MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Jack the Giant Slayer: Blu-ray
Hansel & Gretel Get Baked
Much has already been made of the hugely disappointing box-office returns for “Jack the Giant Slayer” – not to be confused with the straight-to-video turkey, “Jack the Giant Killer” – and what they portend for other fairytale movies, already in production. I’ve reviewed so many of them in the last year that gingerbread houses and magic mirrors have begun to appear in my dreams. I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to sample any of them in theaters, but, since they’re delivered to my doorstep, anyway, why not? The one thing all of them have in common, besides a reliance on CGI effects, is a desire on the part of their investors to attract audiences in all four demographic quadrants. If memory serves, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is the only one with the chutzpah to accept an “R” rating and cater to the quadrant that contains males who dig watching awful things happen to fantasy characters and don’t need a parent or guardian to hold their hands. “Jack the Giant Slayer” fits awkwardly within the PG-13 mold, with enough wild action to keep teens happy, but not enough gore to please hard-core buffs. Given the familiarity of the story, though, I’m not sure what the appeal would be to adults with or without children sufficiently mature to handle some scary images. That said, however, I will admit to enjoying most of the movie’s 114 minutes, including the scenes in which normal-sized human characters interacted other normal-sized human characters. The giants were entertaining, as well.

Bryan Singer’s version of the ancient story combines the British tales “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” with northern European and Persian myths in which a “world tree,” garden stalk or vine connects Earth and heaven. Long before the arrival of mere mortals, the cord was cut to prevent demonic species from escaping their middle kingdom in the clouds and conquering the planet. Only a handful of seeds capable of re-growing such mighty beanstalks remain and they were entombed with the body of King Erik, the original giant slayer, along with his magic crown. Somehow, those are the very seeds that are traded for Jack the Farm Boy’s horse. At the same time as Jack’s getting his ass kicked by his dad for being hosed on the deal, flighty Princess Isabelle has an argument with the king and traipses out of Cloister Castle. Long story short, after being rescued from thugs by Jack (Nicholas Hoult), Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is kidnapped and taken into the cloud kingdom. When the beanstalk blooms, Jack and the king’s guard, Elmont (Ewan McGregor), embark on a mission that SEAL Team 6 wouldn’t attempt without three months of training. Singer throws in enough variables to keep viewers already familiar with the tale guessing for the next 90 minutes, as well as some tremendously imaginative stuff in the giants’ kingdom.

Coincidental to my watching “Jack the Giant Slayer” on sparkling Blu-ray, TMC was showing Abbott & Costello’s 1952 comedy, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which, besides being funny, demonstrates that elasticity of the tale. The giant looked more like Andre the Giant than Bill Nighy and John Kassir’s double-headed General Fallon in “Giant Slayer.” I was also constantly reminded of the giants created by Ray Harryhausen for his many fantasies. From what I can tell, the CGI effects ought to please owners of HD3D sets. The Blu-ray package adds an interactive game, a deleted scene, gag reel, DVD and UltraViolet copy, and an extensive making-of featurette.

I didn’t receive a screener of “Hansel & Gretel Get Baked” in time to couple it with last week’s review of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” but fairytale completests should be made aware of its existence. “Hansel & Gretel Get Baked,” as you might have already guessed, combines horror, gore and stoner humor in the service of a contemporary folk tale. Anyone who can remember the Grimm Brothers’ version should have no trouble imagining it updated to fit 21st Century standards. Here, Hansel and Gretel (Molly C. Quinn, Michael Welch) come across a little old lady in Pasadena (Lara Boyle) selling killer pot, which she grows in her basement. The witch uses her trademark Black Forest strain to lure young vipers to her Craftsman-style living room. After serving them herbal tea, it’s easy to enslave and eat them. The more human tissue the witch eats, the younger she looks. No need to reveal what happens next, except to say that, yes, a furnace is involved. You can find it on VOD or, next week, on DVD. For serious potheads, I recommend hosting an uproarious double feature with Abbott & Costello’s “Jack and the Beanstalk.” – Gary Dretzka

