MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1: Extended Edition
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2
Looking down the road, it will be interesting to see if the number of little girls who are stuck with the name Renesmee is greater than the number of strippers who use it as a stage name. According to public records, a couple hundred babies around the world have already been named after Bella and Edwards’ bouncing baby daughter. Clearly, Bella isn’t thrilled with the nickname, “Nessie,” given Renesmee by her “imprinted” guardian/lover/friend, Jacob, while Mom was recovering from being dead. (“Nessie? You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?”) Most exotic dancers, on the other hand, don’t care if anyone, even a paying customer, remembers what she’s calling herself on any given day. The frightfully cute, half-immortal Renesmee is at the heart of everything that happens in series-capper, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2.” Apparently, the girl’s half-mortal status presents a grave threat to the well-being of the vampire race and the head of the powerful Rome-based coven, Volturi (Michael Sheen), wants to curtail any further dilution of the species. The battle royal that’s been brewing between the Volturi and Cullens for centuries finally takes place on a frozen lake in British Columbia. It’s a real hum-dinger and easily worth the expenditure in time it takes to slog through everything else that comes before it.

Apart from some dazzling special effects and Hong Kong-style acrobatics, however, “Part 2” is as half-baked as everything in the incredibly profitable franchise. By emphasizing the romantic aspects of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling series, all that’s been required of the directors and writers is to coordinate the shirt-shrugging of the shape-shifters and ensure that the actresses could never be mistaken for Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein.” If all vampires looked as eternally young as the Cullens and Volturi, half the residents of Beverly Hills would vacation in Transylvania, instead of Aspen and Maui. It seems as if more weight is put on the compilation of treacly pop songs for the soundtrack than anything in the scripts. But, then, the makers of “The Twilight Saga” never intended to convince critics of the franchise’s value. It’s been targeted at teenagers who think “Gossip Girl” and “Glee” are documentaries. Anyone who’s seen the iconic album, “50,000,000 Elvis Fan Can’t Be Wrong,” with 14 Elvi in identical gold-lamé suits on the cover, already knows not to bet against popular taste.

On the plus side, “Part 1” and “Part 2” demonstrate how good a physical actor Kristen Stewart has become. Her posture has gotten noticeably better and it’s made Bella’s transformations that much more credible. That may sound insignificant, but the Bella Swann of 2008 couldn’t stand up to a mouse, let alone a vampire or wolf. Robert Pattison’s evolution hasn’t been quite so noticeable, but, again, who cares? In fact, though, 12-year-old actor Mackenzie Foy and 44-year-old Michael Sheen steal the show here from both of the stars. (In “Part 2,” CGI wizardry allows Renesmee to age gracefully from infancy to near-adulthood, employing Foy’s facial features as their model.) The Blu-ray presentation also enhances our appreciation of the gorgeous locations, including British Columbia, Brazil, Virgin Islands and Louisiana.

Also new to Blu-ray is the extended version of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1,” which seamlessly adds about seven minutes of previously deleted material to the theatrical release. Casual fans of the saga probably won’t be impressed by the additions, but completists and Twihards almost certainly will want to see them. In what seems to be a purely financial decision, the inclusion of seven minutes of film pushed out the bonus features from the original Blu-ray. Director Bill Condon does provide peppy commentary over the new and old scenes. Condon’s commentary is available in Part 2,” as well. The Blu-ray adds an interesting making-of featurette that can be viewed PiP. The deluxe set adds a digital copy and UltraViolet compatibility. – Gary Dretzka

Wreck-It Ralph: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Normally, whenever a movie or DVD is described as being “family friendly,” the phrase merely is a code used by distributors to convince parents of the innocuous content contained therein. Apart from the fact that all families are different, it’s the rare G- and PG-rated title whose appeal truly spans post-toddlers, pre-teens, teens, young adults, parents and grandparents. There are exceptions, of course, but their success tends to prove the rule. In fact, G-rated movies outside the Disney universe are almost as poisonous at the box office as those rated R. The most recent exception, “Wreck-It Ralph,” shares something with “Cars,” “Toy Story” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” that’s allowed it to cross previously established borders separating age-neutral and family-friendly pictures. All four of these blockbuster titles offer pop-cultural points of reference that are almost guaranteed to please viewers of all ages. In the unlikely event that a parent or teen hates everything else in the movies, they can enjoy the homages paid to classic automobiles, toys and cartoon characters. Among other things, the references allow old-timers to bond with the child, relative or friend in the next seat. They can boast, “I had one of those when I was your age,” “Grandpa had a car like that when I was growing up” or offer historical trivia on the origins of the movie’s characters. “Wreck-It Ralph” recalls video- and arcade-game iconography from the infancy of the industry, its Golden Age and transitions from 8-bit, to 16-bit, to 64-bit and beyond. The Oscar-nominated Disney Animation product also tells the quintessentially human story of how it feels to be put out to pasture by every new concession to progress and the lengths a person will go to demonstrate their continued usefulness to society. In this regard, video games are no different than cars, toys, cartoons and human beings. That video games are so wonderfully colorful and hyperkinetic only serves to amplify the drama in Blu-ray 2D and 3D.

