MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Nightcrawler, John Wick, Eleanor Rigby, Dear White People, Overnighters and more

Nightcrawler: Blu-ray
If all that writer/director Dan Gilroy was attempting to do in Nightcrawler was, as he’s previously stated, shape an indictment of local television news and viewers who’ve sanctioned “If it bleeds, it leads” reporting, he’d be selling his movie terribly short. As a working principle, “If it bleeds, it leads” has informed news broadcasts for more than 30 years and now covers brush and warehouse fires, far-flung meteorological events, car crashes and Kardashian sightings. Like the “happy talk” format, which encouraged anchors to chat amiably between often-violent violent clips, its influence has lessened, but not entirely disappeared. What’s new and different in Nightcrawler, which satisfies as both a thriller and media commentary, is its ability to identify the virus that not only is killing local news coverage, but also our country’s once-exceptional network broadcasts, newspapers, newsmagazines and radio: greed. Ever since media executives began to put the concerns of Wall Street financiers ahead of those voiced by viewers and community leaders, news-gathering budgets have been slashed to the bone, as has the space accorded anything except weather reports and freakish video clips from around the world. Such bottom-feeders as TMZ and have usurped the place once held in newsrooms by the AP and UPI. With their fixation on celebrity chefs, self-promoting movie stars, fashion shows, stacked weather babes and outdated traffic updates, the morning news shows are even less relevant. That, too, qualifies as old news, however. It’s the impact mercenary videographers and the stalkarazzi have had on the industry that Nightcrawler captures so well. In a taped interview, Gilroy points out that the famous New York tabloid photographer Weegee is the great-granddaddy of the freelance “nightcrawler” played here with feral ferocity by Jake Gyllenhaal and, by extension, his mentor Bill Paxton and their financial enabler, Renee Russo.  Without freelancers, newspapers and television stations would have missed out on some of the most important events of our time.

Ironically, mainstream news operations now may have become as reliant on so-called citizen journalists as they’ve been on paid freelancers, for the last 30 years, at least. Hi-tech cellphones deliver photographs, videos and “tweets” with the speed of the Internet and the only payment these volunteers usually require is a shout-out from the anchors. The heyday of the “nightcrawler” may, in fact, be coming to end. This not said, however, to denigrate or marginalize Gilroy’s terrifically entertaining film in any way. By ignoring his direction, as well as the contributions made by Gyllenhaal, Russo and cinematographer Robert Elswit, Academy members have already accomplished that dubious task. Gilroy may be a finalist in the best-original-script category, but that’s as much a door prize as a tribute to an otherwise overlooked picture. In Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic Louis Bloom, Gilroy has crafted a character as recognizable in certain media circles as Budd Schulberg’s Machiavellian Sammy Glick was in the Hollywood described in “What Makes Sammy Run?” Bloom’s take-no-prisoners ascent from common thief to potential news executive is as disturbing as it is exciting to watch. Gyllenhaal, who shed 20 pounds for the role, reportedly based his portrayal on the coyotes who come out at night and feed on the poodles and bunnies of suburbanites. Los Angeles, which is a target-rich environment for predators, plays as crucial a role here as it did in L.A. Confidential, Chinatown and The Day of the Locust. (If pressed, I could probably argue that, as Bloom’s mentor, Paxson is playing Oedipus to Russo’s Jocasta in the classic Greek tragedy.) I wonder how the actual L.A. news anchors and reporters cast as themselves in Nightcrawlers have been able to justify their place in the meat-grinder after watching themselves being characterized as stooges by Gilroy. (“A gig’s a gig,” comes to mind.) As Bloom’s intern, Riz Ahmed also deserved consideration for a best-supporting-actor nod. The splendid Blu-ray presentation adds with commentary with writer/director Gilroy, producer Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy and the far-too-short, “If It Bleeds, It Leads.”