It’s a Disaster: Blu-ray
What begins as a “couples’ brunch” in “It’s a Disaster” slowly evolves into a pre-apocalypse Last Supper, as the toxins from a “dirty bomb” begin to spread through a quiet neighborhood in Los Angeles. Because no one listens to the radio, anymore, and no one’s getting wireless reception on their laptops and cellphone – their carrier is AT&T, of course — none of the yuppies gathered in a nicely restored bungalow has a single clue about what’s just happened, 15 miles away. (It must have had a silencer.) This allows the couples, singularly and in tandem, to take passive-aggressive cheap shots at each other, while waiting for the veggies to be served. When a neighbor arrives at the doorstep in a hazmat suit, however, the brunch turns into a last supper. The way writer/director Todd Berger has set things up, there’s no escaping the nerve gas and, if anyone attempts to escape, it’s curtains. Nonetheless, the diners have time to engage in conversations ranging from silly to almost profound. Some attempt to have one last crack at each other sexually, while others get drunk and dance. Apart from the lack of noticeable racial diversity – America Ferrera, notwithstanding – the characters seem reasonably representative of yuppies who have given up the dating game, preferring the convenience and security of coupledom, which, as we see, also has its drawbacks.

Anyone familiar with David Cross (“Arrested Development”) will know to expect the kind of sneaky-smart comedy he’s delivered on such TV shows as “Arrested Development,” “The Incredibly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” and “Mr. Show” and with the Vacationeers and Second City improv troupes. Indeed, much of “It’s a Disaster” appears to have been improvised. The Blu-ray adds a funny commentary track; “Tour With Todd”; a discussion at ComicCon 2012; and three Vacationeers online shorts, “Google Maps,” “Julia Stiles Styles” and “Excuse Me.” – Gary Dretzka

The Brass Teapot: Blu-ray
If the WGA was truly interested in acknowledging “the art and craft of storytelling,” as its public-relations campaign argues, it would demand that all wordsmiths be given credit for their efforts, no matter how dead they may be. Too often, adaptations of works in the public domain credit screenwriters who already have been given a headstart. I appreciate the laws protecting copyrights and the rationale behind allowing important works to be given away like so much swag at an awards ceremony. I do. Walt Disney was pretty good about giving credit where credit was due, when lifting and reinventing something popularized a hundred years earlier by the Brothers Grimm. Of the five movies that carry “Hansel & Gretel” in their titles, only one acknowledges the source material. The bible and Koran have inspired even more movies than the Grimms, and with even less acknowledgement. With the sad shape America’s libraries are in these days, especially in large budget-strapped cities, it would be a nice touch if WGA members found a way to rescue one or two of them a year, at least. (To be fair, maybe they already are doing such a service to society.)

Ramaa Mosley and Tim Macy’s “The Brass Teapot” is sufficiently original to not require an “inspired by” credit for Scheherazade. It’s impossible, though, not to conjure visions of “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp.” The cautionary dramedy tells the story of a similarly magical kitchen vessel, which, instead of wishes, spits out currency whenever the person who possesses it feels pain. The teapot’s origins can be traced to the Old Testament and, since then, it has passed through the hands of common folk and monsters, alike. Michael Angarano and the ever-wonderful Juno Temple portray a down-on-their-luck couple, John and Alice, about to be buried in an avalanche of debt. Seventy years earlier it had belonged to Adolph Hitler. — Gary Dretzka

Movie 43: Blu-ray
21 & Over: Blu-ray
Even hard-core fans of gross-out flicks have their limits and, in the outrageous sketch comedy “Movie 43,” most of them will be severely tested. I’d be willing to wager that some buffs wouldn’t be able to get past the first chapter, in which Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet share what might go down as the worst blind date in the history of blind dates. Don’t take my word for it, though, check out Peter Farrelly’s “The Catch” and try to trump it. Amazingly, it’s not even the most tasteless short film in the bunch. This isn’t to suggest the films aren’t funny, though. It’s as if a studio executive challenged Farrelly, Bob Odenkirk, Elizabeth Banks, Steven Brill, Rusty Cundieff, Griffin Dunne, Brett Ratner and several other directors and writers to create the movie equivalent of “The Aristocrats.” As a device to link them together, Dennis Quaid was brought on board to impersonate a desperate screenwriter pitching ideas no one in their right might mind would green-light in a million years. Greg Kinnear and Common play the studio suits who are forced, at gunpoint, to listen to the pitches, which are then dramatized for us. And, of course, to describe them in words is to destroy the gags.  The most interesting thing here, however, is to discover how many A-listers agreed to participate in such an edgy project: Seth MacFarlane, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Anna Faris, Richard Gere, Kate Bosworth, Jack McBrayer, Kristen Bell, Chloe Grace Moretz, Patrick Warburton, Gerard Butler, Halle Berry, Josh Duhamel and Tony Shalhoub and Julianne Moore in a sketch that was trimmed from the theatrical release but is included in the bonus package. One viewer’s thumb’s-up being another’s thumb’s-down, it’s impossible to recommend “Movie 43” to anyone whose boundaries were crossed by “There’s Something About Mary” or “American Pie.” If not, “Movie 43” might prove to be a godsend.