After 30 years of being vilified as a bully and bull-in-the-china-shop ogre, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) desperately wants to become a valued member of the video-game community. He’s grown weary of playing the foil to Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer, of “30 Rock”), after whom their popular video game was named, and, like him, would like to be invited to birthday parties and other after-hours celebrations at Litwak’s Arcade. Compared to today’s multi-dimensional first-person-shooter games, though, “Fix-It Felix” is prehistoric. To prove he’s not such a chronically destructive bad guy, after all, Ralph decides to compete in a contest for survival against the cream of today’s crop in “Heroes Duty.” (After These include Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), General Hologram (Dennis Haysbert) and computer viruses and glitches unknown to the Sega and Nintendo loyalists of the 1980s. Between the rapidly advancing targets, IEDs and trigger-happy gamer controlling the speed of the contest, Ralph can barely keep up with the other characters. If he is going to collect the medals he needs to prove his worth back home, he’ll have to do it surreptitiously. Ralph’s greatest ally along the way is Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a pretty little glitch from the kart-racer game “Sugar Rush,” which shares space in the arcade with “Fix-It Felix.”

It’s obvious that writer/director Rich Moore and his team of writers have done their homework on the history of video gaming, as “Wreck-It Ralph” is informed by 40 years’ worth of iconography, audio-visual cues, character quirks and insider gags. Appearing in cameos, at least, are Sonic the Hedgehog and Dr. Eggman; Pac-Man and the orange ghost; Q*Bert; Bowser, from “Super Mario”; Neff from “Altered Beast”; a half-dozen characters from “Street Fighter”; and the bartender from “Tapper.” The co-mingle using electrical circuits that meet at the whimsical Grand Central Arcade. Most viewers will recognize the musical talent, including contributors Skrillex, Rihanna, Owl City, AKB48, Buckner & Garcia, Jamie Houston and Kool & the Gang, and composer Henry Jackman (“Puss in Boots”). The Blu-ray bonus package adds the 2013 Academy Award-winning short, “Paperman”; alternate and deleted scenes; the worthwhile making-of “Bit by Bit”; four video-game “commercials”; and “Disney Intermission,” which points out references and insider-jokes present in the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Schindler’s List 20th Anniversary Limited Edition: Blu-ray
If ever a movie needed no re-introduction to collectors of Blu-ray and DVD re-issues, it’s “Schindler’s List.” Besides being the only one of Steven Spielberg’s many excellent titles to win an Oscar as Best Picture, it forever changed the way Hollywood would make movies about war. Just as German citizens and Nazi sympathizers in France, Poland, Croatia and other Eastern European countries no longer could plead ignorance when it came to the existence of death camps in their midst, film makers would never again be able to paint portraits of our enemies using the same brush. It would be difficult to continue to ignore the fact that not all German soldiers and officers were Nazis and not all Nazi Party members wore the uniforms of the Gestapo or Waffen SS. Finding shades of gray in the darkness that was World War II required more work than previous writers and directors cared to do or thought was necessary. Documentaries revealed the horrors of the Holocaust to most Americans and that is the look Spielberg was seeking when he decided to shoot his film in black-and-white. After it would come such complex and nuanced dramas as “Black Book,” “Valkyrie,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Life Is Beautiful,” “A Secret,” “In Darkness” and “The Counterfeiters,” as well as the genre-defying adventure, “Inglourious Basterds.”

In addition to demonstrating how one brave soul could stare Satan in the eye and prevent the otherwise inevitable deaths of 1,200 human beings, “Schindler’s List” also encouraged viewers to look beyond the horror and recognize non-Jews honored by Israel as “righteous among the nations.” As portrayed by Liam Neesen, Schindler was a Nazi Party member, who, at first, saw the Jewish workers at his factory as cheap labor, but would find in the 1943 raid on the Krakow Ghetto a line in the sand, separating humanity and evil. (In 2011, Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” would relate a similarly heroic true story, this time in the then-Polish city of Lviv.)

For the 20th-anniversary edition, Spielberg personally supervised the transfer of “Schindler’s List” into hi-def from the original 35mm film negative. Janusz Kaminski’s superb black-and-white visual presentation remains as powerfully evocative in Blu-ray as it did on screen. Spielberg also supervised the restoration of the film’s audio elements and implementation of Universal’s subsequent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. The Blu-ray improves dramatically on all previous iterations. Collectors should know, however, that Spielberg hasn’t felt it necessary to add new supplemental material, preferring to recycle standard-definition versions of “Voices From the List,” a 77-minute documentary featuring testimonials and recollections from men and women whose lives were saved by Schindler; Spielberg’s short introduction to the USC Shoah Foundation, which he founded to collect oral histories of survivors; and a promo for IWitness, an online application that gives educators and students access to more than 1,000 video testimonies. – Gary Dretzka

The Intouchables: Blu-ray
Odd-couple movies, like “The Intouchables,” walk a razor-thin line separating schmaltz from substance, with schmaltz nearly always prevailing. This crowd-pleaser from France succeeds by disposing with the frothy stuff early on and leaving plenty of room for an entirely convincing “bromance” to emerge. Omar Sy plays Driss, a Senegalese slacker living in a Paris slum, who applies for a job as caretaker simply to qualify for welfare benefits. Even though he makes himself seem as unqualified as possible, his bad attitude is exactly what appeals to wealthy quadriplegic Philippe (François Cluzet, a dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman). That’s because Philippe wants a caretaker who will look at him without pity and treat him as something other than a patient. At first, Driss isn’t at all anxious to perform the less-glamorous tasks associated with being a full-service caretaker. Philippe can afford to employ two other assistants, though, and their presence and advice take a load off Driss’ shoulders. In fact, it doesn’t take long before the two men begin to enjoy other’s company. Philippe laughs at Driss’ jokes, which usually come at the expense of his pompous associates or the silly operas his boss enjoys.

