MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Laurence Anyways: Blu-ray
The frontrunner in this year’s race for Best Movie That No One’s Seen is “Laurence Anyways,” and it isn’t even close. In only his third feature, 23-year-old Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan dared to make the kind of epic romance – his description – that far more experienced filmmakers have tried and failed to do. That Dolan also had the chutzpah to make the protagonist of his nearly three-hour-long film a male-to-female transgender poet was a decision that either could have exploded in his face or made the judges at Cannes and other prestigious festivals stand up and take notice and that’s what happened. Although the French-language “Laurence Anyways” received virtually no distribution in the Lower 48, it made some money in Canada and France. If there’s any justice in the world, it should find an audience in DVD and Blu-ray, especially among viewers in the LGBT community. As for Cannes, Dolan had already proven that he belonged there with “I Killed My Mother” and “Heartbeats.” The former went three-for-three in Dolan’s first appearance, at 19, while the latter won the Regards Jeunes prize and was nominated in the Un Certain Regard category. At the 2012 fest, “Laurence Anyways” won the Queer Palm and, again, was nominated for an Un Certain Regard trophy. As it is, co-star Suzanne Clement was named Best Actress in Un Certain Regard competition.

The length of “Laurence Anyways” actually works in favor of Dolan’s conceit, in that it gives us lots of time to get past the poet’s sexual identity and for him to cut to the chase. We aren’t required to waste an hour or more as the poet and teacher, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), agonizes over his decision to exit the closet and, unlike Danny Aiello’s character in “Pret-a-Porter,” Dolan allows him to be both handsome and beautiful. As we enter the film, Laurence and Frederique (Clement) appear to be enjoying a loving and sexually exuberant relationship. Unless I missed something, he seems to be strictly hetero, while Fred, as she prefers to be known, is a middle-age-sexy producer. For Laurence’s 35th birthday, Fred plans to surprise him with a getaway to New York. Instead, he picks the moment to inform her of his decision to live the rest of his life as a chick-with-a-dick. Laurence attempts to assure Fred of his continued passion for her and desire to keep having sex in the traditional way. Not being a lesbian or bisexual, however, Fred isn’t at all keen on the idea of sharing her bed with a person she still considers to be the man. After a 30-day vacation, Laurence returns to the classroom in heels, feminine slacks and blouse, and a long, dangling earring. At first, the students pretend to ignore his makeover, but, as his hair and narcissism grow, their numbers dwindle to the point where he/she (henceforth, for purposes of clarity, he) becomes a liability. As the narrative advances into the 1990s, Dolan alternates the individual stories of Laurence and Fred, as well as the reactions of their friends and family. Fred goes into an emotional tailspin that appears to end when she meets a nice, supportive guy. For his part, Laurence enters into a relationship with a pretty blond woman who accepts him as the woman he’s become. His economic status improves after he becomes a published author and is introduced to a faster, decidedly more eccentric crowd. Even if you’ve already guessed that the animal magnetism that first attracted Laurence to Fred hasn’t completely dissipated, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to predict what happens in the final 20 minutes.

Dolan invests a lot of visual flair and unexpected imagery into the narrative, surprising us with tableaux that are nothing short of poetic. He also has a gift for creating credible dialogue among characters who are at least 15 years older than he is. The women in Fred’s support group are alternately funny, catty, supportive and unnerved by her. The characters’ parents, including a mother played by Nathalie Baye, are given far more to do here than in most other such dramas. The filmmaker displays a keen eye for the telling detail, ranging from Laurence’s choice of accessories and the women’s household bric-a-brac, to the little things that differentiate Quebec from English-speaking Canada and Montreal from Paris. The musical soundtrack blends a wide selection of classical music with an eclectic mix of songs by Kim Carnes, the Cure, Headman, Depeche Mode and Celine Dion, among others. In another French touch, the characters smoke as many cigarettes during the course of the movie as the cast of “Mad Men” in an entire season. A separate disc adds a lengthy Q&A conducted after a MOMA screening, as well as almost an hour of deleted scenes and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Forty years after the release and stunning public response to “The Exorcist,” it would be impossible, even in Blu-ray, to re-create the same thrills and chills it inspired in audiences around the world. Apart from the natural dilution of the jump scares and horrifying language, there’s the elimination of the shared terror and sense of overwhelming dread that are integral benefits of the theatrical experience. Being able to watch “The Exorcist” with lights burning and a pause button at the ready dampens the intended effect, as well. Even so, every new viewing of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s brilliant supernatural thriller – especially in hi-def, accompanied by a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 ES surround track – brings revelations well worth the investment of another 132 or 122 minutes of time. Every new wave of “Exorcist” audiences since 1973, of course, has discovered just how much it fun it can be to watch priests dodge green-pea soap, while trying to beat the devil at its own game. If, perchance, you fit that description, I recommend rounding up a group of similarly uninitiated friends and turning off the lights before pressing “play.” After watching it multiple times, there’s the additional pleasure of experiencing the scary parts on a super-slo-mo or frame-by-frame basis. Try doing that at the multiplex.

Really, the only pertinent question to be asked of “The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition” is how it differs, if at all, from a dozen previous permutations, from Beta to Blu-ray. The set retains the “Extended Director’s Cut” and Friedkin’s 122-minute “Original Theatrical Cut,” as well as several bonus features. The first new featurette is “Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist,” in which the author returns to the Encino guesthouse where he wrote the novel, for the first time in 40 years. He then takes viewers to Georgetown University, where the film was shot, and the “Exorcist steps,” which has become a tourist attraction. The second is “Talk of the Devil,” a nearly 40-year-old discussion with Father Eugene Gallagher, the priest who revealed the case that inspired Blatty’s source novel. He talks at length about the exorcism process, the true story behind the case and his memories of Blatty’s college days. The vintage material includes a pair of commentaries and an introduction by Friedkin; a commentary by Blatty; the 1998 BBC documentary, “The Fear of God: 25 Years of ‘The Exorcist’”; “Raising Hell: Filming ‘The Exorcist’ Set,” produced and photographed by DP Owen Roizman; camera and makeup tests; interviews with Friedkin, Roizman and actress Linda Blair; a tour of the locations where the film was shot; “Faces of Evil: The Different Versions of ‘The Exorcist,’” with Friedkin and Blatty discussing the different versions of the film and featuring outtakes; the original ending and original cut; “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Final Reckoning”; sketches and storyboards; marketing material; and an excerpt from the memoir, “The Friedkin Connection.” – Gary Dretzka

The Hangover Part III: Blu-ray
A fitting subtitle for the third and least funny installment in Todd Phillips’ “Hangover” franchise would be, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Audiences.” “The Hangover III” demonstrates what can happen when a studio wants to capitalize immediately on a truly hilarious and extremely profitable property that probably took years to develop. By attempting to release two similarly lucrative sequels in the space of about three years, the producers and studio vastly over-estimated the ability of Phillips and various co-writers to produce something funny enough to validate the price of a ticket. Although “HII” was pretty much a re-make of “HI,” re-set in Thailand, it pulled in $581 million at the international box office, compared to a hardy $467 million for the original. Instead of receiving the same overwhelmingly positive reviews as “HI,” the sequel got mostly tepid notices. Not only were the critics openly hostile to “HIII,” but total grosses dropped more than $300 million, as well. No amount of negative punditry could drag revenues down to such a degree on their own. Negative word-of-mouth is what brought the series down to Earth. Perhaps, if the writers and viewers had been given a chance to catch their breath between installments, things might have turned out better. But that’s show business, circa 2013.