John Wick: Blu-ray
Just when one expects a crappy, nonsensical action flick to emerge from the opening credits to John Wick – the movie and character played by Keanu Reeves – the movie grabs us by our lapels and drags us along with it on a nearly indescribably violent slide into one man’s personal hell. In their first turn as co-director/producers, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have invested everything they’ve learned as stunt performers, martial-arts specialists and fight choreographers into a movie that owes more than a little bit to such masters as Luc Besson, Sam Peckinpah, Jackie Chan, John Woo, James McTeigue, Frank Miller and the Wachowskis. They’ve also collaborated previously with martial-arts enthusiast Reeves on the Matrix trilogy, Constantine, Man of Tai Chi and 47 Ronin. If he isn’t likely to make anyone forget the Hong Kong giants anytime soon, it can be said of Reeves, at least, that he takes the fighting disciplines seriously and learned well from his teachers. John Wick operates on a pretty simple premise: the protagonist is a legendary assassin-for-hire, whose retirement is spoiled, first, by the death of his wife and, later, by a stupid mistake made by the son of a powerful Russian crime boss (Alfie Allen and Michael Nyqvist, respectively). The repentant father asks Wick to forgive his lunkhead son, who wasn’t aware of the man’s reputation, but the kid went beyond the pale by stealing the despondent hitman’s beloved 429 Boss Mustang muscle car and slaughtering the puppy bequeathed to him by his dying wife (Bridget Moynahan). With no good reason to live, Wick unearths the weapons he’d buried five years earlier and dedicates himself to killing the punk. Even though the old mobster is disgusted by his son’s actions, blood ties demand that he surround him with a small army of bodyguards and mercenaries, including those nicely played by Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki. After an estimated 120 men and women are killed in action – 80-some credited to Wick – viewers are left with the quaint notion that a brotherhood of professional killers not only lurks in the shadows of society, but it also maintains something resembling a pecking order and code of behavior. The higher the bounty, of course, the less likely it is that the code will be honored. And, so, like the opponents in hyper-violent arcade games, the combatants keep on coming until no one is left. The harder they come, the harder they fall … one and all. Not that it matters much, but it should be noted that screenwriter Derek Kolstad (One in the Chamber) provided the framework in which the state-of-the-art stunt work and effects could flourish. The Blu-ray adds commentary and several worthwhile featurettes:  “Don’t F*#% With John Wick,” “Calling in the Cavalry,” “Destiny of a Collective,” “The Assassin’s Code” “The Red Circle” and “N.Y.C. Noir.”

Dracula Untold: Blu-ray
Boiled to its essence, Dracula Untold revisits the “origin story” laid out in Bram Stoker’s novel, but it also puts a heroic human face on the drama. The action-packed movie is set in Transylvania, circa 1462, just as an uneasy peace between Vlad Tepes III (Luke Evans), the prince of Wallachia, and Ottoman warlord Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), is about to unravel into chaos. To save his family and kingdom. Vlad the Impaler enters into a Faustian agreement with the cave-dwelling Master Vampire (Charles Dance), in which the prince trades his soul for the power to hold back the Turks, if only temporarily. Although CGI-enhanced battles and special effects dominate the film, there’s enough actual history in Gary Shore’s story to keep Dracula Untold from devolving into unabashed fantasy. As even a quick perusal of the Wikipedia site dedicated to the legend will attest, the truth is every bit as fascinating as Stoker’s mythology. In 1931, Universal Pictures laid the foundation for nearly all of the “Dracula” adaptations to follow it, by focusing on the horror in the Transylvanian count’s madness. By introducing the Master Vampire at this auspicious period in the kingdom’s history, freshmen screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless build a bridge spanning the deep past to the eternal future. As such, Dracula Untold is a welcome addition to the canon.  What was left largely unsaid in reviews for the film’s theatrical release is that Universal was using it to kick off a “shared universe” with reimagined adaptations of The Mummy, The Wolfman and Frankenstein.

