MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Nguyen’s hugely affecting story about young love in a time of endless war was one of the best films of 2012 and you almost certainly never knew of it. “War Witch” screened at a handful of festivals and short qualifying runs in one or two big-city theaters, but only those who pay close attention to such things are aware that the French-language film represented Canada in AMPAS and IFP’s Best Foreign Language races. The overwhelming popularity of and positive buzz surrounding “Amour” effectively ensured that all other contenders would be left in its dust and likely bypass theaters for an afterlife on DVD. Subtract Michael Haneke’s heart-wrenching drama from the mix and “War Witch” might have been the front-runner. As it is, “War Witch” and its lead actress, Rachel Mwanza, grabbed prestigious prizes at the Tribeca, Berlin, Cambridge, Catalonian and Vancouver festivals and took year-end honors at Camerimage, Canada’s Genie and Jutra awards, the National Board of Review, Satellite and other critics’ groups. And, yes, it’s every bit that good. While we’ve all read and seen documentaries about the abduction of children by brutal warlords, nothing I’ve seen has dramatized the indoctrination process this well, while also telling an amazing story of a generation of African children’s resilience and courage. It does so without also pinpointing one specific rebel group or country in which such a hideous practice takes place. Take your pick. It’s enough to believe that children shouldn’t be forced to fight and kill for the political beliefs of an egomaniacal guerrilla leader.

Komona (Mwanza) is only 12 years old when she is kidnapped by rebel soldiers, who sweep into her quiet village one afternoon in motorized dugout canoes. After killing the adults, the rebels grab children deemed old enough to fight. Some of the guerrillas are only slightly older than their captives. To convince the children of their ability to perform cruel acts of violence, while also defending themselves against government troops, rebel commanders employ drugs, fear of punishment and manipulation of their religious beliefs. When the warlord learns of Komona’s ability to foretell the enemy’s movements in the dense jungle and visualize the ghosts of those killed—her parents included—he bestows on her an AK-47 blessed by his personal wizard. As she comes to accept her role, Komona falls in love in love with a white-haired fighter, Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), nearly her age. He took her under his wing during boot camp and honored whatever dignity she still possessed. Their mutual journey from “the shadows to the light” begins on a humorous note with Magicien’s search for the white rooster she requires before marriage. What begins as a veritable snipe hunt, ends in triumph for Magicien. That time passes and Komona grows into a woman before our eyes is the closest to a spoiler I’ll come here. “War Witch” was filmed entirely on location in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, largely in the bush and employing many first-time actors. The DVD adds an interview with Nguyen and a making-of short.

Star Trek: Into Darkness: Blu-ray
The more expensive the sequels and prequels in major movie franchises have become, the more dependent their producing studios have grown on overseas ticket sales. For a film that cost well north of $200 million to make and market to turn a profit, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” would have required more than a domestic gross of $228.5 million, even accounting for DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and other ancillary sales. That it took another $234 million overseas bodes well for Paramount and those “Star Trek” loyalists who can’t wait to see every new installment. Still, the studio would have been even happier and more secure with, say, a $300-million-plus domestic haul or, at least, a greater radio of in-come to out-go. By contrast, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the franchise cost some $140 million to make, before bringing in $257.7 at home and another $131 million overseas. The next most expensive installment, the 2002 “Nemesis” cost about $60 million, for a return of $43.1 million and $67.3 million respectively. Those numbers nearly killed the seemingly unstoppable series. By awarding Abrams such large budget after “Nemesis” tanked—albeit against brutal competition—and no new “Trek”-based TV series were in production represented a huge leap of faith for Paramount. For what it’s worth, both of Abrams’ installments were extremely well received by mainstream critics.

“Into Darkness” returns all of the key actors from the 2009 “Star Trek” prequel. They represent slightly younger versions of the characters introduced in the original 1966 television series on NBC. Conceivably, this served both as a bridge for longtime fans and an entry point for newcomers. The second installment of the “origin story” opens with an exciting escape-and-rescue sequence on the planet Nibiru, where the natives are caked with white mud and ornamented with dark war paint. That the Star Fleet explorers are chased off a cliff by pissed-off Nibiru warriors has been tipped in all of the commercials, as has Spock’s rescue from an active volcano. So, the only surprise addition in the first 20 minutes or so is the negative response Kirk and Spock receive from their superiors, when they’re summoned back to headquarters on Earth. Both are demoted to lesser positions and commands, which doesn’t sit well with the headstrong Kirk but only seems logical to Spock, who advised against the dangerous rescue mission. All is forgiven, though, after the bombing of Star Fleet’s archives by a renegade operative, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), and subsequent sneak attack on HQ.

When it becomes clear that Harrison is planning an expanded conflict, which might spill over onto Klingon turf, Kirk and Spock hop on the Enterprise to warn the Klingons of a potential ambush. If misinterpreted, such an incident could put a hard-won non-aggression pact and, perhaps, even, the Prime Directive to the test. The CGI-enhanced action really kicks in about two-thirds of the way through, when Harrison’s true identity is revealed and everything goes up for grabs. One thing newer fans of the franchise should appreciate is that Abrams hasn’t felt it necessary to treat “Star Trek” mythology as if it were sacred. He honors it, of course, but doesn’t hone precisely to chapter and verse. Even if purists debate some of his choices in “Into Darkness,” the revisions should help give viewers raised on the original TV series reason to cheer.

I haven’t watched the entire movie in 3D, but was able to catch the Nibiru sequence at this year’s CinemaCon. It looks pretty good, but I wouldn’t invest in an HDTV set to see it. The Blu-ray 2D and 3D packages add seven making-of pieces, ranging from two to nine minutes. Although they’re short, therein lay spoilers.

