MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

RoboCop: Blu-ray I wondered if the folks who decided to return to Detroit for the re-staging of “RoboCop,” circa 2028, considered the possibility that Motown may not exist in any recognizable form by then. It barely exists, today. Unless it is declared a welfare state and put under the control of a conservatorship – not unlike our nation’s capital, which benefits from the self-sustaining windbag industry – there will be nothing left to steal or protect, nowhere left to live and nothing left to do. As if to give credence to just such a scenario, Jose Padilha’s futuristic remake of the 1987 sci-fi classic – even then, shot largely in Texas and Pennsylvania — was made entirely in Canada, which, perhaps, could benefit from annexing Detroit as a suburb of Windsor. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, though, that there’s enough left of the city for a cyborgian lawman to save. How, then, does Padilha’s “RoboCop” stand up to Paul Verhoeven’s far more nuanced original? Well, like most other things in life and the cinema, it depends on the beholder. If the storyline doesn’t deviate much from the framework built by writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the script devised by Padilha (“Elite Squad”) and freshman writer Joshua Zetumer substitutes hard-core action and menace for the dark humor and old-fashioned humanity that distinguished Verhoeven’s picture. It doesn’t lack for violence, certainly, even if Padilha was required, against his will, to cut the film for a PG-13 release. Here, Samuel L. Jackson plays a rabble-rousing talk-show blowhard, who shills for OmniCorp, the company financing the RoboCop project. It has been supplying mechanical soldiers to the U.S. military, for its overseas wars, but CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) believes that the future lies in the domestic market. Sellars knows that the populace won’t feel secure, however, unless the computerized cops display human sensitivities. Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) finds just the right fit in a seriously damaged good-guy cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who’s none too thrilled to wake up to find himself under the control of the ruthless Sellars. Nonetheless, it’s a human face. The change allowed Padilha to reposition Murphy’s suburban family (Abbie Cornish, John Paul Ruttan) in the narrative, from background to forefront. It probably didn’t matter that critics were split down the middle on the 2014 release, which cost more than $100 million to make and market. (The 1987 model made do on a $13 million budget, returning four times that much to MGM.) What I found interesting, though, was how international audiences saved “RoboCop” from tanking, cornering 75 percent of total revenues of $243 million. Even without counting for inflation, domestic revenues for both the original and remake were practically the same, $53.4 million vs. $58.6 million, making a sequel an iffy proposition. I see no reason why it shouldn’t do just fine in the after-market, though. Jay Baruchel, Jackie Earle Haley and Marianne Jean-Baptiste also play key roles. The Blu-ray offers a superior audio/visual presentation, as well as several deleted scenes and extensive making-of and background material. – Gary Dretzka Lone Survivor: Blu-ray Ride for Lance Ask a firefighter, cop or soldier what prompted him or her to act heroically in a life-or-death situation and the answer almost always will be something like, “I was just doing my job” or “I just did what I was trained to do.” Perhaps, knowing that most Medal of Honor recipients have been killed in the line of duty, they’re content to leave the anointing of heroes to their superiors and politicians. Heroism, itself, is far easier to define and recognize. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about America’s Special Forces, in the last 15 years, at least, it is that the units don’t go into battle anticipating anything beyond what might happen in the next few minutes or hours. Having undergone such an extremely demanding training regimen, practically nothing is left to chance… even while under fire. Typically, too, while the successes of Special Forces teams go unreported, the failures often make headlines. The mission to kill Osama Bin Laden was weighted with such political significance that it became the exception that proved the rule. In 1980, the deaths of eight Americans in the failed attempt to rescue hostages held in the U.S. Embassy by Iranian radicals quickly was overshadowed by finger-pointing and political rhetoric. The first news reports on Operation Red Wings — the failed mission that inspired “Lone Survivor” — focused necessarily on the helicopter being shot down and the deaths of the rescue-team members. More than two years later, after sole survivor Marcus Luttrell’s best-selling account of the mission was published, President Bush posthumously awarded Lt. Michael Murphy the Medal of Honor and the author was given the Navy Cross. Peter Berg’s heart-wrenching film sticks pretty close to Luttrell’s recollection of the doomed mission to eliminate a pro-Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan. I doubt that I’m giving away anything that isn’t already known about “Lone Survivor” by pointing out that Occupation Red Wings was compromised by one of the goatherds whose life was spared in a vote among the SEALs. No sooner was the youngest let go than he scampered down the mountain side to alert the insurgents. If they had killed him or tied him to a tree until the action was completed, it’s possible that the team could have called off the mission and been safely extracted from the landing zone. Even though it takes place less than half-way through the picture, the vote sets up the story’s central moral dilemma: are this country’s rules of engagement realistic in a war such as the one we’re fighting in the mountains of a largely hostile region. Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) has since said that his vote to release the boy was influenced by premonitions of how the “liberal media” would have played imposing on a death sentence on the goatherds. I would think that the prospect of a court-martial would be more frightening, but that’s what happens to your moral compass when you watch too much Fox News. Once the Taliban attack the four-man team, it becomes a moot point. Berg’s dramatization of the combat that quickly follows the identification of the Americans is as exciting as anything I’ve witnessed since “Saving Private Ryan.” It feels as if the confrontation is happening in real time and we can reach out and touch the SEALs, not that it would do anyone any good. After the smoke clears on the mountain, Berg introduces another profile in courage in the person of the Pashtun leader who stood his ground against the insurgents. Relying on centuries of tribal tradition, he risked his life by refusing to hand the American over to them. In such pictures as “The Kingdom” and “Battleship,” Berg has demonstrated that he can create and direct credibly violent and exciting war scenarios. His desire to remain faithful to the book gives us an opportunity to meet the SEAL team members before the action and understand what makes a Special Forces unit tick. By the time the operation begins, we’ve bought in to their devotion to duty and each other. Berg also makes sure we understand that the insurgent leader, Ahmad Shah, is a dangerously violent man, capable of killing innocent villagers to make a point. Unlike other post-Vietnam war movies, “Lone Survivor” doesn’t make a case for the futility of war or challenge the reasons we were in Afghanistan. It’s 2005, after all, and the characters here are doing what needed to be done when the rest of the world was still on our side in the war on terror. If this were a movie set in Iraq, instead, viewers might rightly question whether the life of even one American soldier was worth the entirety of the embattled country and the president’s personal crusade against Saddam Hussein. Politics aren’t discussed much in “Lone Survivor” and that’s a big point in its favor. In a profile included in the Blu-ray package, Luttrell doesn’t point to patriotism as being the key reason for wanting to be a Navy SEAL. He’s always considered himself to be a warrior and that’s what attracted him to Special Forces. Berg personally convinced him of his desire to honor Luddell’s brothers-in-arms. In “The Pashtun Code of Life,” we’re introduced to another real-life hero, Mohamad Gulab, who may have signed his own death warrant by obeying traditional Pashtun principles and saving Luttrell’s life. His ordeal is far from over. Last year, producer and Navy veteran Scott Mactavish released the practically DIY documentary, “Murph: The Protector” to honor Lieutenant Murphy. His act of valor came when he decided to climb back up to the ridge, unprotected, to find reception for the team’s satellite phone. He and Luttrell both knew it was a suicide mission, but kept on picking off as many enemy fighters as possible. The movie relied solely on interviews, re-creations and personal memorabilia to describe the Medal of Honor recipient and act of courage. Mactavish has followed up on that effort with the similarly low-budget, “Ride for Lance,” which describes a 31-day, 12,000-mile motorcycle excursion undertaken by friends and comrades of Chief Petty Officer Lance Vaccaro, a decorated SEAL, killed in a 2008 training exercise. Four riders and a support team made the trek from Virginia Beach to Alaska, all the way accepting donations for the Navy SEAL Foundation. The scenery may be the best thing about “Ride for Lance,” but easily the most heart-warming is the response accorded the riders along the way by vets, average citizens and police and fire officials. If any of them had to pay for a drink or lodging during the trip, I didn’t notice it. – Gary Dretzka Alexander: The Ultimate Cut: 10th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray Riddle me this, Batman: when is the “final cut” version of a DVD not, in fact, the final cut? When Oliver Stone says it isn’t. In addition to the theatrical-, director’s- and final-cut editions of his grand historical epic, we now have the “Ultimate” 10th-anniversary package of “Alexander.” It’s even been collected on Blu-ray alongside “300” and “Troy.” A few studios, notably Disney, routinely send out different editions of the same movie, adding a feature or two to entice fans. Depending on whose article one reads, “Alexander” has been released at lengths of 167, 175, 206, 213 and 220 minutes, although only three of those appear to be valid. It’s no secret that Stone felt rushed by studio demands for the picture and a firm deadline or that he couldn’t wait to add to re-edit it to his own specifications for DVD. Curiously, though, the original director’s-cut edition came in eight minutes shorter than the theatrical release. Likewise, the 2007 “Final Cut” is about six minutes longer than the new “Ultimate” set. But, who’s counting, right? Suffice it to say that Stone appears to be satisfied at its current length, which restores some philosophical discussion with Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) and additional homo-erotic references. Three-and-a-half hours spent in anyone’s company can prove taxing and Alexander the Great is no exception. What was good-to-great in the theatrical version remains the same today and the new stuff looks OK, too. Even so, the restored material is likely to be best appreciated by fresher eyes than mine. I kept looking for the changes and it made a long movie longer. There’s nothing wrong with the Blu-ray presentation and that should come as good news to people who need an excuse for revisiting “Alexander.” Also included are an introduction by Stone; 40-page booklet with concept drawings, storyboards and behind-the-scenes photos; collectible packaging; correspondence memos between Stone and the cast and crew; a new documentary, “The Real Alexander and the World He Made”; commentaries by Oliver Stone and historian Robin Lane Fox; the original theatrical version and commentary; Sean Stone’s feature-length making-of documentary, “Fight Against Time: Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’”; and “Vangelis Scores ‘Alexander’.” – Gary