Incredibly, the nearly impossible to watch, “21 & Over,” was written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, also responsible for the screenplays for “The Hangover,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “Four Christmases.” It’s possible that they found the script for this completely derivative gross-out flick in a long-forgotten box, which also included their high-school yearbooks, blue-book essays and unused condom wrappers. In addition to borrowing nearly every lame cliché from the scores of frat-boy comedies made in the wake of “Animal House,” “21 & Over” features a cast of actors who may be familiar to sitcom trivia buffs, but no one else has ever seen. It also freely cannibalizes bits from “The Hangover.” As the title suggests, one of the characters is about to turn 21 and his good buddies can’t resist the temptation to ignore his protestations and take him out for a night of debauchery. Of course, the birthday boy (Justin Chon) has an important interview scheduled for the next morning and his father might actually kill him if he blows it. Let the games begin. The rest of the movie carries as many funny bits as the number of prizes found in a Cracker Jack box – one — and it doesn’t arrive in time to save anything that’s happened previously. “21 & Over” is strictly for viewers who’ve yet to reach that age and think beer pong should be an Olympics sport. The Blu-ray adds a few making-of pieces and a gag reel. – Gary Dretzka

Let My People Go!
Not being gay or Jewish, I didn’t know how much offense I should take, if any, at the archetypal characters in Mikael Buch’s silly French sex farce, “Let My People Go!” The portrayals of the straight gentiles didn’t bother me all that much, but, then, they weren’t given much to do except get out of the way when the doors begin to slam. The protagonist of the story (co-written by Christophe Honore), which opens in rural Finnish town, is French/Jewish/gay Ruben (Nicolas Maury), who serves the picturesque community by delivering the mail. He lives with his non-Jewish/Finn husband, Teemu (Jarkko Niemi), in a quaint lakeside cabin. One day, Ruben delivers a package full of money to a homeowner, who mysteriously refuses to accept it. When the man tries in vain to the give the package back to the mailman, he suffers a heart attack and collapses on the ground. Believing the man to be dead, Ruben scoops up the package and takes it home. Ever the drama queen, Ruben convinces Teemu that his actions led to the man’s death and is afraid he’ll be arrested for murder, although even a manslaughter charge would be a stretch. Ruben becomes so hysterical that Teemu orders him to call the cops or split. When he chooses the latter, “Let My People Go!” picks up its stakes and leaves for Paris, too.

With Passover right around the corner, things are no less mashugana in the posh apartment of Ruben’s bourgeois father and mother. In fact, his dilemma isn’t nearly as pressing as the problems of his parents, siblings and lawyer, who seduces Ruben when he seeks the counsel of the much older man. Before you can say, “Oy, vey,” the comedy of manners turns into a full-blown farce. Blessedly, the veteran cast – including the wonderful Aurore Clement and Carmen Maura – are able to keep up with the madness and save the story from getting any more out of control than it already is. While “Let My People Go!” didn’t win over many reviewers in its limited run here, it copped the Critics Prize at the delightfully named Mons International Festival of Love Films … so, take that, Metacritic. The DVD includes a featurette on the whimsical set design. – Gary Dretzka