Coming from a large family, living in a small apartment, Driss can’t quite believe his good luck … or the waste and ostentatious lifestyle that comes with wealth. As a thoroughly committed womanizer, he doesn’t hesitate to hit on one of Philippe’s smoking-hot assistants or impress prostitutes with his fancy bedroom. He even convinces his boss to act on his impulses by answering mail from a mysterious female correspondent. Philippe may not have feeling from his neck down, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy a good earlobe massage while stoned on Driss’ killer weed. This may sound far-fetched, but Cluzet’s performance never threatens to go over the top and Driss’ willingness to test Philippe’s limit also is made to feel credible. Ironically, it isn’t until Philippe insists that Driss join him at the scene of the hang-gliding accident that left him immobile – and, at the same time, overcome his own fear of flying — that he begins to expand his horizons. “The Intouchables” may not appeal to diehard curmudgeons, but it left me with a smile and that isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

There are very few better supporting actors working today than David Morse and, in “Collaborator,” he proves once again that no one can top him at playing damaged and tormented characters. He first proved it as a cast member of the ground-breaking TV series “St. Elsewhere” and has since shone in such dramas as “The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard,” “The Green Mile,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Treme.” Martin Donovan’s career has nearly paralleled that of Morse. You might remember him from “The Opposite of Sex,” “Weeds,” “Stephen King’s Dead Zone,” “Boss” and any one of several Hal Hartley titles. “Collaborator” represents Donovan’s first shot at writing and directing, as well as co-starring. In a movie that could have fit the confines of the stage just as easily, the two friends play aging Baby Boomers who lived across the street from each other as children, but embarked on wildly divergent paths in their late teens. After Morse was denied entry into the Marine Corps for being mentally unstable – something I didn’t think was possible during the Vietnam War – he continued to live at home with his mom, drink beer, smoke pot and commit crimes. Donovan’s Robert Longfellow went east and became a playwright of some distinction, before falling on hard times and negative reviews. Robert and Gus meet again in L.A., when the married writer is in town to discuss a film project and, perhaps, rekindle an old flame.

One night, Gus confronts Robert at the door of his mother’s house and demands that he share some beers and, maybe, a doobie or two. Robert agrees, but only reluctantly. Things remain tentative until a cop knocks on the door and asks if police can use the house for a stakeout on Gus’ home. A hostage situation ensues when the fugitive makes his presence known by holding a gun to his neighbor’s head. While waiting out the police SWAT team, the two men begin to reminisce and share life stories. It isn’t until the subject of Robert’s late brother comes up that things begin to get tense, again. Gus and the brother were friends, before he was killed in the war, and, well, let’s just say that he’s been waiting all these years to confront Robert with his anger about the unfairness of it all. There’s a throughline involving Robert’s wife and old girlfriend, but it isn’t nearly as profound as what happens between the two men. “Collaborator” has a trick ending that may or may not please viewers, but clearly shows that Donovan was thinking beyond the obvious. The DVD adds interviews with the writer/director and co-star Olivia Williams, who is typically good in a smallish role. – Gary Dretzka

Interview With a Hitman: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that I’m able to give an unqualified rave to a thriller that goes straight-to-DVD, was made by a first-timer and whose cover promises little more than gunplay and death. “Interview With a Hitman,” written and directed by Perry Bhandal, chronicles the evolution of a professional assassin from his twisted boyhood to the pinnacle of his chosen career. Raised in the slums of Bucharest, Viktor appears to have been born with a chip on his shoulder. As soon as he’s able to hold a pistol in his wee hand, he volunteers to do errands for the local crime boss. They include killing a much larger man who owes money to the mob and wastes his last breath laughing at the boy’s effrontery. Assassins are taught not to leave witnesses, so he also kills the man’s wife. His first mistake in life is not to take out the kiddies, as well.

The life expectancy of even the most accomplished hitmen in Europe is relatively short, if only because trust is in short supply among the thuggish gangsters, all of whom seem to know each other. Viktor has lasted longer than most of his peers, thanks to his marksmanship and fists of fury. He keeps a low profile, but there are only so many mercenary killers listed in the Yellow Pages and his targets tend to be related by blood to a criminal who’s still alive. When he goes against his best instincts and develops feelings for a lethal lady, you sense that his time will come soon.

If none of that sounds remotely different from dozens of other crime thrillers you’ve seen in the last several years, “Interview With a Hitman” has other things going for it than action. In square-jawed Luke Goss (“Death Race 2,” “HellboyII,” “Blade II”), Bhandal has found an actor who has a firm handle on the character’s existential persona and feels comfortable within the film’s impressionistic landscape. Because Viktor isn’t required to waste words explaining his motives and chatting with his targets before killing them, Bhandal can play all the sonic, visual and narrative tricks on viewers that he feels necessary to convey his dark vision. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette with interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Lay the Favorite: Blu-ray
British director Stephen Frears has made so many terrific movies – “The Queen,” “The Grifters,” “High Fidelity,” “My Beautiful Launderette,” among them – that it’s easy to forgive him a late-career misstep or two. Not having read the memoirs from which “Lay the Favorite” was adapted, I have no way of knowing if the book was a barrel of laughs or an edgy look at one young woman’s adventures in the high-pressure world of professional sports gambling. I sense it was a little of both. With a cast that includes Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Corbin Bernsen, Laura Pepron and Rebecca Hall, however, “Lay the Favorite” could hardly have turned out to be anything but madcap or a romp … “Two for the Money” with laughs, if you will. Hall does a nice job as Beth Raymer, a woman who’s led the kind of life that defies belief. Like Diablo Cody, Raymer was a stripper before turning to writing. Her resume also bears similarities to that of Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of “Prozac Nation.” Before she used a Fulbright fellowship to study offshore gambling operations, Raymer was an outcall dancer, sex worker, adult-website model, cocktail waitress, failed social worker, gambler’s apprentice, amateur boxer.