Dretzka Black Out: Blu-ray Anyone able to erase the memory of 15 years’ worth of Guy Ritchie miscues, along with dozens of anemic attempts to copy “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” by lesser directors, might find something fresh and exotic in “Black Out.” (Just try to forget he was married to Madonna and directed her in the “Swept Away” remake.) Everyone else, I’m afraid, will see it as just another apple that fell too close to the tree. Don’t get me wrong, though, the Rotterdam-set crime story has many redeeming qualities. In his first feature for mature audiences, Dutch director Arne Toonen used a novel by fellow countryman Gerben Hellinga as the foundation for “Black Out.” So it’s possible, I suppose, that the novelist owes more to Ritchie than does Toonen. How does one say, “moot point,” in Dutch? The basic story involves an amnesic crook, Jos, who can’t remember picking up 20 kilos of cocaine from a smuggler, let alone how he could have paid for it or delivering it to someone other than an octogenarian crime boss, who’s near death and confined to a wheelchair. There’s also the matter of a fortune in Eurodollars that’s missing and presumed forgotten by Jos, as well. To avoid being killed on the eve of his wedding, Jos and a burly buddy pay call on all of the unusual suspects in the port city to pick their brains and pockets. Besides Grandpa, they include a former star of the Bolshoi Ballet turned kick-boxer, a bowling center operator, a woman who’s adept at guessing the purity of cocaine by touch, a Surinamese dog groomer, his finance’s corrupt father, the operator of the Cowboy Disco and, best of all, sexy female ninjas Petra and Charity. As imagined by Katja ad Birgit Schuurman, the tattooed enforcers need wield only a fireman’s ax and cricket bat to make their points. Otherwise, “Black Out” overflows with Ritchie-esque ultra-violence, cleverly rendered profanity, loud music and enough backstabbing and double-crosses to fill a dozen homages to “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” The Blu-ray adds a blooper reel, photo gallery and comic short, “Oh, Deer,” also by Toonen. As ragged as “Black Out” is, I’d watch it again just to see Petra and Charity. – Gary Dretzka Clockwork Orange County Of all the places in America for a virulent strain of punk rock to take root in the late-1970s, SoCal’s Orange County was one of the least likely. Former President Richard Nixon still lived on its southern tip and the residents’ dedication to suburban values was unequaled in the U.S. If the Flower Power and antiwar movements failed to make a dent in Orange County complacency, a different kind of youth-quake was on the horizon in the mid-1970s. Kids who were bullied for their non-conformist ideas and unconventional appearance began to find each other in school, at the beach and other places that they could drink, smoke, show off their tattoos and get pierced in peace. The “skate punk” movement was already in full swing and the increasingly violent “surf Nazi” crowd was threatening to turn public beaches into war zones. Mostly, though, kids just wanted to have fun and there was only one place that allowed them to head-bang to songs that matched their outsider attitudes. Appropriately, it was a Costa Mesa nightclub, the Cuckoo’s Nest, that booked the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, T.S.O.L and didn’t mind taking money from kids who preferred slam-dancing and stage-diving to whatever was being shown on “Soul Train.” The exposure that bands received at the Cuckoo’s Nest sometimes put them on a fast track to national attention, even if the money didn’t always match the energy exerted on the dance floor. The more popular the club got, however, the more it became infested with addicts, overly aggressive lunatics and tailgaters, hoping to save some money by getting drunk in the parking lot. This led to all sorts of problems, including fights between the punks and patrons of the “cowboy” bar, down the road. Not surprisingly, then, “Clockwork Orange County” will be of interest primarily to those who still enjoy the music or remember the nightclub. It features interviews, then and now, with many of the musicians and fans who put the place on the map. – Gary Dretzka Ravenous: Blu-ray Parts Per Billion: Blu-ray Death Bed: The Bed That Eats: Blu-ray How many times have you been warned about eating a big meal before watching a particularly gory movie? Typically, such talk only enhances our appetites for mayhem that rarely lives up to the hype. “Ravenous” is the only movie I can recall where the admonishment actually holds water. And, yes, we’re talking about cannibalism here. As unappetizing as it might be, Antonia Bird’s quasi-Western is set among some of the most beautiful scenery that Slovakia and Durango have to offer. It also features a cast that, in 1999, was built to sell tickets. It included Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, John Spencer and Neal McDonough. Pearce plays an army officer who experienced a spot of bother in our war with Mexico and developed a nasty habit. Somehow, though, he managed to capture a Mexican command post, for which he was given a promotion. His reward was being posted in a fort high in the Sierra Nevada range, which for several winter months is impassable. Pearce’s Captain John Boyd may look as if he’s just gone 10 rounds with a rabid bear, but he’s Robert Redford in “Jerimiah Johnson” compared with the rest of the soldiers stationed there. Carlyle plays a Scottish stranger, who after being treated for frostbite, tells a story about the leader of a group of settlers who lured members of his party into caves when the snows came. When the soldiers investigate the claim, they get a lesson in extreme dining. By now, though, “Ravenous” still has a long way to go. In addition to cannibalism, screenwriter Ted Griffin borrows from the Wendigo legend to give a spiritual twist to the proceedings. Despite the excellent cast, the movie didn’t make a lot of money at the box office. Perhaps, if the producers built an outdoor theater and showed it to tourists at the Donner Summit campground, they’d have made a fortune. The Blu-ray