In the first two “Hangover” iterations, Phillips deployed Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong whenever it was necessary to lift the movie into another hilarious level of bad taste. In “HIII,” however, Phillips made the strategic mistake of forcing Alan and Mr. Chow to carry the undernourished narrative, instead of simply fortifying it with occasional outbursts of their outrageous behavior. We worry that the Wolfpack (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Justin Bartha) may have bitten off more than it can chew by agreeing to escort their borderline insane pal to rehab. (The early decapitation of a giraffe, already telegraphed in previews, establishes a far darker tone than usual.)  Instead, a mobster played by John Goodman and Melissa McCarthy’s love-struck pawn-shop owner are assigned the task of surprising viewers and, consummate pros that they are, they get some of the best laughs. Indeed, Galifianakis and Jeong both benefit when they’re in the same company as those veteran supporting actors. Moreover, the screenplay effectively turns “HIII” into a dramedy, as it forces to us to care too much about how the boys are going to get out of the fix they’ve created for themselves. But, what do I know? I only watch the damn things. Like fans of “HI,” every critic worth his or her salt was hoping against hope that each of the sequels would maintain the pace set by the original. When that didn’t happen, the disappointment was palpable across the board and the poison-pen reviews multiplied. Once again, the big-money boys succumbed to hubris by pushing their luck. There’s certainly nothing wrong sonically or visually with the Blu-ray presentation, though, and some of the making-of and background material – again, focusing on Galifianakis and Jeong — is as funny as anything in the movie. – Gary Dretzka

This Is the End
For those who might not immediately grasp what to expect from “This Is the End,” even considering previous comedies by members of the all-star cast, let me attempt to summarize it in four words: “National Lampoon’s Stoner Apocalypse.” Even if the same folks who invented the gross-out-comedy with “Animal House” had nothing to do with Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut, their fingerprints are all over it. Throw in the presence of such kindred actors as James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride and there should be no mistaking the trajectory of the not-holes-barred affair. Dozens of Hollywood’s elite young actors are invited to a party at the house of James Franco – all of them play themselves here – that promises to provide a prime example of show-business debauchery. With tongue very loosely in cheek, Rogan and Goldberg encourage such stars as Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, David Krumholtz, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari and Christopher Mintz-Plasse to dance, eat, drink, smoke doobies and drop pills to their heart’s content. And, for a while, it looks as if they’re having a blast. All hell breaks loose when Los Angeles is hit simultaneously by an earthquake that defies measurement by a Richter scale and what appears to be an alien invasion. Although, at first, the partiers are too stoned to appreciate the impact of the disaster, it soon becomes clear that the Lord’s fury won’t spare the industry’s new brat pack. Assuming that they’re doomed whatever happens, Rogan, Franco, Hill, Baruchel, Robinson, Robinson and McBride make the best of a bad situation by getting more stoned, drinking stronger booze and preparing a lavish last pig-out. Let’s leave it at that. Instead of being a huge mess and ego-trip, “This Is the End” measures its more intensely silly moments and integrate them strategically into a fast-moving stream of laughs. Also funny are the jabs the movie takes at “The Exorcist,” “2012,” “War of the Worlds,” the actors’ earlier films and every Syfy movie ever made. The Blu-ray adds commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel, several making-of and background featurettes and a pair of relevant shorts. – Gary Dretzka

After Earth: Blu-ray
Fantastic Voyage: Blu-ray
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Blu-ray
Watching Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan’s mega-budget, post-apocalyptic turkey, “After Earth,” I was reminded of what the Mayor Richard J. Daley once said about nepotism in city government, “What kind of society is this, where you’re afraid to appoint your nephew or your son or your relative, for fear of what might be said?” As was duly noted prior to the film’s release, the once-invincible Smith chose the project as a vehicle for his son, 13-years-old Jaden. The last time he appeared with Jaden, apart from the occasional home music, was seven years ago in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which did pretty well here and abroad. This time around, however, the stakes were quite a bit higher and, if it weren’t for the foreign receipts, it would have tanked. As it is, ambitious plans for a line of ancillary products are all that didn’t take wing. I liked Jaden in “The Karate Kid” remake, where his role felt more appropriate to his age and physical stature than in “After Earth,” where he plays a cadet in an elite intergalactic ranger unit led by his largely absentee father, General Cypher Raige (Smith). He gives the role his best effort, even if he looks more suited to playing a long-distance runner on his high school’s track team than a highly trained monster-tracker on the new home planet for humans, Nova Prima. If Kitai Raige possesses the same “ghosting” gift as his father, though, he could be far more valuable as a ranger than a star athlete. In any case, we have to accept the character as given.

As the story goes, after the boy is held back a year in ranger school, Kitai’s mother convinces the General that he needs to spend more time bonding with his son and less obsessing on saving in the universe. He literally orders Kitai to join him on a trip to Nova Prima, but somehow the spacecraft is diverted to a crash landing on Earth, in which everyone except the Raiges dies. Having been uninhabited by humans for many centuries, the planet has reverted back to a wilderness in which animals have re-evolved into super-predators and volcanos spew ashes into the sky. With his father incapacitated, it becomes Kitai’s responsibility to trek through 100 kilometers of hostile territory to get to the sensor beacon left behind by a previous mission. Technology has advanced to the point where the General can follow Kitai’s every movement and alert him to danger. In the periods when he’s out of reach of his father, though, it becomes abundantly clear that Kitai isn’t nearly as tough as he once imagined himself to be. It’s during these moments of vulnerability that the young actor shines brightest, I think. Any athletic kid can be taught to fight a CGI monster, while being manipulated by wires in front of a green screen. Acting requires different skills altogether.

The variety of birds, animals and reptiles in the wilderness scenes — shot in northern California, Costa Rica, Utah and Switzerland – add a certain Edgar Rice Burroughs appeal to “After Earth.” I might have enjoyed the movie more if it had stuck to its original premise, which required the teenager to use survival techniques to find help for his father, after their car crashes in a non-alien, present-day forest. The sci-fi conceit frequently feels forced and overly complicated. Even so, the Blu-ray presentation nicely captures both the futuristic elements and Earth-bound adventure. The featurettes include, “A Father’s Legacy,” “1,000 Years in 300 Seconds,” “The Nature of the Future,” “Building a World,” “Pre-Visualizing the Future,” as well as an alternate opening sequence and introduction to the winner of a themed robotics competition.

I don’t know why exactly I decided to lump “Fantastic Voyage” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” in the same capsule as “After Earth,” except to compare how sci-fi adventures have evolved in the last 50 years. Will the expensive special effects in “After Earth” still look as cool as they do a half-century down the turnpike? Just asking. If writer/director Irwin Allen were alive today, he’d probably be competing with Roger Corman for the rights to make cornball thrillers for the Syfy network. In his heyday, though, he was known far and wide as the “Master of Disaster” and several of his movies, including “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” were adapted for television. Although “Voyage” wasn’t a direct rip-off of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” actor Peter Lorre must have felt as if he was suffering from déjà vu. In the film version, the nuclear U.S.O.S. Seaview was designed and piloted by Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), whose crew included Lorre, Barbara Eden and Joan Fontaine. On a test drive to the North Pole, they experience the first known effects of global warming when the Seaview is forced to navigate its way past sinking ice boulders (don’t ask) caused by heat from a fire on the Van Allen Belt (again, don’t ask). Nelson seeks permission to launch a missile to destroy the radiation belt, but faces resistance from his own team. Arguably, the worst thing about the movie is the submarine, itself. Its interiors more closely resemble those in a suburban office building than the cramped quarters of an actual submarine and crew members dress as if they’re going to work on casual Friday. If I recall Eden wears high heels and figure-enhancing dresses throughout. Kids today might get a kick out of watching a movie that was considered to be state-of-the-art in its day and now looks prehistoric. The bonus package adds a featurette tracking the history of similar sci-fi fare and an interview with Eden.

