MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Draft Day, Jackpot, Queen Margot, Tinto Brass, Love Streams and more

Draft Day: Blu-ray
Once upon a time, the NFL draft was treated by most Americans as if it were just another day or two on the nation’s sports calendar. Interesting from a fans’ point of view, but nothing over which to lose any sleep. Likewise, the first two Super Bowls were more of a novelty for fans of the National Football League than the national holiday it’s become. By guaranteeing a victory for the old American Football League, superstar QB Joe Namath almost single-handedly turned the almost superfluous post-season game into an event. Pro football wouldn’t become a commercial behemoth, however, until the arrival and convergence of the 24-hour sports-news cycle on TV, all-sports talk radio, the ready availability of parley wagering, fantasy football leagues and prime-time coverage of regular-season games. It wasn’t an overnight process, to be sure. Finally, when the media caught wind of the NFL Scouting Combine and its importance to the annual collegiate draft – newly open to underclassman, in 1989 – the football season was extended an additional four months. Among other things, the frenzy allowed teams to charge season-ticket holders full price for lousy pre-season games, corner the market on sports memorabilia and break the million-dollar barrier for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. The Internet added several additional wrinkles, including easy access to the opinions of thousands of Monday-morning quarterbacks, many of whom blog mostly to have something to do between cashing unemployment checks.

And, so, the DVD/Blu-ray editions of Draft Day arrive two days before the start of the regular season – Thursday night, for some ungodly reason – and the usual attention it commands. As dramatic as the draft can be on TV, the excitement has been difficult to replicate in theaters. High grades at the Combine don’t always translate to performance on the field, certainly, but it isn’t difficult to predict which college standouts are likely to be picked in the first round. Director Ivan Reitman and Kevin Costner combined their considerable talents to make Draft Day something greater than the sum of its individual parts, which include an unlikely last-minute battle of wits and an even more improbable romance between its 59-year-old protagonist and the still hot and youthful Jennifer Garner. Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., who’s recently taken over the reins of the Cleveland Browns as general manager. Sonny knows that the ghost of his late father has yet to exit the building and he’s expected to immediately produce draft-day miracles by rapid Dog Pound fans, a skeptical head coach (Dennis Leary), an egomaniacal owner (Frank Langella) and his despotic mother, Mrs. Sonny Sr. (Ellen Burstyn). With the Browns on the clock, Sonny decides to make a trade for the No. 1 pick in the draft, presumably a “can’t miss” quarterback from Wisconsin. Although, under normal circumstances, the choice would be considered to be a no-brainer, Sonny develops a severe case of buyer’s remorse almost immediately after closing the deal. He allows himself to be talked into believing the QB may have a chink in his armor and decides to make the choice based on what his heart tells him to do, not common wisdom. Wisely, Reitman decided to make the decision as unpopular as it could possibly be with the greatest number of people, forcing Sonny to come up with a strategy that would make his detractors eat crow.

The tick-tock nature of the draft-day drama helps drive the story’s momentum, even as it’s being bogged down by clichés. When the Hail Mary solution to his problem arrives from left field, it really doesn’t seem to be out of the realm of possibility, at all. Indeed, after Mike Ditka gave up all of New Orleans’ 1999 picks, as well as a first- and third-rounder in 2000, just for the rights to draft Ricky Williams, nothing would be out of the realm of possibility ever again. Costner’s ability to make Sonny’s maneuvering credible once again demonstrates how well he fits any sports-oriented role he’s given, while, I suppose, helping attract women who might otherwise be bored by the inside-football stuff.  (Jerry Maguire’s box-office momentum was sustained by women impressed by the romance … and bromance.) Those interested in inside-Hollywood gossip probably already know that Draft Day has the distinction of being rescued from the industry’s “black list” of unproduced scripts. It’s explained in the Blu-ray package, which adds the hour-long “On the Clock: The Making of Draft Day”; “Welcome to Primetime,” with some background on the draft; commentary with writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, who really got lucky when Reitman and Costner came aboard; and deleted scenes.

