MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Maleficent, Planes 2, Hercules, Franco X 2, Begin Again, LFO, Vanishing, Coffee in Berlin, Miss Marple, Pemberley, Running From Crazy … More

Maleficent: Blu-ray
Planes: Fire & Rescue: Blu-ray
The great thing about owning the rights to one of the American cinema’s most cherished works is the ability to borrow from it to the point of re-invention. The privilege can be abused, of course, especially if the re-adaptation is made by lesser talents than those responsible for the original. Maleficent, Disney’s decidedly revisionist take on its 1959 animated classic, Sleeping Beauty, and, by extension, Charles Perrault’s 1697 “La Belle au bois dormant,” demonstrates how to honor the original by giving audiences something fresh and tasty on which to chew. Angelina Jolie was the only viable choice to play the woman considered to be Disney’s most enchantingly wicked character. The media has worked long and hard to turn Jolie into real-life version of Maleficent, simply for stealing the oh-so-vulnerable Brad Pitt from Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows, Jennifer Aniston, and creating the kind of atypical family unit that reporters have always been too square to understand. Here, Maleficent is given a personality makeover matched only by Ebenezer Scrooge after his come-to-Jesus moment in “A Christmas Carol.” The origin story written for her by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) offers several very good reasons for the character to make the leap from being a pixie with a decidedly sunny disposition to the evil fairy godmother who places an ill-considered curse on Aurora (Elle Fanning). She is driven to cruelty by a king’s greedy desire to control the enchanted forest beyond the moors and painful amputation of her wings. Even after the curse is placed, Maleficent discovers her love for Aurora and conspires to negate it by bringing her “one true love” to her bedside. Neither is Aurora’s father, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), absolved of his role in Maleficent’s fall from grace. As portrayed here, he’s a power-mad son of a bitch, who, after the death of his wife, grows more paranoid with each passing day. If the story deviates from the Disney original thematically, it faithfully replicates some of Snow White’s most exciting and beautiful set pieces, using advanced CGI technology. The dragon battle, which was scary enough the first time, is even more convincing in enhanced live-action cinematography. That’s one very good reason why parents shouldn’t consider Maleficent to be a harmless substitute for a babysitter. Like the fight in the animated original, it could put toddlers off their feed for days. Otherwise, freshman director Robert Stromberg hasn’t left much room for crusty old purist to complain. It’s likely, though, that most viewers will be disappointed by the undernourished bonus package, which includes deleted scenes and only a few short background pieces. I’m even more surprised by the absence of a music video of Lana Del Rey’s moody re-interpretation of “”Once Upon a Dream,” which accompanies the closing credits.

Although Cars was made by Disney/Pixar and Planes by second-string DisneyToon/Prana Studios, the animated features bore a distinctly familial resemblance to each other. Both were inspired by an original story by John Lasseter and populated with motorized vehicles of the anthropomorphic persuasion. Their sequels were released theatrically, as well. Tellingly, though, it took an additional five years for Cars 2 to open, in 2011, while only a year passed between Planes: Fire & Rescue and its predecessor. Cars 2 reportedly benefitted from a borderline-obscene $200-million budget — $80 million more than that reserved for the original – while each of the movies in the Planes series had to make do on $50 million. From a kid’s point-of-view, I think, the differences can only be seen in the details and scope of the story. The world-famous air racer Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) returns here, but for a much different purpose. When Dusty’s equipment fails to live up to the standards of more modern racers, he makes an equally risky career choice. This time, it involves using his speed and maneuverability in the service of aerial firefighting, a cause that becomes more important with every passing year of our current drought. Naturally, Dusty’s self-confidence exceeds his ability to perform at the level required of his peers in the Piston Peak National Park fire-fighting squad. (We’re reminded of the recent fires in Yosemite by the flames and smoke rising from the background drawings.) The comeuppance he receives at the wings of his elders in the corps is a common occurrence in Disney movies, as is the willingness of the upstart to put his pride aside long enough to learn from his mistakes. The Blu-ray package adds three animated shorts, “Vitaminamulch: Air Spectacular,” “Dipper” and “Smoke Jumpers”; deleted scenes; the featurettes “Air Attack: Firefighters From the Sky” and “Welcome to Piston Peak!”; the music video, “Still I Fly,” by Spencer Lee; and “CHoPs TV Promo,” a TV commercial for the “CHiPs” parody “CHoPs.” (Erik Estrada provides the voice for Nick ‘Loop’n’ Lopez.)  Due to a lack of proper equipment, I wasn’t able to review the 3D edition.

Hercules: Extended Version: Blu-ray
In a very real sense, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was born to someday play Hercules. He admits as much in his introductory comments included in the Blu-ray bonus package to Brett Ratner’s Hercules. For his part, Ratner recalls creating a sword-and-sandals “Hercules vs. Superman” comic book when he was a kid. As such, their version of the Hercules legend owes more to Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno, Mickey Hargitay, Reg Park, Alan Steel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Sorbo – lest we forget, Tiny Sandford, Samson Burker and Rock Stevens – than Greek and Roman mythology. It was adapted from Radical Studios’ “Hercules: Thracian Wars,” a comics series by writer Scott Moore and illustrator Admira Wijaya. After Hercules completed his 12 labors, he had plenty of time on his hands to begin a second career as a mercenary. The Thracian King (John Hurt) summons the son of Zeus and his six battle-worn companions – think, the X-Men in leather skivvies — to mold the Thracian army into a “kick-ass” (Ratner’s words) killing machine. Unfortunately, the muscle-bound demi-god is unable to see the deception through the glare of Cotys’ gold. After Hercules successfully tests his Thracian charges in battle against an army of truly grotesque barbarians, Cotys and his devious henchman Sitacles (Peter Mullan) demand they help take on a larger force from Thebes. Once that’s accomplished, Hercules and his gang of outcast soldiers-of-fortune are taken captive by their employers. Not for long, however.

No one’s ever accused Ratner of skimping on his production values and gotten away with it. Between production costs and marketing expenses, Hercules probably cost more than all of the other Hercules movies combined. That list includes Renny Harlin’s quick-and-dirty Legend of Hercules, which opened in January, immediately flopped and possibly poisoned the well for Ratner’s far more entertaining version. Although Hercules underperformed here, foreign audiences may have pumped enough money into the overall gross to get it close to even. There’s no reason to think that Johnson’s many fans and action junkies won’t embrace the unrated “extended” version, which offers an extra four minutes of mayhem that might have been trimmed to ensure a PG-13 rating. The Blu-ray package adds Ratner and producer Beau Flynn’s observations on sword-and-sandal epics and previous “Hercules” pictures; the introduction by Ratner and Johnson, several worthwhile, if short making-of featurettes; and additional material deleted from the theatrical cut. Due to lack of equipment, I wasn’t able to review the 3D edition.