“Lay the Favorite” follows Raymer’s blueprint pretty faithfully. After leaving Florida and her personal-dancer job, Beth moves to Las Vegas to pursue a high-paying job that involves as little actual work as possible. Beth is a lousy cocktail waitress, so that pretty much leaves employment in the sex trade. In a fortunate twist of fate, though, Beth is given an opportunity to study at the feet of a wizard of odds, Dink (Willis), who considers her to be a lucky charm. She quickly grasps the intricacies of legal sports wagering, so she’s ready to go pro when Dink’s blowsy wife, Tulip (Zeta-Jones), cuts shorts her internship. Cocky as hell, Beth moves to New York, where she finds clients for a bookie acquaintance, Rosie (Vaughn). When things get too hot in the Apple, he moves his operation to an island nation, where Internet gambling has become a cottage industry, and she’s quick to follow him there. When Beth runs afoul of Rosie over an uncollected gambling debt, she begs Dink and Tulip for help in setting up the gambler who’s threatened to blow her cover. Again, the actual scam probably wasn’t nearly as amusing is it’s portrayed in “Lay the Favorite.”

Frears is incapable of making a technically inferior movie, but these sorts of star-studded capers can test any director’s ability to keep his cast from devouring the scenery. Several crummy adaptations of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen novels attest to that. Hall is a serious actress and very likeable here, as is Laura Pepron (“That ’70s Show”) as Beth’s slutty, Vegas-savvy pal, Holly. In fact, if it weren’t for Pepron’s topless-sunbathing scene, which was leaked to adult Internet sites, “Lay the Favorite” might have gone straight to video, instead of opening quietly on 61 screens. Some of the deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray indicate that Frears might have had other ideas for the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Muay Thai Warrior: Blu-ray
This historically based martial-arts adventure began life as “Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya,” which far more accurately describes what kind of action viewers can expect here. Nopporn Watin’s freshman outing recounts the 17th Century story of Yamada, a Japanese fighter who is abandoned by an elite samurai expeditionary force operating in Siam. He finds sanctuary in Ayothaya, a rural Thai colony populated by mostly peaceful folks, who, when necessary, go all Muay Thai on their enemies. Yamada (Seigi Ozeki) takes to the new martial-arts discipline like a duck to water, combining what he learns from his master with the Japanese samurai skill set, which includes swordplay. Once he masters Thai boxing, his teacher recommends him for the honor of becoming a royal bodyguard. The Japanese are persistent, though, so there’s plenty of fighting action on display. “Muay Thai Warrior” is pretty easy on the eyes and the fight scenes are well choreographed. The combination of styles is what sells the movie, though. – Gary Dretzka

Gun Hill Road
Sometimes, when men come home from years spent at war or in prison, they expect things to be exactly the way they were before they left. If they aren’t, the guys can either roll with the changes and modify their expectations or take them as an affront to their manhood. That’s what happens in “Gun Hill Road,” a powerful family drama that compounds the agony for the returning male by forcing him to deal with a teenage son who has entered the initial stages of gender reappointment. At first, the muy macho Enrique (Esai Morales) can’t understand his son’s reluctance to join him at a Yankees game and participate in a pickup game in a Bronx park. His priorities simply have changed in the three years that Enrique has been gone. We already know that Michael (Harmony Santana) has come to grips with his sexuality and prefers to spend his non-school hours as a young woman. His mother, Angela (Judy Reyes), accepts her son’s decision – begrudgingly, perhaps – and has a secret of her own to withhold from Enrique. His first instinct is to blame his wife, her mother and sister for allowing Michael/Vanessa to take this path and, more to the point, emasculate him. Enrique’s anger pushes him to make decisions that could threaten the terms of his parole.

“Gun Hill Road” is the first feature by promising NYU graduate Rashaad Ernesto Green, who acknowledges that some of it, at least, is based on his own experiences. From Frame One, Enrique is a train wreck waiting to happen and we suspect that he would have been better served if his P.O. had done some research and considered how the changes at home would affect his behavior on parole. Placing him in a halfway house, until he could adjust to his new reality, probably would have been the better decision. If Green isn’t demonizing Enrique, exactly, he is indicting an engrained cultural prejudice that demands of men and boys that they never expose the less-than-masculine side of their personality. Indeed, Enrique even believes that he can “cure” his son by paying a visit to a prostitute – while sympathetic, she’s less attractive than most of the transgender men he knows – and introduce him to the joys of vaginal sex, such as they are. Writer/director Green isn’t saying that such an attitude is unique to urban Puerto Ricans, only that these are things he observed growing up in such a neighborhood. (On the Showtime series, “Shameless,” another act of forced heterosexuality occurs in a working-class family that’s white.) Green’s ending offers a glimpse of hope for the future, while also recognizing that change rarely occurs without hard lessons and pain. Morales and Reyes are terrific as Michael’s parents. The mother cuts the father as much slack as she possibly can, but won’t put his prejudices ahead of the rest of the family’s happiness. In fact, Michael is a good student and foresees a bright future as a writer. In his first feature role, Santana displays great self-confidence and an impressive emotional range. That Santana was cast before embarking on her own gender transition certainly informed the performance. “Gun Hill Road” takes its subject matter seriously and, even without graphic displays of sexuality, packs a strong punch. Based simply from the cover photograph, fans of Morales’ work could be in for a real shock if they go into the DVD blind. Parents of children undergoing the same treatments as Michael, though, could learn a lot from Green’s assured approach in the movie. It includes an informative interview with the filmmaker. – Gary Dretzka