Unlike the horror classics, however, the studio is promoting all new entries into its “monster-verse” franchise as action-adventures to square with other studios’ comic-book and superhero series. Indeed, the filmmakers’ greatest conceit in Dracula Untold is to portray Prince Vlad as a ferocious warrior, who sacrifices his soul to become a superhero capable of turning back the Turkish tide. Does it work? Sometimes, but, at a surprisingly brisk 92 minutes, the action necessarily detracts from the history, diluting the myth to attract young viewers. Neither is the overall experience enhanced by Vlad’s newfound aversion to light, which required cinematographer John Schwartzman (The Amazing Spider-Man) to perform under less than ideal circumstances. Even in Blu-ray, the darkness will test the home theaters of most viewers. The worthwhile bonus package adds featurettes, “Luke Evans: Creating a Legend,” “Day in the Life: Luke Evans,” “Dracula Retold,” “Slaying 1000” and the interactive “Land of Dracula”; an alternate opening and deleted scenes with optional commentary by Shore and production designer François Audouy; and Shore and Audouy’s commentary on the feature.

Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Blu-ray
Any resemblance between Steve Carrell’s Oscar-nominated performance in Foxcatcher and his turn as a 21st Century Disney dad in Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is purely coincidental. The same could be said about Jennifer Garner and her against-type role in Dallas Buyers Club, although she wasn’t required to navigate her way around a humungous prosthetic schnozzola opposite Matthew McConaughey. It isn’t every actor who could leapfrog between roles in farcical family comedies and serious life-and-death dramas, but Carrell and Garner make it look easy. So does director Miguel Arteta, who began his career with such edgy arthouse fare as Star Maps, Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, and has also helmed some of the top shows on television.  Based on an oft-adapted book by Judith Viorst, “Alexander …” describes a cursed day in the life of the Cooper family, somewhere in suburbia, during which everyone in the family is required to experience what life is like for the klutzy Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) on a 24/7 basis. After everyone in the family wakes up late, misfortune follows them to a job interview, a book reading with Dick Van Dyke, junior prom, an amateur production of “Peter Pan” and Australian-themed birthday party. As silly as “Alexander …” is, it’s every bit as much fun to watch. It would be a mistake, however, for kids enchanted by Carrell here to check out his unnerving performance as a psycho amateur-wrestling fanatic in Foxcatcher.  The Blu-ray adds several light-hearted behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
The title of Ned Benson’s ambitious debut feature begs the question as to how many children of Baby Boomers are saddled with names inspired directly by rock-’n’-roll songs popular when their parents were too stoned to comprehend the full meaning of the lyrics. Given what happens to the female protagonist during the course of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, she probably would have preferred to be named after anyone in the Beatles repertory, except the desperately lonely and sadly forsaken Rigby. It isn’t clear if the Eleanor Rigby played by Jessica Chastain here was traumatized by listening to Beatle records in her youth, but she’s an unholy mess. Benson’s project initially was shot and shown as a two-part movie, following a couple played by Chastain and James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, whose story is told from both of their points of view. Now, while 200 minutes of sometimes repetitive narrative might be OK for the festival crowd, a condensed version of the he-said/she-said drama would be easier to sell the general public already attracted to its stars and a stellar supporting cast that includes Nina Arianda, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciaran Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt and Jess Wexler. As it breaks down in the 123-minute version, Eleanor and Connor (McAvoy) once were happily married, with all of the usual hopes and dreams shared by members of the Millennial Generation. All we’re led to believe is that something tragic happened between them, destroying the marriage and causing Eleanor to have a nervous breakdown. After she’s released from a medical facility, Eleanor is encouraged by her psychiatrist father (Hurt) to take courses at a local university from a colleague (Davis), who may be as unstable her students. The school’s location is close enough to a restaurant run by Connor for Benson to arrange for uncomfortable encounters with people from her past. Can this marriage be saved? Do we care? Chastain and McEvoy work very hard to make us care for these attractive young people, both of whom were dealt bad hands early on in life. Not everyone will want to invest two hours of their own lives into other people’s misery, though, no matter how good the acting may be.