Jackpot: Blu-ray
Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas
Queen Margot: Blu-ray
Just as fans of crime fiction have enjoyed discovering the works of such Scandinavian authors as Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Peter Hoeg, Anne Holt and Stieg Larsson, lovers of screen mysteries are benefitting from the rising number of adaptations by highly qualified American directors. Jackpot is based on a story by Norway’s Jo Nesbø, whose Headhunters was turned into a dandy thriller in 2011. Clearly influenced by the The Big Lebowski, Jackpot describes what can happen when too much money falls into the laps of people incapable of harnessing their greed. The film opens with the slaughter of customers, owners and employees of a strip joint near a border crossing separating Sweden and southeastern Norway. Oscar, the only survivor of the attack, was left for dead after a rather large dancer, also attempting to escape the carnage, falls on him. While being interrogated by a wise-ass police detective, he re-creates in flashbacks the events that led to the last of several bloody crimes. Oscar is a supervisor at a small factory that recycles discarded plastics into miniature Christmas trees. The work force is comprised mostly of ex-cons, three of whom talk him into buying a ticket for the national soccer pool, which requires picking the winners of all 12 games. With the help of a great deal of luck, they are able to claim the $1.7 million first prize. True to their nature, they almost immediately begin plotting ways to increase their share of the pot by eliminating the competition. Viewers who may not have seen the humor in the wood-chipper scene in Fargo might want to skip Jackpot, which adds a Christmas twist to the Coens’ conceit. If that makes the movie sound too derivative, there are plenty of other entertaining touches here to satisfy American audiences. The solution to the mystery surrounding the attack at the strip club is especially difficult to predict. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Also from Music Box Films, which released Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy,” comes the very different historical drama, “Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas.” It is based on Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella, which anticipated several twentieth-century literary conceits and influenced such writers as Franz Kafka and E.L. Doctorow (the character Coalhouse Walker, in “Ragtime”) and filmmakers Volker Schlöndorff and John Badham (“The Jack Bull”). In turn, co-writer/director Arnaud des Pallières has molded Kleist’s story to fit the traditional ethical parameters of an American Western. The titular protagonist, Michael Kohlhaas, as played by the perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen, could have emerged from the same gene pool that produced Clint Eastwood. The gorgeous mountain settings – shot in France’s Cévennes region – add similar flavor to the narrative. Although re-set from 18th Century Saxony to 16th Century France, the parable opens the same way. Kohlhaas, a happy farmer and horse trader, is returning home through territory owned by the royal family, when he is stopped by a self-proclaimed toll taker and ordered to hand over two recently purchased steeds. By the time he discovers that the baron had forbidden the collecting of tolls, the once-healthy horses have been worked nearly to death and his servant tortured at the palace’s stables. Kohlhaas hires a lawyer to plead his case, but the jurors’ allegiance to the royal family proves too much to overcome. His wife, too, is beaten to death when she attempts to plead their case to the Princess. Seeking justice and revenge, Kohlhaas mounts a peasant rebellion. It is successful to the point where the Princess agrees to have the case re-tried and the rebels given amnesty. Naturally, a cruel twist is added to the agreement, designed to satisfy both parties’ sense of justice and discourage anyone from thinking that it doesn’t come with a stiff price. Des Pallières stops well short of turning Age of Uprising into a celebration of Medieval bloodlust, preferring to accentuate Kohlhaas’ existential dilemma and relationship with his young daughter. (Eastwood’s anti-heroes have existential moments, too.)  In its defense, however, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and did well at other festivals. It also looks splendid in Blu-ray, which adds interviews with Mikkelsen and Des Pallieres.

Anyone looking for the graphic 16th Century violence missing from Age of Uprising can find it Cohen Media’s superb 4K restoration of co-writer/director Patrice Chéreau’s 159-minute version of Queen Margot. It also offers as much sex and nudity – gratuitous and otherwise — as “The Game of Thrones” and “Borgias.” Released in 1994, Queen Margot opens with the forced marriage of 18-year-old Catholic Princess Margot de Valois (Isabelle Adjani) to the Huguenot King Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). Ostensibly, the loveless wedding was staged to mark the end of fighting between France’s Catholics and Protestants, which had divided the country along religious lines. Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), mother of the bride and ineffectual King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade), had plans of her own for the wedding reception. They included the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, in which thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered, including many of the invited wedding guests. Chereau’s depiction of the massacre was deemed to be too violent by its American distributor, Miramax, which trimmed 20 minutes from the picture. Restored, here, the scene demonstrates the director’s ability to orchestrate and sustain the horror of a holy war in miniature. It also paints a portrait of Margot as a woman with an insatiable appetite for sex with almost anyone, except her new husband. Even as the blood was flowing in the streets, Margot and the equally randy Henriette de Nevers sneak out of the palace to find a man to satisfy her carnal urges. It turns out to be La Môle (Vincent Perez), a handsome Huguenot stud who will shortly thereafter be attacked by Catholic thugs and seek refuge in the queen’s quarters. They will continue to see each other in secret, even as Catherine and her other sons devise ways to kill off Henri, Charles and anyone else who gets in their way. As historical costume dramas go, the only thing “Queen Margot” lacks is a scorecard to explain to those of us who didn’t major in French history what’s happening and why. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Richard Peña, director emeritus of the New York Film Festival.

L: Blu-ray
Attempting to describe an absurdist comedy – or absurdist anything — to someone whose tastes run toward the mainstream usually is an exercise in futility. Besides running the risk of misinterpreting the filmmaker’s intentions, it’s the cinematic equivalent of explaining baseball to a Martian. Directed by the Greek first-timer Babis Makridis, from a script co-written with Efthymis Filippou (Dogtooth), L is the story of a 40-year-old Man (Aris Servetalis), whose life has spun so far out of control that he has chosen to live in his car. By all indications, Man once drove professionally and still delivers honey to an older gentleman obsessed with deadlines and the precise reading of code phrases. When he isn’t doing that, Man frequently will engage with family members in a vacant parking lot and teach the kids how to drive. He leaves his car only after losing his job delivering honey to someone a few seconds more prompt than he was. He finds kinship in a gang of motorcyclists, who despise and fear automobiles and never remove their helmets, and a fellow his age that thinks he’s a bear. My guess is that Man probably was a victim of Greece’s failed economy and is clinging to the one thing that he can control. When he becomes convinced of the motorcyclists’ position on cars, he adopts that form of transportation but parks on the same vacant chunk of concrete. Similar losses of identity must be affecting tens of thousands of other young and middle-age men in Greece. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Like most absurdist films, L requires a great deal of patience and fortitude to enjoy. Neither is the comedy of the ha-ha variety that American audiences appreciate most. If nothing else, movies like L force us to shift the gears of our brains out of “park” and “neutral,” every so often.

