Christian Andersen.” I can’t remember if I saw the movie in a theater, on TV or merely had been given a recording of the soundtrack. Something wonderful was retained, however. New to Blu-ray, director Charles Vidor and screenwriter Moss Hart’s Technicolor “biography” of the beloved Danish storyteller is enhanced by a delightful performance by Danny Kaye and songs by Frank Loesser. It’s worth noting, as is done in a prelude to the movie, almost nothing about writer’s background and history is accurate here. The movie was produced by Samuel Goldwyn as an effort to capture Andersens’ spirit, something it does very well. As the movie opens, Andersen is a small-town cobbler whose gift for spinning fairytales is keeping kids from attending school. Because of this, the village’s starch-collared elders demand that he either cease and desist such harmless behavior or leave town. Along with one of the older boys, he sets out for “wonderful, wonderful” Copenhagen, where adventure, heartbreak and fame await. Children and young adults today know almost nothing about Kaye and what made him such a huge star in Hollywood and on Broadway. The same may said about Andersen, as well, even if his stories are as fresh as ever. The songs include “No Two People,” “The King’s New Clothes,” “Wonderful Copenhagen,” “Inchworm,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “Thumbelina.” The only bonus features are a theatrical trailer and 40-page digi-book with informative text and behind-the-scenes photos and art. The film has been restored to its original 112-minute length.

Walt Disney based his fanciful Technicolor holiday musical, “Babes in Toyland,” on a popular 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert. It had already been adapted for film, in 1934, with Laurel & Hardy as the marquee attraction. As was the case with “Hans Christian Andersen,” great liberties were taken with the original story and music, but Disney’s wonderful creations have never been known for their adherence to text and lyrics. Here, Tom the Piper’s Son is about to marry Mary Quite Contrary, but on the eve of their wedding, evil miser Barnaby hires two thugs to drown Tom and steal Mary’s sheep, cared for by Little Bo Peep. In this way, the penniless Mary would be forced to marry Barnaby. Instead, his hired thugs, Gonzorgo and Roderigo, double-cross him by selling Tom to a band of gypsies. (Would the studio freely slander the race in 2012? I doubt it.) It leaves the door open for a reunion with Mary, Bo-Peep, and other Mother Goose characters in Toyland. Although “Babes in Toyland” could boast of having such prominent stars as Ray Bolger and Ed Wynn, the most promotable cast members were “Mickey Mouse Club” regulars Annette Funicello, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran; “Zorro” co-stars, Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon; teen heartthrob, Tommy Sands; and an 11-year-old, Ann Jillian. As a feature film, “Babes in Toyland” was pretty much a bust, but its characters and sets would find a place in Disney theme parks for many years afterward. (The stop-action-animated toy soldiers also appear to have influenced certain key scenes in Blake Edwards’ “S.O.B.”) – Gary Dretzka

Dick Tracy: Blu-ray
As much as any comic-book superhero, ace crime fighter Dick Tracy has been a multimedia staple practically since its newspaper debut in 1931. Warren Beatty’s star-studded adaptation was released in 1990, a year after Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Batman” and more than a decade removed from Richard Donner’s “Superman.” It didn’t do the same kind of business as those blockbusters, but it made plenty of money for Disney. Beatty was prepared to produce a sequel, even if the studio wasn’t. Any immediate hopes that it would happen were dashed when the director/producer/star was blocked by Tribune Media Services, which owns the rights to the character. Amazingly, Beatty’s suit against the now-bankrupt company continues to this day. It’s a shame, because his version of “Dick Tracy” is nearly as much fun to watch as any of the other adaptations. And, unlike all of the great comic-book movies of the next 22 years, the only thing that was completely digital about it was the soundtrack. Besides its very decent story and nearly two dozen wonderfully re-created characters, what was so impressive about “Dick Tracy” was its brilliant color palette, which approximated the half-dozen hues, plus black and white, employed in the creation of the comic strip … that, and the makeup effects used to distinguish such immortal characters as Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), Flattop (Wiliam Forsythe), Pruneface (R.G. Armstrong), Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) and Spuds Spaldoni (James Caan). The story, itself, is a distillation of Chicago gangland history and the legends passed along by the strip’s creator, Chester Gould. Glenne Headley played Tracy’s eternally patient girlfriend Tess Trueheart, while Madonna was bewitching as salon-singer Breathless Mahoney. (This was when she still was dating men twice her age, instead of robbing the cradle.) The Blu-ray presentation is terrific, as are the Oscar-winning songs by Stephen Sondheim. – Gary Dretzka