Friday the 13th: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
As tradition demands, Warner Bros. and Paramount are co-releasing their 10-disc, 12-movie “Friday the 13th: The Complete Collection” on, surprise, this Friday the 13th. And, while it’s inconceivable that fans of the franchise don’t already own most of the titles here, there are several things that recommend it. Seven of the saga’s chapters—“The Final Chapter” through “Jason X”—are being released for the first time in Blu-ray. Eleven hours of previously unseen extras have been added, as have a bonus DVD disc, with making-of featurettes; a 40-page booklet, with excerpts from “Crystal Lake Memories”; tin packaging; an embroidered Camp Crystal Lake counselor patch; cardboard 3D glasses; and plenty of extras from previous editions. The audio-visual upgrade also is welcome. The collection doesn’t arrive without some controversy, though. Purists and diehard fans have already noted that much of the material excised to meet MPAA standards hasn’t been reassembled as “director’s cut” or unrated options. Some, but not all of those cuts appear separately in the bonus package. Other detractors swear that the studios are holding back on potential bonus features. What I like is the ability to chart the course of the franchise, especially the alternations in Jason’s character made to reflect trends, genre diversions and modern technology. As such, the collection is perfect for binge viewing now or on Halloween, which is a different series altogether.

Love Is All You Need: Blu-ray: Blu-ray
Moviegoers under the impression that true romance only exists between vampires and in adaptations of Nicholas Sparks movies ought to rent a copy of Susanne Biers and Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Love Is All You Need.” Unlike most Hollywood rom-coms and rom-drams, its appeal isn’t tilted toward any one target demographic. “Love Is All You Need” wouldn’t be the first choice of guys 18-34, looking for a DVD with which to pass the time on a stay-at-home weekend, but neither would it be all that painful for them to endure. Yes, there’s a wedding of twentysomethings on tap in the movie formerly known as “The Bald Hairdresser,” and its gorgeous Sorrento location is hyper-romantic. At a crucial point in the proceedings, though, Oscar-winning co-writer-director Biers (“After the Wedding”) places the movie’s heartstrings in the hands of the mother of the bride and the father of the groom, who are equally easy on the eye. Even if the perfectly matched grownups somehow manage to elude Cupid’s arrows for most of the movie’s 116 minutes, it’s nice to see them pick up the reins.

Highly regarded Danish actress Trine Dyrholm plays Ida, a Copenhagen hairdresser who’s recovering from breast-cancer surgery when she walks in on her husband schtupping his assistant, a world-class ditz. On the same day Ida is scheduled to fly to Italy for the wedding, alone, she backs her VW into the car belonging to a wealthy produce trader, who is also headed for the airport. Would it surprise anyone to learn that the Mercedes belongs to the groom’s father, Philip (Pierce Brosnan), at whose estate the lovebirds will tie the knot? In any language, that’s called “meeting cute.” It takes him a while to get over his anger over the large dent in his car, but Ida’s pretty irresistible, even when she isn’t trying. The natural expectation on our part is for the handsome widower and vulnerable blond to fall immediately in love and spend most of the movie fighting off the reservations of the kids and apologetic ex-husband. If not something that obvious, Ida and Philip could find a million dumb ways to avoid the obvious. Instead, Biers and Jensen’s screenplay scrambles the eggs a bit more, re-focusing on the kids’ problems, which are more obvious to us than the betrothed couple. Complicating things for Philip is the one-sided crush his sister-in-law has on him and her expectations of a tryst in Sorrento.

If any or all of that craziness still sounds as if it were tailor-made for a Hollywood melodrama or farce, rest assured that Bier keeps finding new ways to keep the boat afloat. Most of the credit for this belongs to the 41-year-old Dirham, whose character is required to cope with the side effects of a mastectomy, her own worst fears about a recurrence of the cancer, the antics of her jerk husband, a traumatized daughter, pissed-off son and emotions she abandoned as a young bride. Brosnan only has to play his own debonair self to be credible and he does it well. “Love Is All You Need” did well in its limited release here, but deserves to find a wider audience on DVD. It adds interviews conducted at the Venice Film Festival.

Wish You Were Here
The Stranger Within
In the quintessentially Australian thriller, “Wish You Were Here,” four friends go to Cambodia for a holiday in the sun, but only three make the return flight home. Nobody seems to know what happened to Jeremy, least of all viewers and the police, but director Kieran Darcy-Smith gives us reason to believe that it has something to with drugs. No surprise, there. Slowly, the events of the quartet’s last night together in Cambodia are revealed through the perspective of the individual participants. “Wish You Were Here” doesn’t borrow much from “Rashomon,” if that’s what you’re thinking, but the truth doesn’t become clear until late in the proceedings. Darcy-Smith’s primary accomplishment is maintaining our interest for 90 minutes, even though we kinda-sorta know what happened. He does so by dialing up the paranoia of Jeremy’s buddy, Dave (Joel Edgerton, of “The Great Gatsby”); ratcheting up the jealousy of his wife, Alice (Felicity Price); and making us believe that Alice’s sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) is a slutty siren capable of seducing Jeremy (Antony Starr) and Dave. Darcy-Smith also makes us question the strange behavior of Jeremy’s parents. Anyone who’s enjoyed such tough Aussie thrillers as “Animal Kingdom,” “Wolf Creek,” “Gone” and “Snowtown” will find something to like in “Wish You Were Here.”

The best thing about Adam Neutzsky-Wulff’s debut feature “The Stranger Within” is the scenery on the Spanish island of Mallorca. The worst is its almost stunning predictability. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t throw a few scary moments at us, just that you could almost set your watch to them. Estella Warren plays celebrated New York actress, who, at the height of her career, gets pregnant, kidnapped and raped by a masked stalker. Already fragile, she loses the baby and the part of her mind that prevents one from seeing ghosts and bogeymen behind every tree. Emily’s psychiatrist husband, Robert (William Baldwin), suggests they take some time off in a spectacular villa overlooking the sea. Almost immediately after unpacking their bags, they’re awakened by the screams of a young woman, Jennifer (Sarah Butler), who claims that she’s just watched her boyfriend die in a fall from a cliff. Like every other disturbing scene in “Stranger Within,” this one takes place during a rainstorm. The blasts of thunder and lighting facilitate the many jump-scares Neutzsky-Wulff has in store for viewers. Robert volunteers space in their villa to Jennifer, along with free psychiatric sessions. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is one sure-fire way for movie husbands to test the boundaries of a spouse’s sanity. If you can’t guess what happens during the rest of the movie, however, there’s a very good chance you’ll find some of value in “Stranger Within,” beyond the Mallorca setting.