Trust Me
Judging simply by the cast assembled by Clark Gregg for his sophomore effort as director/writer/star — after Choke, a well-regarded dark comedy from 2008 – the veteran actor is either one of the best-liked men in Hollywood or he called in some serious I.O.U.’s for the project. Gregg will be instantly recognizable to anyone who tuned into “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” or “The New Adventures of Old Christine” for more than one episode. He’s also played prominent roles in such pictures as The Avengers, State and Main and (500) Days of Summer. In Trust Me, he plays that most unlikely of Hollywood characters: an honest and honorable talent agent. A former child star, himself Howard Holloway represents kids whose talent makes them a target for unscrupulous 10-percenters. In fact, though, Holloway hasn’t had much success as an adult in Hollywood. He’s reminded of this when he “discovers” a 13-year-old acting prodigy (Saxon Sharbino) and attempts to rescue her from an overbearing “stage father.” Also vying for Lydia’s attention are a prototypically sleazy agent (Sam Rockwell) and a predatory producer (Felicity Huffman), both of whom know the right buttons to push with the girl’s greedy dad (Paul Sparks). The only person in Holloway’s corner is a neighborly single mother (Amanda Peet), who supports her child as an exotic dancer. As easy as it is to pull for Holloway, we continue to wonder how such a nebbish – we know that by the rust-ravaged car he drives – could last a week as an agent. We also wish that Gregg’s script might have spared us one or two unlikely plot twists. Otherwise, “Touch Me” is an entirely watchable dramedy – made on a shoestring – that’s also blessed with appearances by Allison Janney, William H. Macy, Molly Shannon and Niecy Nash. Or, it can be enjoyed simply for the presence of rising star, Sharbino.

Love Streams: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Vengeance Is Mine: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Watching John Cassavetes’ brilliant 1984 essay on extraordinary madness, Love Streams, is like opening a time capsule on a certain type of American male that doesn’t exist anymore. The character played by his real-life wife, Gena Rowlands, probably does, but, instead of being “crazy as a bedbug,” her malady would be recognized for what it is, bipolar disorder. Cassavetes’ Robert Harmon is a throwback to the days when the Rat Pack ruled the popular media; Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy dictated behavior for a generation of men and post-pubescent teens; men wore tuxedoes for no apparent reason; cigarettes were peddled as if they were candy; and booze was the acceptable social lubricant. There weren’t many of these guys still around in 1984, but Cassavetes probably knew most several of the survivors. Harmon is a successful author of pulpy fiction, with a home in the Hollywood Hills that has more than enough bedrooms for his many live-in concubines, empty cigarette packs, unwashed dishes and liquor bottles. We’re introduced to Rowlands’ Sarah Lawson between breakdowns, as she’s about to lose custody of her pre-teen daughter to her philandering soon-to-be-ex-husband (Seymour Cassel). Their daughter is tired of being dragged around the country by Lawson, attending funerals for unknown relatives and acquaintances, so requests that she be allowed to stay with her dad. Stunned, Lawson decides to tour Europe, dragging behind her a wagonload of baggage and clutching an expensive coat made from the pelts of unfortunate animals. At the same time, Harmon is about to be re-introduced to the son he abandoned as an infant. The boy’s immediate discomfort around his father’s harem causes Harmon to pay off the women and send them off to their next sexual adventure. The boy is appreciative of the gesture, but less thrilled when he’s swept off to Las Vegas and plunked down in a hotel room, while dad drinks, gambles and chases tail for a night or two. Needless to say, the kid is so freaked out that he pretty much disappears from the film.

In his place arrives Lawson, who is ecstatic to be in the company of someone willing to accommodate her eccentricities and forgive her excesses. This is demonstrated after Lawson comes home from an outdoor pet menagerie with a pair of miniature horses, goats, ducks, chickens and a giant dog, presented to her brother as gifts to overcome his doldrums. A violent storm opens the doors to madness and/or catharsis for Harmon and Lawson. Love Streams was adapted from a play and screenplay by Ted Allan (Lies My Father Told Me), but what ended up on the screen is 100 percent Cassavetes and Rowlands. It is last film for which he served as director, co-writer and star – “Big Trouble” was a pick-up job – as he had already been diagnosed with the cirrhosis of the liver and given six months to live by his doctor. Instead, he stayed with us another five years. Ignored by an indie-phobic academy, Love Streams won the Golden Bear Award and FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film at the 1984 Berlin International Film Festival. The supplemental features on the Criterion disc include an original trailer for the film; exclusive new video interviews with executive producer Al Ruban and actress Diahnne Abbott; Michael Ventura’s documentary “I’m Almost Not Crazy … John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work”; an archival interview with Seymor Cassel; and a 30-page illustrated booklet, with “A Fitful Flow” by Denis Lim,” Cassavetes’ “How Love and Life Mingle on Film” and technical notes.

Also from Criterion comes Vengeance Is Mine, Shohei Imamura’s 1979 study of sociopathic serial killer told largely in flashback form, as he relates his crimes to the detectives interrogating him after his strangely anti-climatic capture. It is based on a murder spree perpetrated in the early 1960s by con artist Akira Nishiguchi. Ken Ogata is cold as ice as Iwao Enokizu, whose only apparent motivation is having watched his father being forced to hand over his fishing boats to the Imperial Navy in World War II. The incident caused him to lose all respect for his father, whose Roman Catholic faith comes between them in various ways for the next 20-plus years. After serving time in prison for fraud, Enokizu supports himself by taking money from the people he murders. He sets up shop in a Tokyo brothel, where everyone is led to believe that he’s a college professor and an extraordinarily generous one at that. Although Enokizu doesn’t appear to have been afflicted with a death wish, he makes very little effort to hide his identity from the prostitutes who surely would have seen the wanted posters in shop windows or on television. Simple carelessness eventually sealed his doom. If such portraits of serial killers aren’t all that rare in American movies – In Cold Blood preceded Vengeance Is Mine by 12 years – Imamura’s genius was turning one of only about 13 such cases in Japan into a masterpiece, absent any undo moralizing or rubbing our faces in gore. Without forgiving his antagonist a single drop of blood, Imamura also contextualizes Enokizu’s actions alongside other examples of double standards and corruption prevalent in pre-boom Japan. The sparkling hi-def restoration is accompanied by commentary with critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns; an excerpt from an archival interview with Imamura, conducted for the Directors Guild of Japan, with frequent collaborators Kenichi Benitani and Kunio Takeshige; and a 32-page illustrated booklet featuring Imamura’s “On Vengeance Is Mine,” Michael Atkinson’s “Civilization and Its Discontents,” “To and From Fiction: An Interview with Shohei Imamura” and “My Approach to Filmmaking.”

Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica Cinema
Peekarama: Tropic of Desire/Fantasy World
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 4
Drive-In Collection: Cry Wilderness/In Search of Bigfoot
Leading the list of erotic titles released on DVD/Blu-ray in the last couple of weeks is “Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica,” a collection of films made between 2000 and 2006. The selection includes Cheeky!, Black Angel, Private, Monamour and the feature-length documentary Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica Cinema, featuring an in-depth interview with Brass and rare footage. While it’s easy to compare the Milanese auteur to American soft-core pioneer Russ Meyer – one favored butts, the other, boobs – they came up through very different ranks. Meyer practically invented the nudie-cutie sub-genre, which provided a bridge between the “naturalist” films of the 1950s and soft-core arthouse fare of Radley Metzger and the first couple chapters in the Emmanuelle series. King Leer’s low-budget pictures pushed the limits on bras, raunchy humor and violence, but couldn’t compete with the explicit sexuality of Deep Throat and other XXX extravaganzas. Brass, who was born into an artistic family, cut his teeth by working with such giants as Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini. Attraction and I Am What I Am came reasonably close to capturing the prevailing hippy-dippy zeitgeist of Swinging London and joys of the sexual revolution Salon Kitty, as perverse a film that has ever found its way to American arthouses, located the nexus connecting Nazi brutality and twisted sexuality. Unlike most other overtly provocative movies of the mid-1970s, its technical credits were impeccable and it delivered something resembling an anti-fascist message. In 1979, Bob Guccione hired Brass to direct Caligula — his big-budget adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel – but dropped out when the Penthouse publisher insisted on adding hard-core scenes to what already was a pretty hot picture. For the next 25 years, Brass focused his attention on elegantly produced and located erotica that straddled the line separating soft- and hard-core cinema. The actors who agreed to disrobe before Brass’ camera were uncommonly beautiful or handsome, with bodies that could have been sculpted by Michelangelo. The sex itself was far less memorable than the men and women hired to simulate it. More to the point of his popularity, Brass included the female characters in the decision-making, allowing them to exploit their fantasies and insist upon orgasmic equality. While hardly feminist tracts, such late-career titles as Cheeky, Black Angel, Monamour and the anthology, Private, almost certainly raised temperatures in bedrooms throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. The making-of featurette included with Private, is almost as entertaining as the vignettes themselves. Besides revealing the strategic uses of dildos and artificial phalluses, Brass comes across as a dirty old man in the same league with Meyer and Charles Bukowski. Despite the director’s groping, the actresses, too, appear to be enjoying every minute of the production process. All of the films have been accorded a brilliant hi-def transfer, which takes full advantage of the Blu-ray presentation. Also added are photo galleries and a 40-page booklet.

Vinegar Syndrome’s “Peekarama” series of double-features from the Essex catalogue continues apace with Bob Chinn’s Tropic of Desire/Fantasy World, both of which features sailors on the town and such future stars as Jesie St. James, Sharon Kane, Georgina Spelvin, Dorothy LeMay and Susan Nero; Purely Physical/Cathouse Fever, from mainstream actor Chris Warfield, who directed porn under the pseudonym, Billy Thornberg; and Carlos Tobalina’s offbeat Ultimate Pleasure/I Am Always Ready, in which John Holmes is the answer to every unsatisfied woman’s most vexing question.

Impulse Pictures is represented once again by 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection. It’s the fourth compilation of 8mm loops, re-mastered from original film prints. This collection appears to concentrate on close-up footage, with the balance tilted toward girl-girl action. Among the very young principles are Erica Boyer, Linda Shaw, Sharon Kane and Annie Sprinkle, with liner notes from Cinema Sewer editor, Robin Bougie.

The Bigfoot phenomenon, based primarily on Native American legend, didn’t really take off in earnest until the 1972 release of Bigfoot: Man or Beast? The same folks responsible for that quasi-documentary knocked on the same door four years later, with In Search of Bigfoot. That latter film is included in the latest entry into Vinegar Syndrome’s “Drive-In Collection,” with Cry Wilderness, a 1987 theatrical release in which a young boy befriends the Sasquatch, who instructs the boy to venture into the wilderness in order to save his father from impending danger. Both pictures look better than ever after being accorded new 2K scans from the 35mm camera negatives.

14 Blades: Blu-ray
The Eastern Western concept appears to have taken hold in China, with more and more historical dramas being set in the vast plains, deserts and mountain ranges of the western provinces. 14 Blades was shot in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in the far northwest corner of the PRC, where the ancient   Zhenbei Castle has served foreign filmmakers in search of exotic locations since the 1920s. It’s appropriate, then, that this story of Ming Dynasty intrigue and action would take place in and around a military fortress constructed in the same period (1368-1644). I don’t know when Islam took hold there, but the religion’s influence on the desert architecture is pretty hard to miss. That’s not what drives the action in 14 Blades, however. Here, Donnie Yen plays Qinglong, a prominent royal guard trained from childhood in a clandestine form of combat requiring prowess in swordplay and the creation of weapons – 14, to be precise – designed for specific occasions. When Qinglong is betrayed by an evil traitor, Jia (Law Kar-Ying), he’s required to assemble an army of resistance and restore the emperor to his rightful throne. If the story is overly familiar, the swordplay and scenery easily pick up the slack. It’s interesting that two of the most proficient warriors are women. Unusual outside China, Korea and Japan, the inclusion of female characters for non-romantic purposes has become commonplace in the wuxia genre.