includes a new interview with actor Jeffrey Jones; commentaries with Bird and composer Damon Albarn, Griffin and Jones, and Carlyle; deleted scenes with Bird’s commentary; and two still galleries of the costume and production design. Brian Horiuchi’s freshman feature, “Parts Per Billion,” is another picture whose cast couldn’t save it from straight-to-PPV oblivion. The “On the Beach” approach to apocalyptical drama doesn’t quite work here, as airborne biological toxins slowly make their way from the Middle East to Michigan and a bunch of people who can only sit and wait for the curtain to drop on their lives. Among actors involved here are Josh Hartnett, Teresa Palmer, Alexis Bledel, Rosario Dawson, Penn Badgley, Hill Harper and the always welcome Gena Rowlands and Frank Langella. The deeper drama involves three couples desperate to keep love alive, even under such extreme conditions. I hate to say it, but this is one post-apocalypse movie that could use some zombies. Also set in Detroit, well before the economic collapse, is George Barry’s one and only gift to the cinematic gods. “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” is so unbelievably strange and poorly made that it cries out to be seen by cultists, if no one else. And, yet, here “Death Bed” is, 37 years later and in Blu-ray, no less. Actually, it might be even older than that. Legend has it that Barry’s film was shot in 1972, but the answer print wasn’t struck until six years later. Barry had pretty much forgotten he’d made the movie until 2003, when he discovered that bootleg copies of “Death Bed” had been circulating and it had developed a fan base. He then decided to put it out officially on DVD, with a bonus package that rivals any assembled by Criterion Collection. The story is set in a stone outbuilding of a crumbling estate outside Detroit. The only piece of furniture is a large four-post bed with a crimson cover. There’s also an Aubrey Beardsley painting that carries a supernatural charge. As the title suggests, anyone who sits on the bed gets devoured by it, especially if they’re partially naked actresses. It’s nuts … truly nuts … but in a good way. Inexplicably, independent distributors Cult Epics and Olive Films have decided to invest even more money into “Death Bed,” in the form of a new HD transfer; introductions and commentaries by Stephen Thrower, author of “Nightmare USA,” and Barry; a conversation between Thrower and Barry on horror films of the 1970s and 1980s; a new behind-the-scenes featurette; and original “Death Bed” music track. – Gary Dretzka We Always Lie to Strangers: The Incredible True Story of Branson, Missouri When I saw the title to this documentary about a town that could only exist in America, I expected an expose of the family-values dodge or a snotty putdown of an entertainment mecca that caters to men and women who haven’t boogied since Lawrence Welk died. They used to say the same thing about Las Vegas, too, but, this time, it’s true. Instead, A.J. Schnack and David Boone Wilson’s “We Always Lie to Strangers” examines how a remote Ozark Mountain town prospers by providing stages for entertainers too old to draw flies in Las Vegas or, even, Nashville. More than 7.5 million tourists visit Branson a year, generating some $3 billion in annual tourism revenue. Unlike Las Vegas and Nashville, however, the year-round population is just north of 10,000 people, almost all of whom owe their living to the entertainment and tourism industries. Besides such well-known performers as Andy Williams, Tony Orlando and Yakov Smirnoff, who have permanent theaters in town, Branson is home to more than 100 song-and-dance stages. (There’s small cemetery’s worth of tribute shows dedicated to departed country legends.) It almost goes without saying that none of the productions dare allow naughty language, nudity, gambling or political jokes that might alternately offend Republicans and Democrats. It isn’t unusual for a show to end with a gospel medley or salute to our armed forces. Not everyone comes to Branson for the shows or even the family values. It’s located in a beautiful corner of the country, where outdoors sports, zip lines, mini-golf, fishing and other more-or-less healthy activities can be enjoyed. There are a lot worse places to be stuck than Branson, even if one isn’t yet eligible for Social Security. That’s the good news, though. The bad news is that family values, alone, can’t keep Branson safe from the economic realities of the rest of the world. Again, like Vegas, it has been hit hard by the cutback in tourism by financially endangered Americans. Unlike Vegas, though, I doubt it has much of an international audience to compensate for the losses. It’s the trickle-down effect of a crippled economy that impacts the people we meet here most. “We Always Lie to Strangers” introduces us to the Presley and Lennon families, whose must-see productions embody everything there is to like in Branson … if you like that kind of stuff. As popular as their shows have been, the entertainers can’t escape the slow economy and drop in state support for tourism. It isn’t unusual to find performers, in costume, hustling coupons to tourists. Still, like troupers everywhere, they go on with the shows. I wondered if the filmmakers were going to address the elephant in the room, which is the town’s disproportionately large gay population. As is pointed out by one of the male dancers in a popular show, Branson probably is the most gay-friendly place of its size and location in the country. Take away the gays and no one would be left to entertain the paying customers. As long as couples don’t flaunt their affection on Main Street, everything’s copacetic. Their everyday problems, however, are only slightly more pronounced than others interviewed. “We Always Lie to Strangers” has a pleasant home-spun quality to it and the people chosen to represent the town and cross-section of its residents have plenty of worthwhile things to say. One divorced dancer with an unreliable baby-sitter even allows herself to cuss when shit happens, but only off-stage. – Gary Dretzka Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton Breaking Through