Once Upon a Time Veronica
If you’ve ever wondered what’s ever become of the Girl From Ipanema, check out Marcelo Gomes’ Once Upon a Time Veronica (a.k.a., “Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica”) for one possible answer. Considering that it’s been 50 years since the Getz/Gilberto hit introduced bossa nova to American ears, however, a better question might be: what ever happened to the granddaughter of the Girl From Ipanema? She might very well have been raised in the northeastern port city of Recife, where she took full advantage of the sandy beaches and unusually large number of medical schools and hospitals. Certainly, Veronica wasn’t going to wait around for someone to discover her as she strolls along the sand, write a song about her and invite her to model swimwear for Sports Illustrated, as her mother might have done back in the day. Even though Veronica has spent the last 10 years of her life studying to be a doctor, it hasn’t prevented her from occasionally joining her friends in naked romps in the ocean, which rarely registers anything cooler than 70 degrees.

Nothing could have adequately prepared her for the greeting she would receive on her first posting, a hospital that focuses on the mental problems of Recife’s working poor. Besides the fact that the lines outside her office are endless and many of the patients couldn’t be less appreciative of her efforts to help them, her bosses have demanded that she follow procedures to the letter and avoid engaging the patients in anything more therapeutic than writing prescriptions. At the same time, she’s being forced to vacate the ocean-view apartment she shares with her sickly father and move to someplace far less cheery. A voice deep within her is also demanding of Veronica that she get married while her music-loving dad can still enjoy the ceremony, if nothing else. While she wouldn’t have any problem finding a handsome and responsible young man with whom to play house, Veronica knows it would put a crimp in her after-hours lifestyle. In discovering that the solution to one dilemma only leads to another more taxing problem, Veronica is in pretty good company. Millions of women have asked themselves the same question posed by Peggy Lee in “Is That All There Is?,” a song released not long after “The Girl From Ipanema.” It’s how Gomes dramatizes his protagonist’s not terribly unusual issues on film that makes Once Upon a Time Veronica something unique, different and inarguably compelling. Without Hermila Guedes’ flawless performance in the lead role and Mauro Pinheiro Jr.’s evocative cinematography, however, it might not have amounted to anything at all. Guedes was terrific in Karim Aïnouz’ Love for Sale – also set in Brazil’s Northeast – which found a little bit of traction here in 2006.

Dear White People
Although Justin Simien’s campus-set dramedy owes an obvious debt of gratitude to Spike Lee, Dear White People is fresh enough to stand on its own two feet this many years removed from when Half-Pint and Mars Blackmon stalked the Earth. Even in 1986 dollars, Simien probably didn’t have as much money as Spike was able to squeeze out for his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, let alone for his follow-up, School Daze, which Dear White People resembles thematically. Nearly 30 years after Half-Pint found himself caught between the “jigaboos” and “wannabees” of Mission College, things don’t seem to have advanced much in the world of academia. The students still don’t think the administration is addressing their concerns and status, among the black kids, at least, is still defined by hair styles and the darkness of one’s skin. The white and Asian students at Simien’s prestigious Winchester University don’t seem overly concerned about how the African-Americans are handling their issues, as long as they aren’t perceived as being racist or exclusionist, which they aren’t. Unlike the students at all-black Mission, the kids at Winchester aren’t weighted down by such pressing concerns as their university’s investments in companies that do business with South Africa. Theoretically, they’re able to bask in the lingering afterglow of President Obama’s “post-racial” America. Even so, there’s no escaping the basic bullshit that permeates campus politics, participation in clubs and other extracurricular activities. The students all seem to be privileged in one way or another and any acrimony between them is limited to housing issues and cafeteria menus. One possible explanation for this is the increasing number of students of multiracial backgrounds, who have struggling with identity issues far as long as they’ve known that there’s something different about them. Likewise, black students who grew up in well-off households and attended private schools are hung up on identity issues, as are the kids whose sexual identities remain in flux. Fortunately, Simien is able to use humor to navigate most of the shoals, sometimes through the school’s social-media network and the “Dear White People” podcast.