The Marine 3: Homefront: Blu-ray
In the third installment of WWE/Fox’s “Marine” franchise, “The Marine 3: Homefront,” Mike “The Miz” Mizanin steps in for previous leads John Cena and Ted DiBiase Jr. They’re all graduates of the Vince McMahon Acting Academy. Cena has found some success beyond his “Marine” performance, but, as far as I know, none has given up his day job, yet. Here, Mizanin plays one-man assault team Sgt. Jake Carter, who’s home on leave in Washington state. No sooner does he arrive, however, than he starts to tell everyone what they’re doing wrong in their lives and beating up those who cross him. He’s especially rough on his sister (Ashley Bell), who is dating the wrong guy and had the temerity to quit a job that was arranged for her. Moments before we really are given an opportunity to hate the marine, Sis and her boyfriend are kidnaped by a bunch of guys pissed off by bankers and other corporate types sucking the life out of the American dream. Yeah, I know, join the club. The FBI has dibs on the investigation, but, of course, are no match for a One Man Marine Corps. The terrorists’ evil leader (Neal McDonough) is up to the challenge, however, and he isn’t about to allow one man to spoil his plan to blow up a symbol of all that’s evil in corporate America. If you’re still asking, “So, what’s the problem?,” understand that, like Timothy McVeigh, he doesn’t consider anyone who works in the building to be innocent. “The Marine: Homefront” is full of gung-ho action, most of which takes place in and around an abandoned commuter ship, and Mizanin certainly doesn’t embarrass himself in the lead role. The staged violence, though, is only a step or two above that demonstrated by kids playing Cowboys & Indians in the backyard … or training to be WWE Superstars. As such, it’s about par for the course for straight-to-video actioners. The extras include “Shipwrecked: Breaking Down the Boat”; “The Miz Rocks the Boat,” “The Miz Declassified,” “Casting Call: Ready to Enlist” and “Miz Journal.” – Gary Dretzka

Ghett’a Life
One of the nice things about movies shot on location in Jamaica is that, even 40 years after the release of “The Harder They Come,” we’ve yet to reach a critical mass of films exported from the island. As such, the urban locations and faces of the actors are still fresh. Only a really inept cinematographer could make the lush countryside look unappealing. “Ghett’a Life” tells a story that’s as old as the movies themselves, but the circumstances surrounding it provide a sense of urgency to what otherwise would be considered just another boxing drama. In the days before a hotly contested election, Kingston is divided by gang violence and party politics. Sadly, it coincides with the emergence of 16-year-old aspiring boxer, Derrick (Kevoy Burton), on the national boxing scene. The only training facility is on the other side of the wall dividing the warring communities and by attending classes there, Derrick is deemed a traitor. Just before he’s about to become another victim of mindless revenge, writer/director Chris Browne comes up with a twist that could save the boy’s life and career. “Ghett’a Life” benefits from the nicely captured look of life in the “garrison” communities, through which drive truckloads of soldiers and SUVs occupied by thugs, who look particularly evil. Anyone afraid of not being able to understand the patois should know ahead of time that the movie comes with easy to read subtitles. – Gary Dretzka

Satan’s Angel: Queen of Fire Tassels
Apparently, reports of the death of burlesque were premature. At a time when pornography has gone mainstream and nudity is harder to avoid than it is to find, it’s ironic that the “tease” in the art of striptease is enjoying a resurgence of popularity not only with performers who remember the golden age, but women young enough to be their granddaughters. In her late 60s, Angel Walker is a still-vibrant dancer, touring the world under her longtime stage name, Satan’s Angel. As the title of Josh Dragotta’s revealing and wonderfully entertaining documentary, “Satan’s Angel: Queen of Fire Tassels,” suggests, she’s still twirling her tassels and teaching her successors the same fiery trick. Documentaries about men and women in the skin trade are hardly uncommon these days. What makes this documentary special is Angel’s willingness to be completely candid about the roller-coaster ride she’s been on since she began running away from home, even as a 5th Grader in San Francisco. She’s dated many famous names – Clint Eastwood, Bobby Darin, members of the Rat Pack and the Doors – and doesn’t mind letting us know about them. The lows include a near fatal addiction to cocaine, death threats from the Hell’s Angels and being blackballed from mob nightclubs for being a lesbian. Adding to the film’s charm is that her mother’s still alive and by her side to corroborate her testimony. Nearly two dozen of her peers and younger admirers are here, as well, to discuss their art and what Angel has meant to them. To top it off, there’s lots of archival film footage, photos and publicity material. – Gary Dretzka

If the Syfy channel ever were to merge with Cinemax, movies like “Repligator” would be a staple of programming. The only thing keeping such a thing from happening today is the limitation on nudity – in this case, topless mutants — imposed on networks offered on basic-plus cable. Otherwise, “Repligator” follows the rules in Roger Corman’s playbook covering movies intended for exhibition on TV and in the international market. Like “Piranhaconda” and “Dinocroc vs. Supergator,” the title of Bret McCormick’s 1996 exploitation flick tells potential viewers everything they need to know about the movie ahead of time. “Babegators” probably would have been an even more useful title, but it might not have been specific enough for what essentially would qualify as an R-rated hybrid of sci-fi and horror. The nipples are simply the icing on the cake. Produced on a miniscule DIY budget, apart from the salaries, if any, of Gunnar Hansen (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and scream queen Brinke Stevens, the effects are even cheesier than the screenplay. “Repligator” describes what happens when a top-secret military experiment backfires in the strangest possible way. A transporter gizmo designed to neutralize enemy troops turns male soldiers into horny women who can’t keep their shirts on. When they are aroused to the point of orgasm, the replicants morph into alligators. The same thing happens when the women scientists working in the lab are zapped. Like the x-ray glasses used by their male counterparts to sneak peeks at their boobs, the ray gun only serves to prove to the women that “men are such pigs.” “Repligator” easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure. The DVD adds an interview with the director and making-of featurette.