Five years later, a voyage of a different sort was dramatized on film and it was light years more advanced than the one to the bottom of the sea. In Richard Fleischer’s “Fantastic Voyage” a team of American scientists is assigned to a mission that requires them to navigate a nuclear-powered submersible that will be shrunk to the size of a corpuscle. Once miniaturized, the vessel will be injected into the blood stream of a Czech scientist, who, literally, is too valuable to be allowed to die of a clot. Once inside the man’s body, the sub-mariners are forced to defend the microscopic vessel from some of the same things – white blood cells, mucous, antibodies — that protect us from common diseases. It’s quite a trip, alright, and some of the science actually has become sci-fact. The sets also are a vast improvement from those used on “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and the TV series of the same title. This wasn’t the first miniature rodeo for Fleischer, either, as he directed Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” a dozen years earlier. For those who care about such things, “Fantastic Voyage” represented Racquel Welch’s first prominent role. When the submarine enters the ear canal, cotton-candy crystals form on her skin-suit, allowing team members to cop feels while rescuing her. The Blu-ray adds a commentary track with film and music historian Jeff Bond, an isolated score track with commentary by Bond, Jon Burlingame and Nick Redman, a discussion of the effects and storyboard-to-scene comparisons.  Welch notwithstanding, there’s nothing in this PG film a family couldn’t enjoy together.  – Gary Dretzka

The Eagle Has Landed: Blu-ray
Shout at the Devil: Blu-ray
Adapted in 1976 from a Jack Higgins’ best-seller, “The Eagle Has Landed” is a World War II adventure that feels a lot more old-fashioned than it actually is. One only has to compare John Sturges’ PG film with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” to see just how far the genre has evolved – or, in the opinion of some fans, devolved – in depictions of violence, language and romance. In the wake of “Basterds” and Steven Spielberg’s WWII dramas, it’s impossible to imagine a war movie with so little carnage, cussing and unconsummated sex. It’s also difficult to imagine Michael Caine, Donald Pleasence and Robert Duvall being cast as accent-free Nazi plotters.  Christoph Waltz or Til Schweiger would have been awarded on of those roles, at least. Even if it’s far easier to accept Jean Marsh and Donald Sutherland as British and Irish collaborators, his wonderfully rakish IRA sympathizer would probably go to an actor from the old sod. On the other hand, Larry Hagman is absolutely dead-on as an American officer so full of himself that he almost manages to facilitate the 1943 kidnaping of Winston Churchill. The mission sprang from the twisted brain of Adolph Hitler, during a meeting of similarly delusional Nazi officials. When Der Fuhrer bounces the idea of capturing Churchill off them — as a way to deflate Allied ambitions in the months before D-Day — it’s passed down the chain of command as an order. At first, Duvall’s Colonel Radl thinks it rather ridiculous, but, being a professional soldier, figures out a way to make it work. It requires the freeing of Caine’s much-decorated commando leader Colonel Steiner from prison – he insulted a Gestapo officer for killing a Jewish woman attempting to escape a boxcar – and his loyal squad of crack paratroopers. Tipped by the spies to a trip planned by Churchill to his country retreat, Radl decides to insinuate Steiner’s unit into northern England in the guise of Polish paratroopers on a training mission. In Sturges’ hands, none of Radl’s plan seems far-fetched. Indeed, such a raid was considered, but not acted upon. Even if we know that Churchill survived the war unscathed, it’s easy to suspend disbelief long enough to imagine how such a plot might have played out. It’s terrifically entertaining as a vehicle for action and suspense. The Blu-ray makes the picture a bit more accessible than it has been in years and the new and old bonus features are well worth viewing.

The Germans take it on the chin, as well, in “Shout at the Devil.” This time, however, it’s in colonial East Africa and 30 years earlier than the period described in “Eagle Has Landed.” Also released in 1976, it stars Roger Moore and Lee Marvin as a pair of rascals who run afoul of a brutal German military official while poaching ivory in his territory. Marvin’s Colonel Flynn O’ Flynn has already conned Moore’s upper-crust adventurer, Sebastian Oldsmith, into joining him in the scheme by having his aide-de-camp (Ian Holm) steal the Australia-bound Brit’s money and passport. It would be nice if the pompous kraut had objected to the slaughter of elephants for moral or ethical reasons, but we hadn’t reached that point in our collective evolution yet. No, he just couldn’t bear watching valuable commodities being smuggled out from under his nose. Foiled, O’Flynn and Oldsmith find refuge in the Portuguese colony next-door, where the Irishman’s beautiful daughter (Barbara Parkins) is waiting patiently to become the movie’s love interest. It’s all fun and games until war is declared between the European powers. Then, Peter Hunt’s action-comedy takes a more dramatic turn, with British naval officials in Malta recruiting Moore and his partner to turn their desire for revenge into a courageous act of sabotage against a German warship. “Shout at the Devil” is a rip-roaring affair, which benefits from its South Africa and Malta locations. (It suffered in kind, however, because there was a boycott of all-things-South-African in place at the time and lots of folks refused to patronize the efforts of those who didn’t obey.) Marvin’s in top form here, as is the ever-dapper Moore, who was in the middle of his tenure as James Bond. It should be noted that, despite the Transkei setting, the native Africans were portrayed with dignity and as much authenticity as informed the rest of the movie. Fearing a backlash from  the poaching scenes, the producers added disclaimers in both the opening and closing credits to assure us that no animals were killed for entertainment value. The no-frills Blu-ray looks and sounds good. – Gary Dretzka

Zombie Hunter: Blu-ray
Despite Danny Trejo’s menacing presence on the cover of “Zombie Hunter,” he’s mostly there to add a bit of star quality to what otherwise must have been a low-budget affair. To his credit, Trejo spends considerably more time on screen here than in recent straight-to-DVD efforts that have promoted his brief presence. Fans won’t have to wait long before Trejo’s next starring appearance, which arrives next week in “Machete Kills,” Robert Rodriguez’ sequel to “Machete.” Here, the title character, Hunter, is played by tae -kwon-do specialist Martin Copping. After a new street drug favored by junkies enters the pharmaceutical food chain, its powerful side effects transform the majority of the world’s population into zombies. Among those who’ve fallen prey to the “eaters” are Hunter’s wife and daughter. With nothing to lose, he wanders through the Southwest killing every zombie he sees. Typically, this involves shooting them in the head, but Hunter also is adept at severing body parts with a blade, ax or the grill of his truck. After his truck is run off the road in the desert, Hunter is rescued by a group of like-minded survivors, ostensibly led by Trejo’s Jesus. Together, they hope to cut a swath through zombie-occupied territory that takes them to a hangar in which a plane stands ready to transport them to a zombie-free island. That, of course, is easier said than done. There’s a lot of fancy camera work in “Zombie Hunter,” as well as a larger-than-usual supply of gore. Co-writer/director K. King adds some humor and spice to the proceedings, but only a couple of the actors pull their share of the load. – Gary Dretzka

