MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Zero Dark Thirty: Blu-ray
So much hot air has been expended on “Zero Dark Thirty” since various marketing geniuses began ramping up their awards campaign that I’m reluctant to add any wasted breath to the conversation. Beyond the acrimonious controversy over depictions of inarguably brutal interrogation techniques, we’ve heard from two members of the Navy SEAL team that participated in the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, been deluged with op-ed pieces and blogged diatribes, been exposed to dozens of for-your-consideration ads and talk-show interviews. Some of us thought it necessary, as well, to watch the made-for-cable movie, “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden,” and extensive reportage on “60 Minutes.” If director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal did one thing better than anyone else, however, it was to remind Americans just how messy the business of protecting democracy can be. This is especially true when everyone in Washington wants to claim responsibility for victory and avoid humiliation in case of failure. Then, too, way back on May 2, 2011, the biggest possible spoiler of all was revealed by no less a personage than President Obama.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is roughly divided into three parts, all driven by tick-tock pacing and journalistic editing decisions. The first is taken up by the interrogation of prisoners and sifting through the haystack of bogus information to find the single needle that pointed to Bin Laden. No matter how much evidence is presented on either side of the argument, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever learn what, if anything, was gleaned from torture or if a president’s decrees could keep illegal techniques from recurring. Americans can’t even agree on a single effective way to stop bullying in elementary schools, after all. I don’t think torture is glorified here or given any greater significance than it deserves. What happened in the interrogation chambers was ugly, of spurious legality and value, and quite possibly performed by sadists in and out of uniform. Jessica Chastain steals the second part of the film, simply by the force of her character’s will. In turning the agency’s single clue into something that could lead to success, her CIA operative, Maya, not only was required to avoid being killed by Al Qaeda, but also cut through all of the old-boys’-club bullshit government functionaries could muster. The final third is taken up by the raid, itself. I was surprised by the absence of any footage describing preparations for the raid, but it only would have added another 20 minutes to what already was an epic 157-minute length. The attack on Bin Laden’s compound is dramatized in what amounts to real time and in nearly complete darkness. In Blu-ray, very little is lost in the shadows and the audio delivery is downright scary.

Considering the brevity of the four bonus featurettes, I suspect that a much more elaborate edition of “Zero Dark Thirty” (“12:30 a.m.,” in military parlance) will arrive before year’s end, possibly with deleted scenes, non-EPK mini-docs, expert analysis, interviews with the people upon whom the characters are based and, perhaps, the “60 Minutes” interview with SEAL “Mark Owen.” If anything glorifies war and America’s love affair with things that go “boom,” it’s the short featurette on the weaponry and hi-tech equipment the actors had to master before going into faux battle. It’s guaranteed to make the 17-year-old sociopaths in our midst wet themselves with excitement. It would be a shame if the success of “Zero Dark Thirty” overshadows the hellish reality of “Black Hawk Down”; the failed 1980 American military mission to rescue the hostages in Iran; the entirety of the Vietnam War; mini-wars we conducted in Panama City and Grenada, simply because we could; and the “accidental” bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, under President Clinton’s watch. Just as Hollywood glorifies our successes in combat, it should never be allowed to forget the debacles. – Gary Dretzka
Les Misérables: Blu-ray
Among those of us who take the arts more seriously than, say, monster-truck racing or tractor pulls, it would be difficult to find anyone who hasn’t seen one of the many productions of “Les Misérables,” read the source novel by Victor Hugo or passed a literature class with the help of a Classic Illustrated or Cliff’s Notes abridgement of the book. The book was so popular, we’re told in the bonus interviews, many of the combatants in our own Civil War carried copies of it to read when they weren’t shooting at each other. Ever since the latest movie version opened wide on Christmas Day, fans of the stage musical have debated how well – or how poorly – Tom Hooper’s adaptation compares to the Cameron Mackintosh’s blockbuster production. Months before the movie opened, several pundits made it a mortal lock for a Best Picture Oscar. Eventually, it became just one of a half-dozen other titles picked to finish first. Anne Hathaway would walk home that night with the Best Supporting Actress prize – no surprise, there – but her acceptance speech was picked apart as if it were a sequel to the Gettysburg Address.

The thing that most differentiates the movie from the stage production is Hooper’s handling of the musical numbers. In order to “open up” the narrative, the decision was made to present the songs in as organic a style as possible. By forgoing the usual soundtrack-dubbing process, the performers were required to sing and act simultaneously, frequently beyond the normal confines of a soundstage. What occasionally was lost in the singing – according to some fans, anyway – was regained in the emotionally charged acting performances. It definitely takes some getting used to, though. The same can be said about the increased intimacy between the characters and viewers, which was achieved through the use of hand-held cameras. Even if there were times when the movement of the lens imitated the swaying of a boat on water, it was thrilling to be so close to the action. This “Les Misérables” may be the least stage-bound adaptation of a Broadway musical we’ll ever see. At a reported budget of only $61 million, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the sets, costumes, makeup effects and other creative aspects come as close to perfection as they do. The opening scene, in which prisoners are forced to drag a damaged ship into dry dock, tells us everything that needs to be said about the life led by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) during his 20 years in prison. As his nemesis, Javert, Russell Crowe doesn’t personify the character’s psychotic determination to destroy a man’s life quite as fiercely as other actors I’ve seen in the part, but neither is he a pussycat.

Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks are excellent fine in key supporting roles. As entertaining as Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are as the thieving Thenardiers, the characters are almost interchangeable with the ones they played in “Sweeny Todd.” It’s only a small distraction, though. Among the movie’s eight Oscar nominations is one for Valjean’s song “Suddenly,” written specifically for the movie by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. (It lost to Adele’s “Skyfall.”) In the transfer from stage to screen, only “I Saw Him Once” and “Dog Eats Dog” didn’t make the cut, but the composers also were asked to update some of the orchestral pieces, shorten a few songs and, in some cases, move them around. As for the Blu-ray, the overall effect of the audio/visual presentation is impressive, throughout, even though it’s sometimes easy to see where Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen put the technology to the test. The bonus package adds an hourlong making-of featurette, which covers a lot of territory; an 11-minute profile on Hugo and his best-seller; and BD Live Functionality, which wasn’t all that functional on my unit – Gary Dretzka

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Blu-ray
For fans of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Ring” trilogy and J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, “The Hobbit,” the only reviews that matter are the ones exchanged with people, who, like them, would trade a year in Hawaii for a weekend in Middle Earth. It’s probably relevant, then, to admit that being chased around the Misty Mountains by dwarves, wood-elves, goblins, trolls, wargs, dragons, man-bears, giant spiders and orcs isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching “LOTR” on DVD and looked forward to seeing “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on Blu-ray. (It was a big hit theatrically in 3D and IMAX, neither of which I can afford to add to my home theater.) Like “LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring,” a great deal of time in the 169-minute “Hobbit” is spent in the expository mode. On his 111th birthday, Bilbo Baggins writes a letter to his nephew, Frodo, explaining an adventure he had 60 years before the events described in the “LOTR” series. It serves to introduce Frodo and viewers to dwarf mythology, some of the characters we’ll meet in the next couple of hours and how Lonely Mountain’s golden treasure was lost to Smaug the Dragon. The adventure upon which Bilbo embarks in “An Unexpected Journey” involves joining forces with Gandolf and a motley crew of 13 dwarves, who are intent on confronting the dragon and regaining the lost cache of gold.

Jackson and writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and onetime directorial candidate Guillermo del Toro did a nice job incorporating the background material with the challenges the group will face on the trek to Lonely Mountain and a veritable travelogue of magnificent New Zealand and CGI scenery. It’s an eventful trip, mostly because the dwarves’ traditional nemeses have been driven from the Misty Mountains to lower elevations to survive a disease killing trees and vegetation. I won’t spoil anyone’s fun by revealing much else that happens in the “Hobbit,” but it would be difficult not to be impressed with a great battle between mountains during a thunder storm. It’s a pip. Naturally, the stage is also set for whatever’s to happen in the second and third parts of the trilogy, during which the presence of the flying, fire-breathing dragon will be far more prominent. It’s worth mentioning, I suppose, that the movie’s PG-13 rating is fairly earned and the cuteness of some of the characters notwithstanding, there are scenes of extreme violence that could disturb fragile pre-teens. An entire disc is dedicated to bonus featurettes, video blogs, game trailers and other marketing material. It also comes with an access code for an online sneak peek of “Desolation of Smaug,” hosted live by Peter Jackson on March 24. — Gary Dretzka

The Other Son: Blu-ray
Every so often, there will be a story on the evening news about siblings who were switched at birth and are reunited on “Oprah” or after an off-chance meeting on Facebook. The newscaster might compare such a mistake as a “parent’s worst nightmare” or the discovery a miraculous coincidence. Miracles happen all the time on “Oprah,” don’t they? Depending on circumstances, a nightmare scenario could play out in such situations, as well. Typically, though, worse things can happen than having the truth behind a non-tragic blunder revealed. The conceit behind Lorraine Levy’s “The Other Son” is quite a bit more complicated and fraught with potential anguish. In 1991, when Scud missiles from Iraq were raining down on Haifa, two male infants were born in a hospital temporarily being shared by Israelis and Palestinians. In the chaos of the attack, the boys were put into the same incubator, but somehow misdirected when passed back to the mothers. Stranger things have happened in less stressful situations. Eighteen years later, the parents of the Israeli boy are told that the results of a blood test taken during a military physical show conclusively he couldn’t be their child. A few hours later, the Palestinian parents were told the same thing. A blunder of this magnitude would constitute a shocking development anywhere in the world, but, in the Mideast, it borders on the unthinkable.