Triad doesn’t break any new ground in its story of three childhood friends who join the Hong Kong triads after witnessing a rare act of kindness, bravery and generosity on the part of a local boss. Figuring that such things happen all the time and the marketplace Brother Patrick controls values his protection, the teenagers decide to follow in his violent footsteps. After clashing with one of Patrick’s rivals, however, one of them is sent away to Taiwan to lay low and concentrate on getting a law degree. Upon his return to Hong Kong, though, the young man finds other ways to serve the gang. Control of the island will soon revert back to the PRC and the triad bosses don’t want to be hung out to dry. While the Young Turks attack each other with knives and fists of fury, nary a single cop attempts to enforce the law. Not surprisingly, in the pursuit of power, the three friends come to loggerheads over priorities and tactics. In addition to re-introducing the gang movie to the repertoire of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, Triad’s primary reason for being appears to be adding fresh young faces to the mix, such as those belonging to William Chan, Edward Tsui, Derek Tsang and Michelle Wai.

The Legend of Hell House: Blu-ray
R.L. Stine’s Mostly Ghostly: Have You Met My Ghoulfriend?
When it comes to horror, the learning curve is very short. You either dig it, or you don’t. Some of us got hooked immediately upon being introduced to the great Universal characters of the 1930s. Others picked up on it during the 1950-60s, when the gap between sci-fi and horror narrowed to near invisibility. Teenagers flooded to the genre when the slasher/splatter films began to kill off their peers in staggering numbers. I paired the otherwise unrelated The Legend of Hell House and R.L. Stine’s Mostly Ghostly: Have You Met My Ghoulfriend? because, today, both can be seen as stepping stones to more frightening stuff down the road. If, for example, a child is turned on by Stine’s writings and adaptations of them on film, their next stop might be toward books and movies with Stephen King’s imprint on them, or Kevin Williamson’s teen thrillers. New to Blu-ray, Legend of Hell House may look a bit old-fashioned after 40 years in circulation, but it remains the quintessential haunted-house flick of the last 50 years. The tension builds naturally and the shocks aren’t artificially induced through use of CGI or special makeup effects. It pays homage to the Hammer Studio classics, while anticipating the movement toward recognizing parapsychology as something other than a hoax or hobby. Roddy McDowall plays one of four psychic investigators who descend upon an abandoned English manor known as the Mt. Everest of haunted houses. McDowell’s character is the sole survivor of a previous expedition and he’s convinced that the evil forces inhabiting Hell House are capable of murder. The hi-def restoration accentuates the scary color scheme of the original, which captured the estate’s dark shadows and dusty atmosphere. It adds a new interview with director John Hough and commentary with actress Pamela Franklin.

Teen favorites Bella Thorne, Madison Pettis and Ryan Ochoa star in Mostly Ghostly: Have You Met My Ghoulfriend?, which takes a more family-friendly approach to ghosts and other things that go bump in the night. Evil spirits are hell-bent on ruining Max’s big Halloween-night date with Cammy, the smart and popular redhead at school. To combat them, Max calls on his ghostly pals, Tara and Nicky, who’ve lost contact with their parents. Given Stine’s constituency, the story forgoes the religious aspects of parapsychology, which inform the Hell House investigation and debate. The only extras are a digital copy of the 91-minute movie and UltraViolet capability.

President Wolfman
Baby Blues: Blu-ray
Closed Circuit Extreme
Sonno Profondo: Limited Edition
After Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter produced a ripple of excitement in movie circles last year, the odds in favor of having a Wolfman as our next president became prohibitive. The first surprise comes in knowing that anyone with a digital editing bank and photographic memory of crappy B-movies could have made the same movie as Mike Davis, who splices-and-dices tape with the best of them. President Wolfman is comprised of a reported 112 different clips from movies in the public domain and stock footage, as well as some grainy government instructional shorts, classroom-education movies and vintage stag reels. It’s a bizarre amalgam of material, but the sum of its parts, when redubbed dialogue is added, sometimes is very funny, indeed. The second surprise arrives in the form of Dean Stockwell, whose visage was lifted from some long-forgotten movie and, through the art of voice acting, is President Wolfman. The werewolf-in-chief is required here to balance a schedule that includes preventing his congressional opponents from selling the U.S. to China; keeping his vice-president from killing his 8-year-old son; and investigating a series of gory murders in the nation’s capital. Because President Wolfman is every bit as nutso as it sounds, it’s definitely not for everyone. The special features add short films by Davis, outtakes, a music video and highlight reel.

As high concepts go, PMS Cop, could hardly be more succinct. In two words, the title not only tells viewers exactly what to expect from the movie, but it also baits a hook to tantalize tens of thousands of B-movie lovers. In a wonderful opening sequence, patrol officer Mary Collins (Heather Hall) subdues an evil clown with what her commanding officer decides is excessive force. Considering that the perp was caught in the act of raping a young woman in a home invasion and exhibited a willingness to use violence to avoid arrest, Collins’ response was entirely justified. Nevertheless, the department’s psychiatrist determines that she suffers from extreme PMS and ought to take part in a drug experiment designed to find a cure. Needless to say, the therapist stands to benefit financially if the drug proves to be marketable to women who seek relief from the problem. In the pharmaceutical company’s rush to complete the tests, however, they neglected to study the effects of the menstrual drug on women with rage issues unrelated to PMS or cops pushed to the boiling point by people they suspect of breaking the law. Despite the “progress” displayed by Collins, the drug has the opposite effect when memories of watching her partner die in the pursuit of a criminal come to the fore. When a traffic stop threatens to go sideways, Collins rips the jaw from the skull of a guy who questions her judgment and authority. The incident is captured by a video camera in the grill of her patrol car. Oops. It’s at this point that Mary’s character evolves into PMS Cop (now played by Cindy Means) and the question then becomes one of how to use the drug to create an army of super-powerful women warriors. Bryon Blakey only spent about $30,000 on PMS Cop, but the finished product is far more satisfying than movies whose budgets are 10 times that amount and are still considered to be shoestring projects.