Child of God: Blu-ray
Good People: Blu-ray
If James Franco had grown up in New York, instead of Palo Alto, and looked more like John Turturro (no offense intended) than James Dean, he might be taken more serious as an artist than he sometimes is. If he cared about his image in certain quarters, he might also have resisted the temptation to appear in soap operas, stoner comedies and action epics at the same time as he was turning in award-quality performances in both high- and low-profile indies. Somehow, too, Franco has found the time to attend prestigious graduate schools, teach, write prose and poetry, draw and sculpt, direct and produce films, long and short. It’s as if he were gunning for the Renaissance Man of the Year award. Still, I can’t think of a single actor of his generation who’s displayed more range, courage and ambition than Franco has since unceremoniously breaking into the business in 1997. Actually, it was only when Franco, now 36, agreed to co-host the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, with Anne Hathaway, that he met the limits of his ambition. That debacle was soon forgotten, however. Child of God and Good People provide good examples of projects that might never have been noticed if it weren’t for his participation in them. His adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s grisly 1973 novel is cut from the same cloth as Franco’s previous literary adaptations:  Howl (Allen Ginsberg), Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner), and The Broken Tower (Hart Crane). Set in rural Tennessee in the 1960s, Child of God describes one dangerously violent hillbilly’s descent into hell after his home and property are repossessed and put up for auction. Now homeless and clearly insane, Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) goes completely feral. He wanders around the countryside, looking for opportunities to avenge the perceived injustice, and sleeps in the same cave in which he stashes the victims of his bloodlust. Tim Blake Nelson and Jim Parrack play the good-ol’-boy lawmen who cut Ballard the slack he needed to haunt the local lovers’ lane and claim more victims, while Franco has a small role as the leader of a vigilante mob. Child of God is not an easy movie to digest, as much for stomach-churning depictions of Ballard’s animal instincts as any acts of violence perpetrated by him. As co-writer/director, Franco keeps a firm grip on the throttle of what could easily have been a runaway train. Haze’s performance could hardly be more convincingly ferocious. That he wasn’t nominated for an Indie Spirit Award, at least, is a mystery. The same goes for frequent Franco collaborator Christina Voros’ splendid cinematography.

Franco plays a decidedly different character in this all-too-familiar British crime thriller, this time by the promising Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz (Terribly Happy). Good People pairs Franco and Kate Hudson as a young American couple, Tom and Anna Wright, living in a decrepit London flat for no discernable reason, except that they’re short of cash while he’s renovating a home outside London. After their downstairs neighbor dies, Tom discovers a cache of pound notes – he misses the briefcase with the morphine ampoules – stashed above the false ceiling. News of the man’s death travels quickly beyond the walls of the basement, bringing the Wrights’ moment of bliss to an abrupt conclusion. In short order, they’re visited separately by two vicious hoodlums laying claim to the money and a cop fixated on closing the books on the unsolved heist of a drug lord’s stash. The only way the Wrights are going to avoid torture and a slow, painful death is by handing over the money to someone and getting out of the way when the bullets start flying. The overriding question, of course, is which of the competing tough guys they should trust most with their fates. Even if the climatic confrontation in Tom’s booby-trapped construction site is well choreographed and fun to watch, I couldn’t help flashing on other movies that ended in the same way. Fans of the Franco and Hudson shouldn’t mind the familiarity, though. Also prominent in the picture are Anna Friel, Tom Sizemore, Omar Sy, Diarmaid Murtagh and Sam Spruell.

Deliver Us From Evil: Blu-ray
The Taking of Deborah Logan
When I say that the closing credits are the best part of Deliver Us From Evil, I’m not being facetious or attempting to condemn it with faint praise. If anything, they’re too short. As strange as it sounds, director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) has crafted a based-on-a-true-story thriller that manages to merge the police-procedural and demon-possession subgenres. If it’s more intriguing than frightening, well, at least it looks good and the special effects are pretty decent. Deliver Us From Evil combines several cases investigated by NYPD detective Ralph Sarchie – portrayed here by Eric Bana – when he was assigned to a notoriously rough precinct in the South Bronx. While there, Sarchie came to believe that the brutality of the crimes he witnessed and depravity of the perpetrators could only be caused by demonic possession. To get to the root cause of the crimes, he decided to work alongside priests trained in the rite of exorcism, even after he left the department. The composite priest who collaborates with Sarchie here is played with credible spiritual intensity by Edgar Ramirez. The devil finds its way to the South Bronx in the flesh-and-blood vessel provided by a marine who was among a three-man team ordered to search for insurgents in an ancient tomb. Instead of WMDs or Saddam Hussein, they opened the door for a spirit that had been entombed inside for centuries. Once home, the cursed jarhead (Sean Harris) can’t help but terrorize the families of his fellow marines, first, and then anyone who gets in his way. The final showdown between the priest and devil won’t make anyone forget The Exorcist, but it’s pretty good. The aforementioned closing credits combine images ripped the film with a driving rendition of the Doors’ “Break on Through (to the Other Side),” effectively creating an audio/visual tone that suggests Hieronymus Bosch.  A deeply earnest Sarchie figures prominently in the featurettes included in the bonus package. Olivia Munn play’s the cop’s freaked-out wife to no great affect, while comedian Joel McHale adds a diverting twist to what could have been a stereotypically subordinate role as his partner.

As if Alzheimer s Disease weren’t bad enough, the titular protagonist of The Taking of Deborah Logan is required to cope with demonic possession, as well. Veteran soap-opera star Jill Larson (“All My Children”) effectively portrays a woman who’s naturally confused by her increasingly noticeable loss of memory and inability to perform simple tasks. She’s even better when the real shit comes down, causing her to act like a madwoman with super strength and a terrible self-destructive streak. The story is framed by the activities of a film crew documenting her decline and how it affects members of her family. Anne Ramsay, who’s been around the block a few times herself, plays Deborah’s adult daughter and target for most of her mother’s anger and frustration. There’s no telling how long she will have absorb the abuse, before making the difficult choice between moving in with mom or finding a comfortable place for her to live out her days. Finally, though, whatever it is that’s causing her mom’s condition to metastasize into something far more ugly than Alzheimer’s makes that decision for her. As unlikely as the source of her troubles might sound, it makes perfect sense within the context of the film within a film. There’s even something of a happy ending. As first features tend to go, Adam Robitel has outdone himself on what must have been a miniscule budget.