Sisters & Brothers: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for the untimely death of “Glee” star Cory Monteith, it’s possible that Carl Bessai’s 2011 ensemble dramedy, “Sisters & Brothers,” would have suffered a fate similar to the Canadian writer-director’s companion pieces, “Mother & Daughters” and “Fathers & Sons.” After each of the movies was shown, apparently twice, at film festivals, they completely disappeared from view. “S&B” plays out in an interwoven series of conversations/confrontations between young people, who, one way or another, are siblings. None is particularly likable, but Bessai clearly expects us to identify with one or more of the characters, at least. Monteith plays a Hollywood heartthrob, whose brother (Dustin Milligan, of ”90210”) once had a similar shot at the posh life, but gave it up to do charity work in Africa. Feuding half-sisters played by Amanda Crew and Camille Sullivan are thrown together on a road trip with a lecherous freeloader, who has convinced the younger woman of his ability to make her an action star.

Gabrielle Miller plays the concerned sister of a schizophrenic (Benjamin Ratner), who’s gone off his meds and will do great harm to himself if she doesn’t intervene. Finally, Kacey Rohl (”The Killing”) portrays a teenager at war with her mother–aren’t they all? –who is about to meet the half-sister she didn’t know existed. Turns out, the woman had been impregnated by a guru while in India, well before the second daughter’s birth. The guru’s followers demanded she abandon the baby to the care and feeding of the ashram. In the meantime, she had given up hope of ever seeing her again. Among the conceits on display here are scene-breakers in the form of comic-book pages, with snarky commentary in cartoon balloons, and also what appears to be improvised dialogue and much groupthink. The conclusions to the story threads are satisfying, but everything that precedes them is far too loosey-goosey. For what it’s worth, Monteith does just fine playing a character very much like himself, but at least a decade older than Finn, in “Glee.” All financial considerations aside, it must have been tough for him to be stuck for so long in a role completely unsuited to a 31-year-old man.

Strong Language
After watching hundreds of reality-show participants speak to the camera about their deepest feelings and things that happen during the course of a show, the last thing I thought I wanted to do was listen to 16 young-adult Brits doing the same thing. Instead, the talking heads offer their opinions on subjects ranging from sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll to debt, AIDS and racism. The people we meet in Simon Rumley’s hugely original “Strong Language” are interesting for reasons other than being spoiled housewives or strangers living together in the same house. For one thing, they’re actors reciting the words of a very sharp and observant writer. It’s as much fun watching the mannerisms of the characters—all of whom represent a thin slice of swingin’ London, circa 1996—as they deliver their lines as it is listening to what they have to say. They’re terrifically articulate, even as they share anecdotes, experiences and opinions that seem to come directly out of left field. I can’t recall any of them punctuating their thoughts with, “like, you know” or “whatever.” And, while none of the characters are acquainted, they finally cross paths with each other at a pivotal point in the movie. Their random reactions to a common event go a long way toward demonstrating what it must have been like to be young, capable and aware in London, before the collapse of the world economy and the war against terrorism. The DVD adds interviews with Rumley and the actors, as themselves.

Code Name: Ruby
In countries dominated by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a sure sign that filmmakers were doing something right was being banned from making and exhibiting movies. Some important directors were able to sneak out from under the Iron Curtain before it dropped on pro-democracy movements, while others found different ways to express themselves or agreed to subject their work to state censorship. Jan Nemec was one of the bright lights of the Czechoslovak New Wave, which also produced Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Jan Kadar, Vera Chytilova and Jiri Menzel. “A Report on the Party and the Guests,” his 1966 satire of Communist leadership and blind adherence to mindless conformity, put Nemec on the government shit list for decades to come. Documentary footage Nemec took during the Soviet-led invasion of Prague was banned, of course, but it would be seen by millions of people outside the Eastern bloc in newsreels and as part of Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” After leaving Prague for the west, Nemec attempted to make feature films in Germany and the U.S. His experimental instincts, though, were more suited to the emerging video revolution. Incredibly, he found work taking movies of weddings. In doing so, he practically invented an industry.

Code Name: Ruby” is one of the first movies Nemec made after his return to his newly liberated homeland. Although not the easiest of stories to grasp emotionally, “Ruby” exudes a distinct intellectual playfulness and much inventive videography. It does require some knowledge—an easy Wiki search should suffice—of the history of alchemy, the pursuit of the Philosopher Stone and the legend of the Sword of Destiny. Made for Czech television, “Ruby” follows two young lovers as they attempt to trace different paths that could lead them to answers about the existence and location of the stone that turns lead to gold and silver. If clues are to be found, they assume that one or two of them might be found in Prague, a city historically popular with scientists. Their search even leads to the Smithsonian Institute, which, Nemec speculates, is more important to America than the White House, if only because of the secrets protected behind the building’s sandstone walls. The film combines documentary, archival footage and fiction into an elliptical narrative, which blends the past, present and future in montage sequences. The couple also speculates on the importance of the Spear of Destiny to Adolph Hitler and Gen. George S. Patton. The disc is available through Facets Multimedia, via made-to-order DVD-R, and other Internet retailers.