Corruption: Blu-ray
Grindhouse Releasing has done American fans of British cult flicks a great favor by cleaning up and sending out a crisp Blu-ray edition of the 1967 mad-doctor thriller, “Corruption.” Although it will never be confused with a classic, even within the genre, it’s still fun to watch. That’s primarily because of Peter Cushing’s interpretation of a distinguished older gentleman who goes to great lengths to please his much-younger lover. The other good reason is directors Robert Hartford-Davies’ depiction of young people enjoying the good life in Swinging London. The Carnaby Street fashions worn by the “birds” in the Jean Shrimpton hairdos, especially, are a treat to revisit. Cushing plays a knighted surgeon, whose model girlfriend’s face is disfigured by a hot lamp during an altercation in a photography studio.  He devises a treatment that requires the injection of hormones captured from a donor’s endocrine system. In this case, the donors are represented by prostitutes, hippie vagrants and a woman who makes the mistake of being in the same train car as the doctor. The treatment works, but not as a permanent solution. Trouble comes when the hippie chick’s criminal boyfriend confronts the doctor and his wife, demanding to know where she is. In fact, her head is only a few feet away from them, in the freezer. The Blu-ray/DVD package offers the censored and uncensored versions of “Corruption” (a.k.a., “Carnage”); interviews with stars Wendy Varnals, Billy Murray, Jan Waters and Cushing; commentary by UK horror journalist Jonathan Rigby and Peter Cushing biographer David Miller; isolated music and effects track; liner notes by Allan Bryce, editor of the British horror magazine, “The Dark Side”; still galleries, trailers, TV spots and radio spots; the original annotated director’s shooting script and production notes; and a reversible cover with original art by illustrator Rick Melton. – Gary Dretzka

Curse of Chucky: Unrated: Blu-ray
Adam Chaplin: Violent Avenger
Resolution: Blu-ray
Scream Factory All Night Horror Marathon
Static: Blu-ray 3D
Some medical researchers spend their entire career looking for a cure for cancer, even knowing that they’ll likely retire without making a dent in the scourge. Creator/writer/co-director Don Mancini has spent the last 25 years of his life attempting either to improve on his surprise 1988 hit, “Children’s Play,” or create the perfect “Chucky.” After writing nine sequels and directing three, including the new “Curse of Chucky,” he’s apparently come to the conclusion that less is more and he actually got it right the first time. After fiddling with the mythology in “Bride of Chucky” and “Seed of Chucky,” Mancini has returned from a decade-long hiatus with a direct-to-video edition – the franchise’s first – that once again accentuates the horror. Compared to most other sequels and prequels to popular franchises, “Curse of Chucky” is quite good. This time, a package containing Chucky mysteriously arrives at the house of Nica (Fiona Dourif), a paraplegic whose mother will soon feel the wrath of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif, Fiona’s father), the serial killer whose evil spirit controls the doll’s actions. When family members attempt to talk Nica into selling the house and sharing the money, Chucky is always in the background eavesdropping on their conversations and plotting his next move. The little redhead is a sadistic bastard, even after all these years. The publicity material makes no secret of the presence of the always welcome Jennifer Tilly, but you’ll have to watch almost the whole movie to see where she fits into the murderous fun. The Blu-ray package includes both R-rated and unrated cuts; commentary with Mancini, Fiona Dourif and puppeteer Tony Gardner; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and featurettes “Playing With Dolls: The Making of ‘Curse of Chucky’”; “Living Doll: Bringing Chucky to Life”; “Voodoo Doll: The Chucky Legacy”; and storyboard comparisons.

Made in 2011, the Italian export “Adam Chaplin: Violent Avenger” recalls both the heyday of giallo and Japanese genre fare in the 1980s. Overflowing with splashy colors and splotches of blood, first-timer Emanuele De Santi’s revenge follows a stringy-haired fiend, Adam (De Santi), as he traces the murder of his wife to a well-connected mafia boss. Adam enlists the help of a powerful demon, who infuses in him superhuman strength. The result is a gory battle royal. The distributor, Autonomy Pictures, has already delivered two of the strangest movies in memory, “The Bunny Game” and “Blood for Irina,” and seems extremely comfortable with extreme material.

In the atypical indie thriller “Resolution,” Michael (Peter Cilella) rides to the rescue of his longtime best friend Chris (Vinny Curran), who’s holed up in a cabin smoking meth and shooting at invisible birds. If he weren’t so strung out, Chris could be a poster boy for the NRA. Michael wants very much to drag Chris into town and lead him to the nearest rehab facility. Instead, he’s forced to Taser his recalcitrant buddy and chain him to a pipe until he dries out. In the meantime, Michael surveys the mountainous land that surrounds the cabin and borders an Indian reservation. As he learns more about the area’s history as a refuge for vagabonds, outlaws, conspiracy theorists, old hippies and armed meth heads, “Resolution” quietly and methodically gets more and more mysterious … not creepy, exactly, but definitely strange. Michael was initially lured to the cabin by streamed video material that Chris claims not to have sent. Messages continue to arrive from sources unknown and they’re increasingly more prophetic. If one doesn’t go into the movie expecting barrels of gore and loud scares, “Resolution” can be an extremely entertaining and memorable experience.  The Blu-ray adds interviews with co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead; outtakes and alternate scenes; and making-of material. I can’t wait to see what the filmmakers do next.

In its never-ending quest to induce nightmares in its customers, Shout!Factory’s Scream Factory division is sending out “Movie Marathon” packages containing four vintage genre thrillers each time. This month’s horror package includes “What’s The Matter With Helen?,” starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters; “The Godsend,” about a kind-hearted family that takes in a newborn orphan and lives to regret it; “The Vagrant,” a humorous psychological thriller with Bill Paxton, Michael Ironside and Marshall Bell, as the vagrant; and “The Outing” (a.k.a., “The Lamp”), about a malevolent genie awakened by clumsy burglars.

First-time co-writer/director Todd Levin borrows so many conceits from other scary movies that “Static” should come with footnotes. A novelist and his wife (Milo Ventimiglia, Sarah Shahi) are still mourning the recent death by drowning of their young son when, late one night, a mysterious girl (Sara Paxton) shows up at the door of their secluded rural home. No sooner does she relate a story about strange men in hoodies and gas masks, than the girl starts insinuating herself into their lives and, yes, the aforementioned guys in hoodies and gas mask begin to menace the couple. They put up a strong defense, but the husband loses his gun when he needs it most. During their attempt to escape, they find evidence that strangers have been stalking them all along. Stop, if you’ve heard this one already. In short, the execution here doesn’t measure up to the setup. Every time you expect the jump scares to arrive and loud noises to erupt from your speakers, things slow to a crawl. Maybe, it’s more frightening in 3D, but I wouldn’t go out and buy a HD3D set to find out. The actors, only three of whom have faces, do what they’re asked to do. It’s just that they lack support. – Gary Dretzka