As an admirer of the Beat writers and many experimental filmmakers, I suppose that I should have heard about James Broughton before watching “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” the celebratory bio-doc produced by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon. A square peg almost from birth, the Modesto-born poet and filmmaker was a poet and filmmaker (a.k.a., “father of West Coast independent cinema”) whose ecstatic approach to life and the arts was as infectious as it was entertaining. His influence can be traced back to the post-WWII San Francisco renaissance, which, in turn, directly influenced the Beats and hippies, the gay-liberation movement and Radical Faeries (a group that rejects assimilation into mainstream society by gays and lesbians). He also was a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist and social-welfare organization comprised of “queer nuns.” Not one to limit his choices, Broughton once lived with Berkeley film critic and future New Yorker writer Pauline Kael and, in 1962, married artist and designer Suzanna Hart, with whom he brought two children onto this Earth. He considered himself to be married to one of his male partners, at least. Broughton’s poetry celebrated his expansive views on sexuality and life, in general. The poems we remember are playful and display a child-like quality in the manipulation of words and phrases. The film’s title defines his approach to life, which he synopsized as being, “follow your own weird.” “Big Joy” features interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives and lovers, plus images from his films. I don’t know if anyone’s dedicated a street in Broughton’s name, but it’s entirely possible that, without his presence, San Francisco might not have become the wildly diverse and hugely entertaining city that it is today. The DVD adds more interviews and background material. At 85 minutes, “Breaking Through” overplays its hand by a good half-hour. This isn’t to infer that its message wears thin over time or the un-closeted politicians Cindy Abel interviews here are dull, only that watching and listening to anyone discuss themselves in mostly static poses can grow tiresome. Even so, an hour spent in the company of openly LGBT elected officials – from the first openly gay U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin, to local officials in unlikely districts – is an hour well-spent. These are men and women, who, after all, were required to convince voters and themselves that sexual preference should be an irrelevant consideration in politics and public service. In fact, self-doubt was the toughest barrier to be overcome by LGBT candidates. And, yes, in addition to “L” and “G” office-holders, we also meet those of the “B” and “T” persuasion. While dry, Abel’s first feature-length documentary is uplifting and encouraging as it pertains to acceptance at the polls. It was shot before things got really ugly in the wake of Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, so we miss some perspective there. – Gary Dretzka Son of God: Blu-ray It’s always fun to watch mainstream critics tie themselves in knots when putting a beat-down on movies that deal with issues near and dear to the hearts of many readers or demand a politically correct approach to the subject matter. This certainly applies to movies that depict accepted religious beliefs and revered historical figures, ranging from Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ to the prophet Muhammad and Moses. In the first century of cinema, studios have been every bit as circumspect in their portrayals and interpretations of Hebrew and Christian bibles and the Koran. I mean, why bother? While historical and literary purists have been known to angrily criticize Hollywood revisionism, it’s the devotedly religious constituency that can kill a movie’s box-office potential. The Monty Python gang milked the controversy surrounding “Life of Brian” for all it was worth, while Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” took its message directly to the demographic group most likely to create buzz for a religious movie. In both cases, the strategy worked. Despite some heated discussions about what some critics saw as gratuitously torturous material and anti-Semitic propaganda, Gibson basically trumped the reviewers. On the flip side, Martin Scorsese’s critically lauded “The Last Temptation of Christ” became as controversial as the book upon it was based. Nikos Kazantzakis’ intensely thoughtful novel was loudly condemned as blasphemous by religious leaders and pundits, who, of course, hadn’t read the book or conferred with its defenders. Universal didn’t accede to demands that the movie be pulled from circulation, but threats of violence and government action in some countries gave the studio pause when it came to marketing the picture, which it tagged with a lame cautionary note. Potential audiences also were intimidated by the protests. It’s been reported that Universal agreed to finance the project as long Scorsese agreed to make “Cape Fear,” in return. In this case, the victory went to those who prefer the Jesus-on-black-velvet approach to the crucifixion. In February, Christopher Spencer’s “Son of God” made a substantial return on investment by sticking to the least controversial interpretation of the New Testament possible. The feature-length film, Spencer’s first, was cobbled together from material included in or deleted from the hit History Channel mini-series, “The Bible.” Even playing it safe proved risky for the producers, however. During mini-series’ run, some viewers took to the Internet to question why Satan bore a distinct resemblance to President Obama. Exec-producers Mark Burnett and Rona Downey, who presumably would have no reason to add such a contentious element to their highly anticipated project, emphatically denied the charge. By this time, however, right-wing radio nuts picked up on the rumors and decided there was mileage there to be gained. By the time “Son of God” was released into DVD/Blu-ray, however, Satan had been “cast out” of the movie. Downey said it was done to put the focus on Jesus. This, of