Any horror movie that opens with a TV anchorwoman reporting, “The Pope committed suicide this morning at 9 o’clock, shooting himself in the head. He left a note saying ‘I do not want to come back,’” can’t be all bad. And despite the glut of zombie movies in the marketplace, “Eaters” is sufficiently different to warrant a recommendation. Made in Italy and dubbed into English, benefits from a washed-out color palette and zombies who are able to do things that undead Americans have yet to master. For one thing, they can talk. Female zombies give birth to dead babies and some display early signs of cognitive powers. They also decompose at different speeds. This allows Dr. Gyno to dissect the less advanced cases and search their bodies for clues that could lead to a cure. Among the few humans unaffected by the plague are bounty hunters Alen (Guglielmo Favilla) and Igor (Alex Lucchesi). The zombies they don’t kill are brought to Gyno’s laboratory, so he can play God. Along the way, they encounter an insane artist, a group of neo-Nazi s led by a pint-sized Hitler, promoters of death matches between captured undead and a mysterious teenage girl, who could be the daughter of the feared Plague Spreader. Things get pretty gruesome sometimes, but genre buffs looking for something different should find something to like in “Easters.” A making-of featurette is included in the DVD package. – Gary Dretzka

The Nativity Story: Blu-ray
Samson and Delilah
Of the 17 Christmas-themed movies listed last December by the Huffington Post as being the best entertainments, none had anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ. Even such lists on Christian-specific websites tend to be short on movies about the Nativity. It’s almost as if audiences and filmmakers, alike, are ashamed to have anything to do with the story of Christmas, except for an hour or two on the holiday, itself. Or, perhaps, Easter has been deemed the more theatrical of the two occasions and, anyway, how does one explain virgin birth to the kiddies? It would be easier to suggest that Santa Claus delivered the baby Jesus to Mary and Joseph and that’s what is being celebrated on December 25. That scenario might have inspired the distributors to release the Blu-ray ahead of the holiday, instead of in time for March Madness.

Written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, “The Nativity Story” stands as the movie that bears the closest relationship to the period and treats the biblical characters as if they’re flesh-and-blood human beings and not painted statues in a crèche in someone’s town square. A few critics found the 2006 film to be “inert,” “dull” and “plodding,” but you have to wonder what they might have been expecting, instead. A cameo by the Easter Bunny, perhaps? Hardwicke benefits from some fine cinematography by Elliot Davis, with whom she collaborated on “Twilight,” “Lords of Dogtown” and “Thirteen,” and nice performances by Ciarán Hinds, Stanley Townsend, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac, who, as Joseph, faced the movie’s biggest quandary. Now, if only someone can figure out what Jesus did during the ensuing 30 years, you’d really have something. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

So much money and effort has been put into the restoration of Cecil B. Demille’s 1949 biblical epic, “Samson and Delilah,” that it’s legitimate to wonder why a Blu-ray edition isn’t being released simultaneously with the DVD. Among other things, the original nitrate three-strip Technicolor negatives were scanned in 4K, and the three strip image was registered, cleaned and color corrected in 4K; the nitrate print was used, as well, to complete the original music overture and mono audio track; and special effect work was done to clean up original optical images. The presentation is bright and extremely lush, with Edith Head’s costumes benefitting the most from the Technicolor. The production may owe far more to Hollywood than the bible, but it’s wonderful to watch Victor Mature in all of his muscular glory. (Was that the MGM lion he slayed with his hands?) Angela Lansbury and Hedy Lamarr are also great fun to watch. “Samson and Delilah,” which ushered in a decade’s worth of similarly lavish biblical epics, was a huge hit for Paramount. If it sometimes feels soundstage-bound and terribly unfashionable, imagine what “Star Wars” will look like in 60 years. – Gary Dretzka

In Search of Memory
PBS: The Distracted Mind
PBS: Boundless Potential
Nova: Hurricane Sandy: Inside the Megastorm
PBS: The Mayo Clinic Diet
It isn’t often that we’re allowed to eavesdrop on a conversation with a Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist, even on DVD or audio tape. “In Search of Memory” explores the life and work of Eric Kandel, a scientist who’s spent most of the last 60 years looking for the keys to unlock the secrets of learning and memory. Petra Seeger’s documentary is divided into two parts, 1) Kandel’s research and discoveries, and 2) his own memories of growing up in Vienna, prior to and directly after the Anschluss. Although his parents had the foresight to send him to America as soon after the annexation as possible, Kandel’s memories of his early life seem as fresh as anything that happened 10 or 20 years ago. Discovering how such a thing is possible goes to the crux of his research. As a neurobiologist, Kandel used simple animal models – slugs, mollusks, mice among them – that would facilitate electrophysiological analysis of the synaptic changes involved in learning and memory storage. It would take me a million years to understand what’s discussed here, but Kandel makes it easy to follow his methodology, if nothing else. Also important to the discussion is Kandel’s relationship to Judaism. To this end, Kandel travels back to Vienna, where he attempts to locate landmarks from his youth, most of which no longer exist.