Levy could have taken this scenario and milked it for every last drop of pathos available to her. The reunion could have been staged while Israelis and Palestinians were exchanging rockets attacks in Gaza or the meeting could have been interrupted by the sound of a suicide bombing in the distance. Instead, Levy decided to level the playing field as much as possible by creating parallel worlds divided by a wall that looks as hideous on one side as it does on the other. The families in which the boys are raised are loving and conscientious, share a linguistic French connection and their lifestyle differences seem entirely realistic, given the conditions of occupation. The boys, of course, are stunned by the revelation, but they take a liking to each other right away and behave as if the mistake truly was God’s will. Their fathers take the news badly, while the mothers simply want to make the best of a bad situation. In their minds, the worst thing that could happen is for the young men – both on the brink of adulthood – to abandon the families that raised them. The real problems derive from the cold realities on the ground. As similar as the tribes may be genetically and biblically, living in a war zone for more than 60 years has convinced too many Israelis and Palestinians that the differences between them can only be reconciled through bloodshed. Joseph (Jules Sitruk) and Yacine (Medhi Dehbi) are able to stroll through Tel Aviv together without raising an eyebrow and pass for cousins on the beach, where Joseph’s friends gather on hot days. When it comes to religion, however, Joseph finds himself in a huge predicament. Because his birth mother is Arab, he’s told by the family’s rabbi that he can’t be a Jew, unless he resubmits his credentials and converts. Yacine, who’s been raised in the Islamic faith but was born to a Jewish mother, doesn’t have to do anything to be a Jew. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Levy is in no hurry to reveal her hand as to how “The Other Son” will end. There are several more surprises to look for during its last half-hour and a few moments that less-tolerant viewers might consider to be too liberal, considering that Joseph’s father is a high-ranking military officer. Politics, though, are subordinate to the human story. An acrimonious legal battle, a la Elian Gonzales, is avoided, as well, by the fact that both boys are 18 and free to choose their own paths to the future. (Yacine has already been accepted to medical school in Paris, while Joseph was planning to pursue a career as a musician after serving his time in the military.) Emmanuelle Devos and Pascal Elbe are terrific as the Israeli parents, as are Areen Omari and Khalifa Natour, whose characters live on the opposite side of the wall. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, bloopers, interviews and making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Rust and Bone: Blu-ray
In any other awards season, “Rust and Bone” would have been the foreign-language film to beat in every contest and poll in which its cast and creators were considered for honors. The year would belong to Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” however, and everything else vied for second place. Jacques Audiard’s heart-churning drama is distinguished by superb performances by Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose”) and Matthias Schoenaerts (“Bullhead”) and a story that drags viewers from one emotional or physical crisis to another, sometimes without allowing us time to catch our breaths. We meet Schoenaert’s Ali first, hitchhiking with his 5-year-old son from Belgium to Antibes. All we know is that Ali’s broke and his ex-wife was involved in drug dealing, perhaps using the boy as a mule or decoy. Ali hopes to start a new life in the seaside town, where his sister and her husband have agreed to give them a bed in the garage and all the stolen expired food they can eat. Cotillard’s Stephanie is an orca trainer by day and something of a party girl at night. Ali and Stephanie meet outside a nightclub that’s hired the onetime MMA fighter as a bouncer. She’s being pummeled for some reason and Ali comes to her rescue. Because she’s too fragile to drive, Ali agrees to escort her home, where he’s also required to stand up to her prick boyfriend. The next time we see Stephanie, she’s on a platform at the theme park leading the killer whales through their paces. In the time it takes a heart to beat, a terrible accident causes the platform to collapse and Stephanie’s legs to snap off at the knees.

After several months spent stewing in her own juices and exhausting all of her fair-weather friends, Stephanie locates the phone number given her by Ali and decides to cash in his offer to help with her boyfriend troubles. Instead, Ali finds her in sitting alone, in a wheelchair, in a mostly empty apartment that could seriously use a blast of fresh air. He finally convinces her to leave the apartment for a short trip to the beach, where he asks her permission to go for a swim. With a little bit of coaxing, Stephanie decides to join him. The joy that comes with returning to the water goes a long way toward convincing her that life might be worth living, after all. With Sam away at school, Ali has free time available to him in the middle of the day and seems to enjoy the company. Meanwhile, a guy Ali meets at the nightclub asks him if he wants to knock off some rust and train for competition at an impromptu “fight club” outside the projects. It’s a shady operation, but with lots of money exchanging hands between bouts in bets. As Ali’s stock rises among the fighters, Stephanie is improving through physical therapy. Her new lightweight prostheses are a godsend, as well. When she also lets slip that she might be in need of some sexual healing, Ali volunteers to accept booty texts from her. Even so, Ali’s relationship with Stephanie remains curiously casual. It takes a while for the trajectories of their separate recoveries to cross and, once they do, Ali inadvertently causes a crisis in his sister’s life that prompts him to take a powder, again.

In an interview included in the bonus package, Audiard describes how one of his assistants labeled some of the later developments, “melo-trash,” a term he’s comfortable using himself. The difference between melodrama, melo-trash and gut-wrenching drama may be open to interpretation, but Audiard never compromises the integrity of his characters to take the pressure off viewers. These are working-class people, living on the razor’s edge of economic and emotional stability. Schoenaerts is one tough son of a gun and Cotillard is as unglamorous here as you’ll ever see her. For them, the stakes are very real. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, an hour-long making-of featurette, commentary and a short piece of the special visual effects. The presentation is enhanced by Audiard’s decision to use an advanced Red Epic camera. “Rust and Bone” was adapted from stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson. – Gary Dretzka

The Sessions: Blu-ray
The Life of Pi: Blu-ray
I wasn’t able to watch these two high-profile pictures under optimum conditions – a tiny screen for “The Sessions,” in 2D for “Life of Pi” – but that’s no reason to pass them over without comment. So much attention has been paid to Helen Hunt’s performance in “The Sessions,” primarily for her willingness to appear nude for much of the movie, that it stole the media spotlight from John Hawkes’ amazing portrayal of the protagonist. Ben Affleck wasn’t the only person who got robbed at this year’s Oscar circus. Hawkes plays a character very much like Mathieu Amalric’s Jean-Do in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” except that quadriplegic Mark O’Brien was incapacitated by polio and is still able to experience sensory impulses and use writing implements. A poet and journalist, he has been assigned a piece by a Bay Area publisher on how people with serious physical limitations deal with sex. Thus inspired, 40-year-old Mark decides to erase “virgin” from his curriculum vitae. Through people he’s interviewed, Mark is introduced to a sexual surrogate, Cheryl (Hunt), who is surprised by his sensitivity, propensity to flirt and clinical approach to sexuality. She also finds it interesting that he’s gotten dispensation from his priest/confessor (William H. Macy) to attempt sex out of wedlock.