Come Out and Play: Blu-ray
23:59: Blu-ray
The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse: Blu-ray
The Last Exorcism: Part II: Blu-ray
Everyone Must Die!
Imagine a rookie ballplayer stepping up to the plate for the first time and hitting a walk-off homerun. That’s pretty much what freshman filmmaker Makinov does in “Come Out and Play,” a remake of the little-seen Spanish thriller, “Who Can Kill a Child?” In it, an American couple that’s expecting their third child decides to have an adventure while on vacation in Quintana Roo, Mexico. To escape the noisy crowds in the resort town they’re visiting, they decide to rent a motorboat to get them to a remote island. Upon their arrival, they’re greeted by a couple of dozen children frolicking on the pier. After entering the tiny village, Francis (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and his heavily pregnant wife Beth (Vinessa Shaw) notice immediately that all of the adults appear to be gone or are lying in the dirt streets dead or dying. Meanwhile, the kids they met at the pier have begun to surround them. Others are beating a wounded man to death, without concern for witnesses. Something clearly has gone terribly wrong on this idyllic island. Moreover, apart from a static-filled short-wave radio, all communications with the mainland have been lost and their boat has been put out of commission. There’s a Jeep handy, but no escape routes. Multi-hyphenate Makinov is no hurry to explain what caused the kids to go feral. With Francis and Beth’s lives in jeopardy, however, it’s pretty much beside the point. “Come Out and Play” compares favorably with such spoiled-vacation and killer-kids movies as “Lord of the Flies,” “Village of the Damned,” “Open Water,” “Dead Calm” and “Dawn of the Dead.” Francis’ fear for his helpless wife and unborn child is palpable, as is the sociopathic menace on the faces of the children. At a screening at last year’s Austin Fantastic Festival, Makinov arrived wearing a red mask and pushing a manifesto not unlike Dogma 95. He needn’t have bothered, because “Come Out and Play” speaks for itself.

If the Singaporean soldiers we meet in the “23:59” don’t remind us much of those in “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon,” it might be because they’re probably more suited to serving the affluent city-state as bankers and corporate executives. Apparently, Singapore has an advanced, Israeli-trained Air Force, but there isn’t much room on the island for hand-to-hand combat. Nonetheless, all males and an increasing number of women must endure several weeks of training on a remote tropical island, with none of the amenities they soon come to expect. What concerns the recruits most in Gilbert Chan’s ghost story is the vindictive spirit of an elderly woman who haunts the tropical island upon which all National Service recruits train. As the folk tale goes, the woman had the misfortune of dying at precisely 11:59 p.m. (a.k.a., 23:59), which means that she will never be allowed to rest. Or, she could simply be a troubled old lady whose madness causes her to lay in wait for the occasional soldier to cross her path. “23:59” isn’t terribly well made or even very scary. There are a few spooky surprises along the way, however, including one or two good ones toward the end. The soldiers mostly speak Mandarin, but occasionally lapse into English for no apparent reason.

Anyone who hasn’t already gotten his or her fill of revisionist zombies – “Warm Bodies,” “World War Z” etc. — might want to check out the animated feature, “The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse.” Adapted from stories in Buz Hasson and Ken Haeser’s “The Living Corpse” comic books, it introduces non-readers to the title character (a.k.a., John R. Romero), who breaks nearly all of the rules of zombiedom. Guilt-ridden after killing and eating the brains of his wife and daughter, and nearly murdering his son, the Living Corpse invests all of the energy he has left from scooping protein out of craniums into protecting the innocent against less-benevolent undead and other criminals. If that sounds far-fetched, well, it is. The animation isn’t bad, though, especially in Blu-ray.

If it weren’t for the estimable presence of petite contortionist Ashley Bell, who’s reprising her role of the possessed Nell in “The Last Exorcism,” even fans of the original would have no reason to return for “The Last Exorcism: Part II.” Bell was nominated for Independent Spirit, Fangoria Chainsaw and MTV awards for her “scared as shit performance” in the surprise 2010 hit, which gave no indication that it was “Part I.” All title-parsing aside, that $2-million movie reportedly made $70 million at the international box office, so the only mystery here is why it’s taken three years to capitalize on that success. By comparison, the sequel only managed to scare up $15 million, although it should do fine in DVD. The problem here is that co-writer/director Ed Gass-Donnelly – whose terrific gothic thriller, “Small Town Murder Songs,” is well worth a rental – takes a restrained approach to the genre, offering only a handful of genuinely scary moments and far too many flashbacks. The plot can be summed up by pointing out that little Nell is back in New Orleans, desperately in need of a new exorcism. The package adds commentary by Gass-Donelly and brand-name producer Eli Roth; two short interview packages; and a hidden camera prank in which Bell, in full costume and makeup, appears to women in a hair salon from behind a mirror. It’s the best thing on the whole DVD.