Approaching Midnight
This is the kind of movie one watches in a theater and wonders if the projectionist either misplaced a reel or fell asleep halfway through it. There’s a trial in the final third of “Approaching Midnight,” for example, that includes a couple of ludicrously impassioned speeches by witnesses, but, as far as I can tell, no verdict. The setting simply changes to a field, where the protagonist is chopping wood and awaiting the arrival of a helicopter carrying a CIA type. After chatting a bit, the spook hops back into the helicopter and the end credits begin to roll. Giving the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt, I went back to the chapter lineup to see if my player skipped one. It hadn’t. It’s as if writer/director/actor Sam Logan Khaleghi hadn’t ever watched a movie from start to finish. He is, however, an actor with several decent credits to his name. He plays Army staff sergeant Wesley Kent, who returns from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with a serious wound and questions about why his trucks were attacked not by Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters, but “pirates.” Why? Don’t ask. When Wesley gets home, he inexplicably goes from hero to goat, simply because he begins to question a local arms manufacturer’s role as a backer of the pirates. Why? Don’t ask. Prior to enlisting, Wesley was dating the industrialist’s daughter, who died mysteriously in a car accident as she was about to blow the whistle on her dad’s operation. Why? Don’t ask. And, so it goes. There’s no doubting the sincerity of Khaleghi and his cast members, but sincerity only takes viewers so far. Filmmakers also must concern themselves with making sure the audience doesn’t leave the theater with more questions than when they arrived. – Gary Dretzka

Berlin Job: Blu-ray
To coin a phrase used by British critics, “Berlin Job” is a “guns and geezers” flick in the tradition of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Reservoir Dogs.” Some people might even recognize a thing or two from the “Oceans” series, as well. By now, it’s practically a subgenre of its own and you either buy into the Cockney-criminal bit or you don’t. Those who do should have a pretty good time with “Berlin Job,” if only because it features so many familiar faces. Frank Harper, Craig Fairbrass and Charles Dance play old-school London gangsters who’ve managed to stay alive, even though everybody in town knows what they do for a living and one of Scotland Yard’s finest has been on their tails since they were knee high to a English sheep dog. They aren’t reluctant to enlist soccer hooligans and Afghanistan veterans in their schemes, which always seem to be arranged in strip clubs. Here, one of gang leaders decides on his own to go into business with the Russian mob on a huge cocaine deal. Things begin to go sideways when the shipment goes missing and the body of one of the Russkies washes up on the shore of the Thames. To avoid being turned into borscht, the Brits agree to pay back their share of deal, with interest for the dead guy. The only thing the Brits can do that might return the kind of money they’ll need to avoid a war is a diamond heist in Berlin, which is where a major soccer match is about to take place. It just might work, but only if a dense enough smokescreen can be created to keep the police from figuring out what’s going down. If anything, the plan seems too pat. This isn’t to say, however, that it isn’t fun watching the geezers dodge the cops, weed out the informers (“grass”) and pull the wool over the eyes of the Russians. The Blu-ray adds an entertaining making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Best of an Evening at the Improv
Besides being a very funny collection of standup performances, the four-disc “Best of an Evening at the Improv” represents a time capsule from a period before there was a comedy or magic club on every corner and comics didn’t dare dream of becoming sitcom stars. Being funny in front of a live audience was enough, at least until Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser and Drew Carey hit it big. Soon, TV show-runners would begin scouting the clubs for new talent, just as representatives of late-night talk and variety shows had been doing for years. How far back do the bits included in the package take us? Well, Seinfeld was still working out the kinks in material involving missing socks and weather reports on Los Angeles television stations. Michael Keaton was touring the club circuit and impersonations of Ed Sullivan (John Byner) and Sammy Davis Jr. (Jim Carry) still killed. Howie Mandel’s act hasn’t changed appreciably, however. The special-edition package was culled from the first 52 original hours of the television series, which ran in syndication from 1983-96.  It contains 12 hours of comedy, supplied by performers old and young, soon-to-be-famous and splashes in the pan. Among the 60-plus other comics and hosts are Mort Sahl, Phil Foster, Billy Crystal, Leslie Nielsen, Phyllis Diller, Jackie Mason, Bob Townsend, James Coco, Elayne Boosler, Paul Reiser, Bill Maher, Paul Rodriguez, Milton Berle, Sandra Bernhard, Shecky Green, Pee-wee Herman, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Richard Belzer and Shelley Berman. Compared to clips you might find on YouTube, the production values here are quite good. – Gary Dretzka

Midnight’s Children
While not essential to enjoy Deepa Mehta’s absorbing multi-generational drama, “Midnight’s Children,” it wouldn’t hurt to at least take a peek at the Wikipedia page devoted to the Partition of India before investing 146 minutes watching it. Along with Mehta, Salmon Rushdie adapted the movie from his 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel that deals with India’s transition from British colonialism to independence, the partition and on to the administration of Indira Gandhi. At the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947, as India declares independence from Great Britain, two babies are switched at birth by a nurse in a Bombay hospital. Significantly, one’s birth parents are wealthy, while the other is the bastard child of a beggar. One would be raised in Pakistan and suffer all sorts of indignities, while the other would grow up to be an Indian war hero. As a work of magical realism, Rushdie invests in all children born between midnight and 1a.m. on independence day special powers, including telepathy. Protagonist Saleem Sinai uses his power to bring together children from around the country who were born on the same day. His adventures, especially, reflect the events that shaped the next 30 years of turmoil and growth. The lives of Saleem and Shiva, the boy with whom he was switched, intertwine throughout much of the same period. Mehta’s film is beautifully shot and packed with intensely emotional moments. It also is long and occasionally unwieldy, which is why it helps being invested in the history before tackling the movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Hot Nights of Linda: Blu-ray
How to Seduce a Virgin
In Hell
House on Straw Hill: Blu-ray
The Sack of Rome
4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker
When writer/director/composer Jesus “Jess” Franco shuffled off this mortal coil last April, a month before his 83rd birthday, his cinematic legacy included some 200 features of wildly divergent quality, visibility and parentage, as he adopted dozens of known pseudonyms. The closest the Madrid-born filmmaker would come to the Pantheon, however, was in the sexually awakened 1970s, when the Roman Church declared him one of the most dangerous filmmakers for Catholics, along with fellow Spaniard-in-exile Luis Bunuel. Like President Nixon’s Enemies List, such a dubious distinction was more of a badge of honor than a curse. Although he began his career as a composer and assistant to some of Spain’s top directors, he, like Roger Corman, quickly came to understand where the most money and freedom could be found. Despite such early international hits as “Succubus,” “Vampyros Lesbos,” “Venus in Furs” and “Diary of a Nymphomaniac,” Franco would have difficulty finding financing and distribution for hard-core horror flicks that were in vogue in the 1970s. Eventually, he turned to the direct-to-video market for movies that sliced and diced material from previous Franco products. In the wake of his death, it’s likely that we’re in store for a resurgence of interest in his catalogue from video distributors and fans. If the re-releases are handled with the same care as Impulse Pictures’ Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection, his legacy will be honored.