Simien’s greatest achievement here is patiently creating a scenario in which the best intentions of two of the lead African-American characters are subverted by the willingness of thoughtless students to act in really stupid ways. In an effort to curry favor with the staff of the school’s humor magazine, an aspiring black writer, not unlike Half-Pint, invites students to a party for which they’re required to dress in costumes that wouldn’t be out of place at a Pimp N’ Ho Costume Ball in Las Vegas. It would be nice to think that such hideous concepts have gone the way of toga parties, but, too often, headlines will be made by students who can’t resist the temptation to take selfies of themselves in blackface and afro wigs. In fact, the invitation for the party in Dear White People is almost verbatim to one send out alerting students to a “Compton Cookout,” at the University of California, San Diego. Again, it’s hard for me to believe that today’s young adults might be so insensitive, but, even in “post-racial American,” shit happens. If it weren’t for the ability of such fine young actors as Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell, Malcolm Barrett, Brittany Curran, Justin Dobies and Marque Richardson to make us believe that their characters credibly represent a sliver of academia, at least, Dear White People would have fallen flat on its face. Instead, we want to like them very much. The bonus featurettes explain the arduous process of making Simien’s dream come true and, as such, should be considered to be must viewing for aspiring filmmakers everywhere.

The Overnighters
If there’s anything this country needs more than a law prohibiting the Kardashian family from ever again appearing on television or the cover of a magazine, it’s an industry that will create tens of thousands of new jobs that don’t require years of training or education. Ideally, these jobs wouldn’t come at the expense of our environment or any tainting of the landscape. Too often, though, prosperity now comes to places singularly unable to cope with the influx of out-of-town workers and the heavy equipment necessary to extract treasures from deep below the surface of the earth. Jesse Moss’ heart-breaking documentary, The Overnighters, describes what continues to happen in one small North Dakota city, which has become a mecca for tens of thousands of unemployed laborers hoping to find economic salvation extracting oil from the newly discovered Bakken Shale formation. Almost overnight, Williston filled to overflowing with men from all backgrounds – along with dozens of itinerant strippers, we’re told – few of whom would be able to afford the inflated costs for scarce housing units, unless they landed a better-than-decent job. So-called “men’s camps” sprung up like mushrooms after a prairie rain, but the continuing influx of people looking for work overflowed into the city proper. Seemingly, the oil companies hadn’t seen fit to construct even the most rudimentary places for the migrants to eat, sleep and take the occasional dump. Even with the formaldehyde fumes, FEMA trailers would have made nice places to crash, but those in the area were reserved for victims of recent flooding. At Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church, Pastor Jay Reinke considered it to be his Christian duty to open the doors of his congregation each night to men – as well as a small handful of women — happy merely to find space on the floor to sleep, as well as a warm meal in the morning for nourishment.

There was nothing even remotely fancy in the arrangements and Reinke also saw to it that certain rules were followed to maintain order inside the church and the parking lot, where people slept in their cars. Neither did he require the men to sing for their supper or recite hosannas to their benefactor, here and in heaven. The fact that some of the overnighters had served time in prison didn’t disturb Reinke as much as it did a rabble-rousing reporter, who felt it his duty to inform readers of the offenses committed by some of the people who spent the night at Concordia. It hardly requires any work to raises the hackles of citizens whose NIMBY mentality allows them to profit from the fruits of prosperity while decrying the inconveniences that accompany it. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the uproar, local politicians courted voters by making it impossible for Reinke to offer help and hope to his part-time flock and prohibiting workers from living in their RVs. The Overnighters would be a compelling documentary, even if it had ended with the fateful city-council meeting that revealed the true colors of Williston residents who wouldn’t recognize Jesus Christ if he stopped them on the street and asked for a hand-out. Moss’ film is further distinguished by its willingness to chronicle the journeys taken by several of the unemployed workers who would find temporary shelter in the church and expose Reinke to the scrutiny the church’s neighbors reserved for the overnighters. Because almost everyone we meet in the documentary withers in the heat of the lights shone on them, The Overnighters ultimately turns into an American tragedy. Is it any wonder, then, that it was ignored by the folks who nominate documentaries at the Motion Picture Academy, even after being widely acclaimed by critics and festival audiences?