The occasionally scary Swedish import, “Mara,” tells the story of a voluptuous blond, Jenny, who, as a girl, witnessed a terrible tragedy take place at home and has been scarred by its memory. Jenny is encouraged by her shrink to return to the residence, which is surrounded by forest, to confront her fears and anxiety. That might be good advice for guests on “Dr. Phil,” but not for characters in horror movies. If it were made in America, “Mara” wouldn’t be much different than a couple thousand other slow-build genre flicks released since “Psycho.” It stands out from the crowd in Scandinavia, however, because filmmakers there have yet to begin churning out slasher and other gorefests by the dozens. Made for a miniscule $10,000, “Mara” looks as if it cost much more money. Credit for this goes to Pidde Andersson, a native-born Swede whose resume includes technical work on six different “Bikini Something-or-Other” flicks. In fact, Andersson is the only person on the cast or crew who has more than one credit to his name. The film’s biggest draw, however, is the debut of model Angelica Jansson, who may be as well-known in Europe as Cindy Crawford was when she made “Fair Game.” She’s a bona-fide babe with a fresh Nordic looks, expressive eyes and a body that looks great even in blood drenched panties and soiled cotton tank top. The bonus features are Jansson-centric, as well.

Even by the low standards to which micro-budget DIY horror flicks are held, “Everybody Must Die!” smacks of “Amateur Night in Dixie.” Made for an estimated $3,500 by Pennsylvania gore auteur Paul Rudzinski (“Scream Park”), “EMD” documents the slaughter of young adults in several small towns, in which people lounge around, drinking beer, while a slasher or slashers are on the loose. The villain is a seemingly immortal swordsman, who dresses in a black ninja outfit and appears out of nowhere when potential victims find their way onto his radar screen. After his sister is killed by the indiscriminate villain, the handsome and brave Kyle (Nick Lamantia) joins hands with local law-enforcement officials to end the bloodshed. Although the best thing about “EMD” is the willingness of the Rubenesque actresses to go topless whenever the story begins to run out of steam, aspiring DIY filmmakers might pick up some tricks and cheap laughs from its attempts to satirize genre conventions. Making a film for peanuts and finding distribution, after all, is frequently more difficult than shooting one backed by millions of dollars of other people’s money. The bonus package adds interviews, a music video, bloopers and alternate takes. – Gary Dretzka

Lifeforce: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Howling: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Once again, Shout!Factory demonstrates its importance not only as a distributor of niche entertainment, but also as a force in the preservationist movement. This is especially true of movies only a genre buff might consider to be a classic worthy of restoration and fresh bonus material. Working from the Cannon Films catalog, Shout!Factory has shed new light on titles that ranged from pure exploitation to arthouse in the wild and wooly 1980s. In addition to being great fun to watch, “Lifeforce” and “The Howling” are significant both for the names found on the list of credits and the effectiveness of non-CGI effects. “Lifeforce” was adapted from Colin Wilson’s self-explanatory “The Space Vampires.” It opens during a mission to investigate Halley’s Comet, led by Steve Railsback (“The Stunt Man”), discovers a gigantic alien spacecraft that looks as if it has an umbrella on its tip. Inside, the vessel is essentially a vampire mausoleum, with three humanoids encased in Plexiglas coffins. One re-animated, the aliens have no intention of being poked and prodded in a scientific autopsy. The exceedingly vivacious Mathilda May plays the seductress alien, who’s able to suck the souls from humans distracted by her nude outer shell. At some point, and I’m not sure where it is, “Lifeforce” turns into a zombie flick with the undead taking over and destroying London. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? “Lifeforce” was directed by Tobe Hooper (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), co-written by Dan O’Bannon (“Alien”), scored by Henry Mancini, effects coordinated by John Dykstra and it co-starred Colin Firth, Patrick Stewart and Frank Finlay. The film was cut and tinkered with savagely for the American release (both versions are available here) and has been relegated to footnotes since then.  The Blu-ray package adds look-back interviews with May, Railsback and Hopper; Hopper and his makeup-effects designer’s commentary; a vintage making-of featurette; and a stills gallery.