How to Seduce a Virgin” and “The Hot Nights of Linda” (a.k.a., “But Who Raped Linda?”) represent an encouraging start. To help viewers understand what viewers can expect in the latter, the distributor’s blurb-meister offers this, “Severin is proud to present one of (Franco’s) most notorious slabs of uber-sleaze.” In some genres, that is considered to be high praise, I guess. In it, Alice Arno (“Justine de Sade”) accepts a position as secretary in the Greek island home of a depraved millionaire – is there any other kind? – with two beautiful daughters. The one played by Franco’s muse, Lina Romay,  is, to borrow a quaint term, a nymphomaniac, while her invalid sister (Catherine Lafferiere) spends her days pleasuring herself and avoiding men. Despite her employer’s warning, it isn’t long before the secretary is lured into the family’s deep, dark mystery. A handsome, if dimwitted houseboy is worked into this scenario, as well, partially for his stud services and someone the boss can brutalize. “Hot Nights” isn’t one of Franco’s brightest moments, but it represents the kind of work he was doing in his hard-core period, when he frequently threw incest, lesbianism, sadism, rape, humor and murder into a blender, just to see how it would taste. The Blu-ray presentation has its problems, but it’s miles ahead of the undubbed, hard-core “banana edition” of “Linda,” which contains hard-core inserts and was restored from a 35mm print discovered in a Barcelona brothel. The bonus material adds interviews with Franco and Romay; footage of Franco being honored with Fantasticfest’s Lifetime Achievement Award; author Stephen Thrower’s observations of “Hot Nights”; and outtakes.

Released in 1974, “How to Seduce a Virgin” (“Plaisir a trois”) employs soft-core sex to illustrate a story that originated with the Marquis de Sade (not a first for Franco). The movie opens as the beautiful Countess Martine de Bressac (Arno) is about to be released from an expensive asylum, but not before she’s warned not to revert to her old ways. In a flashback, we learn that she was incarcerated after castrating a lover, so any repeat of that cruel deed would require more extreme punishment. Still, it doesn’t take very long for the countess to backslide, several examples of which have been immortalized in a basement gallery. Her husband, Charles, goes along with her desire to seduce the virginal daughter of a rich neighbor. The girl isn’t nearly as innocent as she lets on, however, and therein lies De Sade’s rub. Nicely shot and designed, “Virgin” reminds me of such contemporary soft-core classics as Radley Metzger’s “Lickerish Quartet” and “Camille 2000.” The DVD adds an interview with writer Alain Petit, introduction by critic Stephen Thrower, newly created optional subtitles, extensive production notes and some wild Mondo Macabro previews.

In Hell” is a work of art that confirms the old adage, “You can’t tell a DVD by its cover.” The cover art suggests that what lies inside is a movie that contains much girl/girl S&M action, while the text blurb exclaims, “He dared to make the ultimate movie.” I’m a big fan of DVDs from One7Movies, but this is as bizarre a case of misleading advertising as I’ve come across in a long time. Released in 1975 as “Gloria Mundi” – not to be confused with either of the naked babes on the jacket – “In Hell” bears a greater resemblance to “Z” than “The Story of O.” In fact, the guy who dares to create the” ultimate movie” is an anti-fascist radical, Hamdias, attempting to make a statement about torture and how colonial powers use it to intimidate freedom fighters (or terrorists, depending on which side of the fence one stands). And, yes, there is lots of nudity. Olga Karlatos plays the actress who experiences the brunt of the torture by French inquisitors in Algeria. She’s beautiful, even though her body is scarred with ugly cigarette and cigar burns. When the French secret service gets wind of the movie, they plot to shut down the project and arrest Hamdias. Still underground, Hamdias orders the actress to cover his tracks, while also promoting the unfinished product and, while she’s at it, getting rid of an explosive device. In addition to being a true believer of anti-imperialist causes, the actress is in love with Hamdias, who appears to be holding her son hostage. By either title, “Gloria Mundi” is an excellent example of 1970s agitprop cinema, created by one of the most interesting personalities of the 20th Century, Nico Papatakis. Among many other things, Papatakis helped John Casavetes finance “Shadows” and he also produced Jean Genet’s only movie. Anyone expecting “In Hell” to be anything resembling a stroke film is going to be sorely disappointed. I’m glad One7Movies has seen fit to release it under any banner. It was withdrawn from release when the extreme right threatened to plant bombs in the cinemas where it was showing, and had to wait until 2005 to be screened again in Paris.

Besides being made in the UK, where it was banned for three decades, “The House on Straw Hill” fits into this bunch because of its delicious mix of sex, violence and genre icons. If the presence of a young Udo Kier weren’t enough cause for celebration, there are the pulp bombshells Linda Hayden (“Blood on Satan’s Claw,” “Taste the Blood of Dracula”) and Fiona Richmond (“Britain’s No.1 sex symbol”). The mystery isn’t all that difficult to figure out, but, at least, it makes sense. Kier plays a successful, if blocked novelist in desperate need of a quiet place to write and a typist to put his words down on paper. The writer thinks that he recognizes the typist, but can’t place her face.  If you can’t figure out what happens in the next 90 minutes, you can’t claim to be a genre buff. And, I won’t spoil the fun here, either. For the first time in many years, “House on Straw Hill” (“Trauma,” “Expose”) arrives intact and far easier on the eyes, thanks to Blu-ray. The bonus materials include commentary with director James Kenelm Clarke and producer Brian Smedley-Aston; new interviews with Clarke and and the delightful Ms. Hayden; and a separate disc describing how the film ended up on the same list of banned videos as “The Exorcist,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Toolbox Murders.”

Released in 1992, “The Sack of Rome” (a.k.a., “Zoloto”) is a Russian/Italian co-production that should appeal to fans of such American cable series as “The Borgias,” “Borgia,” “Rome” and “Game of Thrones.” In addition to loose, if imaginatively drawn readings of history, they all share a dependence on nudity, sex and violence to keep viewers coming back for more. We’re told that the year is 1527, which puts it after the sacking of the Eternal City by Vandals, but before the Ostrogoths accomplished the same thing. The mercenaries also are referred to as “Lutherans,” although they didn’t look very religious to me. Franco Nero plays painter Gabriele da Poppi (Franco Nero), a libertine who believes that his status as a respected artist should give him a free pass from the turmoil outside his doors. It doesn’t, though. Fabio Bonzi’s film has an appealingly gritty period feel to the settings, interiors and costumes that’s frequently missing in the television mini-series. It arrives with a photo gallery.

There are actually five dead girls in “4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker,” but, after nodding off, who’s counting? Among the problems that present themselves when working on a micro-budget is not having enough money to make your picture sufficiently logical, scary or erotic. With a title like “4 Dead Girls,” being frightening and erotic should be a top priority. Being logical is a good thing for any movie to be, too, but it’s not essential when the other two qualities are there in abundance. Here, four young women move into a comfortable house not far from a university campus. (They aren’t aware of the fifth dead girl, who was dispatched before the opening credits rolled.) The landlord is an archetypal creep who can’t help but grin when thinking about what’s going to happen to his new tenants. In fact, he is a “soul eater” with a taste for bad girls. In his vapor form, the landlord can slip past closed doors, eavesdrop on conversations and watch three of the four women have sex. He’s tricked out the house so that he controls the locks on the doors and windows, which, of course, can’t be opened without permission or broken by thrown chairs. The only thing that frustrates him is a girl who refuses to be naughty. It’s difficult to imagine why a bible-reading coed would want to room alongside a lesbian couple and aspiring prostitute, but we all make sacrifices for art. Apart from the bargain-basement effects, “4 Dead Girls” suffers from insufficient plotting or any reason to care deeply about the tenants’ safety. – Gary Dretzka