Ping Pong
Here’s a tip for aspiring documentarians in search of a sure-fire subject for a film. Find an event in which elderly men and women compete in sports most other people their age gave up decades earlier. There’s nothing quite so inspiring as watching spry seniors prepare for the contests, sometimes as they’re racing the clock against cancer or some other serious problem. As the title “Ping Pong” implies, Hugh Hartford’s film documents both the run-up to and competition at the World Over-80 Table Tennis Championships in Inner Mongolia. Hartford puts a tight focus on eight senior players, all in their 80s and 90s, except for one Australian woman who’s 100. Although most of them are veteran players, a German finalist took up the sport in her 80s after a stroke. One 81-year-old man had been given a week to live by his doctor at about the same time he began training for the tournament. An 89-year-woman had herself committed to a dementia ward before picking up the paddles again. The United States is represented by an 85-year-old Texan. The great things to observe here are the moxie, perseverance and sense of joy each of the competitors bring to the game. The DVD adds press appearances and a backgrounder.

Tyler Perry Presents Peeples: Blu-ray
Tyler Perry’s name on the marquee might have helped sell tickets to “Peeples,” but full credit for what happens on the screen belongs to writer-director Tina Gordon Chism. This is her first directorial credit, in addition to screenplays for “ATL” and “Drumline.” The farcical nature of the comedy should be familiar to Perry’s legion of fans and admirers, though. In it, Wade Walker (Craig Robinson) decides to learn more about his girlfriend, Grace (Kerry Washington), by crashing the Peeples’ annual reunion at the family’s palatial Sag Harbor home. Grace has avoided explaining Wade’s role in her life to her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) and father (David Alan Greer), who probably wouldn’t approve of him as a son-in-law. That’s probably because Dad is a federal magistrate in a part of Long Island where you’re judged by your wealth and connections. The thing about “Peeples” is that everyone in the movie is harboring secrets that make Wade’s working-class roots look as if they’re made of gold. In fact, there probably are three or four more secrets revealed here than the story can keep afloat for more than a few minutes. Everything comes to a head on the town’s annual Moby Dick festival, during which the judge delivers a reading from “Moby Dick.” The prevailing mood is upbeat throughout “Peeples” and it moves by at a lively pace. Also welcome are Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles as Grace’s grandparents. It arrives with gag reel, commentary and a three-part making-of featurette.

Hammer of the Gods: Blu-ray
At one point or another during “Hammer of the Gods,” I began to suspect “Hammer of the Gods” was intended as a mini-series, but budgetary concerns prompted the producers to cut their losses after 95 minutes. Did I say losses? TV specialist Farren Blackburn’s first feature has the dubious distinction of grossing exactly $164 (no zeroes) on two screens during its opening weekend here, then tacking on another $247 before making the inevitable transfer to the Internet and small screen. No movie that looks as good as “Hammer of the Gods” deserves such a fate. On the other hand, there’s very little else to recommend it. The setting is central Britain in 871 AD, when the Viking hordes were being seriously challenged by the Saxon hordes. A Viking king lies on his deathbed, pondering which of his three sons could replace him upon his death. In a direct homage to “Apocalypse Now,” the favored son has created his own band of ruffians who live somewhere among the Saxons. Steinar (Charlie Bewley) volunteers to find older brother, Hakan the Ferocious (Elliot Cowan), and convince him to become the new king. Steinar is a fine soldier, but his father doesn’t think he’s sufficiently murderous to take on the Saxons. The search for Hakan bears a striking resemblance both to the Legend of Zelda and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising.” Given that “Hammer” screenwriter Matthew Read supplied “additional writing” for Refn’s gorefest, the resemblance isn’t at all surprising. On the plus side, the locations could hardly be more gorgeous. I couldn’t find out where “Hammer” was shot, but it looked a lot like Wales, northern Scotland or New Zealand. The DVD includes interviews and background material.

Scare Zone
Silent Cry
Neighborhood haunted houses tend to have a shelf life of about three nights, depending on the day of the week Halloween falls. The for-profit attractions created at theme parks may last an extra weekend or two, but rarely longer. In “Scare Zone,” writer-director Jon Binkowski demonstrates how theme parks could maximize their investment. He was able to film much of his debut feature on the set of Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights attraction, using props and backdrops already proven to raise goosebumps in paying customers. Considering how many first-timers get a headstart on their careers in the low-budget horror arena, a more permanent set could work to the advantage of everyone. Some adjustments would be required, if only to make one film look different than another, but digital technology now allows for more efficient use of tight spaces and limited lighting. While no one would confuse “Scare Zone” for “Psycho,” its boy-who-cried-wolf premise holds some water, at least. When a group of part-time workers begin training for their macabre assignments, they have fun dressing up in their blood-soaked costumes and teasing each other with harmless prop weapons. By the time the attraction’s doors are set to open, however, staff members are being killed in ways that approximate the scenarios in the haunted house. The crazy thing is that customers have become so attuned to cheap horror thrills and fake blood, it’s impossible for them to tell the real thing from the stunts. Some are frightening, while are quickly ignored. It also gives the operators an opportunity to dismiss any questions from inquisitive staffers as their mates begin to disappear, one by one. It’s for us to decide if the operators are in on the killings or it’s a fellow part-timer or freelance psycho. Only patient and tolerant viewers are likely to care. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

While Welsh director Julian Richards has enjoyed some success as a creator of urban psychodramas—“Darkness,” “Summer Scars,” “Shiver”—his 2002 baby-snatcher thriller “Silent Cry” basically disappeared after several festival screenings and TV airings in the UK and Germany. Its lack of success finding an audience must have perplexing for Richards and his team, as it’s quite well made and the acting is very good. It’s entirely possible, though, that any fictional story about kidnaping babies has been trumped by news reports of fiends performing C-sections on unwitting women and delusional women sneaking out of hospitals with babies that couldn’t possibly belong to them. Even in 2002, big-city hospitals would have installed security systems capable of figuring out who the perpetrators are here in less than 24 hours. Otherwise, it’s well made and there’s nothing wrong with the acting. Emily Woof plays Rachel Stewart, a single mother who’s told that her newborn baby died while she was sleeping in her hospital room. She had just paid a visit to the maternity ward, where she was told by a doctor that her son was “perfect,” and she could rest easy. So, what happened and why wasn’t Rachel been given an opportunity to see her dead child. She refuses to accept the official story, but can’t disprove the doctor’s claim. When Rachel senses she’s being stalked by a stocky, well-dressed gentleman, however, she returns to the hospital to ask questions. The guy re-appears while she’s there, but we have no idea why. To escape, she hides in the car of a hospital employee and drives off with him. He reluctantly offers to help her, even knowing it’s probably a lose-lose situation for both of them. You can probably guess most of what happens next, but Richards leaves enough room for doubt to keep viewers interested.