Begin Again: Blu-ray
Even if the only thing one knew about Begin Again before renting the offbeat romantic comedy was that it starred Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo and Adam Levine, it wouldn’t take fans of Once more than a half-hour to figure out that it was written and directed by John Carrey. While far from being a carbon copy of that delightful sleeper hit, Begin Again captures the same casually romantic vibe and music-conquers-all credo. Knightley plays the mousy English girlfriend of a groovy singer-songwriter about to sell his soul to the devil for a shot at rock stardom. Gretta becomes expendable when Dave (Levine) falls for an Asian-American hottie he meets at the introductory meeting with executives of his new label. It shouldn’t have come as a great shock to anyone who’s grown up on MTV, but Getta is nonetheless devastated. In a flash back to Once, she runs into an old friend (James Corden) busking in the park and he invites her to crash at his pad. To help chase away her blues, Steve asks Gretta to join him on stage at a local club on open-mic night. Coincidentally, it’s the same night that a failed record producer is drinking himself into oblivion at the bar. Despite her less than dynamic stage presence, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) recognizes something in Gretta’s lyrics that makes him think she can rescue his career. So, while Dave is on the road becoming the next John Mayer, Gretta is allowing herself to be molded into something resembling Fionna Apple or Aimee Mann. Dan comes up with the idea of saving money he doesn’t have by bringing in student musicians and recording her songs in distinctly New York locations, hoping they might provide unique aural ambiences. To this pull off the conceit, he solicits the help of characters played be Mos Def and CeeLo Green. Another evolving storyline involves Dan’s former wife (Catherine Keener) and their rebellious teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), who still aren’t sure he’s worthy of their trust. What’s nice about Carrey’s approach to storytelling is that it ignores the kind of clichés that could have turned Begin Again into just another movie with music. He doesn’t artificially inject turmoil or boogeymen into places where genuine emotions work just as well. Nor does he feel obligated to tie up the loose ends in brightly colored bows. The cast cooperates by turning in naturally understated performances. The music isn’t bad, either.

A post-graduate degree from MIT or Cal Tech isn’t necessary to fully enjoy LFO, a darkly funny mad-scientist thriller from Sweden, but those who’ve earned one likely would enjoy it more than those of us whose knowledge of sonic theory is limited to turning on a radio. Knowing the difference between analog and digital technology – traditional television vs. HDTV, for example – would probably suffice, however. Writer/director/composer Antonio Tublen tapped Patrik Karlson to play the nerdy protagonist, Robert Nord, a disheveled fellow who works out his many frustrations by fiddling with old-fashioned audio equipment in the basement of his non-descript suburban home. We learn soon enough that Robert is pre-occupied with the death of his unfaithful wife and young son in a suspicious automobile accident. In fact, the only thing accidental about the crash was the child unexpectedly being in the car with his mother. Her very lifelike ghost haunts him to the point where he’s forced to experiment with “low frequency oscillation,” hoping to come up with a sound or rhythmic pulse that might allow him to remain refreshed, even without much sleep. With the help of some Internet buddies, he does just that. Further experimentation reveals a frequency that allows him to hypnotize people and control their behavior. Robert tests his discovery on his new neighbors, a young couple having marital problems. The more successful he is – he wears noise-baffling earphones – the greater his curiosity becomes. When his experimentation takes a turn for the perverse, it’s easy to see how this mild-mannered geek could easily evolve into a monster with his fingers on the button of a terrible psychological weapon. LFO doesn’t have to beat us over the head with images of mass destruction, triggered, in part, by someone’s benign ingenuity. The people who invented the Mac and PC may not have foreseen the dangers posed today by hackers, perverts and government intelligence agencies, either, but such abuses were inevitable. When Robert goes bad, we can’t say that we didn’t know it what was coming. If you dig LFO, check out Peter Strickland’s much creepier Berberian Sound System.

Moebius: Blu-ray
When talented directors really want their audience to pay attention to their message – whatever it might be – the most direct route is through violence that borders on the unbearable. Sex that some people consider to be unspeakably perverse works as well, but the titillation factor is always there to distract us from the terror. Likewise, many viewers found the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan to be too horrifying to endure, even if its depiction of the D-Day invasion was completely accurate and essential to Steven Spielberg’s vision. For male viewers, at least, nothing is quite as terrifying as watching an enraged spouse, holding a razor-sharp knife within six inches of the protagonist’s scrotum. Korean writer/director Kim Ki-duk, whose resume includes such challenging dramas as Bad Boy, 3-Iron, The Bow and Pieta hasn’t won the admiration of critics and festivals audiences by pulling his punches. In Moebius, Kim comes close to delivering a knock-out blow before 10 minutes have elapsed. It isn’t until the closing credits roll that he stops battering us with images of extreme behavior. Having learned of her husband’s infidelity in a misdirected phone call, Lee Eun-woo’s unnamed character attempts to rob her husband of his masculinity. When he deflects the attack, she inexplicably castrates their son and disappears from the narrative for a while. Lee returns in the double-role of her husband’s mistress – yes, it helps to pay strict attention to what’s happening here – a shopkeeper who has troubles of her own with local street punks. Most of the movie is taken up with how the father and son cope with the terrible act. The boy’s shame is compounded by the bullying he endures from the same gang members, while the father’s guilt feelings from escaping the attack repulse his son. The only thing that brings them together is the father’s discovery of a technique that uses extreme self-abuse to induce sexual gratification. (“Cutters” are wimps, by comparison.) Things get even weirder from there. If any of this sounds enticing, you should know that Moebius is an extremely well made film and several critics were able to find inky-black comedy in it. I’m sure that Kim’s intentions can best be measured by considering the different definitions of the title, although I felt a bit too used up to try.

The Vanishing: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Whenever the parents of a missing child are interviewed on television, viewers share their horror by trying to imagine the worst of all possible resolutions. Has this example of extreme empathy always been the case or did the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby forever eliminate our ability to be optimistic about such disappearances? Or, perhaps, is it that every newly reported case and attendant prayer vigil are accorded wall-to-wall coverage on the all-news networks and we’re hypnotized by the mass sharing of hope and dread. The Vanishing and Siddharth are movies from two very different parts of the world that demonstrate how a talented filmmaker can turn any notions of hope into horror. Based on a novel Tim Krabbé, The Vanishing describes what happens when a squabbling Dutch couple’s vacation is ruined by the disappearance and presumed kidnaping of the sexy Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) from a rest stop in France. After finally coming to the conclusion that his companion isn’t coming back with snacks, Rex (Gene Bervoets) immediately makes all of the Stations of the Cross in his search for clues and possible witnesses. The police don’t think he’s crazy, but the passage of time makes it increasingly less likely that something will materialize. It’s no mystery to us who abducted Saskia, but director George Sluizer is in no hurry to enlighten us as to the fiend’s motivations or if she’s dead or alive. It isn’t until three years later that the kidnapper, Ray (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), begins to taunt her still-obsessed and desperately searching boyfriend by inviting him to meet in villages not far from the highway. As The Vanishing evolves, it becomes clear that Ray is a sociopath incapable of empathy or anything else resembling genuine emotion. His blank personality becomes the most troubling aspect of the movie. Unlike a psychopath who get his kicks from dressing up like clown and luring his victims to a place where they can be tortured, killed and buried – and, when caught, insist that he’s innocent – the sociopathic is only interested in keeping the victims in play. He knows that Rex can’t be free of anxiety until he learns the truth about Saskia’s disappearance and the perpetrator derives his kicks by revealing only one harrowing detail at a time. We can’t turn away from the truth any more than Rex can stop asking questions. The supplemental features on the digitally restored disc include an original trailer for the film; new video interviews with the Dutch director, who died last month, and Johanna ter Steege; and a leaflet with an essay by critic Scott Foundas. Left pretty much unmentioned is Sluizer’s regrettable American remake, which was released four years later and starred Jeff Bridges, Keifer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock. The same critics who loved the original hated the remake.