Video Games: The Movie
For those folks who have no knowledge of video-game history before Nintendo and Sega players became as common in American households as microwave ovens, Video Games: The Movie might come as something of a revelation. Anyone who can remember dropping quarters into the Pong machine, however, probably already knows the history of the multibillion-dollar industry ad nausem and won’t be impressed by the recollections of such celebrity geeks as Zach Braff, Chris Hardwick, Wil Wheaton, Donald Faison Alison Haislip, Clare Grant and Sean Astin. Those who would rather watch than play, however, will be rewarded with some entertaining visuals, if nothing else.

It was a long time coming, but niche storytellers from Europe have begun to find an audience among Americans drawn to gay- and lesbian-themed films with a different perspective on things. I’ve recently reviewed movies from Germany, Poland and France that, while still interested in the coming-out process, aren’t fixated on the sturm-und-drang drama once associated with it. Unlike the early work of niche North American filmmakers, these exports are enhanced by mainstream production values and actors who don’t look as if they just stepped off the stage of a dinner-theater production. (No offense intended, but it wasn’t so long ago that actors looking for careers in movies and television played LGBT character at their peril.) Coming into the game after the hard ground has been broken here, at least, has also freed filmmakers from relying on explicit sex scenes to draw attention to their products. For many years, Wolfe Video has been the leading distributor of Queer Cinema titles in North America and, as such, has enjoyed a leg up on other companies attempting to serve the niche demographic. Its latest release, Boys, exemplifies just how far the genre and Wolfe have come in the 30 years since it began as a consumer mail-order distributor for lesbian VHS videos. Mischa Kamp’s tender boy-meets-boy romance originated on Dutch television, but, even at a brisk 78 minutes, has found a ready audience on international festival circuit. And, while it’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone use the term “puppy love,” that’s exactly what 15-year-old Sieger (Gijs Blom) and his track-squad teammate, Marc (Ko Zandvliet), experience during a near-idyllic summer break in the lovely Utrechtse Heuvelrug region of the Netherlands. They are among a mixed group of friends who have begun to assert their independence at home and in social situations, seemingly for the first time. The kids are as unsure of themselves in matters of romance as fawns that stray too far from their mother in the forest. Practically at the same time as Sieger is sharing a first awkward kiss with a pretty blond girl, who would seem to be a perfect match for him, his feelings for the handsome and athletic Marc begin to emerge. Surprisingly, perhaps, Sieger takes both experiences in stride. If anything, he’s more concerned with the disintegration of his older brother’s relationship with his father than any post-pubescent awakening of his own. Not everything goes smoothly for Sieger, of course, but what doesn’t is handled with respect for the teenagers involved and at an unforced pace. And, in case you’re wondering, the romantic encounters here are practically as chaste as those between Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in the days of Beach Blanket Bingo.

Coffee Town
One of the things that the people who run Internet entertainment websites understand that most of their forebears in the mainstream media have yet to grasp is the increasingly short attention spans of the people who visit them. “Webisodes” average between 5 and 10 minutes and the emphasis is almost always on comedy, sci-fi, horror and music. Many well-known television actors have used the Internet as a way to express themselves creatively, without having to answer to skittish producers and network censors, and it’s no longer unusual for a YouTube hit to transition to cable television, exposing audiences to entertainers struggling make names for themselves in comedy clubs and bit parts on sitcoms and soaps. In its first foray into feature films, has taken an idea that might have trouble filling a 22-episode commitment on broadcast television and added more than an hour of padding to what essentially is a workplace sitcom. That the workplace is a Starbucks-like coffee shop, which provides free wireless access to its customers, including a cheapskate website manager for an electronics company, makes Coffee Town worth a quick look. The story revolves around Will (Glenn Howerton), an underachiever who turns the café into his office, with all of his telecommunications needs met by its wireless service, his laptop and cellphone. Like all other workplace sitcoms, Will interacts with a steady stream of oddball characters and even is required to deal with a boss of sorts, in the easily perturbed barista (Josh Groban).  If he can’t employ logic to stop Will from freeloading, the least the barista can do is purposely screw up his coffee orders and bogart the hottie regulars.  When corporate executives arrive to consider the possibility of turning the shop into a showcase for the franchise, Will and his friends (Steve Little, Ben Schwartz, Adrianne Palicki) decide that such a move would crimp their style. They come up with a far-fetched scheme to dissuade the home office from upgrading their hangout, once and for all. Coffee Town was written and directed by Brad Copeland, whose dialogue previously was delivered by characters on “Arrested Development,” “My Name is Earl” and “Grounded for Life.” Anyone familiar with those shows will know what to expect from Coffee Town.