The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue
Frankenstein’s Army: Blu-ray
The Black Waters of Echo’s Point: Blu-ray
Scanners II: The New Order/ Scanners III: The Takeover: Blu-ray
It isn’t often one runs across a movie that tells us something new about a street upon which we used to live. In my case, it was Belmont Avenue on Chicago’s North Side and the movie is “The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue.” I don’t recall warnings of a pet-eating creature living in the bowels of three-flats and apartment buildings in my neighborhood. Before gentrification took hold, the greatest threat to our short stretch of the busy, east-west thoroughfare were the transvestite hookers who made it their nightly stroll and bags of hypodermic needles left behind for kids to find. The mole people must have moved in after we left. I did recognize the architecture, a church and some of the actors, however. Writer-directors Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy play slacker landlords Marion and Jarmon Mugg, who, after inheriting a ramshackle apartment building from their mother, do almost nothing to keep it from deteriorating further. When residents begin to complain about missing pets, the Muggs attempt to catch the creature in the act of snatching one. It gives us an opportunity to meet the motley collection of residents and gauge for ourselves just how nutty they are. There’s even a “Cheers”-like bar on the ground floor, where you wouldn’t want to know anyone’s name. “Mole Man of Belmont Avenue” takes horror-comedy in a new direction here on a budget that must have equaled the annual expenditure on jock straps for the Cubs and White Sox. The most familiar faces here belong to Robert Englund, Tim Kazurinsky, Dana DeLorenzo, David Pasquesi and Brad Morris.

That Hitler and other top Nazis were fascinated with the occult by now qualifies as old news. Using the found-footage format, director Richard Raaphorst imagines in “Frankenstein’s Army” what might have happened if Hitler had uncovered Victor Frankenstein’s notebooks and ordered his scientists to create super-soldiers from unattached body parts, sharp-edged tools and other junk. Before he could deploy the unit, however, Red Army troops overran the laboratory and discovered on their own the monsters. In the annals of WWII history, such an ill-timed failure would have been recorded alongside Hitler’s inability to put jet fighters in the air before the Allied invasion, unleash an atomic bomb on Britain, accurately predict the beaches picked for the D-Day landing and capture the Soviet oil fields before his tanks ran out of fuel. It would be difficult to imagine more disturbing scenario than the one forwarded in “Frankenstein’s Army.” The gore-factor is off the charts, as are the chills that come from watching the mad surgeon cut into captured soldiers’ skulls. The mechanical zombies resemble a cross between the sketches of Jules Verne and Leonardo Da Vince and the indestructible competitors on “BattleBots” and “Robot Wars.” The bonus package goes a long toward explaining the method behind the madness and the strenuous special-effects work behind the creatures.

The Black Waters of Echo’s Pond” puts a slightly different spin on the old spam-in-a-cabin subgenre, which has been in need of a few new twists for a while now. In opens with black-and-white newsreel footage taken of a Turkish archeological dig, where an ancient board game is discovered. Somehow, and I emphasize the word “somehow,” the game is rediscovered a century later in a cabin occupied temporarily by a group friends with axes to grind on each other. Ouija boards are a dime a dozen in teen horror flicks, of course, but this one is different. It looks very much like a medieval game of Chutes & Ladders, during which hidden layers are mechanically exposed according to the throw of metal dice. Visions presage horrible things to come, while goat-men appear at windows and other clawed creatures lurk beneath the surface of the pond. The real slaughter begins after the individual players are overtaken by a sudden urge to get even for perceived injustices perpetrated by their friends. Director Gabriel Bolonga squeezes as many scary moments as he can from the script he co-wrote with Michael Berenson and Sean Clark.

The latest release from Shout! Factory’s growing collection of Scream Factory titles is a double-feature package of “Scanners II: The New Order” and “Scanners III: The Takeover,” which followed David Cronenberg’s 1981 original by 9 and 10 years respectively. It is the series in which certain humans are born with telepathic powers and they can use them for good or evil. If they so desire, scanners can literally blow the minds of their antagonists. Both directed by Christian Duguay, “Scanners II” is pretty much a remake of Cronenberg’s hit thriller, while “Scanners III” advances the conceit by adding some nudity and a sibling rivalry. In the former, scanners are being recruited by a corrupt police commander as part of his plan to use mind-control techniques to take over city politics. In the latter, Liliana Komorowska plays a young woman with telepathic powers, who, as part of her father’s experiment, takes a drug that turns her into a sociopath with telepathic powers. She knows that she’s really onto something when she discovers her ability to control what happens to people on TV talk shows. “III” is far more interesting than “II.” The set doesn’t offer any bonus material.