If Siddharth is more terrifying than The Vanishing, it’s because the missing character is a child and the terrible things that can happen to a young boy in India seem even crueler to us than death. It became impossible for me to keep the awful cliché about the cheapness of life in impoverished countries from popping into my head while watching Richie Mehta’s heartbreaking drama. But, in effect, that’s exactly what the father, Mehendra (Rajesh Tailang) is told by almost everyone he meets on his search for 12-year-old Siddharth. Against his wife’s wishes for the boy to attend school, Mehendra had allowed the boy to work in a factory in a faraway town where children with small fingers apparently are in high demand. Halfway through his temporary assignment, Siddharth leaves the factory to collect food and vanishes into thin air. His parents aren’t informed of his disappearance until a week later and all inquiries by phone are greeted with an annoyed dismissal of what might have happened to him. Mehendra barely makes a living as a “chain-wallah” – a zipper repairman — soliciting business in the teeming streets of Delhi with a megaphone. It ain’t much, but having a job that’s slightly better than nothing is a better option than watching your family starve to death. The local police do their best to help Mehendra, but, absent any photograph of Siddharth, their task is virtually impossible. Friends and in-laws happily lend him the money to travel to the city where he is son was working, but the owner’s best advice is “have another son and leave me alone.” A fellow worker points him to a place called Dongril, where runaways are sent, but no one he meets has heard of it. At a children’s shelter, he’s matter-of-factly told, “There are so many missing children this time of year. It’s a big business. It feeds the organ trade, sex trade, child labor.” No one even bothers with the useless platitude, “Don’t worry, he’ll turn up sooner or later.” Not being conversant with the Internet, it isn’t until he reaches Mumbai that a woman he meets pulls out her cellphone and does a Google search for him. Yup, there it is. Mehta shot Siddharth on location in Dehli and Mumbai, using “real” people as background characters and places not on the tourist map for scenery. It’s a remarkable movie, accessible to anyone with a heart. The DVD includes a lengthy making-of featurette, as well as piece on the creation of the musical soundtrack.

The Reckoning
Apparently, the first place Australian politicians look when they need to make budget cuts is its film industry, which lives and dies by the generosity of taxpayers. That it took another big hit recently comes as especially bad news for fans of crime thrillers and horror, for which the resident filmmakers excel. The most remarkable thing about The Reckoning for non-Aussies is a cast that includes Jonathan LaPaglia and Luke Hemsworth, whose brothers Anthony and Chris are far better known to American audiences. LaPaglia plays a Perth police detective whose partner has been killed and the only clue to the assailant is contained on video chip he snatches from the cop’s coat. It appears to link the victim to an unsolved hit-and-run case a year earlier that left a young woman dead. Several more people die in the course of the investigation, each crime scene producing another video chip. In the meantime, the teenagers who made the videos have disappeared, as well. John V. Soto’s film combines elements of both the police-procedural and found-footage subgenres to good, if not surprising effect. Fans of Australian movies might also find it noteworthy that The Reckoning is the third project in which top-shelf actresses Viva Bianca and Hannah Mangan Lawrence have been paired. Anyone who has enjoyed their work in X: Night of Vengeance and Spartacus isn’t likely to forget them.

Free Fall: Blu-ray
Tacoma-native Jenny Butler has come a relatively long way since starring in the 2010 remake of I Spit on Your Grave and 2008 Syfy epic Flu Bird Horror (a.k.a., “Flu Birds”). She did a nice job in the Majorca-set psycho-thriller, The Stranger Within, opposite William Baldwin and Estella Warren, so, someday, one of her movies might go straight-to-theaters, instead of straight-to-DVD. In Free Fall, she plays a lithe and athletic corporate executive who gets ready for a hard 10 or 11 hours at work by practicing her kick-boxing skills at the gym … you know the type. Upon arriving at work, Jane learns that her mentor just committed suicide by jumping out of a window in the high-rise building. Without missing a beat, her boss (Malcolm McDowell) anoints Jane the man’s successor, complete with a corner office. While boxing up his property, she discovers a thumb drive containing enough evidence of corruption to send her boss to prison. Her naiveté prompts her to confide in the nervous fellow in another glass-walled office. He feigns interests, even as he alerts the boss’ ruthless henchman, Frank (D.B. Sweeney), of Jane’s discovery. As night falls on the nearly empty office building, Frank arrives to collect the evidence or, failing that, throw her out of the same window as her mentor. The game of cat-and-mouse game that follows mostly takes place in an elevator shaft, where Jane is stuck between floors inside the car and Frank is trying to shoot her from above. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but watching Jane writhe around the compartment in a tight, nearly-inappropriate-for-work skirt – dodging bullets and climbing the walls – is worth the price of rental. After doing this for about 45-minutes, she manages to escape from the hatch and battle her assailant on his own turf and her own terms. Conveniently, she’s better with her fists and feet, than he is with a handgun and silencer. How McDowell is roped into appearing in so many straight-to-DVD movies is a bigger mystery than anything in Free Fall.

A Coffee in Berlin: Blu-ray
Whoever coined the phrase, “Momma said there’d be days like this,” couldn’t possibly have anticipated Jan-Ole Gerster’s freshman feature, A Coffee in Berlin. In it, everything that could go wrong in the daily routine of an unambitious law-school dropout goes delightfully haywire. It begins for Niko (Tom Schilling) when his inability to commit to anything finally convinces his girlfriend that their relationship has hit a dead end. Everything he does from that point on, including ordering an ordinary cup of black coffee, ends in some kind of mini-disaster. His father has chosen this particular day to cut him off from the family teat and an encounter with a formerly fat high-school classmate turns into nightmare. Because Gerster’s approach is more Woody Allen than Three Stooges, his breezy depiction of Niko’s misfortunes frequently borders on the whimsical. As the nearly affectless young man slowly but surely comes to the realization that he’s lost control of his life, we weigh our sympathy with antipathy for such an unmotivated waste of God-given talent. Even better is the filmmaker’s willingness to take us along on Niko’s veritable tour of Berlin, which remains one the most diverse and intriguing places on the planet. No city looks more natural in black-and-white than Berlin, which probably continues to be a world capital for political and artistic extremism. When Niko comes to the conclusion of his day in a tavern that wouldn’t be out of place in a novel by Charles Bukowski, we feel the weight of a century of bad Germanic mojo crashing down on his shoulders. A lively jazz soundtrack by the Major Minors is another highlight of A Coffee in Berlin (a.k.a., “Oh Boy”). Comedies from Germany don’t come along all that often, so you have to grab the good ones when you can.