Starry Eyes
Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard: Blu-ray
Among the many things in life that qualify as being beyond parody, it’s the seriousness attached to the process of making movies in the Hollywood tradition. Everything from the way a director choses to call “action” and “cut,” to the interviews actors give to justify their participation in bad movies, is rendered with a level of gravitas usually reserved for funeral orations. If it weren’t for the ridiculous amounts of money at stake at every step on the filmmaking ladder, the people whose names appear in the credit rolls would be ridden out of town on a rail after each stinker. In their second feature as co-writer/directors, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer demonstrate a keen eye for the absurdity of making movies the way they were taught in film school. Even if viewers aren’t privy to every insider gag, however, Starry Eyes works pretty well as hard-core, gut-spewing horror. Alex Essoe probably didn’t have to stretch too far to come up with her portrayal of an actress/waitress who divides her time slinging hash in a mini-skirt and auditioning before neo-Nazi casting directors. Sarah has friends, but none that wouldn’t slit her throat to steal a paying gig from her … any paying gig. Long story short, when Sarah finally does land a job, it requires her to sell her soul and body to a producer whose mansion also provides direct access to the gates of hell. In this way, at least, Starry Eyes might remind horror buffs of Rosemary’s Baby, Hellraiser and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle. The DVD adds commentary with writer-directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, and producer Travis Stevens; deleted scenes; a Jonathan Snipes music video; Alex Essoe’s audition video; and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery.

Because Harrison Smith’s Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard is set in a rural town, whose feeble fences offer only a temporary barrier to the zombie apocalypse, many potential viewers  will automatically dismiss it as a “The Walking Dead” rip-off. They wouldn’t be far from wrong. Only loyal fans of Billy Zane are likely to find any payoff to their investment in time. Here, he plays a hardened military veteran limited to training a squadron of teenagers with paint-ball weapons in their defense of their town. They’ll need every live bullet they can spare to hold back an advancing horde of garden-variety zombies. Beyond that, there’s almost nothing to recommend Zombie Killers to anyone besides sub-genre obsessives. The Blu-rays adds the featurettes, “Bloodbath & Beyond,” “The Look of Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard” and “Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard: Behind the Scenes.”

PBS: The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross/Black in Latin America
PBS: Hitmakers: The changing face of the music business
A Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking: Season 2
The Bob Newhart Show: Season Five/The Final Season
The Wonder Years: Season Two
Like a December without Santa Claus, it simply wouldn’t be Black History Month without a contribution from Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. PBS has done us all a favor, then, by combining his documentary mini-series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” and “Black in Latin America into a virtual double-feature that delivers sometimes disturbing historical and cultural lessons in the least painful way possible. While any discussion of slavery and repression would necessarily be hard to digest, Gates’ mini-series are sweetened by regular infusions of music, art and literature, along with demonstrations of heroism and achievement. Considering on how little most of us know about the intricacies of African-American history, north and south of the equator, both DVDs can be considered essential viewing. If we’ve learned anything from the protests prompted from the recent police shootings of unarmed black youths, we still have a long way to go before achieving racial harmony here. In the chapter dedicated to the Afro-Cuban experience, Gates appears to have anticipated the recent thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, by explaining why many blacks there wouldn’t welcome a return to pre-revolution status quo and the overt racism of Euro-Cubans. His discussion of the differences that continue to divide Haiti and the Dominican Republic – independent nations that share the same land mass – is equally fascinating.