Nothing in Ben Lewin’s film feels forced or gratuitous, including Hunt’s nudity. Mark is as multifaceted, mobile and emotionally animated as he could possibly be, while also being lying on a gurney, bed or in a breathing chamber. As professional as Cheryl is while on the job, she is distracted by fissures of her own off the job. Unlike most Hollywood endings for this sort of thing, Lewin’s doesn’t require hankies. In fact, it kind of reminded me of Francoise Truffaut’s “The Man Who Loved Women.”

Ang Lee’s amazing adventure yarn, “Life of Pi,” definitely wasn’t intended to be seen on any screen smaller than a barn or in fewer than three dimensions, although standard projection 2D and Blu-ray 3D will do in a pinch. Everything about “Life of Pi” begs superlatives, from the crystalline cinematography to the story that recalls “Robinson Crusoe,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Cast Away,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and, by reversing the setting, “Lawrence of Arabia.” One thing for sure is that, after seeing it, you’ll never again take a glass of water for granted or potential safe haven ignored. The deceptively simple story was adapted from Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same title, which, itself, was heavily influenced by Moacyr Sciliar’s “Max and the Cats.” In it, a 16-year old Indian boy is traveling to Canada, by ship, with his family and some of the animals from their zoo, when disaster strikes. The freighter is capsized in a ferocious storm, but not before Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma) is tossed into a lifeboat and dropped into the roiling waters of the Pacific. When he awakes, Pi discovers that the boat is being shared by a zebra, hyena, orangutan and Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Soon, only the boy and the tiger – who have something of a history together – are left to choose between dying separately, as enemies, or surviving against all odds as allies. During the several weeks Pi and Richard Parker spend drifting on the ocean, several miraculous things happen to and around them. All of them benefit from the skill and imagination of Lee’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda and similarly honored visual-effects team. For the first time since “Avatar,” 3D isn’t merely used as a special-effects tool. The filmmakers’ deploy it as an artist might a differently sized brush or thickness of paint. “Life of Pi” is informed by the boy’s curiosity about different religious philosophies, from Hindu to the Kabbalah, and his conclusion that “faith is a house with many rooms.” Repeat viewers might enjoy counting the “hidden Vishnus” that are scattered throughout the narrative, like “hidden Mickeys” at Disneyland. The Blu-ray comes with several featurettes and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Big Picture: Blu-ray
The path taken by “The Big Picture” from book to screen immediately recalls that of “Tell No One.” Both were adapted for French audiences from novels by American writers – Douglas Kennedy and Harlen Corben, respectively – and, in each, the protagonists are men on the run, one from an accident that resulted in murder and, the other, from police who mistakenly are convinced he murdered his wife. Even though “Tell No One” enjoyed some box-office success here after its delayed release, “The Big Picture” was only accorded a perfunctory arthouse push. Fans of Guillaume Canet’s thriller are encouraged to rush out and find Eric Lartigau’s “The Big Picture.” (In another coincidence, Canet and Lartigau split their time between acting, writing and directing.)

Paul Exben (Romain Duris) seemingly is living the fairytale life of a successful Parisian lawyer with a beautiful wife, two children, and only a short time to wait before his partner (Catherine Deneuve) hands him her share of the business. His wife, however, has begun to feel trapped by her inability to find work as a freelance writer, Paul’s busy schedule and her two screaming children. Sarah (Marina Fois) finds a friend, confidante and, more recently, a lover in the handsome freelance photographer who lives next door in a bourgeois neighborhood. Paul senses that Sarah is unhappy, but his contributions to family stability come too little, too late. After confirming their affair, Paul confronts his neighbor, who, instead of being contrite, taunts him with his supposed shortcomings, which likely were exaggerated by Sarah. In a brief, but deadly dustup, Paul causes the photographer’s head to hit a rock. (Can “manslaughter” be used as a verb?) When he decides to disguise the crime and obliterate any clues leading to him or his wife, Lartigau is able to shift gears by taking the story into territory previously reserved for Alfred Hitchcock, Patricia Highsmith and Claude Chabrol.

Paul decides that the accident might give him the perfect opportunity to rediscover his own life, which once included plans to pursue a photography career. With pinpoint planning and plenty of viable alibis Paul disappears into a beautiful corner of Eastern Europe, where, ironically, his dreams are inadvertently realized. There’s more, of course, but let’s not spoil the fun. There’s no harm in mentioning, though, that Paul’s quest takes him – and us –to several beautiful ports of call and intrigue you’ll never see coming. Some critics have complained about the film’s ambiguous ending, but, it would have been just as easy to find fault in an ending that tied everything up in a neat little bow. Life doesn’t come packaged like that and there’s no law that says movies can’t leave audiences without something to think about besides the price of popcorn. Other movies adapted from Kennedy’s books are “Welcome to Woop Woop” and “The Woman in the Fifth.” – Gary Dretzka