One Day Pina Asked …
Shown on Belgian television in 1983 as “On Tour With Pina Bausch,” this tantalizing meeting of exceedingly innovative and experimental minds didn’t find its way to New York until 1989, before disappearing into the ether. Chantal Akerman had followed choreographer Pina Bausch and her Tanzteater Wuppertal around Europe for five weeks and One Day Pina Asked … captures her approach to dance not only on stage but also in intimidate glances behind the curtain and interviews. Contemporary dance has never been everyone’s cup of tea, but its devotees are loyal and enthusiastic. This performance film serves as a wonderful celebration of the creative process in two collaborative arts and artists who prefer to work outside the mainstream. In 2009, Bausch would begin working with German filmmaker Wim Wenders on the 3D documentary, Pina. Distraught after Bausch’s death early in the production process, Wenders had to be coaxed into completing the project by her dancers. The film, which debuted at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, did surprisingly well in its U.S. run. Among the works represented in One Day Pina Asked … are excerpts from “Come Dance with Me,” “Carnations,” “Walzer” and “1980.”

Like a lightweight version of Breathless or Badlands, Jeff Winner’s Satellite follows a pair of New York yuppies as they extend their meet-cute moment into a long weekend of committing several petty crimes and, later, one serious theft that provides the story’s narrative backbone. Possibly made as long ago as 2003, but only shown three years later at a film festival, Satellite wasn’t able to able to parley positive reviews in the New York Times and Slant into a limited or straight-to-DVD release. Or, maybe it was the scathing Village Voice review that sealed its fate. In any case, Karl Geary and Stephanie Szostak play Kevin and Ro, successful young urban professionals who, bump into each other in a bar and immediately fall in love. After staring at the stars from a rooftop for a couple of hours, they simultaneously reveal a desire for doing something more dramatic in life than getting an annual 4 percent raise. After taking an early powder from an important meeting at his marketing firm, Kevin decides to act out a fantasy that might have originated at a revival-house showing of the aforementioned films by Terrence Malick and Jean-Luc Godard. After rushing to rescue Ro from a really bad morning at her advertising agency, the couple hops a train for Upstate New York, where his relatives live. Among other things, they steal a motorcycle and go on spree that results in Ro actualizing a latent shoplifting fetish. A fit of jealousy on Ro’s part nearly derails the whole adventure, but they end up quitting their jobs and sampling the kind of Bohemian lifestyle that rarely works without patrons, trust funds or health insurance, none of which they possess. The greater crime, which shall remain unspoiled, provides Satellite with a neatly contrived ending. On the plus side, Winner’s film makes terrific use of its New York settings and a budget that probably was afforded by maxed-out credit cards. I’m surprised that the French-born Szostak, especially, hasn’t enjoyed a more fulfilling career than bit parts in movies and a lead role in a failed USA sitcom. Ditto, the Dublin native, Geary. Despite his early promise, Winner hasn’t done anything IMDB-worthy in the meantime.

The Last Sentence
The recent death of the Washington Post’s longtime newsroom leader, Ben Bradlee, prompted some of us in the newspaper game to wonder if the era of the uncompromising and occasionally even heroic editor-in-chief had come and gone in his lifetime. Before World War II, newspapers were frequently looked upon as ancillary wings of a political party or philosophy. When the scourge of segregation and Jim Crow politics could no longer be ignored, some editors realized that the time to speak out had come and pushed not only for expanded coverage of the civil-rights protests, but also editorialize against institutional racism. The practice of “speaking truth to power” was extended to include impartial coverage of the anti-war, women’s liberation and black-power movements, and the writing of forceful editorials defending human rights and protecting the Constitution from corruption and overreaching public officials. Today, of course, only a small handful of American newspapers take stands on anything more controversial than urging people to vote every so often. There’s no reason for anyone outside of Europe to recognize the name, Torgny Segerstedt, but neither is there a good reason for allowing that unfamiliarity to prevent film and history buffs from seeing Jan Troell’s moving tribute to the Swedish journalist, The Last Sentence.

The editor of the Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT) was one of very few people in power, who, in 1933, took Adolf Hitler seriously enough to consider how his political ascension might impact Europe and its people. The Nazi Party had just become the largest elected party in the German Reichstag and Hitler was duly appointed chancellor. Rather than dismiss this funny-looking man as a tinhorn, single-term politician, Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) understood Hitler’s potential for becoming a threat not only to German Jews and the country’s democracy, but also to countries that couldn’t defend themselves against a superior military force or then-popular fascist beliefs. He knew that his editorials had ruffled feathers in Germany when Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering sent a telegram to the Swedish prime minister declaring that any more such editorials would upend Germany’s “good will” toward Sweden. The newspaper, including Norwegian illustrator Ragnvald Blix, would continue beating the anti-Nazi drum for the next 12 years, even after Sweden officially declared its neutrality and Germany honored it, very conditionally. If government censors demanded the removal of an article or editorial, the space was simply left blank. The message wasn’t lost on readers.

Troell is something of a one-man band, in that he frequently serves as director, cinematographer, editor and writer. He specializes in historical dramas, such as The Emigrants, The New Land, Zandy’s Bride and, most recently, Everlasting Moments. Working from a biography by Kenne Fant and screenplay by Klaus Rifbjerg, Troell was able to add two other significant through-lines in his profile of the crusading editor. The most prominent chronicles Segerstedt’s marriage to Puste Segerstedt (Ulla Skoog) and their less-than-secret relationship with close friends Maja and Axel Forssman (Pernilla August, Bjorn Granath), who, respectively, were his mistress and publisher. As difficult as the affair was to pull off logistically, it was further complicated by Segerstedt’s deep theological roots, which caused him great emotional turmoil, even to the point of being visited by ghosts. Throw in the period-evoking black-and-white images and protagonist’s ever-dour demeanor and there are times in The Last Sentence when I thought I might have stepped into an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. At 126 minutes, the Swedish-language picture won’t be many Americans’ cup of tea. For those whose curiosity is piqued by the description here, however, The Last Sentence should prove extremely satisfying. The DVD includes an interesting making-of featurette by Troell’s daughter, Johanna.