The Point: Definitive Collector’s Edition
Although such hit recordings as “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Without You,” “Coconut,” “One,” “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” and “Jump Into the Fire” are far more recognizable today than his name, Harry Nilsson’s musical legacy continues to grow. MVD Visual has re-released his perfectly gift-able animated feature, “The Point,” which, in 1971, reputedly became the first animated special to receive a prime-time broadcast in the U.S. It would go on to produce a popular soundtrack album and stage musical. The original ABC presentation featured the narration of Dustin Hoffman, as a father telling his son the story as a bedtime story, but a contract clause caused Nilsson’s buddy, Ringo Starr, to be hired to re-record the narrative. As the story goes, a little round-headed boy named Oblio, who is required a pointed hat to conform with the intolerant residents of his home town, where everyone else’s head comes to a point. As punishment for beating a count’s son in a game of Triangle Toss, Oblio and his dog Arrow are banished to the Pointless Forest. It is here that the boy discovers that everything has a point, including him, and he’s ready to return to the Land of Point to teach his former neighbors and friends the same thing. The story was accompanied by the animation of director Fred Wolf. Anyone aware of the singer-songwriter’s favorite recreational pastimes in the late-1960s and 1970s might assume that “The Point” is as psychedelic as “The Yellow Submarine” and as rebellious as “Hair.” Fact is, though, it’s perfectly acceptable as family entertainment. The biggest hit to derive from the musical was “Me and My Arrow,” but the rest of the soundtrack is fun, as well. The MVD release adds 25 minutes of bonus features, including “Who Is Harry Nilsson?,” “Pitching the Point,” “Making the Point” and “Legacy of the Point.” Curious parents may also want to check out the 2010 bio-doc, “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?” – Gary Dretzka

Step Up Revolution: Dance Workout!
What would Christmas be without a new workout video to buy Mom or Sis when all else fails? The more they love you, the less they’ll consider bopping you over the head for insinuating they’re getting chubby. Indefensibly overweight movie critics haven’t exactly been forthcoming with praise for the four “Step Up” chapters in the movie franchise, but it’s tough to argue with total box-office grosses of $560-million-plus worldwide. The rock-your-socks-off approach to calisthenics is strictly for those who enjoy “So You Think You Can Dance” and other such shows. The 90-minute “Step Up Revolution: Dance Workout!” is hosted by Bryan Tanaka (“The XFactor”) and Micki Duran (“Burlesque”) and features hip-hop and Latin routines from the movie, “Step Up Revolution.” Be New Year’s Eve, your giftee should be ready to join a flash mob. – Gary Dretzka

History: Mankind: The Story of All of Us
History: Ancient Aliens: Collector’s Edition

In 2010, History Channel unleashed the 6-night, 12-hour miniseries, “America: The Story of Us” on those television viewers who prefer their history condensed, rather than spread out and authoritative. The hit-and-run approach and choice of commentators – Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump, Michael Strahan, Al Sharpton, among other celebrities – failed to impress critics, but it must have scored in the ratings. The result is the 13-part, 12-hour “Mankind: The Story of All of Us,” which attempts nothing less than to span the first stirrings of civilization in Mesopotamia and the discovery of America. By using the “big history” approach, the mini-series shows how mankind’s path is guided by events that stretch back hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. It also argues that our destinies weren’t shaped in neatly divided chapters, but in the almost inadvertent merging of such interconnected scientific disciplines as geology, astronomy, physics, biology, medicine and metallurgy. Plagues and other calamities led to important, life enhancing discoveries, just as some innovations eventually proved disastrous. With a whole lot of hard work and determination, we’ve managed to make it this far. We’ll see if the Mayan calendar allows us another Christmas.

The role played by outsiders not of this Earth has obsessed producers of “Ancient Aliens: Collector’s Edition” for, lo, the past four years. If you haven’t bought into the premise by now – or enjoyed pouring pails of water on the series’ theories — you probably never will. In effect, “Ancient Aliens” dares skeptics and scientists, alike, to come up for better explanations for the seemingly miraculous wonders discussed. I know that I can’t explain the creation of the pyramids, Stonehenge or Machu Picchu. I can barely understand how the Luxor resort in Las Vegas was constructed. The best thing about this collection and others sent out by History is that there’s no quiz at the end of each season. – Gary Dretzka

MLB All-Time Bloopers
The San Francisco Giants: 2012 World Series Collector’s Edition
Baseball fans are the easiest of all people for whom to find gifts. Each year, new books and DVDs arrive on every conceivable aspect of the game, from players and teams to stadiums and mascots. Material that would bore most people to tears is the bread and butter of diehard fans and participants in fantasy leagues. If you know their favorite team, the hard part already is over. Even the most casual of fans, though, love the blooper reels that are shown between innings on the Jumbotron scoreboards. “MLB All-Time Bloopers” is a can’t-miss DVD, as it features many more minutes of “classic and clever, historic and hysterical” individual feats and mishaps.

Of all the DVD products available today not to buy a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers it would be “The San Francisco Giants: 2012 World Series Collector’s Edition.” Team loyalists really, really don’t like each other and it would be like pouring salt in a wound for dyed-in-blue Dodger fans to be handed a record of the triumphs of their bitter rivals. On the other hand, anyone who lives north of say, Carmel, south of Portland and west of Salt Lake City should enjoy finding it in their stocking. It includes all four complete games of the 2012 World Series; the fifth games of the National League divisional and championship series; and Matt Cain’s perfect game. A “bonus” disc adds scenes of walk-off wins; season highlights; postgame celebrations; and several more games from the divisional and championship series. – 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