An American Hippie in Israel: Blu-ray
Horny Diver: Tight Shellfish
Story of White Coat: Indecent Acts
Porn Shoot Massacre
The Sex Side of Low Budget Movies
Scour the lists of the 10 worst movies of all time and you’d be hard-pressed to find mention of “An American Hippie in Israel.” Neither does Amos Sefer’s ode to international flower power appear on any so-bad-it’s-good lists I’ve seen. That’s surely because so few people have witnessed this cinematic calamity since 1972, when it could be found only in a handful of theaters and film societies around the world. If “An American Hippie in Israel” were any good, which it’s not, it might draw thematic comparisons to “Zabriskie Point” and “Easy Rider.” As it is, the best that can be said for it is that the comprehensive Grindhouse Blu-ray release elevates the soft-core road picture to its rightful place as one of the guiltiest pleasures of all time. In it, a disillusioned veteran of the Vietnam War arrives in Israel, searching for young people with whom he can share his pursuit of love, peace and good vibes. In his sheepskin vest, torn jeans and sandals, Mike (Asher Tzarfati) certainly looks the part of a vagabond hippie. Unsure of his destination, Mike allows himself to be picked up by a wealthy Israeli actress (Lily Avidan), who risks catching a case of the crabs by almost immediately engaging in a session of good ol’ fashioned monkey love with the hitchhiker. Together, they set out in her convertible to find the nearest gathering place for bohemian youth. Mike easily persuades them to get hip to the hippie philosophy and join him at a nearby warehouse for some folk singing, pot smoking and a group grope. Sadly, and this is the exact point where things start going haywire, two Men in Black bust into the warehouse and begin machine-gunning the nascent flower children. Apparently, the malevolent mimes have been following Mike since Vietnam.

The four survivors decide to split for a tiny island near the resort city of Eliat, on the northern tip of the Red Sea. At a Bedouin market along the way, Mike decides it might be cool to acquire a lamb to accompany the survivors on the trip south. I suppose that the lamb is intended to symbolize the search for peace or some such thing, but, before the movie ends, it will come to symbolize something else entirely. After exactly one night of bliss on the island, the idealistic couples discover that someone or something has stolen their dingy and a gam of giant, blood-thirsty sharks—about as threatening as the one in the “Jaws” exhibit on Universal’s backlot tour—lurks between the island and land. How long can the hippies hold out, before thirst and hunger overtake their ideals? Stay tuned. Sefer avoids any mention of the Six-Day War and any concerns the Israeli hippies might harbor about self-defense and survival in a hostile environment. It is mentioned, however, by the actors interviewed in the Blu-ray’s bonus package, with Mike’s pro-peace sloganeering supposedly representing an alternative to war. Indeed, the people interviewed recall Sefer’s allegory as being something quite daring and provocative in 1972. Israeli censors limited its release and the only actors who found further work in the movies were the ones who portrayed the two male protagonists. Avidan and Tzila Karney chose not to share their lithe bodies with any more movie audiences, while Sefer apparently decided not to press his luck behind the camera. On the plus side, the Negev Desert provides some spectacular scenery for the travelers on their way south. The Blu-ray also contains “Asher Tzarfati: An American Actor in Israel,” “A Cult Is Born,” a TV interview with Tzarfati and Shmuel Wolf, Sefer’s 16mm short “Be Careful Children, the Ball Is Not Just Yours,” backgrounders on how the movie got financed and the folk singers, deleted material, screen tests, liner notes and a photo gallery.

When it comes to movies that are so bad they’re good, Japanese genre filmmakers captured the crown two decades ago. No national cinema even comes close. The same goes for titles, of course. Take, for example, “Horny Diver: Tight Shellfish.” Please. It belongs to one of the movies included in this month’s package from Impulse Pictures and is as strange as it is descriptive. “Horny Diver” refers to the sub-genre of soft-core films put out by Nikkatsu, in which pretty young Japanese divers are bent, spindled and mutilated by corrupt businessmen, out to exploit serene ocean-front property for their own nefarious purposes. Although the ladies tend to wear T-shirts and shorts while hunting for abalone, shellfish and bi-valves, they don’t waste much time shedding them once on shore. Here, a ruthless developer hires a handsome young stud to seduce the diving girls and get them to sign deals for their land. It takes a while before the women figure out what’s happening and turn the tables on the developer. Other water sports, including blurred tentacle eroticism, are demonstrated at a local nightclub.

By contrast, “Story of White Coat: Indecent Acts” is prosaic. It, too, describes a sub-genre of Nikkatsu erotica, but this time the damsels in the distress—and various stages of undress—are nurses so fresh from school that they are unfamiliar with many of the bizarre tendencies of horny male patients. When the son of a major shareholder of the hospital is admitted for alcohol poisoning, the innocent newcomer, Shinobu, becomes his private nurse. Because Junior resorts to violence whenever he can’t perform sexually, this assignment doesn’t sit well with Shinobu. Another nurse volunteers to cure his addiction and dysfunction, but he has other plans for her. Junior’s lifelong bodyguard takes a more traditionally romantic shine to Shinobu, who would love to return the favor, if she could only pry the jerk’s hands from her breasts. Another option is for her to turn into a nymphomaniac before Junior gets his comeuppance. By Nikkatsu standards, “Indecent Acts” can boast of having a recognizable storyline and logical plot twists. The DVD adds liner notes from Jasper Sharp.

As far as I can tell, three different distributors have released “Porn Shoot Massacre” on DVD three different times in the last few years. Four, if one counts Warner Bros., which is the studio listed on Amazon’s POV site. I can’t imagine that such a thing would be possible, but, maybe, it was a result of the studio’s annual Bring Your Demented Kids to Work Day. Gordon Timbrook’s laughably bad gorefest describes what happens when seven porn stars—for lack of a better noun—are hired to perform in a down-and-dirty sexploitation flick, only to discover that it’s a snuff flick and the real star of the picture is an actual sociopath, wearing what looks like a jock strap on his head. It’s every bit that dumb and poorly made. Most of the women have experience in hard- and-or soft-core porn or as pro-wrestling babes. None is a threat to compete with Sasha Grey for mainstream roles, but, to their credit, they make disrobing look like an Olympic sport.