If Paul and Chris Weitz had come up with idea that led to Groundhog Day, instead of Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, American Pie might have looked a lot like Premature … only funnier. It’s possible that writer/director Dan Beers (FCU: Fact Checkers Unit) hadn’t seen those pictures before sitting down to pen Premature, but only if he’d been in a North Korea prison for the last 20 years. Given only this much information about Beers’ debut feature, most regular filmgoers could figure out that a high school boy about to lose his virginity is forced to relive the portion of his day that doesn’t include sealing the deal, over and over and over, again. Once the initial shock over his daily predicament wears off, Rob (John Karna), takes a page from Bill Murray’s book by slowly, but surely working out a strategy that will satisfy his carnal urges and put an end to his problems. Complicating Rob’s dilemma is the appointment he needs to keep with the recruiter from his parents’ alma mater and a jones he has for one of his teachers, who is far too sexy to be teaching post-pubescent children. But, that’s off the point. Unlike Murray’s weatherman and his alarm clock, Rob’s day begins with his mom walking in on him immediately after he experiences a wet dream. Eventually, he figures out that when things begin to go sideways in his day, all he has to do come within a few short strokes of ejaculating and a new one begins. Fortunately, too, Rob’s parents are as understanding of their son’s need to “relieve” himself occasionally as was Jim’s dad, immortalized by Eugene Levy, in American Pie. Beers isn’t yet in the same league as Ramis or the Weitzes, and may never be, so viewers shouldn’t be too disappointed if Premature falls short of their films. What it does have going for it is a cast whose enthusiasm, across the board, radiates from the screen. Stereotypical teen characters don’t get in the way of the kids we’re encouraged to like and the adults aren’t cut from cardboard. The DVD adds several interviews, an alternate ending and commentary.

Real Heroes
Parodies of reality-television shows are about as common these days as found-footage thrillers and Groundhog Day clones (see Premature review, above). Most will be of interest only to friends and families of the cast and crew. Some, however, are spunky enough to fight their way through the crowd and find an audience drawn to campy low-budget comedies. If Keith Hartman’s Real Heroes is guilty of anything, it’s stealing the template previously cut for “Big Brother,” “The Real World” and “Bad Girls Club,” all of which have become parodies of themselves, by now. I’m not sure if Hartman is as interested in skewering the reality genre here, as he is commenting on a culture that’s more obsessed with comic-book superheroes than fighting for affordable health care or putting crooked bankers and politicians in jail. With all of the Marvel and DC characters already booked for projects of their own, Real Heroes arranged an open call for Los Angeles-area residents who have convinced themselves that they’re superheroes and embody noble characteristics 24/7. The producers of the show hope to enlist a cross-section of “actors,” so as to attract an audience not limited to straight white men and women, between 24 and 45. Among the finalists are Sable, a single mom trying to juggle crime fighting, a moody teenage daughter and a waitressing job; Big Shot and Blue Arrow, macho marksmen struggling with their recent breakup; Malibu Action Girl, a spoiled African-American whose Daddy buys her all the weapons and action figures she wants; Psychic Sam, who somehow knows exactly when to dodge bullets and arrows; Water Warrior, a buff beach boy who’s rarely without his tiny goldfish bowl; and Rick & Josh, former teen superheroes trying to put their past behind them. To help entice viewers, Sable’s daughter is reluctantly recruited to play a superhero named Vixen, who fights evil alongside her mom but is more interested sparking with a female fan. The longer the characters remain in the headquarters dormitory, the more entertaining they become. Their superpowers are tested when a Nazi SS zombie and his truly bizarre female posse invade the property, revealing a spinoff project, “Real Villains.” Yes, Real Heroes is every bit as silly and anarchic as it sounds, but in a way that only low-budget DIY flicks can be. The inclusion of comic-book bumpers between scenes helps take the pressure off of the characters and there are plenty of bonus features to keep fans happy.

Mona Lisa Is Missing
OK, students, raise your hand if you can tell me who, in 1911, stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. No one. OK, how many of you know that it was stolen? (Hint: it wasn’t Marlon Brandon’s mob boss, Carmine Sabatini, as alleged in The Freshman.) No problem. Until he was 25, neither did the writer/director of the delightful investigative documentary, Mona Lisa Is Missing. Joe Medeiros, a comedy writer on Jay Leno’s staff, knew a good story when he heard one, though, and began to research what might have been the crime of the century, if it weren’t for Bruno Richard Hauptmann and O.J. Simpson. Then, as now, the Mona Lisa (a.k.a., La Gioconda) was the most famous painting in the world and likely the most valuable. The theft made headlines around the planet and gargantuan rewards were offered … no questions asked. Because they were known to have purchased artifacts stolen from the museum by a friend, artist Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire were, briefly, considered prime suspects. As became clear two years later, the real culprit was quite a bit less interesting than Apollinaire, Picasso or Brando. After learning of the theft, Madeiros decided to learn as much as he could about Vincenzo Peruggia, the Italian immigrant who was responsible for the heist. He was working inside the Louvre as a laborer at the time and simply took advantage of a scarcity of staff on the museum’s closed day. Rather than lay out the entire caper here, I recommend taking advantage of Medeiros’ thorough research and pick up a copy of Mona Lisa Is Missing. He was even able to enlist Peruggia’s daughter, Celestina, and grandchildren Silvio and Graziella, in his quest. The documentary benefits mightily from the filmmaker’s visits to Paris, Florence and Peruggia’s quaint hometown of Dumenza, as well as court transcripts and competing theories on the theft. The DVD adds deleted scenes, outtakes, commentary and a dozen featurettes, which, in all, are longer than the film, itself.

Who Shot My Father?
Zubin and I
One reason that political and military thrillers are so popular, I think, is a shared belief that almost nothing our government tells us about affairs of state is completely true … truthy, maybe, but not the truth. Aaron Sorkin pretty much nailed it in his screenplay for A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessup tells Tom Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee, “You can’t handle the truth!” Forty-one years after Israeli Air Force Attaché Colonel Joe Alon was murdered on the driveway of his suburban Maryland home, his orphaned daughters have yet to be told the truth about the case, which was pretty much closed before it even began, here and in Israel, Frustrated, angry and disillusioned, they finally decided to collect as much information as is currently available and interview as many people who might know something pertinent to the aborted investigation for the emotionally charged documentary, Who Shot My Father? Alon was a true Israeli hero who helped write the playbook on desert aerial warfare. If he had a noticeable fault, it was that he drank too much and it loosened his lips. Among the likely suspects are Black October operatives, Israeli or American intelligence agents, a jealous husband and organized crime under the auspices of any of the above interests. No murder weapon was left behind and no one took credit for the attack. Key evidence disappeared from FBI files and records made available to the women under the FOIA were redacted to the point of being worthless. Henry Kissinger’s fingerprints are all over place, as well. That theory is almost too far out to believe, unless one recalls other horrors he perpetrated in the name of freedom and democracy. An American investigator has offered a counter-theory to the murder, involving an unnamed Palestinian assassin, but Alon’s daughters don’t give it much credence here. After 40 years, it’s time for the game of spy-versus-spy to end and the truth to be revealed. I think we can handle it.