Baby Blues strings together a half-dozen horror tropes — mostly to positive effect — to create a film that is genuinely creepy, if not particularly scary. Like clowns and ventriloquists’ dummies, the presence of dolls with lifelike eyes in the first reel almost always signals what’s going to happen in the next 90 minutes. Child’s Play, of course, is evil-doll movie against which all other such movies have been measured, at least during the course of the last 26 years. The dolls in Baby Blues possess telekinetic powers that reach out and touch everyone in the orbit of newlyweds Hao (Raymond Lam) and Tian Qing (Janelle Sing). Hao is a songwriter for several of the top pop acts in China, while his wife writes a blog about celebrities and the entertainment. (We don’t actually see Tian Qing at work, which is par for the course in these movies.) When they purchase a lovely new home, the couple can’t possibly imagine what the leftover doll might have in mind for them. Among other things, though, it will become for Tian Qing a surrogate sibling for the twin son she lost immediately after giving birth. Unbeknownst to the hugely depressed woman, her “son” Jimmy is making life miserable for her husband and his pop-star clients. The couple can’t say they weren’t warned, however. A homeless man who haunts their neighborhood had seen what happened to the previous owners and suggested that they, too, take a powder. Despite its Chinese roots, Baby Blues was designed to look as if it could be taking place in any suburban neighborhood in the world, a device that somehow makes it less scary.

Closed Circuit Extreme is a yet another found-footage thriller that is neither thrilling nor logically plotted. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to tell with any certainty if Giorgio Amato’s freshman feature takes place in Italy or the United States, as the characters speak broken English throughout the film and the antagonist’s home looks as if it belonged in Anywhere USA. It’s also possible that Amato borrowed the plot of Disturbia and, instead of binoculars, had his amateur sleuths use modern surveillance equipment to spy on suspected serial killer. After a female friend vanishes, a young man and woman sneak into the culprit’s home and plant cameras throughout the house. For most of the first half of Closed Circuit Extreme, the constant tinkering with the equipment and shots of the fat slob in his underwear are the cinematic equivalent of a root canal. When he finally does reveal his true colors, the spies aren’t even in position to watch the violence he perpetrates against the women he lures to his home under false pretenses. Nor do they review the day’s tapes to see how the creep might have spent his day. The attacks on the captive women border on the unwatchable, which is probably as they should be viewed. What’s missing is any reason to hope that they’ll be rescued before being killed or evidence that the spies know what to do with any incriminating video. As such, Closed Circuit Extreme is little more than a voyeuristic exercise.

One needn’t be addicted to Italian giallo films to enjoy Luciano Onetti’s visually disturbing thriller, Sonno Profondo (“Deep Sleep”), but a working familiarity with the subgenre’s conceits will make the neo-giallo experience that much more comprehensible. For beginners, Italian mysteries of the 1960-70s turned American film noir inside-out by adding garish color schemes, a disturbing musical soundtrack, hyper-violent crimes, various degrees of nudity and a playful approach to point-of-view. At the time, American audiences found them to be too far over the top to be taken seriously. That impression began to change when buffs acknowledged the legitimacy of the form and its many pleasures. Sonno Profondo uses modern technology to tinker with the subgenre’s many tropes and push the accelerator on the visual narrative. The film opens with the silhouette of woman – a prostitute, but we don’t know that yet – getting herself together, ostensibly for a night of hot sex. As she applies her makeup, a man with a very sharp knife approaches the woman and eliminates her from the cast of characters. Unbeknownst to the killer, though, he’s being followed by an anonymous stalkers, who will photograph the attack and slide the pictures under his door the next day. It triggers sublimated childhood memories in the fiend and raises the movie’s paranoia quotient to the breaking point. If the story eventually gets lost in Onetti’s stylistic experimentation, at least something different is being attempted here.

Judging from the surrealism at work in Seth Smith’s feature debut, Lowlife, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he feasted on the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch as a boy and, therefore, developed a very different concept of horror than his peers. In it, a musician becomes addicted to a substance secreted from a form of starfish he pulls out of puddles in the forests of Halifax. The psychotropic drug is accessed by chewing the starfish, which appears to be very much alive. He convinces a similarly disaffected young woman to join him on his trips and the experience proves to be enlightening for her. Before long, the drug takes them over, body and soul, causing ever more desperate foraging in the marshy wilderness. Lowlife is a very strange movie and definitely not one for the squeamish. Anyone who got through Naked Lunch or Dune shouldn’t have much problem with it, though.

Animal House of Blues
After surviving the Merry Prankster era, the green revolution and some of the most garish uniforms in collegiate sports, you’d think that Eugene, Oregon, would be blasé about its place in Hollywood history. You’d be wrong. If old hippies and drunken UofO fraternity boys can agree on one thing, it’s that hosting the production of Animal House sure was a super-cool, awesome-to-the-max, impossible-to-forget experience for everyone involved. Eugene was still mourning the untimely death of now-legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine when John Landis’ flying circus came to town in 1977. No one, let alone Universal Pictures executives, could have imagined just how popular Animal House would turn out to be at the box office or that it would spawn an entirely new subgenre: the gross-out comedy. The winsome do-it-yourself documentary, Animal House of Blues, not only describes how the production has continued to impact the community, but also credits local musicians for inspiring the Blues Brothers phenomenon and, by extension, the House of Blues franchise. Katherine Wilson, who served as a location scout for the project, is the driving force behind the documentary. The Klamath Falls native got the call after Animal House’s resident scouts were rejected by every eastern college they had contacted. (The movie’s Delta House was inspired by one writer’s experiences as an Alpha Delta at Dartmouth.) The university and its environs opened their arms to John Belushi & Co., and the rest is history. The most interesting thing about the documentary, besides Kim Plant’s recollection of disrobing in front of a leering Belushi in the sorority house scene, is the story of how local blues musicians Curtis Salgado and Robert Cray inspired Belushi to debut the Blues Brothers routine on “Saturday Night Live,” giving full credit to Salgado. (Landis’ next movie would be an extension of that short-lived sensation.) Animal House of Blues isn’t the most polished documentary you’re likely to see this year, but what it lacks in technical proficiency it makes up for in heart and the warm glow of nostalgia. If nothing else, it’s a must-see for Animal House fanatics.