With the nearly simultaneous release of Joe Dante’s “The Howling” and John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London,” 1981 turned out to be huge year for lycanthropes. The common denominator was the effects wizardry of Rick Baker, who was required to hand over the reins “Howling” to protégé Rob Bottin when production of “American Werewolf” finally launched. The dramatic transformation of man to wolf — seemingly in real time – in both movies was deemed sufficiently amazing for the Motion Picture Association to inaugurate a new special-effects award category, which went to Baker for “American Werewolf.” The new visual opportunities allowed for a reinterpretation of werewolves in horror movies, from troubled canines to full-blown monsters. In “Howling,” Dee Wallace plays a TV reporter involved in a sting operation to capture the violent pervert who’s been harassing her. After being shot and killed by police, suspicions of something far more sinister arise when the fiend’s corpse disappears from the morgue. Traumatized by her part in the sting, the reporter takes her shrink up on his offer to recuperate at his seaside retreat in Mendocino. Not surprisingly, the type of therapy offered at the Colony isn’t quite what the doctor ordered. Dante and co-writers John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless – loosely interpreting Gary Brandner’s novel – have fun not only with the werewolf mythos, but also certain then-current trends in psychotherapy. “The Howling” turned out to be simultaneously dark, sexy, funny and violent, as well as widely imitated. The Blu-ray transfer looks and sounds excellent and the supplemental package is generous. The extras include two commentary tracks; interviews with Wallace, Winkless, stop-action animator David Allen, editor Mark Goldblatt and executive producer, Steven A. Lane, who used the success of “The Howling” to create a seven-title franchise; an amusing visit to locations; deleted scenes and outtakes; and a vintage making-of featurette. (Those already familiar with werewolf mythology and the Hidden Mickeys game at Disneyland might enjoy counting the film’s large number of obvious and subtle lupine references.) – Gary Dretzka

In the true heart of America’s heartland, the underdog movie against which all other such films are measured is “Hoosiers.” What happened to the Milan Indians in the 1954 Indiana State Basketball Championships is roughly what happened to the Gibsonburg Golden Bears in the 2005 Ohio baseball championships. The difference: Milan was less an underdog than Gibsonburg and baseball doesn’t offer the same religious experience in Ohio that basketball does in Indiana. While “Gibsonburg” contains certain melodramatic off-the-field conceits, the essential fact is the same. The town’s Division IV team was a lackluster 6-17 going into the playoffs, where they went 8-0. To say that the Bears didn’t believe in themselves would be an understatement. Until the playoffs, the highlight of the season was a trip to McDonald’s, compliments of the coach. Otherwise, most of the usual time-honored clichés apply, including the announcers’ role in driving the narrative during the crucial games. The sidebar story about how “Gibsonburg” got made is inspiring, as well. Writer/co-director/producer Bob Mahaffey had always dreamed of making a movie and, in Gibsonburg’s champs, he saw an opening. The movie wouldn’t cost much by Hollywood standards, but, even so, it took the help of 20 college interns to ultimately get the job done. For almost everyone in the cast and crew, “Gibsonburg” represented their first movie credit and the lack of experience shows on the screen. The exception is Cleveland native Lili Reinhart, whose Hollywood career has already begun. Among the first-timers is cinematographer Casey Smith. His images of rural Ohio in spring and several brilliant Midwest sunsets border on the breathtaking. – Gary Dretzka

Death by China
Peter Navarro’s intentionally alarmist documentary concerns this country’s startling imbalance of trade with the People’s Republic of China, a pseudo-communist country that mocks everything Marx and Engels put forward. While the country’s economy is booming and new millionaires are minted every day, factory workers labor under plantation conditions and peasants in the countryside starve. If anyone’s sharing the wealth, it isn’t the proletariat. “Death by China” describes how a free-trade agreement, approved in 2001 with bipartisan support in Congress, has allowed the PRC to siphon tens of millions of jobs from western countries by offering corporations a haven for cheap labor and tax avoidance. While this agreement has helped strengthen the bottom lines of countless American companies, it has also opened our doors to all manner of junk products, including drugs and toys made from toxic compounds. Not all of the products are inferior, of course, but most could have been produced here just as easily, if not nearly as cheaply. Navarro is more impassioned about the long-term damage being done to western economies, whose debts to a totalitarian government already are astronomical. His arguments are backed by the testimony of noted experts and other interested parties, while the other side’s points are noticeably absent. The biggest drawback to the documentary is the overall tone, which sometimes borders on the hysterical. The DVD includes a director’s statement and commentary, a music video of the theme song and the short, “Death by Chinese Junk.” Even if the film is short on solutions, viewers forced to learn how to speak Chinese in 10 years can’t say they weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka

Dino King: Blu-ray 3D/2D
Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness: Good Croc, Bad Croc
While watching the 3D adventure from Korea, “Dino King” (a.k.a., “Tarbosaurus”), I was reminded of the hoopla that surrounded the 1998 release of “T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous” on IMAX 3D. At the time, the format was still in its infancy as a vehicle for commercial exploitation. Its use was pretty much limited to theaters attached to museums and other educational facilities. At 45 minutes, “T-Rex” fit what was then believed to be the limitations of viewers’ ability to comfortably endure 3D in theaters. For IMAX, too, it signaled an attempt to convince museum officials to book 3D movies that weren’t strictly about fish, rocket ships or roller-coasters. Even though “T-Rex” told a story that combined entertainment, high-tech thrills and education – it was set at a site for paleontological research — some facilities still deemed it insufficiently scholastic. Their loss became Hollywood’s gain, of course. Instead of having to put on ridiculously oversized glasses, on cue, “Dino King” can be enjoyed using normal-sized spectacles for its entire 88-minute length. It tells the Disney-esque story of a Tyrannosaur, from its emergence from an egg to adulthood, without skipping over the cold realities of life among a large and varied population of predators. What would have been considered mind-blowing in 1998 is routine in 2013, both in technical terms and story-telling. Nonetheless, even in Blu-ray 2D, there’s no reason to think dino-nut kids wouldn’t fully enjoy “Dino King.”

“Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness: Good Croc, Bad Croc” is a co-production of DreamWorks Animation and Nickelodeon, where these half-dozen episodes first appeared. Po and the Furious Five — Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Crane and Viper – continue to battle for peace, justice and the Chinese/American way. The titles from the 2011-12 season include the title short, “The Princess and the Po,” “Chain Reaction,” “Bad Po,” “Jailhouse Panda,” “Father Crime” and “Po Fans Out.” FYI: the third DreamWorks feature is scheduled for 2015. – Gary Dretzka

Sundance Channel: Rectify
HBO: Web Therapy: The Complete Second Season
FX: Wilfred: The Complete Season 2
Drop Dead Diva: The Complete Fourth Season

There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when every new television season was greeted with anxious anticipation. That was when the broadcast networks presented new shows worth the wait, of course. Today, cable subscribers look forward to each new series as possibly being something very special, especially when they’re associated with a producer or star of a big hit. “Rectify,” the first original series on Sundance, shares producers and writers with such quality shows as “Breaking Bad,” “Justified,” “CSI,” “Nurse Jackie” and “Luck.” Like other cable series, “Rectify” started slow, allowing viewers to find it and figure out what was happening and what characters to follow. The protagonist of “Rectify” is Daniel Holden, a young man who’s spent the last 19 years on Death Row in the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend. Whether he’s innocent or not, Holden’s conviction was vacated due to new DNA evidence. After all that time, Holden’s naturally a bit confused about life in 2013, even in a small Southern town where getting a new restaurant franchise is considered to be progress. Needless to say, in such places, being freed on a technicality is tantamount to being having an asterisk attached to your name on every public document you’ve signed. Holden’s most compelling characteristic is his intellectual curiosity, which he acquired in prison and isn’t ashamed to show off. His distant personality does take some getting used to, however. The series has been renewed for another go-round, this time for 10 episodes. The DVD includes several backgrounders and interviews with cast and crew.

Of all the former “Friends,” I think it can be safely argued that Lisa Kudrow has had the most interesting post-show career. After playing the stereotypically ditzy blond on “Friends,” she has tackled several movie and TV roles that not only have tested her acting chops, but also toyed with our memories of Phoebe Buffay. Her collaborations with Don Roos — “Happy Endings” and “The Opposite of Sex” –have demonstrated her range as an actor in quirky independents. “Web Therapy” offers her another opportunity to showcase her intelligence. The clever idea behind the series has her Dr. Fiona Wallice changing the way psychiatrists interface with their patients in the digital age. Instead of conducting 50-minute sessions cluttered with “psycho-babble,” she limits her Internet meetings to three minutes, with much of the time spent discussing her own problems. The Showtime series began its life on the Internet, as webisodes often featuring A-list stars in improvised conversations. In Season Two, Wallice was called upon to show her support for her inattentive husband’s political campaign, while also being made aware of his indiscretions. Kudrow co-created the series with Roos and Dan Bucatinsky (“Scandal”). Among the guest stars are Victor Garber, Rosie O’Donnell, Alan Cumming, Conan O’Brien, Minnie Driver, Meryl Streep, Courtney Cox and Lily Tomlin.