Also from niche distributor SISU Home Entertainment comes Zubin Mehta: Zubin and I, Ori Sevan’s labor-of-love profile of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s widely acclaimed Music Director for Life. Sevan is best known here as co-creator of the original Israeli version of “In Treatment” and as a witness, if you will, in the animated post-war documentary Waltz With Bashir. “In Treatment” was the first original TV drama series from Israel to ever be sold for re-make in the U.S. – HBO – and it’s since been re-made in more than 20 countries. Zubin and I was made in 2010 as part of the HOT cable network’s “Israeli Culture Heroes” series, whose mission it is to examine its prominent subjects from a fresh angle. Mehta has conducted and performed with some of the world’s most renowned orchestras and served as music director for both the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra appointed Mehta its music advisor, in 1969; music director, in 1977; and Music Director for Life, in 1981. Sivan’s 2001 “Behind the Strings” was based on interviews with his grandmother, Klari Sarvash, the first and longtime harpist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Although Mehta took over after she retired, Sarvash is an influential presence in Zubin and I. In it, Sevan spends time with the maestro driving around Tel Aviv and chatting before rehearsals. He also joins the orchestra on a tour of his hometown of Mumbai – then, Bombay — and sits with Mehta for two more formal interviews, during which he discusses his musical roots and his deep connection to Israel.

Running From Crazy
In 1988, a smallish independent drama, The Suicide Club, snuck in and out of theaters, without making much of an impression on audiences or critics. That it starred Mariel Hemingway, whose grandfather had famously killed himself two decades earlier, was an irony not lost on those who may have considered seeing the movie. At the time, six members of the Hemingway clan had taken their own lives. Margaux, would die soon thereafter from a drug overdose and their oldest sister, Joan “Muffet” Hemingway, still live in a group home near the family compound in Idaho. Unlike the so-called Kennedy curse, which is a media fabrication but mentioned here, anyway, the Hemingway curse is traceable to a propensity for mental illness and alcoholism, either one of which could lead to severe depression and suicide. Coping with the family curse, while working hard to keep herself and her daughters from becoming its next victim, is the subject of Mariel’s punishingly reflective, Running From Crazy. At 100 minutes, Running From Crazy naturally spends a great deal of time examining the highs and lows of growing up among people who knew something was wrong with them, but might not have wanted or been able to change the direction of their lives. She’s candid about her personal issues and downright bubbly about her efforts to educate people suffering from similar problems and promoting a pro-active approach to physical and mental health. It was directed by two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple, with Oprah Winfrey serving as the executive producer and audience wrangler.

Bound by Flesh
Modern medicine and the widespread availability of abortions have combined to nearly eliminate the supply of talent to midway attractions and niche “museums” that once flourished by showcasing freaks of nature. Even well into the last century, however, these shows remained extremely popular. Some of the unfortunate performers, at least, became rich and famous, while those who didn’t prosper helped make a fortune for someone else. Had they been born 100 years later than they were, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton would not have been sold to an abusive tavern owner for exhibition in a back room or be forced to sit back and watch as the only career they ever had went out of vogue. Because they shared no major organs, it’s likely that they would have undergone a relatively safe procedure to separate them soon after birth. Of course, had the girls survived the then-risky operation, they wouldn’t have performed alongside such major stars as Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin; made and blown a fortune while touring the globe; appeared in Todd Browning’s cult classic, Freaks, in non-exploitative roles; or had their stories told on screen and stage. Indeed, as we learn in Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating bio-doc, Bound by Flesh, when Daisy and Violet were offered an opportunity to be separated under safe conditions, they turned it down. There’s much more to Zemeckis’ impeccably researched film, including how their real or bogus attempts to be legitimately married were thwarted by self-righteous officials, and how a North Carolina town came to adopt the sisters when they were ripped off and abandoned by their tour manager. The film is informed by much archival material, interviews and newsreel footage that demonstrates some of the talents they acquired along the way. As such, Bound by Flesh also stands as a modern history of traveling carnivals, sideshows, burlesque, vaudeville and American attitudes toward people with serious birth defects. (One thing for sure, the era of the sideshow “tattooed lady” is long gone. You can find as many outrageously inked women in a Hollywood supermarket today than there were in the entire history of freak shows.)

BBC/A&E: Miss Marple: Volume One: Blu-ray
Masterpiece Mystery: Death Comes to Pemberley: Blu-ray
PBS: How We Got to Now With Steven Johnson
(Impractical) Jokers: The Complete Second Season
The Exes: Seasons 1 & 2
In 1986, when British audiences tuned into the BBC to watch “Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple,” starring the estimable Joan Hickson, they were well aware of two things. One, that the author had once personally encouraged the actor to pursue playing “my dear Miss Marple.” And, second, that fellow fan Queen Elizabeth II would almost certainly be watching the same episode of the mystery series as they were. (In 1987, HRM would award Hixson the Order of the British Empire.) The newly re-mastered Blu-ray collection is comprised of “Murder at the Vicarage,” “The Body in the Library,” “The Moving Finger” and “A Murder is Announced.” All four stories were shot entirely on location and feature appearances by Cheryl Campbell, Samantha Bond, Sylvia Syms and Ralph Michael. This being the first volume, viewers can expect several more hi-def collections to pop up in the foreseeable future.

Currently showing on many PBS affiliates is the “Masterpiece Mystery” production of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” based on P.D. James’ sequel to Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride and Prejudice.” The sparkling new Blu-ray disc contains the original UK cut of the three-part series, which makes good use of several Yorkshire landmarks, including Castle Howard, Hardcastle Crags, Chatsworth House, Stang End Cottage, St. William’s College and Derbyshire’s Chatsworth House. The story picks up six years after Austen’s novel left off. Not everything is copacetic in the opulent estate of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy (Matthew Rhys, Anna Maxwell Martin), but an uneasy peace pervades on the eve of the family’s annual Lady Anne ball. Early arriving guests are relaxing after dinner when a carriage comes rushing up the entrance to the mansion with a hysterical Lydia Bennett screaming all the way. The best friend of Fitzwilliam’s nemesis, George Wickham (Matthew Goode), was shot and killed when an argument spilled from the carriage into the woods, but it isn’t clear if the handsome rogue was responsible for it. In addition to this mystery, we’re also treated to one of a marital variety when Georgiana Darcy is ordered by her brother to choose between love and family obligation on the way to the altar. It’s a lot of fun, but anyone unfamiliar with “Pride and Prejudice” is strongly advised to watch one of the many film adaptations or spend a couple of days reading the novel before jumping head-first into it.