Straight A’s: Blu-ray
More an acting exercise or character study than a fully realized feature film, “Straight A’s” introduces us to several potentially compelling characters, but neglects, until the final 10-15 minutes, to tell us why we should care about them. At the center of “Straight A’s” is a square-peg drifter, Scott, who’s spent most of the last 10 years in and out of rehab or psych wards. We immediately know that he’s some kind of bad boy, because he arrives at the luxurious lake house owned by his estranged brother and sister-in-law on horseback. Traveling by horse prevents Scott (Ryan Phillippe) from getting tickets for DUI, we’re told, and has the added benefit of being a real ice-breaker around the couple’s two adorable, if precocious kids. We aren’t given much of a chance to fall in love with Scott, because he doesn’t seem conversant with any of the social graces most people learn by the time they’re 7. He curses like a sailor around his niece and nephew, ignores the house’s smoking ban, blows off all of the dinners prepared by his socialite sister-in-law, Katherine (Anna Paquin), and makes several unkept promises to the kids. We do sympathize with Scott, however, when he attempts to make contact with his possibly demented father but has a shotgun pulled on him, instead. Otherwise, he’s as nice to have around as any other non-functioning alcohol or junkie.

The one concrete thing we learn about Scott’s life before he drifted off the deep end is that he was in love with Katherine when she still liked to rock ’n’ roll and had yet to fall in love with his brother. As near as I can tell, William (Luke Wilson) is some kind of casino executive or supplier, who’s been out of town for a few days on business and is avoiding Katherine’s calls. William is planning on telling his wife that he wants a divorce, but, in the meantime, is acting as if he’s already single. When he does get home, William is about as happy to see Scott as their father was. Viewers are left to assume that William is pissed off about his brother’s bad behavior or lingering feelings Katherine, who has no idea about the divorce threat, might have for him. Neither are we told why or when Katherine evolved from free-spirit to stick-in-the-mud. Their son retains hope that Scott will honor a commitment to attend an event at his school, but odds are he won’t.

Things come to a head at a final family dinner, at which the old man is sufficiently lucid to read passages out loud from his late wife’s diaries. They trigger emotions that nearly paralyze everyone at the table. At 88 minutes, “Straight A’s” feels more like a short film than a feature and might have been greeted more warmly by distributors if 15 more minutes of background, dialogue or another surprise or two had been added. Phillippe and Paquin do the heavy lifting in James Cox’s drama, although the kids steal most of the scenes in which they’re in. Wilson is as dependable as ever, but isn’t required to stretch. The Blu-ray adds far more bonus material than a movie as incomplete as “Straight A’s” warrants. – Gary Dretzka

The Great Magician: Blu-ray
The overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and establishment of a republic was such an epochal event in China that it’s become a staple of the revitalized national cinema. The turnover of power and turmoil that follows such volcanic eruptions lends themselves to seemingly endless exploitation and interpretation. That the strength of the republic would be tested so soon by feuding warlords, European and Japanese imperialists and political opportunists has only added to the variety of films now available to international audiences. They range from patriotic historical dramas to fantasies, with stops along the way for romance, martial-arts action and comedy. The last time Hollywood threw big money at the subject of the American Revolution – Roland Emmerich and Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” in 2000 – it only barely covered its $110-million nut and probably dissuaded everyone else from trying again anytime soon. The Chinese film industry not only has benefitted from an influx of cash and homegrown talent, but also the growing number of American-style multiplexes.

At 128 minutes, “The Great Magician” overflows with entertaining visual effects, spectacular period costumes and elaborate sets. While Chinese audiences would recognize most of its stars and have some knowledge, at least, of post-Qing history, western audiences are at a distinct disadvantage. Neither does it help that director Yee Tung-Shing can’t seem to decide under which genre heading he wants his film to be listed. The playfulness on display is genuine, though. Tony Leong plays Hsien Chang, an illusionist who’s just returned from Europe and has several more great tricks up his sleeves. One of them involves helping dissidents topple a northern warlord (Ching Wan Lau) who’s also facing threats from rebels espousing republican ideals, Qing loyalists and businessmen who would favor Japanese intervention. Chang’s top priority is to free his former girlfriend and her father, the magician’s mentor, from the warlord’s harem and prison, respectively. There are a couple of WTF? changes of direction near the movie’s climax, but, I think, they help director Yee Tung-Shing tie all of the loose ends together in a neat bow. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette that’s almost as long as the movie. – Gary Dretzka

Shadow People: Blu-ray
Ghost Hunters: Season Eight, Part 1
In the last dozen years, there have been 10 movies whose titles approximate “Shadow People” or employ this unique form of bogeyman as an antagonist. Before 2002, according to, there weren’t any. Reports of unexpected deaths following sightings of human-like shadows began to multiply here with the arrival of refugees from Southeast Asia, displaced after the Vietnam War. In the Philippines, the syndrome is known as bangungot and is associated with a vengeful female demon, batibat, that sits on the chest of its victims. American medical researchers call the phenomenon Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome, but are more interested in finding physiological causes than those associated with the paranormal. Matthew Arnold’s “Shadow People” opens in Thailand, with an older man giving us the folkloric background and a child listening to the discussion dying in his sleep soon thereafter. Closer to home, a skeptical late-night radio host (Dallas Roberts) becomes a believer after being handed a video tape and sketches from a victim.