course, prompted no-nothing pundits to suggest that Obama, himself, forced the excision. “Son of God” received reviews that largely argued that, despite the earnestness of everyone involved, the movie … well … sort of … sucked. I didn’t think it was as bad as all that, really. My primary objection derives from the casting of Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as the leading man. In their effort to make Jesus more “human,” for contemporary audiences, the producers cast someone who could be a mid-fielder for a Lisbon soccer team or Brad Pitt’s body-double. His turning out of the tax collectors in the temple had all the gravity of a player disputing a yellow-card penalty. For those who prefer their Jesus Lite, however, “Son of God” seems perfectly agreeable. Still, I wondered how it managed to gross $60 million, against a production budget of $22 million, when most of the material was already available via History Channel sources. An answer may have been revealed in the making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes in the Blu-ray package. Powerful church leaders Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., among them, show up in set visits or singing the movie’s praises in interviews. They and other “megachurch” founders subsequently vowed to take over the nation’s megaplexes upon its opening on February 28, purchasing tickets and gobbling down popcorn. Beyond that, who knows? – Gary Dretzka Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space & Time: Blu-ray If anyone could make the genesis of a 50-year-old television show entertaining, it’s the BBC. Of course, “Doctor Who” isn’t just any BBC series. What began as an experiment rapidly evolved into a national phenomenon and, eventually, a worldwide cult sensation. It has survived several hiatuses and cast upheavals and may, today, be enjoying its highest level of popularity. 2013 was filled with programming related to the remarkable longevity of the show and hubbub surrounding the abdication of Matt Smith, as the 11th Doctor, and coronation of his successor, Peter Capaldi. Among the other goodies included in the celebration was the 90-minute “Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space & Time,” which aired near the end of November around the globe. It describes how, in 1963, the BBC’s then-head of drama, Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) was assigned the task of coming up with a show that would carry viewers from earlier day parts to the older-skewing portion of the schedule, without losing most of its younger audience. Newman decided to attempt a sci-fi series, but absent most of the clichés of the genre. He took another risk by asking Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) to be his producer. Both choices were greeted with disdain by BBC veterans, who resisted taking orders from a woman and wasting their precious brain cells on fantasy. Her biggest challenge, though, turned out to be the casting of the first Doctor, whose personality and cleverness would go a long way toward dictating the show’s success. In the cranky veteran thespian William Hartnell (David Bradley), they felt as if they had made the right choice. He had his doubts, of course, but raised them mostly to his wife, who was quite used to such anguished self-examination. On the set, his near-tyrannical behavior made him few friends. It wasn’t until after Opening Night, when the boffo ratings were revealed, that everyone could breathe easily. What’s remarkable about this production is how it reflects the complete change of attitude in everyone involved, when their worst fears weren’t realized. Overnight, cast and crew became a team. Hartnell, for one, can’t believe that children come up to him in public, asking for autographs. Three years later, he will have to come to grips with the serious disease that is ruining his memory and complicating his performance. Bradley is terrific in demonstrating Hartnell’s emotional roller-coaster ride. The Blu-ray package is worth the price of admission, alone, as it includes the first “Doctor Who” serial and pilot, “An Unearthly Child”; “The Making of an Adventure in Space and Time”; “William Hartnell: The Original”; “Regeneration: Doctors 1, 2 and 3,” re-cast; “Reconstruction: Four Sequences”; David Bradley’s “Farewell” and “Christmas Greeting”; a titles sequence; and deleted scene, “Delia Derbyshire.” – Gary Dretzka TV-to-DVD USA: Graceland: The Complete First Season TNT: Falling Skies: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray ABC Family: Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Fourth Season New Adventures of Superman/JLA Adventures PBS: Nova: Inside Animal Minds PBS: Nature: Snow Monkeys PBS: Nature: My Bionic Pet PBS: Frontline: TB Silent Killer If, like me, you were turned off by the idea of watching another TV series set in Memphis or involving a P.I. who wears a jump suit with a large thunderbird embroidered on it in sequins, you might have bailed on the latest USA Network series, “Graceland.” (I mourned the cancellation of “Memphis Beat,” but one was enough.) Instead, “Graceland” is set in an expensive beachfront house, within a short drive to LAX. It was confiscated from a drug kingpin and repurposed as a co-habitual residence for undercover agents of DEA, FBI and U.S. Customs Agency. Naturally, extremely attractive men and women share the plush crash pad, setting up myriad possible story arcs and potentially lethal relationships. And, yes, surfing is an integral part of the bonding process. Among the criminal activities to be eradicated are drug smuggling, parrot smuggling and Levis smuggling, street gangs, cartels, Russian gangsters, pot farmers and a possible turncoat in their midst. You know, the usual stuff. Heading into Season One, the best thing going for “Graceland” was the participation of Jeff Eastin, who wrote and exec-produced “White Collar.” In my opinion, “Graceland” doesn’t measure up to “White Collar,” which benefitted from its sly humor, compelling characters and interesting crime-solving. The cable-ready hotness of the actors, including Aaron Tveit, Daniel Sunjata, Manny Montana, Vanessa Ferlito and