The conceit behind PBS’s enlightening “How We Got to Now With Steven Johnson” is that ideas, discoveries and happy accidents, no matter how seemingly insignificant at the time of their appearance, are like acorns that grow into mighty oaks and are recycled throughout the greater eco-system by researchers and consumers, alike. The titles of the first six hour-long episodes – “Clean,” “Time,” “Glass,” “Light,” “Cold,” “Sound” — only tease what will be revealed by the host. Unlike almost everyone else in PBS’ educational series, Johnson is an American author who focuses on popular science and media theory. The series is adapted from his ninth book, “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.” Employing a casual homespun approach to complex subject matter, Johnson pretty much serves the show as a human Internet search engine. In effect, all he does is put a concept into the subject line and hits enter. Then, he sorts through myriad links and finds the ones that will take him from Point A to Point Z, with stops on every letter in between. For instance, “Clean” takes us from the creation of Chicago’s sewer system, the first urban system in America, to the growth of household cleaning products like Clorox and the hyper-sanitized plants where microchips are made. In some parts of the world, water remains as hazardous to drink as it was in the Windy City, when raw sewage clogged the Chicago River and flowed into Lake Michigan. Reversing the river’s eastward flow would inevitably lead to the massive Deep Tunnel project, which effectively does the same thing, except at a far greater volume. Among PBS’s other DVD offerings this week are “Cook’s Country: Season 7,” with terrific new takes on time-tested recipes and tips from host Christopher Kimball and the chefs from America’s Test Kitchen, and “Craft in America: Service.” Now in its sixth season, it is the story of craft and the military, from the origins of the Army Arts and Crafts Program and the G.I. Bill to contemporary soldiers and veterans. Among other things, it demonstrates how a no-nonsense approach to cooking the American repertoire has turned bad grub into great food.

For some reason, “(Impractical) Jokers: The Complete Second Season” appears on the heels of last month’s third-season finale, instead of as a teaser for a new stanza of fresh programming. The popular Tru TV show combines traditional hidden-camera conceits with practical jokes of a most sophomoric variety, in that they’re intended to embarrass the perpetrator as much as the victims. Here, however, the prankster is at the mercy of pals, who are gathered behind the hidden camera pulling his strings. Each cast-member is given a shot at getting his target to participate in the gag before he breaks character with hysterical laughter. If you’ve ever enjoyed watching an innocent bystander slipping on a banana peel or attempting to pick up a dollar bill affixed to a sidewalk, this is the show for you. While some of the reactions to the gags are undeniably humorous, the effect is overwhelmed by the braying laughter of the three guys feeding lines to their friend via microphone (with an earpiece).

Until 2010, the folks at TV Land appeared content to repackage repeats of classic and far-less-than-classic shows from the annals of television history. Many of the titles had been shown so often that it was the rare viewer who hadn’t already memorized the dialogue. As the TV-to-DVD business began to hit its stride, with complete-series packages, the need for such a cable service diminished greatly. When its first

foray into original scripted programming struck gold with “Hot in Cleveland,” its formula was borrowed to create other new shows. All feature stars from a landmark series, who appeal most to Baby Boomer audiences and are paired with attractive unknowns. Among the re-tread actors are Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, Betty White, Fran Drescher, George Segal, Jessica Walter, Rhea Perlman, Kirstie Alley, Michael Richards and Cedric the Entertainer. Not all of the shows found an audience, but several are enjoying long runs. “The Exes was built around such known factors as Kristen Johnston (“3d Rock From the Sun”), Wayne Knight (“Seinfeld”) and Donald Faison (“Scrubs”) and relative unknowns David Alan Basche and Kelly Stables. In it, a divorce attorney (Johnston) allows three of her male clients to share a large apartment in the New York flat that she owns. They, of course, possess wildly divergent personalities and quirks, but share an interest in getting back into the dating game. Their attorney is so busy with her work that she neglects her sex life. When this happens, she remedies the situation by binging with her perky blond assistant (Stables), who is 4-11 to her boss’ 6-foot, out of heels. Besides this running sight gag, a steady stream of one-show bimbettes flows through the guys’ apartment, where the men continually display the deficiencies that led to their divorces in the first place. Frankly, I was surprised by how entertaining it is. NBC should be so lucky to have TV Land’s lineup.

Holiday TV-to-DVD
A Belle for Christmas
Cartoon Network: Holiday Collection
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials, Volume 2
Coincidentally or otherwise, Dean Cain and Kristy Swanson have appeared together recently in several made-for-TV and direct-to-DVD movies, usually of the PG, family-friendly variety. Swanson has also co-starred with Charlie Sheen three times, although I don’t see any connection there with Cain, whose fans include followers of “Lois & Clark,” “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,” “Bloopers” and the faith-based blockbuster, God’s Not Dead. A Belle for Christmas is the latest in a series of canine-centric movies in which Cain has appeared, sometimes with Swanson. Here, he plays a recent widower and father of two precocious pre-teens, who fall in love with the idea of adopting a puppy for Christmas. Swanson plays the woman, a voluptuous baker, who wants to fill his ex-wife’s shoes – and steal her jewelry – for the holidays. Her Achilles heel is being allergic to dogs, especially this one. Her true colors are revealed when she dog-naps Belle and makes up a story for the man who runs the local dog pound. Needless to say, the kids stay two steps ahead of their dad throughout most of A Belle for Christmas and a merry one is had by all … except the woman who would have been the wicked stepmother. That’s one stereotype, at least, that will never disappear. Haylie Duff also plays a strategic role in the story, as the manager of a dog-rescue shelter and a potential love interest to Cain if there’s a sequel.

Anyone who cares to measure the distance between holiday specials, then and now, can do so in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” and “Cartoon Network: Holiday Collection.” Although it may look primitive to older viewers, even in its Blu-ray iteration, it’s worth remembering that the stop-motion animation on display in the former set the standard for an entire generation of filmmakers to come. Burl Ives narrates as Sam the Snowman, telling and singing the story of a rejected reindeer who overcomes prejudice and, once again, saves Christmas. Even if the hi-def presentation reveals some of the seams in the creation process, it isn’t likely that kids will notice anything but the time-honored characters. The Cartoon Network package advances the clock on the evolution of animation 50 years forward, with shows and characters that are on the cutting edge of hip family entertainment. The DVD is comprised of two “Adventure Time” episodes and an episode each of “Regular Show” and “The Amazing World of Gumball.” The bonus material adds the non-holiday-specific “Money Broom Wizard” episode of “Clarence” and a “Steven Universe” episode called “Together Breakfast.”

Just as telling are the holiday presentations resurrected for “A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials, Volume 2.” The two-DVD set contains their syndicated Thanksgiving and Christmas specials from 1967; a reunion Christmas special in 1974; and a sentimental retrospective made for PBS in 2009. For better or worse, the King clan and Up With People pretty much represented the kind of super-sanitized fare that passed for family entertainment in the 1960-70s. Eventually, Up With People would be unmasked for its cult-like practices, but the King Family and its occasional spinoff acts still attract viewers. Except for the Lawrence Welk reruns on PBS, there’s nothing quite like the spirited musical performances and dance routines contributed to the popular culture by the Kings. The DVD adds two bonus Christmas episodes from the 1965 series, “The King Family Show.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ David Simon