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Call Me Kuchu
Chasing Ice
Some documentaries hit home harder than others. I’ve watched several films that not only have helped expose the many incidences of pedophilia among the priesthood, but also cover-ups that have reached the Vatican’s inner circle and cost the Church hundreds of millions of dollars. Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” chronicles decades of abuse at Milwaukee’s St. John’s School for the Deaf – 200 documented cases – in the mid-1900s. The school sits less than three miles from where I was raised and we regularly participated in sporting events with the students. The boys, at least, were extremely competitive and scrappy. It’s entirely possible that some of the people we meet in “Mea Maxima Culpa” were victims of the predatory Father Lawrence Murphy and the priest might have coached some of teams we played against. At the time, in Milwaukee and elsewhere, priests were treated with a deference that approached deification. As schoolboys, we knew from first-hand evidence that priests were capable of being alcoholics, brutes and poor sports when things didn’t go their way. I knew of one who married a young woman down the block, but can’t remember being made aware of a single instance of sexual abuse or pedophilia. My naiveté would come crashing down around my head when documentaries and feature films began addressing the problem and Catholics of all ages came out of the shadows to describe the incidents, name names and admit to their shame and lingering feelings of misplaced guilt. Some of the boys who were abused at St. John’s decided to fight back, even back then, by outing Murphy to parishioners on the city’s South Side and, when that was ignored, taking their case to the offices of bishops, Church lawyers, journalists, lay officials and, almost 30 years later, directly to Vatican. On the long road to vindication, they would be met with a thick wall of silence, the disbelief of their parents, open hostility from nuns and Church faithful, excruciating delays and, ultimately, a bankrupt diocese. As Gibney argues, the Church has historically rejected excommunication and criminal prosecution for bad priests, preferring to move them from one diocese to another or treat them with prayer. The petitioners also would be bolstered by movements around the world to expose, punish and defrock priests just as heinous as Murphy. When Pope Benedict stepped down from the papacy last year, he took with him a personal memory bank containing the names and crimes of thousands of priests that he had investigated as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Although it’s possible to believe that Benedict was as horrified as any lay person by the testimony of abused Catholics, he defended the confidentiality of internal church investigations. “Mea Maxima Culpa” is a difficult documentary to watch, especially for Catholics who are grasping for reasons to believe in the Church in the face of such terrible evidence.

Anyone who believes the atrocities of World War II won’t be repeated in their lifetime hasn’t been paying attention to repeated incidents of genocide over the past nearly 70 years. Nor are they aware of the legality of executions of LGBT individuals in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Mauritania, Yemen and parts of Nigeria. This week, in Kuwait, the government we returned to power in the first Gulf War announced that it had developed a
“gay detector,” designed to keep LGBT expatriates from entering the country and other Gulf nations. Russian lawmakers have threatened to incarcerate Olympic athletes who they believe to be gay or lesbian. Uganda, the same country that’s given us Idi Amin and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, could very well be the next country to punish LGBT citizens with death. As we learn in “Call Me Kuchu (Queer),” the persecution is so blatant and alarming that it can only be compared to the rhetorical campaign against Jews in the lead-up to World War II. Newspapers, including one called Rolling Stone, have compiled “hit lists” against people who are openly gay and printed outrageous lies about lifestyle choices and political motivations. A bill awaiting debate in Parliament would forbid doctors from treating people suspected of having AIDS and imprison anyone who doesn’t report the sexual identity of friends, neighbors and relatives. Sane lawmakers have been able to postpone debate for two years, but, with the vast majority of Ugandans in favor of the legislation, it could only be a matter of time. As if there weren’t enough native bigots, however, white American evangelists are shown whipping crowds into a frenzy of hate, as well. The defense is led here by David Kato, Uganda s first openly gay man, and retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. During the course of filming, Kato would die from injuries sustained in a beating. Employing tactics possibly inspired by the Westboro Baptist Church, Bible-quoting religious extremists are shown disrupting his funeral. As world leaders and political activists in Europe and the United State demand justice for Kato’s death, we listen to people on the other side advocating the hanging of known LGBT Ugandans. “Call Me Kuchu” was directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall. Even if it’s nearly impossible to watch from beginning to end without becoming physically ill, a little bit of it goes a long way toward informing viewers of an atrocity waiting to happen.

The debate over global warming has gotten so politicized that it’s become a chore to watch every new documentary on the subject or listen to a Fox News nitwit denigrate the work of scientists and environmentalists, simply because liberals have embraced the issue. Statistics and data are meaningless when the undecided have stopped listening and partisans have nothing new to add to the discussion. National Geographic photographer James Balog understands that while pictures don’t lie, they don’t always tell the whole story. After an assignment in Iceland, Balog decided to document the effects of global warming on the polar icecap over the course of a three-year period, up-close and in color. The result is “Chasing Ice.” His team would deploy time-lapse cameras across the Arctic and above glaciers in Iceland and Montana. He also has been analyzing data from ice cores collected on glaciers and ice caps. Given the brutal conditions experienced in the Arctic winter, Balog knew that his project was anything but a no-brainer. No one could anticipate in advance how the frigid temperatures and intense storms would impact the circuitry of the camera and their precarious hold on the anchors. That he was also risking his life taking foolhardy chances is also made abundantly clear. If the images weren’t so darned beautiful, the doc might be too depressing to watch. – Gary Dretzka

FX: American Horror Story: Asylum: Blu-ray
BBC: The Secret of Crickley Hall/In the Flesh
CW: Nikita: The Complete Third Season
USA: White Collar: The Complete Fourth Season
Fox: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season: Blu-ray
Adult Swim: Robot Chicken: Season 6: Blu-ray
One of the things for newcomers to know before jumping headfirst into any new season of “American Horror Story” is that it isn’t just scary. It also can be unrelentingly cruel, evil, ugly, unnerving, profane, sacrilegious and depraved. Once you’re hooked on it, however, it’s impossible to get too much of it. What atrocity can they throw at us this week? In keeping with the producers’ desire to make “American Horror Story” an anthology mini-series, the second season of the show offers a completely different setting and timeframe than the first. The presence of two-time Academy Award-winner Jessica Lange is arguably the most essential thread connecting both seasons, although several other actors return in different roles. Last year, Lange won an Emmy as Best Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series or Movie for her portrayal of the evil neighbor, while, this year, she was nominated as Best Actress as the twisted nun, Sister Jude Martin. It was one of 17 nominations the show received. “AHS: Aysylum” is set in and around a former tuberculosis hospital, which the Catholic Church has transformed into a facility for the criminally insane, Briarcliff. It’s 1964, so the nurses and doctors still employ treatment techniques – lobotomies, electroconvulsive-shock treatments, exorcism — that wouldn’t have been out of place at a World War II concentration camp, where, if one believes the rumors, James Cromwell’s Dr. Arthur Arden might have interned. Arden’s the kind of doctor whose ethical code permits late-night trysts with patients and vulnerable staff members. Among the patients are a skin-wearing psychopath, known as Bloody Face; a pinhead, right out of Todd Browning’s “Freaks”; a woman who believes that she’s Anne Frank; and a guy who killed 18 people from 5 different families on Christmas. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; “The Orderly,” a short in which an interview goes haywire when Bloody Face interrupts; a collection of interviews and clips from Season Two; and featurettes on the production design and special makeup effects.  The third season title, “AHS: Coven,” ought to whet most fans appetite for more thrills.