Of all the offbeat characters on television, Jason Gann’s thoroughly unlikable shaggy dog, Wilfred, may be the most delightfully obnoxious. Dressed in a moth-eaten costume, Wilfred fulfills everyone’s worst fear of a bad neighbor or the dog belonging to a bad neighbor. The FX show’s titular protagonist, Last season, Ryan (Elijah Wood), was asked by his pretty blond neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), to dogsit Wilfred whenever she’s away from home. Ryan’s a seriously depressed fellow, who not only treats the dog as if he were human, but also his therapist. In return, Wilfred enjoys manipulating Ryan and picking at his neuroses like they were scabs. The problem, of course, is that Ryan is the only person on Earth who sees Wilfred as a costumed dog. To everyone else, he’s merely a large and occasionally bothersome pet. That we also accept Wilfred as something other than a large pet requires surprisingly little suspension of disbelief. In the second season, Ryan makes a fresh start with a real job and a new girlfriend. It gives Wilfred more ammunition than he needs to torment Ryan. Look for Robin Williams, Steven Weber, Mary Steenburgen, Chris Klein and Dwight Yoakam in guest-starring roles.

Reports of the death of Lifetime’s legal dramedy, “Drop Dead Diva,” were rampant last January. Much to the chagrin of fans who tuned in for the cliffhanger season finale, the speculation turned out to be true. Their prayers were answered a few weeks later when the cable channel and Sony Pictures Television announced that they’d agreed on a cost-cutting strategy that would save the still-popular show for one more season, at least. Brooke Elliott stars as Jane, a plump lawyer who dies saving the life of her boss. She’s rewarded by having to accept the soul of a fashion model killed before her time in a car accident. During the course of the show’s four-year run, the model has gradually learned what it takes to be a solid citizen with a gracious heart, while still being able to take advantage of being pretty. Series creator Josh Berman rightly describes the show as a “cross between ‘Freaky Friday’ and ‘Heaven Can Wait.’” Guest stars include Joan Rivers, Kelly Osbourne, Serena Williams, Star Jones and Valerie Harper. The DVD adds outtakes and 14 deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Justin Bieber: Always Believing
Apart from becoming a world-class media brat and road menace, Justin Bieber continues to be one of the most valuable entertainment properties in the world. As a publicist remarks in “Justin Bieber: Always Believing,” he’s become a one-man brand. I don’t get the Canadian singer’s appeal, but, then, I don’t have to understand it. Millions of 12-year-old girls can’t all be wrong. “Always Believing” doesn’t contain any original music or direct interviews with the superstar. Instead, it’s comprised of material in the public domain gathered on red carpets, at press conferences and interviews with such kindred spirits as boy band Mindless Behavior and rapper Lil Twist. Testimony from Usher, Drake, Sean Kingston and Nicki Minaj is included, as is romantic gossip. If nothing else, “Always Believing” might help parents understand what’s going on in the minds of their Beliebers. – Gary Dretzka

British Royal Children of the 20th Century
Unlike every news anchor, talk-show host and gossip columnist on the planet, I don’t have the vaguest clue as to when the Edward and Kate’s royal bundle of joy is supposed to arrive. If it’s a baby of the male persuasion, it won’t take long before someone brings up the possibility of marriage between the newly minted prince and Kim Kardashian’s daughter. That would raise eyebrows, would it? “British Royal Children of the 20th Century” celebrates the arrivals of England’s new princes and princesses throughout the last century via newsreels and other archival material. The narrators suggest that, throughout the 20th Century, the arrival of a new royal child in Britain unified the nation and strengthened the affinity of the British people with the monarchy … not to mention, sell commemorative plates and other souvenirs. Among the royals surveyed are Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, Edward Duke Of Kent, Princess Alexandra of Kent, Prince Michael of Kent, Prince Richard: Duke of Gloucester, Prince William: Duke of Gloucester, Prince Charles, Viscount Linley, Lady Sarah, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward, Prince William, Prince Henry (Harry), Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie, Peter Phillips and Zara Phillips. – 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