Now that the hype surrounding the Grammy Awards has ground to halt, perhaps it’s a good time to peek behind the wizard’s curtain and see who’s pulling the strings in a rapidly evolving industry. PBS’ “Hitmakers: The Changing Face of the Music Business describes the “seismic transformation” of an industry that had grown fat and lazy, by exploiting it artists and ripping off consumers, who, until recently, had few other ways to acquire music than pay full-freight for over-priced albums. The digital revolution changed all that by allowing the creators to cut out the middle-men and distribute their own music. This was especially helpful to emerging acts that could attract attention without also scoring a top-40 hit or sell their souls to afford a promotional tour. Consumers benefitted from lower prices and easily transportable playback equipment, with playlists of hundreds of titles. Among the artists represented here are Lorde, Melissa Etheridge, Questlove, Sharon Jones, Steve Aoki, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, who perform and discuss their personal history, emergence as stars and perceptions of the business side of things. Key music-label mavericks, historians and journalists also have been called to the witness stand.

In the second go-round of “A Moveable Feast With Fine Cooking: Season 2,” such celebrity chefs as Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Donald Link and Marco Canora invite viewers to join them, along with a few foodie friends, in the preparation and enjoyment of meals unique to their regions and products of local purveyors. The settings include a California avocado grove, a Southern plantation, a lakeside retreat and bustling kitchen in New York’s Little Italy. Printable recipes for such delights as Spiced Chicken with Papaya-Mango Salsa, Grated Carrot Salad with Raisins, Lamb Sausage Patties with Avocado Relish, Grilled Pork loin with Peaches, Coffee Creme Brulée are included.

The folks at Shout Factory continue to parcel out individual-season DVDs previously packaged in complete-season boxed sets. The fifth and sixth seasons of “The Bob Newhart Show” are newly available to fans who preferred the a la carte approach, as is “The Wonder Years: Season Two.” “Hart to Hart: The Complete Fourth Season” arrives next week.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.


Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Ophelia, Ambition, Werewolf in Girls' Dorm, Byleth, Humble Pie, Good Omens, Yellowstone …More

rohit aggarwal on: The DVD Wrapup: Ophelia, Ambition, Werewolf in Girls' Dorm, Byleth, Humble Pie, Good Omens, Yellowstone …More on: The DVD Wrapup: Diamonds of the Night, School of Life, Red Room, Witch/Hagazussa, Tito & the Birds, Keoma, Andre’s Gospel, Noir

Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Sleep With Anger, Ralph Wrecks Internet, Liz & Blue Bird, Hannah Grace, Unseen, Jupiter's Moon, Legally Blonde, Willard, Bang … More

Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Bumblebee, Ginsburg, Buster, Silent Voice, Nazi Junkies, Prisoner, Golden Vampires, Highway Rat, Terra Formars, No Alternative … More

GDA on: The DVD Wrapup: Bumblebee, Ginsburg, Buster, Silent Voice, Nazi Junkies, Prisoner, Golden Vampires, Highway Rat, Terra Formars, No Alternative … More

Larry K on: The DVD Wrapup: Sleep With Anger, Ralph Wrecks Internet, Liz & Blue Bird, Hannah Grace, Unseen, Jupiter's Moon, Legally Blonde, Willard, Bang … More

Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Shoplifters, Front Runner, Nobody’s Fool, Peppermint Soda, Haunted Hospital, Valentine, Possum, Mermaid, Guilty, Antonio Lopez, 4 Weddings … More

gwehan on: The DVD Wrapup: Shoplifters, Front Runner, Nobody’s Fool, Peppermint Soda, Haunted Hospital, Valentine, Possum, Mermaid, Guilty, Antonio Lopez, 4 Weddings … More

Gary J Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Peppermint, Wild Boys, Un Traductor, Await Instructions, Lizzie, Coby, Afghan Love Story, Elizabeth Harvest, Brutal, Holiday Horror, Sound & Fury … More

Quote Unquotesee all »

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