Even worse, if such a thing were even possible, is “The Sex Side of Low Budget Movies.” Anyone who’s ever worked as an extra on a movie whose budget can afford such a luxury already knows how stultifyingly boring and occasionally demeaning such work can be. Mostly, you stand around waiting to be called to the set and, once that happens, you stand around some more as the director discusses his “vision” with cast and crew. Unless one is employed in Los Angeles or New York, the pay for such a job is ridiculously low, as well. You’re also required to park in a different lot as the cast and crew and eat your meals well out of view of the “talent.” “The Sex Side of Low Budget Films” purports to take viewers behind the scenes of the types of movies that can barely afford Kleenex tissues for the actors who perform sex scenes. It’s as if a crewmember had brought a hidden camera to work on the day of a softcore porn shoot and shot everything, except the money shots. The depressingly out-of-shape actresses spend a lot of time looking at themselves in mirrors, in various stage of undress, and several minutes’ worth of film are wasted as they wipe fake blood off their boobs during rehearsals. The sound is illegible and the images are frequently interrupted by someone standing in front of the camera. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…

Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition
Sinbad: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Sixth Season
If the new 20th anniversary edition of Armistead Maupin’s novel, “Tales of the City,” looks particularly dated in 2013, it’s not only because of the VHS-level picture quality, but also because of the many monumental events that rocked San Francisco in the years between the serialization of the stories in the Chronicle and the airing of the mini-series on Britain’s Channel 4 and PBS. Even in 1993, it must have seemed odd for any story set in San Francisco not to mention the assassination of Harvey Milk, the mystery surrounding what then was known as the gay plague, the identification of the retrovirus that led to AIDS, the disastrous Loma Prieta earthquake and the destabilizing of effect of Silicon Valley riches on the city’s housing market. Instead, the miniseries necessarily described a city that offered the pretense, at least, of freedom from the racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism and intolerance that continued to imprison disaffected people around the world. It had yet to become an impossibly expensive place for middle- and working-class people to live or a haven for dangerously aggressive panhandlers. In the first installment of the “Tales” series, wide-eyed Mary Ann Singleton serves as our guide to San Francisco, circa 1976. After the Cleveland native decided not to return home from her vacation in the city, she moved into that beehive of eccentricity run by Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) at 28 Barbary Lane. In the mini-series, Laura Linney imbues in Mary Ann the naïve exuberance of Mary Richards in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and unvarnished curiosity of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Nearly a decade after the Summer of Love, Mary Ann is shocked by her neighbors’ casual familiarity with drug use and promiscuity. It takes her a bit of time to get used to the prevalence of gays and lesbians in and around her neighborhood, but she’s never openly disturbed by the emerging counterculture in the Castro. One of the gay tenants, Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), becomes her best friend and guide to pre-AIDS San Francisco. By the fourth of mini-series’ six episodes, it seems as if everyone in the Bay Area is within six degrees of separation from Mary Anne. (For the record: Linney’s within only two degrees of Kevin Bacon.) Anyone who hasn’t seen “Tales of the City” or its two sequel series would do well to check out the new edition. Others may want to want to keep their hopes up for a re-mastered Blu-ray compilation set. This one adds audio commentaries on episodes 1, 3 and 6 with Maupin, Dukakis, Linney, Barbara Garrick and director Alastair Reid; behind-the-scenes location and rehearsal footage; and an eight-page insert with an introduction by Maupin, notes by producer Alan Poul and filming sites and landmarks.

When I think of Sinbad the Sailor, I can’t help but recall the classic 1936 Fleischer Studios cartoon, “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor,” with Bluto standing in for the legendry hero of the Middle Eastern story-cycle. Also memorable are three “Sinbad” adventures for which the great Hollywood animator Ray Harryhausen created the stop-action monsters and animals. In 2012, a different sort of “Sinbad” fantasy emerged on England’s Sky1 and, later, the Syfy channel. This version was targeted at fans of family-friendly action-adventures, featuring affordably dazzling special effects. Here, Sinbad accidentally kills the son of a powerful Arab caliph in a fight. To avenge the death, Sinbad’s brother is brutally murdered. Their grandmother helps Sinbad escape Bashrah, but not before she punishes him by putting a magic talisman around his neck. It requires him to stay at sea for as long as he wears the collar, except for the occasional port stop of less than 24 hours. Besides the many mythical creatures Sinbad encounters, he also has the caliph on his tail. Handsome Elliot Knight plays the athletic sailor. The series only lasted one season, so get this one while you can.

Sinbad may have sailed the seven seas, but one of the key characters on “The Big Bang Theory” actually made it to the International Space Station in the show’s sixth season. To his dismay, Howard discovers that being in orbit is no obstacle to his mother, who reaches him by phone to register her displeasure over his plans to move in with Bernadette after the mission. He also has to deal with bullying at the hands of fellow astronauts Mike and Dimitri. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the resident geniuses are discovering how chaotic love and courtship can be when one’s brain is attuned to other pursuits. Among the season’s guest stars are Stephen Hawking, astronaut Mike Massimino, Buzz Aldrin, Howard Mandel, Wil Wheaton, Lavar Burton, kooky Kate Micucci and Bob Newhart. The bonus features adds a gag reel, a panel discussion from the Paley Festival, a piece in which the actors discuss their characters’ romances, a Skype visit to space and behind-the-scenes look at Howard’s ISS mission.

Marvel Knights: Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk
Digimon: Volume 4
Rooster Teeth: Best Fails of the Weak: Halo Edition
The latest entry in Marvel Knights and Shout! Factory’s growing collection of motion comics combines the story-telling powers of Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), with artist Leinil Francis Yu (“Secret Invasion”) and colorist Dave McCaig (“American Vampire”). The brilliantly executed DVD, “Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk,” picks up the series at the point where Dr. Bruce Banner has been sentenced to execution for his rampage through Manhattan as the Hulk. The possibility Banner may have escaped—eyewitnesses have speculated as much—haunts Nick Fury, whose safety depends on the madman’s death. Banner seeks help from Wolverine, who never backs down from a good fight. Bonus content includes a retrospective interview with Lindelof andYu and a look into the making of “Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk” with Marvel Knights Animation’s supervising producer Kalia Cheng.