If that film doesn’t completely whet your appetite for neuro-stuff, you may want to check out the PBS documentary “The Distracted Mind,” with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley. It delves into attention, distraction and “the myth of multi-tasking.” It’s become fashionable in the corporate community to encourage multitasking and pushing one’s brain to its limits in the name of production and profits. A generation of young people for whom unions are anathema seems to have welcomed the opportunity not only to push themselves to exhaustion, but also be made redundant when they’ve become too expensive to keep on the payroll. Gazzaley’s research has shown that our brains aren’t as flexible as they might seem and there are limits to its functionality. Like any computer, it’s susceptible to overloading and decreased processing speed. The PBS documentary offers suggestions and solutions to questions relating to how we can improve our attention skills and maintain focus as we age and some of us confront the reality of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the same vein, journalist and educator Mark Walton addresses the very timely question of what happens when people in their 40s, 50s and 60s are forcibly put to pasture by their employers and economic upheaval. The effects of such pain and humiliation can be devastating, as can the boredom that comes with too little stimulation. In “Boundless Potential,” Walton differentiates between the men and women who once worked with their hands and those who, today, rely on their brains. Our grandparents looked at retirement differently than we do. While men and women exhausted by hard labor welcomed the opportunity to no longer wear themselves out for someone else’s benefit, too many people today seek identity and fulfillment in their work, alone, and can’t handle an idle mind. Walton has interviewed hundreds of people for his books and lectures. Some have “flunked retirement,” while others have found new ways to realize their potential.

The producers, reporters and videographers of “Nova” always seem to be stationed at the right place when terrible and wonderful things happen around the world. If not, they arrive shortly thereafter. Such was the case with the mega-storm named Sandy. Beyond the devastation and human suffering loomed questions relating to science and meteorology, some of which are explored in “Hurricane Sandy: Inside the Megastorm.” Given the political climate, many minds turned to the possibility that global warming might have contributed to the perfect storm’s genesis. Others argued that the same combination of weather systems might have come together naturally, regardless of melting icecaps and pollution. The question remains: are storms getting more powerful and, if so, why?

Also from PBS, “The Mayo Clinic Diet” describes the development and execution of the first and only dietary program developed by the Mayo Clinic, based on clinical experience at its facilities in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida. The DVD includes interviews with a multidisciplinary team of physicians, dietitians, clinical psychologists and other medical experts. It is designed to be an effective, practical and enjoyable way to help people lose weight and maintain weight loss. – Gary Dretzka

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You
The preppy protagonist of “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You” is the latest in a long — and getting longer with every new film festival — line of male characters based consciously or unconsciously on Holden Caulfield. This time, newcomer Toby Regbo has been assigned the task of making his hopelessly messed up high school senior, James Sveck, sympathetic and likeable, even as he stands on a ledge contemplating suicide, probably for the hundredth time since turning 16. We’re led to believe that James can’t deal with the pressure of possibly being gay, even though sexual experimentation is as much a part of the prep-school experience as hazing and playing lacrosse. He’s unhappy for all the usual reasons that kids his age are miserable: existential angst, gender issues, being embarrassed by people in his peer group, his beloved nana’s being on her last legs, a mother who marries anyone with an underused penis, a sister dating her married Polish professor and a dad who just underwent a facelift, so he can attract women James’ age.

More than any unfounded concerns over being gay, James worries about how the adults in his life might take his ambivalence about attending Brown in the fall. His father (Peter Gallagher) expected him to attend Harvard, but James screwed that up by having an emotional breakdown on trip to Washington with other gifted students. (He wasn’t impressed by them and that, too, really depressed him.) For her part, James’ oft-married mother (Marcia Gay Harden) would rather foist her “life coach” (Lucy Liu) on James than sit down with him for a conversation. The biggest problem with the last 20 years’ worth of “Catcher in the Rye” movies is that the protagonists’ problems don’t amount to a hill of beans to most people in the audience. The biggest problem faced by most kids in the movies today is not being invited to a house party or having their Internet privileges revoked by their parents for more than 10 minutes. James’ life coach gets it, even if takes the boy a couple dozen billable hours to figure things out for himself. She knows that students at elite high schools, who can’t find 10 students more unbalanced than they are, probably ought to have the lenses of their glasses adjusted. “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You,” which was adapted from the novel by Peter Cameron, benefits from fine supporting performances by Ellen Burstyn, Gilbert Owuor, Deborah Ann Woll, Stephen Lang and Aubrey Plaza. Gallagher and Harden play unlikeable characters in a very likeable way. – Gary Dretzka

Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie: Blu-ray
Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu Season Two
Back to the Sea
Everything in the post-apocalyptic world of “Ultramarines” is big, really big, and noisy, really noisy. Set in the 41st Millennium, when there’s no respite from war and carnage, the 2010 CGI-animated film can trace its roots to 1987, when it began life as a tabletop miniature war game played with collectible figures and dice. It has since been adapted into several different video games and “Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie.” The semper fi heroes are genetically enhanced super-soldiers known as Ultramarines and they’re all that stands between good and evil. Fanboys and other longtime game players will have a better handle on the intricacies of the plot than I ever would, but the sci-fi action is fun to watch for a while. Among the voicing cast are Terence Stamp, John Hurt and and Sean Pertwee. It arrives on Blu-ray with a 30-minute making-of documentary, a much shorter backgrounder, a piece on the creation of the Daemon and “Prequel,” a filmed based on the graphic novel by Dan Abnett and David A. Roach.