Serinda Swan, is an asset. Once one gets past the missing-Elvis thing, it’s much easier to enjoy “Graceland,” which benefits greatly from some L.A. locations we haven’t seen for a while. Season Two begins next week. In the weekly battle between apocalypse survivors and giant metallic space invaders on “Falling Skies,” the storylines have begun to crash into each other and it’s gotten far more difficult to take sides. If it weren’t for the presence of Noah Wylie – all “ER” vets get the benefit of the doubt in this column – I still wouldn’t be able to discern the protagonist from the antagonist. The same confusion now occurs when I watch shows and movies about zombies. They’re only doing what comes naturally, after all. In Season Three, the Second Mass of aliens has taken root in Charleston and the survivors’ newly elected president, Tom (Wylie), would like nothing more than to spoil the upcoming anniversary of aliens’ arrival. One way of doing it is to shut down the power source that allows the “skitters,” “mechs” and “Espheni” to counter the human resistance. Meanwhile, power struggles continue to threaten the coalition and some begin to mistrust the Volms’ motives. Paying attention to detail is definitely a pre-requisite for enjoying “Falling Skies.” A scorecard would be even more helpful. The thing I appreciate most about the new “Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Fourth Season” DVD is the featurette in which all of the storylines and mysteries are traced back to Day One. It allowed me to understand what all the fuss is about surrounding the red coat and snail-paced progress in the murder investigation, among other things. Although the show is adapted from Sara Shepard’s series of YA novels, it is better described as “Desperate Housewives” for teenage girls, as one critic put it. There’s a major twist in the murder storyline at midseason that puts everything that’s gone before it into question and adds several new suspects to the mix, including MILF moms and other adults. Blessedly, the girls still look good doing whatever they’re doing, instead of studying, and they never have to worry about wearing the same outfit twice. Another thing I don’t understand is how a kissy-face lesbian relationship got past the censors at ABC Family. Either someone is asleep at the switch or no one cares, which is OK with me. They can scrap the whole TV-ratings charade, for all I care. The extras include featurettes, “Unhooding Red Coat: Alison Is Alive!,” “Confessions of ‘A’ Liar” and “Pretty Little Scenes,” the bonus-recap episode and deleted scenes. In 2007, the first season of “The New Adventures of Superman” was released on DVD by Warner Home Video and, ever since, fans of the animated series from 1966-69 have anxiously awaited the release of the next two seasons of the Filmation series. The segments were excised from the Saturday-morning shows the Man of Steel shared with Aquaman, Batman and Superboy, Game-show veteran Bud Collyer supplied his voice, if not the likeness, while Ted Knight provided the narration. If the animation looks primitive, well, everything did in 1966. Compare it to “JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time,” which is “2001: A Space Odyssey” compared to “New Adventures of Superman.” It’s also a million times more complex. The 52-minute feature is as much about Lex Luthor as the Justice League, in that he plans to take over the world by expanding the polar ice caps (which should really confuse the deniers of global warming). Incredibly, Luther turns up a thousand years later in the Legion of Superheroes’ Museum, where he’s privy to all of the secrets of 21st Century superheroes. After being accidentally sprung, he time-travels back to the present, ready and able to destroy Our Hero. This week’s package from PBS is heavy on animal-related shows. “Inside Animal Minds” is a three-part, 180-minute documentary that explores how animals understand the world around them and learn to react to things that happen in certain patterns, shapes and speeds in common ways. It employs dogs, birds and dolphins to make some fascinating points. The “Nature” presentation “Snow Monkeys” takes us to Japan’s Shiga Highlands, where a troop of snow monkeys – yes, the ones that bask contentedly in the hot springs in frigid weather – is learning to adjust to the complex society of rank and privilege under a relatively new boss monkey. Also from “Nature,” “My Bionic Pet” describes how modern prosthetics, some developed to assist wounded soldiers, are being used to put injured animals back on their feet, fins, flippers, tails and beaks. Cures thought impossible only a few years ago soon could be commonplace. From “Frontline” comes “TB Silent Killer,” documents how tuberculosis has returned with a vengeance in countries already ravaged by disease. The virulent strains now emerging are drug-resistant and spread without warning. We meet some of the victims. – Gary Dretzka Kissing Jessica Stein: Blu-ray The Birdcage: Blu-ray The Ringer: Blu-ray These very different comedies arrive on Blu-ray alongside a wave of other Fox anniversary titles. Released in 2001, “Kissing Jessica Stein” became a surprise indie hit, opening the door to other movies that treated lesbians as something other than deviants and/or victims of abusive relatives. Light and up-to-date, it told the story of New York journalist Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt), who grows weary of trying to find “Mr. Right” through the usual channels and decides to answer an ad for a roommate-with-benefits from the far more worldly Helen (Heather Juergensen), who’s recently made it known that she’s strictly clitly. They become fast friends and almost lovers, but Jessica has a difficult time cutting the cord from her suburban Jewish family. “Kissing Jessica Stein” was very well received, even from those feminists and lesbians who would have preferred a less traditional ending. In my opinion, I think that the movie may inadvertently have unlocked the door for dozens of closeted actors, executives and writers in Hollywood, as well as characters languishing in unmade screenplays. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; commentaries by director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld and Lawrence Sher, and Juergensen and Westfeldt; outtakes and original ending; and a behind-the-scenes featurette. I wonder if RuPaul would have become an international superstar if it weren’t for the success of “The Birdcage” and the French movie from which it was adapted, “La Cage aux Folles.” Drag queens now seem to be as hard to miss on cable TV as any of the Kardashians. Like “Kissing Jessica Stein,” after it, “The Birdcage” probably opened the door to a better understanding of divergent lifestyles for mainstream audiences. It’s pretty hard to hate on cross-dressers and same-sex marriages when you’re rolling on the floor laughing at Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Mike Nichols’ version of the story played for the big laughs more than Édouard Molinaro’s original, but that certainly didn’t bother American audiences. There are no bonus features included on the Blu-ray. Although the fingerprints of Peter and Bobby Farrelly are all over “The Ringer,” their role is officially listed as producers only. Who else, after a seven-year search, could find financing for a movie about a plot to fix the Special Olympics? (It sounds funnier on paper than what appears on screen.) The gag here involves Johnnie Knoxville’s character, who, after some bizarre complications, agrees to help himself and his mobbed-up uncle (Brian Cox) raise money to pay off heavy debts. Instead of scamming the Special Olympics contestants into gold medals and glory, the athletes upstage him at every turn. I’m not sure how many of the characters were played by special-needs actors, but I recognized several that weren’t. Given the Farrellys’ well-earned reputation, “The Ringer” could have been a lot crueler toward the Special Olympics, but the movie’s mushy center rescues it. – Gary Dretzka Sugar Cookies: Blu-ray Baby Rosemary/Hot Lunch 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Volume 2 Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle/Office Love: Behind Closed Doors Written and produced by a pre-Troma Lloyd Kaufman and starring cult favorites Lynn Lowry and Mary Woronov, “Sugar Cookies” is one of the soft-core classics from the early-1970s. Lowry, who, a decade later, would be mauled and jizzed upon by a black panther in “Cat People,” plays the dual role of seriously endangered actresses, Alta and Lowry. No longer in the Andy Warhol repertory company, Woronov plays the corrupt manager who shills for a sleazy sex-film producer. Kaufman and director Theodore Gershuny (Woronov’s then-husband) were shooting for something that might remind grindhouse audiences of a Hitchcock thriller. On a budget that might have maxxed-out at $10,000, in 1973 dollars, it couldn’t have afforded Hitch’s monthly cigar allotment. Nonetheless for really cheap skin-tacular thrills, it’s hard to beat. Look for guest appearances by Ondine, Monique van Vooren and porn superstar Jennifer Welles. Vinegar Syndrome sends it out with a fresh 4K polish, interviews with Kaufman, Lowry and Woronov, and vintage trailers. Also from Vinegar Syndrome comes the “Peekarama” double-feature, “Baby Rosemary” (1976) and “Hot Lunch” (1978), vintage titles that are far more interesting for who’s in them than any story that director John Hayes was trying to tell. “Baby Rosemary,” a supernatural romp in which “no” never means “no,” future Hall of Fame porn star John Leslie is still going by John Leslie Dupré. He’s joined by Sharon Thorpe and newcomers Candida Royalle (then Royale) and Leslie Bovee. In “Hot Lunch,” the name game is even crazier. Male lead Jon Martin goes by Jerry Heath; Sharon Kane is Sheri Vaughan; Juliet “Aunt Peg” Anderson is Alice Rigby; and Desiree Cousteau is Desirée Costeau. For these future headliners, “Hot Lunch” was only their second porn credit. Both titles have been restored in 2k from the camera negative, original theatrical trailers, and alternate scenes from “Hot Lunch.” The second release in Impulse’s “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection” clocks in at an impressive 129 minutes of pure raunch, with a heavier emphasis on girl-girl action than in “Volume 1.”  Among the 8mm shorts, re-mastered from original film prints, are some featuring uncredited performances by Desiree Cousteau, Candida Royalle, Chris Cassidy and John Holmes. Liner notes from Cinema Sewer editor Robin Bougie are included in the package. The latest entries from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection feature women who use their wiles to get ahead in their chosen fields, yet pine for the men who ushered them into womanhood. Although there are nods to feminism here and there, none would have been strong enough to give the average Japanese perv in the early- to mid-1980s pause. In “Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle,” Junko Asahina plays Kei, the captain of the Kara Cosmetics Company’s rhythmic gymnastics team, which is about to compete in an important corporate tournament. When Aoki (Funasaku Sasairi) is brought in as their new coach and is required to work alongside his former lover, Kei, he turns into an impotent wreck. The last time Aoki slept with Kei before a competition, she lost, and that’s not an acceptable option at this level. When the corporate executives suspect he may be gay, they treat him with the same courtesy as they show to their female employees, which is to say, none. In “Office Love: Behind Closed Doors,” an old lover also returns to haunt up-and-coming travel executive Reiko (Akasaka Rei), who’s given the key to her Tokyo apartment to the three men she calls boss. Things get really weird when her now-married ex-boyfriend tries to insinuate himself back into her life and a subordinate takes a shine to her, as well. (Oh, yeah, Reiko also does a bit of escorting on the side, but with western businessmen.) When her bosses figure out that they’re being used by Reiko, she uses her humiliation to destroy two other men in her circle, while also getting her rocks off. The Impulse DVDs contain essays on the individual filmmakers and actors. – 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