Soon, other listeners start to witness shadowy images on their walls and die mysteriously in their sleep. A CDC investigator (Alison Eastwood) arrives in the community hoping to recover the evidence from the radio host, so as to debunk it. Before long, she gets the heebie-jeebies, too. The reality is, of course, that it’s the rare human being who hasn’t been scared by the odd shadow or sound. If even half of those folks died, the world would be an empty place. “Shadow People” has several scary moments, but the impact is dulled somewhat by interwoven shots of medical researchers and field trials. Frankly, I don’t think Arnold knew if he wanted to make a thriller or documentary, and settled with something in between. It may be the only theatrical film I’ve seen that comes with a bibliography in the end credits. The Blu-ray adds a bit more background material on SUNDS.

There’s probably more evidence of the existence of ghosts in the first half-hour of “Shadow People” than in eight seasons of the Syfy series, “Ghost Hunters.” This hasn’t stopped the TAPS team from exposing viewers to possibly haunted houses and spooky amusement parks. In the latest volume, the hunters visit a “dead and breakfast,” where a family is being tormented by spirits of the previous owners; a 1700s mansion where the owner was murdered by his slaves, who were then hanged for their crime; and an old brewery where two sisters are “still running the business … from their graves.” Other titles include, “Roller Ghoster,” “Buyer Beware,” “Flooded Souls,” “Moonshine and Madness,” “City Hell,” “Frighternity,” “Ghost of a Marine,” “Family of Spirits,” “Haunted by Heroes,” “Princess and the EVP” and “Please Sign the Ghost Book.” The DVD adds bonus footage. – Gary Dretzka

24-Hour Love
If writer Don B. Welch and director Fred Thomas Jr.’s omnibus rom-dram-com, “24-Hour Love,” were a TV series, an apt title could have been “Love, African-American Style.” Segmented into chapters, it describes a brief period in the lives of seven people that the press material laughingly describes as being “everyday.” Instead, each of the characters is extremely attractive and well-dressed, aggressively middle class and on the brink of one kind of romantic crisis or another. The stories alternate between being funny, sad and melodramatic. If the settings feel a tad cramped, it’s probably because Welch originally intended “24-Hour Love” to be a theatrical piece, but decided, instead, to go the movie route. With a cast that includes Malinda Williams, Tatyana Ali, Keith Robinson, Lynn Whitfield, Flex Alexander, Eva Marcille, Angel Conwell, Chico Benymon and Darius McCrary, it probably wasn’t a difficult choice. Although it might easily have gotten lost on the movie circuit, “24-Hour Love” fits the small screen pretty well. It was the closing-night attraction at the Hollywood Black Film Festival. – Gary Dretzka

Your American Teen
Charles Tayor Gould’s documentary about the sexual exploitation of teenage girls would have been much more effective if it weren’t so determined to make points that aren’t in dispute. “Your American Teen” describes the lives of three girls who got into trouble early and were further enslaved by drugs, pimps and prostitution, pregnancy and having to deal, as well, with the problems of family members. Unfortunately, the girls’ stories are overwhelmed by statistics we’ve all read before and the testimony of sociologists, psychologists, activists, a politician and, briefly, actress Daryl Hannah, whose name adds marquee value to the DVD. While I agree that the entertainment and pop-culture media deserve a lot of the blame for promoting sexual activity in teens and pre-teens, other key factors are explored only anecdotally. Interviews appear to have been conducted separately, but in the same office or backyard, and the passage of time is noted only in the closing interviews, which merely update the girls’ situations. The information transmitted in “Your American Teen,” but Gould’s scope feels far too limited. – Gary Dretzka

Iron Doors
Typicially, individual conceptions of hell square with those passed along through the centuries by theologians, fabulists and artists. Nuns of the Roman Catholic persuasion may not have been as poetic as Dante Alighieri, but, for generations of parochial and Sunday school students, they’ve conjured visions of eternal damnation unmatched by any Hollywood screenwriter. No torture was too painful and no amount of heat of Earth could match that of the average sidewalk in Mister Beelzebub’s Neighborhood. Compared to what happens in “Iron Doors,” Dante’s Inferno is a walk in the park. In it, a yuppie wakes up after a night of boozing on the floor of a large concrete vault, whose only point of egress is a formidable iron door, locked from the outside. At first, the poor slob is belligerent to his captors, naturally assuming they are pranksters with visual and audio accessibility to the room. The vault is completely empty, except for a pair of lockers with a padlock protecting what’s inside them; a dead rat, about to become animated by the motion of maggots; and a fluorescent light fixture. Instead of revealing themselves, whoever imprisoned the man (Axel Wedekind) either were too drunk, themselves, to remember where they left him or had no interest in tormenting him or watching him die. It is in this way that “Iron Doors” differs from “Saw,” “Cube” or other exemplars of torture porn. One might wonder, here, how the prisoner was able to survive without food or water. Suffice it to say, director Stephen Manuel offers a solution to that dilemma, but it’s none too appetizing.

Facilitating Manuel’s conceit is his decision to give the unnamed man hope of escaping, even after denying him communication with outside forces. For example, in a fit of anger, the man punches the light fixture and it reveals the presence of a key that fits the padlock. Instead of having a clown jump out of the locker and slamming a pie in his face, Manuel and writer Peter Arneson provide him with an acetylene-torch kit and tanks of gas. Even if he knew how to use them properly, which he doesn’t, the iron door proves too thick to crack. After one door to hope is closed, however, another opens. There’s no reason to spoil anyone’s surprise as to what happens in the second half of the film, except to suggest that a little bit of hope can be worse than none at all. Working in an extremely tight space, Manuel does a pretty good creating a palpable aura of extreme claustrophobia. If psycho-thrillers are primarily measured by their ability to put viewers in the shoes of the protagonist, “Iron Doors” succeeds pretty well. The movie had been repurposed for 3D, but, given the setting, I can’t imagine that it added much. – Gary Dretzka

Strange Frame
How many animated fantasies can there be that are set in a dystopian universe, where it’s still possible for two beautiful women to meet, fall in love, fight for freedom and, in their spare time, make beautiful music in a jazz and funk band? The answer is, one. “Strange Frame” is a delightfully different sci-fi adventure set 700 years in the future, after survivors of the Great Earth Exodus have find new homes throughout the solar system, including Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede. By the 28th Century, human beings have been genetically re-engineered to survive in environments with once-toxic atmospheres. Naia is an enslaved miner, who, after rioting allows her to escape, finds a gig as a singer-songwriter. When she falls in love with a saxophonist, Parker, their talents merge and they perform as one. Trouble awaits in the form of space pirates and fame whores. Much of what happens in “Strange Frame” can be explained by the filmmakers’ belief that by the time the 28th Century rolls around, our descendants will be living in a completely multiracial society that also has reconciled prejudices based on sexuality and physical appearance. That story, though, is subordinate to the trippy animation, eroticism and music conceptualized by writer/director G.B. Hajim and co-writers Shelly Doty, Julia Ransom and Peter Watts. The hand-drawn and hand-cut animation is a throwback to the brightly colorful days of Peter Max and psychedelic light shows at the Fillmore. The bonus features include a deleted scene and a pair of making-of pieces. The voicing cast includes Claudia Black, Tara Strong, Ron Glass, Cree Summer, Juliet Landau, Michael Dorn and George Takei. – Gary Dretzka

Timerider: Blu-ray
Action Packed Movie Marathon
In show biz, there are concepts that are timeless, others that are timely and still more that require more time in the slow cooker. If movies were made of pasta, it might be possible to throw a few frames against a wall to see if they’ll stick. The trick wouldn’t work even if the movie was a spaghetti Western. Made in 1982, “Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann” was greeted in much the same way as dozens of other low-budget sci-fi flicks. It came, it went and few, if any people could imagine it would enjoy much of an afterlife outside the drive-ins or television. In hindsight, though, “Timerider” had a couple of things going for it, besides being an easy way to kill 94 minutes. For one thing, it was co-written by Michael Nesmith, the best musician among the Monkees and someone who’s been ahead of the video curb for most of the last 40 years. Inadvertently, too, Nesmith and co-writer/director William Dear came up with an idea that would approximate the central conceit of the “Back to the Future” franchise and, in an odd sort of way, “Cowboys & Aliens.

In it, Fred Ward plays a present-day motocross rider, who, while racing in Mexico, is zapped by a scientist experimenting on a time-travel machine. It transports him and his motorbike back to approximately the same location a century earlier. At first, the locals are completely freaked out by the orange-suited and helmeted alien in their midst, not to mention his machine. Once the shock dissipates, though, a band of outlaws sees an opportunity to steal the motorbike and use it for their nefarious ways. The next question that arises naturally is how this time-rider might get back to the present, with or without the vehicle. It’s pretty simple, really, and the humor holds up pretty well. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the rugged Southwestern landscape, while adding Dear’s commentary, storyboards and an interview with Dear and Nesmith. The movie also stars Peter Coyote, Belinda Bauer, Ed Lauter, Richard Masur and L.Q. Jones.

It’s entirely possible that the movies included in “Action Packed Movie Marathon,” Shout Factory’s new package of B-movie non-classics, could have appeared together on the same night in the ’80s at a quadruple-feature at the local drive-in. Although one or two of them probably ended up making money for someone, they aren’t in the same league as Roger Corman’s genre fare. The best thing about them is watching familiar actors sleeping through their performances, dreaming about better movies they’ve made and fatter paychecks.

Like “Timerider,” a high-tech motorcycle is the focus of “Cyclone.” Here, though, everything takes place in the near future, when an inventive mechanic has created a souped-up bike capable of shooting missiles and lasers and deflecting enemy fire with a lightweight armor shield. When her boyfriend (Jeffrey Combs) is murdered, a busty blond biker (Heather Thomas) takes it upon herself to deliver the vehicle to the good guys. The problem is that there don’t appear to be any good guys. Among the cast members are the pre-Oscar Martin Landau, Troy Donahue, Huntz Hall, Bond Girl Martine Beswick and Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael.

Like “Cyclone,” “Alienator” was directed by the insanely prolific Fred Olen Ray. The movie begins in a remote corner of outer space, on a prison ship piloted by Jan-Michael Vincent and P.J. Soles. Somehow, a doomed prisoner escapes in a shuttle that takes him to Earth, where he’s almost immediately run over by a bunch of kids in a camper. John Phillip Law plays the backwoods sheriff who must hold off the intergalactic bounty hunter played by bodybuilder Teagan Clive. “Alienator” makes “Plan 9 From Outer Space” look like “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In “Eye of the Tiger,” Gary Busey plays an ex-Vietnam vet and ex-con Buck Matthews, whose return home is ruined by the antics of a truly sadistic motorcycle gang. Sooner than you can say, “Rambo,” the bikers kill Busey’s wife and desecrate her grave. The gang is led by veteran bad guy William Smith and Yaphet Kotto plays an out-of-town sheriff who has his own Air Force.

Robert Ginty reprises his role as vigilante ex-vet John Eastland in “Exterminator 2.” In the similarly violent sequel, the torch-wielding avenger is stalking Mario Van Peebles, who’s playing a drug lord simply named X. Eastland uses a tricked-out garbage truck to take on X’s gang. A commentary track with the director and Van Peebles comes with the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Red Skelton: The Farewell Specials
PBS: Soul Food Junkies
Nova: Decoding Neanderthals
Jersey Shore: Season Six: The Uncensored Final Season
The son of a circus clown who died two months before he was born, Red Skelton undoubtedly was one of the greatest comedians of the 20th Century. A star of the vaudeville stage, screen, television, radio and fancy showrooms, Skelton was the kind of ubiquitous entertainer who truly didn’t require an introduction. The fact that he’s one of the least known of all the show-business giants today – by people under 40, anyway – owes as much to financial decisions made near the height of his career than any lack of respect on the part of the last two generations of audiences. In the mid-1950s, the Indiana-born entertainer worked simultaneously in films, TV, radio and in Las Vegas. Opting out of his studio contract in the mid-1950s wouldn’t have been enough to make him any less visible than he was at the time. What kept him nearly invisible for the last 30 or 40 years was his decision to withhold any syndication rights to his variety series until after his death. (At one time, his will contained a provision that would have mandated the destruction of all tapes. After his team of writers threatened suit, Skelton eliminated the order.) The circus-inspired portraits that he started painting in 1943 could have easily made up for any lost income, if necessary.

Red Skelton: The Farewell Specials” is comprised of performances from the December of his career. In the mid-1980s, Skelton was seen on HBO in a command performance before Queen Elizabeth, a pair of “Funny Face” specials and a wonderful holiday special, “Freddie the Freeloader’s Christmas Dinner.” In each of the specials, Skelton demonstrates his brilliance as a mime and creator of unforgettable characters. Among the guest stars are Vincent Price, Imogene Coca and Marcel Marceau. You can see in such characters as Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kaddidlehopper, San Fernando Red, the Mean Widdle Kid and Cauliflower McPugg how much is owed to Skelton by the next generation of comedians and actors. The DVD presentation is quite good and the humor holds up exceptionally well.

Before the Food Network, Cooking Channel, the Iron Chef, Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsey, Anthony Bourdain, and, even, the Galloping and Frugal gourmets, there was Julia Child and she could only be found on public-broadcast stations. Although dwarfed by the budgets, marquee chefs and marketing tools, PBS continues to offer some tasty shows about cooking and eating. Rick and Lanie Bayless’ “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” is a perfect example of a show that combines travel, cooking and history and leaves viewers hungry for more. The “Independent Lens” presentation, “Soul Food Junkies,” is a recent PBS show that whetted viewers’ appetites for a hearty helping of foods that are prepared in the African-American tradition. Minutes after doing that, however, filmmaker Byron Hurt pulls the rug out from under them by demonstrating how a meal prepared the old-fashioned way could be killing them. First, though, Hurt traces the history of soul food to Africa and the plantations to which slaves were sold. We already know that slaves were forced to take whatever was left from a chicken or pig after the white family had its pick, and make something new and different from the leftovers. In interviews with scientists, educators and chefs, Hurt is able to show how slaves from one part of Africa created meals and introduced plants – ochre, for instance – that were different than what slaves in other regions were able to prepare. Their specific tastes translated into food that also served in the plantation homes, because “there was a black hand in every pot.” A hungry slave was of no value to anyone and, by working as hard as they did, calories were easy to lose. That isn’t the case for wage-slaves today, however, and the addition of processed ingredients has increased the potential for heart disease and cancer. Hurt also argues that stores in African-American communities should share the blame, by overstocking unhealthy products and produce inferior to that found in suburban neighborhood. “Soul Food Junkies” leaves viewers on a positive note, but, not surprisingly, kicking the habit requires work.

By employing cutting-edge DNA science, “Decoding Neanderthals” is able to speculate on the ramifications of cross-breeding between our Neanderthal and human ancestors and why one outlasted the other. Anyone who can recall the classroom charts that trace man’s evolution, step-by-step, from primates to human, will be surprised by the revelations in the “Nova” presentation. In fact, ongoing genome projects have already determined that mankind continues to benefit from immunities to certain serious diseases passed to humans by Neanderthals through cross-breeding. Although scientists interviewed for the program caution that genome reconstruction is in its infancy, their enthusiasm for the early results is palpable. Blessedly, they keep the science-speak to a minimum, allowing viewers without doctorates to understand what they’re doing.

If Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson weren’t struck by lightning for blaming 9/11 on gays, lesbians, pro-choice advocates, the ACLU and the secularization of America, I feel confident that I won’t be punished for suggesting that Hurricane Sandy was God’s revenge for six seasons of “Jersey Shore.” Actually, while most of Seaside Heights was destroyed in the storm, the “Jersey Shore” house was left mostly unscathed. Take that, “700 Club.” To their credit, cast members and MTV brass combined efforts for a telethon benefitting Architecture for Humanity. The final “uncensored” (not) DVD compilation contains episodes filmed months before Sandy, although I can’t imagine that we’ve seen the last of the Guidos/Guidettes on the yet-to-be rehabilitated boardwalk. Most of Season 6 was spent tying up loose ends and getting ready for spinoff shows and babies. The package adds deleted scenes, after-hour show; the reunion; a “Most Outrageous Moments” piece; and “Gym, Tan, Lookback” and “Breakdowns, Boobs & Bronzer” specials. – 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