It’s been a while since Congress has been sufficiently bored to investigate whether television networks are complying with the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which mandates specific amounts of time reserved for educational and informational programming. The last time our legislators looked into the question, they were shocked – shocked! – to discover how little attention was being paid to the legislation. The act is so vague as to be unenforceable and the FCC has other things on its mind, like determining how much pandering to corporate interests is too much. Frankly, I don’t even know if the provisions apply to cable and subscription TV, where one way to get around complaints has been to create infomercials thinly disguised as entertainment. At one time, the biggest concern involved commercials for candy, sugar-larded cereal and toys. I was surprised to learn of the animated Comedy Central series co-produced with LEGO, “Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu,” in which all of the characters, monsters, buildings and backdrops look as if they were created by LEGO blocks. It was inspired by a toy series of the same name, of course, and a video game. The storyline is far too complicated to encapsulate here, but there’s nothing at all wrong with the animation or ration of dialogue to ninja action. Neither had I noticed previous collaborations between LEGO, Warners Bros. Interactive Entertainment, DC Comics and several popular movie franchises. The “Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu” collection is comprised of episodes from the second and possibly final season. It looks fine in Blu-ray and weighs in at a generous 286 minutes.

Back to the Sea” may be devoid of robots, ninjas and other powerful beings – unless one considers a sea creature’s ability to talk to be a superpower – but it’s impossible to miss its resemblance to the 2003 Pixar blockbuster, “Finding Nemo.” The primary narrative difference between the two pictures is the setting. “Finding Nemo” takes place in and around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, while “Back to the Sea” plays out in the waters of the northern and western hemispheres. Instead of an aquarium in a dentist’s office, the unfortunate Kevin is destined for a relatively spacious tank in the window of a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. He dreams of reuniting with his father in crystal clear waters of Barbados, but finds himself entrapped in the intricacies of a pearl heist. The animation may not meet the standards established by Pixar, even those in place 10 years ago, but the youngest viewers aren’t likely to complain. The voice cast includes Tim Curry, Christian Slater, Tara Strong and Mark Hamill. – Gary Dretzka

My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding: Seasons 1&2 + Specials
H2O: Just Add Water: The Complete Season 1
Regular Show: Party Pack
If we can’t be appalled by the cultural and religious traditions of other human beings, what’s the point exactly of reality television? Whether the shows focus on the care and feeding of the Kardashians, the professions favored by Cajun swamp dwellers or purveyors of garbage disguised as treasure, what they’re really attempting to do is convince viewers of their own sanity in a world gone mad. “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is so wrong, in so many different ways, that some people will find it easy to forget the estimated 250,000 Romani killed in Hitler’s death camps and continuing harassment throughout Eastern Europe. Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to forgive British Gypsies and Irish Travelers their more flamboyant customs. Still, that’s what makes the British documentary series, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” the voyeuristic spectacle that it is. No one, with the exception of wealthy Indians, goes further out for their daughters on the occasions of their First Holy Communion and marriage than Gypsy parents. The pre-teen girls we meet here treat the communion ritual as a dress rehearsal for their weddings, which invariably will come within the next 10 years. The girls dress in gowns that wouldn’t be out of place in a remake of “Gone With the Wind,” complete with frilly umbrellas, high heels and décolletage. Their older sisters take a more hoochie-momma approach to wedding fashions, some dresses even incorporating electric lights. From what I’ve seen, the American versions of the series try even harder to make Romani customs like ridiculous. The DVD includes all 12 episodes of Seasons 1 and 2, plus three one-hour specials, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding: The Original Film,” “My Bigger Fatter Gypsy Wedding” and “My Big Fat Gypsy Christmas.” Interspersed with the ceremonies are reports on evictions, harassment and their complex relationship with the non-Gypsy community, which would just as soon prevent them from travelling.

The Australian export, “H20: Just Add Water,” describes what happens when three teenage girls discover an enchanted cavern on an island off the Gold Coast. While there, they’re imbued with magical powers of their own. As if being a teenager weren’t difficult enough, the girls now must cope with the fact contact with water – ocean, bathtub, swimming pool – will cause them to grow the tail fins of a mermaid and a scaly bronze bra to match. The transformation tends to complicate things for the girls when in the company of their “normal” friends. On the plus side, the girls are now in a better position to protect endangered sea turtles and, if they so choose, really impress the boys in their circle. You could think of it as a live-action “SpongeBob SquarePants” for post-pubescent teens. The show aired on Nickelodeon here for three seasons. Besides all of the first-season episodes, the DVD contains a 90-minute movie and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show” may not air as part of sister-network Comedy Central’s hipster-magnet programming block, Adult Swim, but that hasn’t limited its appeal to kids of all ages. J.G. Quintel’s art-school sensibility informs every minute of the series, including slacker protagonists Mordecai the Blue Jay and Rigby the Raccoon. Other members of the pair’s inner circle are Benson, the living gumball machine; Skips, the Yeti groundskeeper; Pops, the lollipop-shaped park manager; Muscle Man, who’s anything but in shape; High Five Ghost, named for his peculiar shape. The primary villains are floating heads from outer space. None is even close to being “regular.” The “Regular Show: Party Pack” is comprised of 16 episodes from three seasons. – 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