I can’t even begin to understand how the “Digimon: Digital Monsters” series of DVDs is being divided into volumes and seasons. It’s enough for me to know that the newest three-disc set contains 21 episodes from the second season of “Digimon Adventure” and takes place four years after the original DigiDestined group brought peace to the DigiWorld. For those keeping score at home, Davis, Yolei, Cody, Ken, T.K and Kari comprise a new DigiDestined team, entrusted with defeating the Digimon Emperor—a villain threatening DigiWorld—and freeing all the Digital Monsters from his control. It’s formidable task, to be sure, but not one the team is likely to avoid.

If, unlike me, you already know what the term “machinima” means—my spellcheck doesn’t even recognize it as a word—you’re probably already aware of the existence of “Rooster Teeth: Best Fails of the Weak: Halo Edition.” For me, the experience of watching “Best Fails” couldn’t have been more bewildering. Even after binging on the collected episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” I couldn’t imagine how gaming nerds could enjoy something as pointless as this seemed to me. To each his own, I guess. One man’s Lenny Bruce is another man’s Carrot Top. Each week, on YouTube, Jack and Geoff of the Rooster Teeth comedy collective provide commentary on clips send in from “Halo” gamers, many of whom make Trekkies seem normal. The clips contain “fails”—epic and otherwise—that are committed by participants or are built into the game. By “fail,” I suppose they mean mistakes that would greatly embarrass those who made them. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” probably was the first mainstream “fail” show, with “Tosh 2.0” currently presenting the craziest moments of old-fashioned human failures circulating on the Internet. I find much of what Rooster Teeth does to be funny, but this collection made me feel as if I was a Martian at his first baseball game. I had no idea what made the narrators laugh. That said, many Halo followers anxiously await new entries in the series, which appear every Friday, and have a jolly good time. Maybe, you will too.

Flair Bartending: Working Flair Series
How to Be the Life of the Party
There was a time, not so long ago, when the only thing a bartender had to do to earn a tip was mix a good cocktail, keep the beer mugs frosty and let customers bend his or her ear when things get slow. That remains the case today, except in joints where the mixologists also are expected to mix drinks on the fly, as they fling and juggle bottles of booze. Historians trace the craze back to 1988, when Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown played flair bartenders in the yuppie rom-dram, “Cocktail.” Besides winning a pair of Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay, the movie convinced hundreds of aspiring bartenders of the sexual advantages of being able to juggle bottles and shakers. The trend would catch fire in the mid-1990s in dance clubs, resorts and places where $15 cocktails are the norm. For all I know, it’s still popular in such places. If so, the informative DVD “Flair Bartending: The Working Flair Series” offers 450 minutes of step-by-step and slow motion instruction. Apparently, there are 240 flair-bartending moves and members of the video’s Extreme Team talk viewers through every technique.

A companion DVD from Shelter Island reminds amateurs that they don’t have to miss out on the fun, simply because they don’t have a degree from a bartender school. “How to Be the Life of the Party” is an old-fashioned title for a video produced by any company with “extreme” in its name (www.extremebartending com). Besides putting a lampshade on one’s head, host Scott Young advances dozens of “ultra fun” ways to be the guy everyone talks about the day after your party. The instructors on the cover are being showered with confetti, so you know they’re having a blast. In the 150 minutes allotted them, you can learn how to take control of every event from birthday bashes to BBQs with tricks, challenges and brainteasers.

For the kiddies
The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow
Nickelodeon: Dora’s Great Roller-Skate Adventure
Nick Jr.: Tickety Tock: Chime Time Adventures
Boomerang: Puppy in My Pocket: Friendship Ceremony
The Smurf crew gets a head start on Halloween with “The Legend of Smurfy Hollow.” In it, rivals Brainy Smurf and Gutsy Smurf agree to put aside their differences before the evil Gargamel can spoil the annual berry hunt or they come face-to-face with the Headless Horseman of Smurfy Hollow. The voicing cast includes Hank Azaria, Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen and Anton Yelchin.

In “Dora’s Great Roller-Skate Adventure,” Dora and Boots strap on their wheels and take off for Skate Park, only to find it closed by the big, bad bully, Big Wheeler. Can Dora stand up to the brute, so that all of the other kids and critters can enjoy the experience together? Need you ask? The two bonus adventures are also included: “Check-Up Day,” in which Dora and her friends go to the doctor; and “School Science Fair,” in which she has to overcome several obstacles to get to the Green Power Science Fair and her volcano experiment.

The “Tickety Tock” crew from Nick Jr. makes its first appearance on DVD in “Tickety Tock: Chime Time Adventures.” The CGI-animation series follows comedic heroes Tommy and Tallulah, who live in a world behind the face of the clock and make sure its chimes go off on the hour. Nothing goes as planned in these sorts of shows, so the twins and their friends are kept busy making sure the mechanism doesn’t go kablooey. In the six episodes included here the residents of Tickety Town are even required to participate in circus acts and magic tricks. The show is targeted at preschoolers just learning the importance of teamwork, community and social responsibility.

Puppy in My Pocket: Friendship Ceremony” is an Italian export that’s found homes on cable services around the world. The series is based on a line of popular kids’ toys and features puppies and kittens from parallel universes, connected by 10-year-old Katie. Princess Ava is able to transform Katie’s Friendship Heart and the Magic Fountain so that she can visit Pocket Kingdom anytime she wants. Did I mention that “Puppy in My Pocket” is for pre-schoolers? The DVD package includes six episodes of the show.


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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