Revelation Trail
The Walking Dead: Season 4
If all a critic reviews are previously released movies as they make the transition from multiplexes to DVD/Blu-ray, that person is bound to miss some hidden gems in the straight-to-DVD pile. Considering the largely pathetic state of Hollywood products for 11 months of the calendar year, it serves almost no one to ignore the low-budget indies in favor of already reviewed studio fare. It’s important, then, for genre enthusiasts to pay attention to bloggers and websites dedicated to horror, sci-fi, fantasy and, for all I know, Westerns and gangster flicks. Revelation Trail is a perfect example of a movie that could have been lost in the crowd, if it weren’t championed by writers who make it their job to separate the wheat from the chaff. As entertaining as it is, John P. Gibson’s merger of Western and horror tropes likely was deemed too bizarre for distribution or even much festival exposure. Certainly, the market for zombie-apocalypse movies is oversaturated and it’s impossible to predict how a Western might perform. After the expensive disaster that was Cowboys & Aliens, one could hardly imagine any studio taking a chance on another genre mosh-up. Unlike that movie, however, Revelation Trail plays things very much down the middle. Yes, it’s crazy to think zombies roamed the west like deer and antelopes at play. But, whoever thought they would show up in Pittsburgh, of all undead places, for George A. Romeo to exploit in Night of the Living Dead? The Civil War has finally ended and frontier families are attempting to get their lives back together. A man known only as the Preacher watches helplessly as his wife and son are infected by drifters who spent the night in his barn. Soon, the countryside is awash in the walking and running dead. Preacher and the Marshal Edwards know what they must do to impede the individual zombies, but they disagree on whether they deserve a proper Christian burial and a prayer for the dead. I’m serious. As the two men head further west, other challenges await them, including a shortage of bullets. Even though the producers had very little money to invest in props and other luxuries, Revelation Trail looks as authentic as any other Western I’ve seen in the past few years. Likewise, Daniel Van Thomas and Daniel Britt are completely credible as denizens of the Old West … and sharpshooters. The bonus featurette is well worth the effort of checking out, especially for aspiring filmmakers who want to learn how to make good movies without the benefit of a generous budget.

As if Rick Grimes and the rest of the prison dwellers didn’t have enough to worry about after three seasons of struggle against the walkers, Season Four of “The Walking Dead” added yet another dilemma to the survivors. The year opens with the introduction of a fast-moving virus that shows no mercy and leaves them to deal with the reality of new zombies. Moreover, the Governor is threatening to storm the prison and take what he wants from the survivors. All the while, the characters and loyal viewers are left to wonder if there’s any real point in struggling to stay alive, when the reward for survival is more struggle. Pick up the DVD/Blu-ray now and straggles will have plenty of time to catch up with the story, as well as wade through the copious bonus material, including commentaries, character studies, deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Citizen Koch
A very different kind of horror is at play in the shocking political documentary Citizen Koch. It describes how two extremely wealthy businessmen – David and Charles Koch — have used their vast resources to convince American conservatives, traditionalists and brain-dead Tea Party fanatics that President Obama, trade unions and anyone to the left of Arnold Schwarzenegger are greater threats to our way of life than al Qaeda, the Taliban and Isis combined. They’ve already purchased the U.S. Supreme Court and a couple of dozen statehouses, but seem to have their sights set on eliminating every impediment to unbridled corporate greed voted into law since FDR. The Koch brothers don’t appear to have an opinion on issues related to anything other than reducing taxes, eliminating regulatory agencies and balancing budgets, but that doesn’t mean their followers aren’t obsessed with the ages-old Negro problem, unfettered gun ownership and undocumented communist immigrants from Guatemala. Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) trace the Koch brothers’ cannibalization of democracy to the rise of the Tea Party and acceptance of Fox News as a beacon of truth; the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to remove limits on corporate political donations; and the campaign to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, after he successfully diluted the rights of union workers. The Kochs financed the Tea Party-aligned Americans for Prosperity, whose positions parrot those of the lobbying organizations that now set the Republican agenda and even write legislation sponsored by easily steered politicians. Citizen Koch isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind about the direction in which this country is headed, if only because debate and compromise no longer exist in this country and political opinions are etched in stone. If only carefully considered documentaries from the left or right could be spoon-fed to dedicated non-voters, there might be some hope for the future. It’s worth noting that Walker, who ran on a platform promising new jobs for state workers, has yet to create any in Wisconsin. Instead, he has funneled state funds to projects of interest to his out-of-state backers. The DVD adds interviews and a panel discussion hosted by Michael Moore.

Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series
Hey Arnold! The Complete Series Box Set
The CW: The Originals: The Complete First Season
PBS:Masterpiece Mystery!: Breathless: Season One
PBS: Nature: Fabulous Frog: Blu-ray
PBS: History Detectives: Special Investigations
Syfy: Haven: Complete Fourth Season [Blu-ray]
PBS KidsL: Arthur Goes Back to School
Available for the first time in DVD, the complete four-season run of “Welcome Back, Kotter” – one of the most fondly remembered sitcoms of the 1970s – has finally been released through Shout! Factory. Set in an urban high school, not unlike the one in Blackboard Jungle, the show described the antics of a group of unruly students, the Sweathogs, and one dedicated teachers efforts to prevent them from matriculating directly to Attica or Sing-Sing. Standup comedian Gabe Kaplan had attended just such a school and based his characters and their names on his own experiences and acquaintances. When it came to exchanging barbs with the kids, Kotter gave as good as he got, He also shared their attitude toward authority figures. (Like Major Major in “Catch-22,” the school’s principal was perpetually absent.) Compared to the hoodlums in Glenn Ford’s classroom in Blackboard Jungle, however, Kotter’s students were pushovers to his methodology. Kaplan made sure that audience members could identify with one or two of the characters, at least, and Kotter’s long-suffering wife, Julie (Marcia Strassman), wasn’t overwhelmed by his devotion to duty or the student’s impromptu visits to their apartment. Of course, a student body that included John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes (a Puerto Rican Jew) and Debralee Scott – all in their 20s – kept viewers coming back for more. They also kept Kaplan in poker chips for the next 30-plus years. The DVD package adds “Only a Few Degrees From a Sweathog “ and the actors’ original screen tests.

You’ll have to go to Wal-mart, at least for the time being, to pick up Shout!’s complete-series box of the delightful Nickelodeon series, “Hey Arnold!”  Ninety-nine episodes have been loaded onto 16 discs, totaling 38 hours of classic cartoon fun. The show, which aired on Nickelodeon from 1996-2001 and “Nick on CBS from 2002-04, was part of a wave of animated shows that toyed with cartoon conventions at the time, giving kids something other than clichés to savor. Arnold’s football-shaped head sat on the body of a normal body, which wasn’t at all strange on Nickelodeon. Arnold lives with his grandparents, who run the Sunset Arms boarding house, but spends most of his time hanging out on the roof with an unusual menagerie of pals. The voicing cast included Dan Castellaneta, Francesca Smith, Toran Caudell and Jamil Walker Smith.

The Originals” is a spin-off series from the CW’s supernatural prime-time soap opera, “The Vampire Diaries.” It centers around the Mikaelson siblings — Klaus, Elijah and Rebekah – and the werewolf, Hayley, who is pregnant with Klaus’ child. Of course, they all look as if they just stepped off the set of a MTV reality. As the series opens, the original siblings have returned to New Orleans for the first time since 1919, when their vengeful father sent them packing. In their absence, Klaus’ protégé, Marcel, took charge of the city, which always looks as if it has been taken over by over-served ghouls, vampires and witches. The Blu-ray package adds commentary on the pilot episode; panel discussions from ComicCon and PaleyFest; making-of and background pieces; and unaired scenes.

Breathless,” the latest “Masterpiece Mystery!” import from Britain’s ITV Studios, should appeal to fans of “Mad Men” and “Masters of Sex,” in that it captures moments in time from a male-dominated world on the brink of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, In 1961, doctors would soon be allowed to dispense birth-control pills, but were still prohibited from performing abortions. Surgeon Otto Powell (Jack Davenport) presides over a busy hospital gynecology ward, while also counseling women too ashamed, afraid or damaged to seek help in public facilities, Meanwhile, Powell’s own shadowy past is about to be brought into the light by a mysterious police investigator. It took me a longer time than usual to pick up the rhythm of the narrative of the “Masterpiece” presentation. After a couple of episodes, though, I was hooked, more by the acting and soap-opera aspects of the story than the mystery.

Left to their own devices, easily bored boys can be exceedingly cruel to small animals. Frogs make especially easy targets for their curiosity, restlessness and malevolent moods. It’s why I suggest that parents, camp counselors and Boy Scout leaders expose kids to PBS’ amazing “Nature” installment,

Fabulous Frog,” before being allowed to get anywhere near a lake, marsh or pond during summer vacation. Once again, host David Attenborough introduces us to animals – amphibians, in this case – we only know from pictures and might never encounter in their natural habitats. What we discover are frogs that come in a myriad of colors, shapes, sizes, mating habits, toxicity and carefully evolved behavior. Attenborough clearly is as astonished as viewers will be by what he sees, but once again is able to hold our attention without compromising the science. The frogs look spectacular in Blu-ray, as well.

The hosts of PBS’ “History Detective: Specials Investigations” tries his very best to turn already fascinating stories into something bordering on the mythical. Wes Cowan, Kaiama Glover and Tukufu Zuberi appear to have been mentored by Howard Cosell’s acting coach. In attempting to solve mysteries that have stumped historians for decades, they add a layer of breathless prose more suited to basic cable than PBS. The stories they tell sell themselves, however, and by the end of each episode the hosts let the facts speak for themselves. The new DVD compilation contains investigations into the disappearances of bandleader Glenn Miller, during World War II, and labor leader Jimmy Hoffa; the “Texas Servant Girl Murders”; and the cause of a steamboat disaster in which hundreds of furloughed Union soldiers were killed.

The Troubles returned to Haven, Maine, during the fourth season of Syfy Channel’s supernatural series, “Haven.” It stars Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant and Eric Balfour, whose characters struggle to help townspeople with bizarre ailments and protect the town from the effects of those afflictions. When FBI Agent Audrey Parker (Rose) arrives in Haven, she quickly realizes that this seemingly routine case is anything but. The series is based on Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid.” The Season Four collection includes over 2½ hours of bonus features and an exclusive 16-page comic book.

PBS Kids’ “Arthur Goes Back to School” finds the 8-year-old aardvark and friends preparing to return to classes .  The latest compilation of adventures  includes “To Eat or Not to Eat,” ”S.W.E.A.T”; “Baseball Blues” and “Brain’s Biggest Blunder.”

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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