Not to be outdone by American purveyors of supernatural terror and paranormal kicks, the BBC has jumped into the genre with a pair of dandy mini-series. Typically, neither show is reliant on gore or loud noises to raise goosebumps in viewers. Horror nerds may miss such gratuitous crutches, but serious students of the genre won’t. After all, there’s no scarcity of good options for fans of extreme horror. “The Secret of Crickley Hall” combines ghosts with elements of traditional British whodunits in a story that unfolds over three chilling episodes.  A year after their little boy goes missing, the Caleighs move with their two daughters to creepy Crickley Hall, where they hope to clear their heads and Gabe has easy access to a new job. It doesn’t take long for Eve and the children to begin sensing they aren’t alone in the onetime orphanage. After some investigation, it’s revealed that several children drowned there in 1943 after falling into a river that runs below the building. When Eve hears her son’s voice in a spinning top, she opens up a wound that has been festering for 70 years.

The Beeb’s zombie drama, “In the Flesh,” appears to have taken a cue from “Warm Bodies,” a revisionist treatise on the undead mythos, in which victims can be cured in the name of love. Here, though, people killed in 2015 rise from the dead some time later and engage in battles with humans. Both sides experience heavy losses, but, in a twist, zombie POWs are detained in a holding center, where a cure for brain craving is discovered and tested on them. And, guess what, it works. In a decision that is extremely unpopular with the locals, patients cured of Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) are allowed to return to their homes and attempt to re-assimilate into polite society. Through the experiences of Keiren Walker, a young PDS sufferer, we witness armed resistance to the returnees, as well as uneasy reunions with friends and family. Both mini-series were designed to pull our emotional strings, as well as frighten us. The strategy works.

An aura of gold surrounds the Blu-ray release of “Nikita: The Complete Third Season,” the CW’s sexy action/adventure that will add a fourth stanza in November. Based on Luc Besson’s hugely influential 1990 thriller, “La Femme Nikita,” which, in 1993, spawned the Americanized remake, “Point of No Return,” and two fine television series, 1997-201 and 2010-present. The premise in all of its iterations is simplicity, itself. A hardened criminal is rescued from a life sentence in a top security prison by a secret government agency, looking for a woman who can be shaped into an assassin. Nikita’s background has been massaged through the years, but the constants include her sizzling hot beauty and figure, leather micro-miniskirts, sky-high pumps and the ability to take out our worst enemies. Anne Parillaud passed the torch to Bridget Fonda, who handed it off to Peta Wilson and Maggie Q. Without them, it’s likely that movies and TV wouldn’t be populated today with as many action heroines who could pass for fashion models. Is that progress or what? In Season Three, Nikita, Michael and CIA analyst Ryan Fletcher are heading Division, and have been tasked by the president to clean up after the previous regime. The team includes punk hacker, Seymour; Nikita’s protégé, Alex; ex-Navy SEAL, Sean; and Owen, who’s back from a Russian prison. They’re tasked with rounding up the Dirty Thirty, rogue assassins who remain at large around the globe. The Blu-ray adds a gag reel and unaired scenes.

Debonair con artist Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is up to his old tricks again in the fourth and, perhaps, penultimate season of USA’s wonderful action dramedy, “White Collar.” As usual, the set opens with Neal facing some kind threat to his freedom. This time, he’s laying low in the Cape Verde Islands with Mozzie, with their FBI friends and enemies hot on their trail. When they turn to the richest man in the islands for help, the decision leads both to more revelations about Neal’s past and clever heists. Among the guest stars are Treat Williams, Mekhi Phifer, Gregg Henry, Mia Maestro, Perrey Reeves, Judith Ivey and Michael Weston, who’s not to be confused with Michael Westen of “Burn Notice.” The DVD adds deleted scenes, a gag reel, commentary on “In the Wind” and featurette on Tim Dekay’s turn in the director’s chair.

Any series that can boast of an eight-year tenure on broadcast television is doing something extremely right. It also means that the show and its actors don’t require too much care and feeding from network executives. Fox’s forensics series, “Bones,” has several very good things going for it, not the least of which are Zooey Deschanel’s older sister, Emily; her partner in solving crimes, Peter Boreanaz; and a writing team that includes crime novelist and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs. Indeed, Deschanel’s Temperance Brennan is modeled after the protagonist of Reichs’ crime novels, just as the fictional Brennan writes mysteries under the pseudonym, Kathy Reichs. In Season Eight, Brennan is reunited with Booth (David Boreanaz) and the squints after spending the show’s summer hiatus on the run from the law, after she was framed by archenemy Christopher Pelant. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a gag reel, commentary on select episodes, a Q&A with Bones and a piece on the show’s loyal fan base.

What is it about chickens that make people laugh? Thousands of them are sacrificed each day to keep us well fed, while their unhatched chicks are abducted before they’ve even had a chance to meet their parents. Incredibly dumb, they can be hypnotized by drawing a line in front of their beaks. And, yet, what’s funnier than a grown man dressed in a chicken costume? How about “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,” “Chicken Little,” the Funky Chicken and “Chickenman.” Add a chicken to a sitcom and it instantly produces laughs. So, is it any surprise that the completely wacked out Adult Swim comedy, “Robot Chicken,” has survived six hilarious seasons? Created by Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, “Robot Chicken” is based on the photo-comic “Twisted ToyFare Theater.” It resembles “Team America: World Police” in its use of stop-motion animation and Claymation to make action figures, toys and other pop-cultural icons come alive, just so they can parodied to within an inch of their imaginary lives. As is the case with other such comedies, the creative team doesn’t leave much room for dud jokes. It just keeps throwing gags against the wall to see who will laugh. I did, a lot. And, no, not every sketch requires the presence of chickens. In fact, the title was inspired by a dish on the menu at a West Hollywood Chinese restaurant. The Blu-ray adds two hours of special features. – Gary Dretzka

The Guild: Season Six
Transformers Prime: Predacons Rising: Blu-ray
Totally Spies! Collection: Seasons 1-3
After a successful, ground-breaking run of the Internet series “The Guild,” its creator Felicia Day decided that “The Game” had gone on long enough and called the show a day with Season Six. It opens with Codex (Day) accepting a job at the headquarters of the Game and becoming disillusioned with the petty corporate culture and backstabbing. Much intrigue surrounds the release of the “underwater expansion pack,” which some think holds the key to the future of the Game. Resolutions to the storylines involving other members of the Knights of Good also reached before the season’s end. If none of this makes sense to non-gamers and YouTube junkies, the easiest way to explain it is by saying that Day, an actor and avid participant in the World of Warcraft realm, was able to parlay her addiction into a successful Internet commodity. Once established, “The Guild” attracted the interest of such companies as Microsoft. A “Megaset” compilation is being released simultaneously, just in time for the gifting season. The single-season DVD includes all 12 episodes; bonus material never before seen on the Internet; “I’m the One That’s Cool” music video; and an exclusive audio commentary from the cast and the director.

The Blu-ray edition of “Transformers Prime Beast Hunters: Predacons Rising” marks the completion of “Transformers Prime.” It was shown last week on the Hub Network, but the package adds a making-of featurette. Series mythology is so byzantine that it defies easy summarization. Fans will already know that theresurrected Unicron has taken over the now-lifeless body of Megatron to seek vengeance on the Autobots and ultimately, the destruction of Cybertron. This formidable enemy forces an unlikely alliance between the Autobots, Decepticons, Predaking and two new Predacons to preserve their newly restored planet.

The ABC Family and Fox Kids networks’ show “Totally Spies!” existed at the juncture of “Clueless,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Lara Croft.” Sam, Alex and Clover are three typical, fashion-obsessed high school girls, who inadvertently stopped an international crime in the local mall and were transformed into undercover agents for WOOHP. A girl can dream, can’t she? The new collection covers the show’s first three seasons. – Gary Dretzka

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon