MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Leviathan, Lovesick, Before I Disappear, Blue Room and more

Leviathan: Blu-ray
If any modern country exemplified the nearly ancient epigram, “The more things changes, the more they stay the same,” it’s Russia. A quarter-century after the Iron Curtain was lifted and Soviet repression gave way to the hope of freedom and democracy, Russia is led by a paranoid thug who makes Nikita Khrushchev look like Thomas Jefferson. Instead of being iron-fisted by Communist Party functionaries, however, the populace is ruled by an increasingly militaristic government and bullied by plutocrats, gangsters, small-minded politicians and conservative leaders of the ascendant Russian Orthodox Church. That much, at least, can be inferred in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s overtly allegorical drama, Leviathan, which ironically was inspired by the story of a Colorado man whose beef with city officials eventually led him to armor-plate a bulldozer and use it as a battering ram against bureaucratic intransigence. Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin also admit to have borrowed from the biblical stories of Job and Naboth’s Vineyard. The creature alluded to in their film’s title at one time thrived in the fertile waters of the Barents Sea. Today, however, the whale’s sun-bleached skeleton lies on a lonely stretch of sand and rocks outside the fictional town of Pribrezhny, as drained of promise as the peoples’ dreams for a new Russian state. The aggrieved party in Leviathan is an auto mechanic and army veteran, Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), whose simple ancestral home is situated on a lovely parcel of land overlooking the sea. Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the corrupt mayor of Pribrezhny, covets the site for purposes of his own self-aggrandizement. He’s able to have the property expropriated for a sum well below its compensatory value and not even close to its sentimental worth. After nearly exhausting every legal appeal available to him, Kolya convinces an old army buddy and well-connected lawyer, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to travel to the coastal community to represent him in his last stand against injustice. The cocky Muscovite carries with him a dossier that, if necessary, could be used against the mayor as blackmail.
Also factoring into Kolya’s dilemma is a problem with alcohol shared by almost everyone else to whom we’re introduced in Leviathan and, by inference, the nation. His wife’s frustration with his alcoholism is further compounded by the hostility directed at her by Kolya’s teenage son from his first marriage. Depressed by the likelihood of having to trade her home for a crappy apartment in the town, the love-starved Lilia (Elena Lyadova) sees in the handsome and self-assured lawyer an opportunity to escape to a better life in the capital. When all of the individual ingredients begin to combust, the explosion can be heard as far away as the whale’s empty carcass. If you’re wondering how any movie as obviously critical of the country’s fragile democracy and religious establishment managed to be submitted as Russia’s official candidate for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, you wouldn’t be alone. (After winning a Golden Globe and being chosen as a finalist for an Oscar, it lost to Poland’s superb Ida.) According to several observers, it isn’t likely any future depictions of “ordinary” Russians as drunkards and slaves to an inherently corrupt system will so easily avoid the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture. In an interview with the New York Times, Russian journalist Vladimir Posner observed, “Anything seen as being critical of Russia in any way is automatically seen as either another Western attempt to denigrate Russia and the Orthodox Church, or it’s the work of some kind of fifth column of Russia-phobes who are paid by the West to do their anti-Russian work or are simply themselves profoundly anti-Russian.” Apart from any political considerations, part of what makes Leviathan so extraordinary is the actors’ ability to convince us of their characters’ ordinariness, if you will. We’re able to feel every ounce of their pain and frustration with every ounce of vodka poured down their gullets from an ever-present shot glass. I’ve never seen drunkenness depicted so realistically on stage or in a movie. The starkly beautiful cinematography holds up well in the Blu-ray edition, which also contains commentary with Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky; an informative making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and introductions and a Q&A from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Jealousy, possibly the most toxic of all human emotions, has provided fodder for artists and storytellers practically since the beginning of biblical time. Among the most powerful depictions of the effects of jealousy on the heart and mind, of course, remains William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.” The presence of the green-eyed monster has been chronicled in scripture, mythology, literature and such films as Mildred Pierce (also an excellent HBO mini-series) and Fatal Attraction. Turning jealousy into comedy has long proven to be more problematic, for the simple reason that its victims tend to look more pathetic than aggrieved. Sadly, “pathetic” is the first word that comes to mind when attempting to describe Luke Matheny’s fatally undernourished rom-com Lovesick. Matt LeBlanc plays Charlie Darby, a well-liked elementary school principal whose relationships with women habitually end when he begins to display to the symptoms of chronic jealousy. It manifests itself in ways that make him look desperately obsessive and possibly dangerous. Although Charlie recognizes his shortcoming, scripter Dean Young finds ever-more embarrassing ways for him to blow every prospect of love. And, while he gets solid advice from Adam Rodriguez (“C.S.I. Miami”), he seems to prefer the misguided observations of a buttinsky neighbor played Chevy Chase. Naturally, when Charlie is this-close to a nearly perfect blond, Molly (Ali Larter), he does everything in his power to make her disappear. Its neither funny nor credible. LeBlanc is so much more interesting in “Episodes,” as an actor with similar personality defects, it’s possible to wonder if he accepted the role as a favor for someone related to the filmmakers. Larter (“Heroes) brightens up everything she’s been assigned and her fans might enjoy seeing her here, alongside the former co-star of “Friends.”

Just Before I Go: Blu-ray
Before I Disappear
Romanticists typically have portrayed suicide as an act of courage or despair, precipitated by a series of emotional crises that trigger a response validated by the dictates of personal freedom. Artistic dramatizations have added an air of nobility to deaths that might easily been averted if logic and patience had prevailed. Moreover, there’s a huge difference between romanticized descriptions of suicide in literature and the objective language found in coroner’s reports or chilling photographic evidence of distended tongues, brain-spattered walls and slit wrists. As long as the Production Code prohibited graphic depictions of death on screen, the ugly reality of suicide was shrouded in avoidance and euphemism. Once that passed, realistic depictions of violent death evolved with every new advance in special makeup effects and squib engineering. The quickest and most startling way to end any crime drama in a movie or television show merely requires of a doomed antagonist, usually of the male persuasion, to place the barrel of a handgun on his head and pull the trigger. Far from Shakespearian, it brings the final curtain down on time. The uneven suicide dramedy Just Before I Go represents the feature debuts of director Courteney Cox and writer David Flebotte, both of whom previously collaborated on the dark takedown of celebrity journalism, “Dirt.” Seann William Scott, who created and finally humanized the scene-stealing Stifler in the American Pie series, here portrays the suicidal loser Ted Morgan. At 41, the divorced L.A. pet-shop owner decides to return to his hometown to confront the school bullies, snotty debutantes, sadistic teachers and cruel family members who made his adolescence a living hell. As is typical in such you-actually-can-go-home-again exercises, Ted eventually comes to the realization that his old nemeses had already committed a form of suicide by accepting suburban rot as a way of life. Out of the blue, he meets a pretty young woman (Olivia Thirlby) hoping to capture his last few days on film. That’s a show-stopper if there ever was one. Forced, instead, to intercede in the serious problems of other characters in the movie, Ted discovers things inside himself he didn’t know existed. If there’s nothing particularly enlightening in Just Before I Go, it’s only because Cox and Flebotte decided at one point to throw the protagonist into a kitchen sink full of sexually dysfunctional supporting characters and slapstick scenarios. (Kate Walsh’s somnambulistic onanist is something to behold.) I suspect that the same people drawn to every new American Pie sequel – nor a petty sum — will find something to enjoy in Cox’s freshman film.

Expanded from Shawn Christensen’s Oscar-winning short film, “Curfew,” Before I Disappear takes a far more realistic approach to suicide brought on by despair, while also introducing a determinedly optimistic tyke who could have been played by a 12-year-old Shirley Temple. Besides writing and directing, Christensen plays a young man seriously addicted to pills and various white powders. Richie is working off his debt to a sadistic dealer and a nightclub owner (Ron Perlman) by cleaning toilets in bathrooms no sober human being would consider using, except in the most dire of digestive emergencies. After he discovers the lifeless body of an overdosed girlfriend in one of the stalls, Richie decides to pull the plug on his own worthless existence. While lying in a tub full of seriously polluted bathwater – his own blood trickling from his wrists — Richie answers a call from his estranged sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), demanding that he pick up his niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), from school. Maggie makes it clear that she wouldn’t ask him for help if anyone else in her orbit had been available. In something of a surprise decision, Richie wraps his wounds with cloth once probably used as a hankie and heads off to the girl’s school with a code word and instructions not to screw up the assignment. Almost immediately, Sophia pointedly reveals her mistrust of her uncle’s ability to accommodate her after-school activities and preparations for an important test in the morning. In this, she’s as prescient as she precocious. Because of his obligations to various dealers and thugs, Richie is unable to escort his charge from school to acrobatics and back home without several ill-advised pit stops in between. Concerned more with not being prepared for her test than fearful for her physical well-being, Sophia ends up playing cards and sharing Chinese food with his dealers’ bodyguards, who also create a safe space for her to study. As it turns out, Maggie has been arrested in a violent altercation with her married lover and is cooling her heels in jail. The guy’s wife is anxious to confront Maggie, but is willing to use Richie as a punching bag in her absence. At some point in the proceedings, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and John Landis’ Into the Night, if only because most of Before I Disappear takes place in several different locations in the wee hours. It isn’t as accomplished as those two films, but audiences drawn to bleak urban drama should find Christensen’s conceits interesting, alongside Ptacek’s spunky performance.

The Blue Room
In this most French of erotic thrillers, co-writer/director/star Mathieu Amalric plays a handsome, if otherwise non-descript adulterer, who risks everything for a few satisfying assignations with the extremely sultry and unmistakably married Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau). As drawn to Esther’s raw sexuality as he is, Julien Gahyde doesn’t appear to be particularly unhappy at his rural home, with a still-alluring wife, Delphine (Léa Drucker) and charming daughter. As interpreted by the immensely prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon, one man’s seven-year-itch is his lover’s perfect excuse for murdering her husband. The larger question here, though, is whether Julien’s itch is so great that he’d enter into a conspiracy with Esther to broaden her felonious intentions and somehow get away with it. Amalric does a really nice job keeping us guessing as to the non-carnal motivations of Julien and Esther – their chemistry in bed speaks for itself — while also leaving the door open to the possibility that one, both or neither of them might be culpable in the unseen deaths. Even under the intense interrogation of the local prosecutor and police officials, it’s difficult for us to piece together any more of the details of the case than are allowed the courtroom audience. We think that we know more than the spectators because of the elliptical nature of the narrative, but we don’t. The title refers to the color motif of the rooms in which most of the most telling activity takes place. Admirers of the mysteries of Claude Chabrol and previous Simenon adaptations shouldn’t hesitate picking up The Blue Room.

The Living
Jack Bryan’s unexpectedly satisfying sophomore feature, The Living, is the kind of low-profile picture that gives the straight-to-DVD business a good name. If the industry sidebar didn’t exist, after all, how many of the admirable low-budget indies would have an ice cube’s chance in Miami of being seen outside the festival circuit? The Living describes what can happen when ill-considered decisions are put into motion for reasons that seemed good at the time they are made, but in the clear light of day might have been re-thought. Here, a mousy young Pennsylvania man, Gordon (Kenny Wormald), is pressured by his mother and friends to avenge the beatings given his sister, Molly (Jocelin Donahue), by her worthless husband and blackout drunk, Teddy (Fran Kranz).. Joelle Carter, who rode an emotional roller-coaster as Ava Crowder in “Justified,” is the kind of mother who isn’t reluctant to pick the scabs off her less-than-perfect children and instigate trouble when they don’t behave according to her dubious ethical code. Although Teddy deserves a good ass-kicking – or jail, one – Molly prefers to punish him her way. She’s the kind of victim who is willing to forgive her abuser if he displays the proper degree of remorse and promises not to drink to excess, again. We know this is baloney, but Molly would rather live with someone she still is capable of loving to being tormented by her know-it-all mother. As a favor from a friend, brother Gordon has been given the phone number of a destitute ex-con willing to kill Teddy for $2,000. The only caveat comes in having to travel to the Mississippi home of the hitman, Howard (Chris Mulkey), and listen to his menacing b.s. all the way to Pennsylvania. When Gordon witnesses the kind of mayhem Howard is capable of causing if provoked, he begins to wonder if the price of his manhood is worth the risk of ending up in prison. It’s from this point on that The Living begins to demonstrate why it deserves a solid shot in the DVD and VOD marketplace.

Two Men in Town: Blu-ray
The best reason for picking up a copy of Two Men in Town isn’t the participation of such high-profile actors as Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Brenda Blethyn, Luis Guzmán, Ellen Burstyn and Mexican star Dolores Heredia, although that normally would be sufficient cause for celebration. Instead, it’s the welcome return of writer/director/producer Rachid Bouchareb – London River, Days of Glory, Outside the Law — to these shores as an interpreter of the American Dream. It also marks his return visit to New Mexico, where much of his previous project – Just Like a Woman, which paired Golshifteh Farahani and Sienna Miller as a pair of on-the-lam belly dancers – was shot in 2011.  Two Men in Town is set along the border separating New Mexico and old Mexico, where as many dreams are destroyed as left to blossum. Although the movie doesn’t avoid the subject of illegal immigration, it’s secondary to the dramatic interplay between the newly paroled convicted murderer, William Garnett (Whitaker); his by-the-book parole officer, Emily Smith (Blethyn); and Sheriff Bill Agati, whose deputy was killed by Garnett 18 years earlier. Garnett converted to Islam while incarcerated and it appears to have made him a better man. The sheriff is itching for an opportunity to send the ex-con back to prison, while Smith is doing her level best to keep that from happening. Condemned to spend the next three years of his parole period in a dusty border town, Garnett is required to choose between a minimum-pay, maximum-work job at a cow-milking mill or accepting a job with the local crime kingpin, Terence (Guzman), with whom he has a checkered past. His decision to stick with the cows angers Terence to the point where he even threatens Garnett’s bank-teller girlfriend (Heredia), a lovely woman who deserves none of the shit about to rain on her head. Even though he recites his prayers at the appointed times – at work and in his flophouse apartment – the Koran provides only minimal protection against rage issues that were merely patched over in prison. Two Men in Town is a loose adaptation of the 1973 crime drama of the same title by Jose Giovanni, whose work was informed by the years he spent on Death Row in a French prison. Restaging the story on the border adds an extra layer of intrigue to the story that occasionally gets in the way of Garnett’s redemption. It partially explains why Cohen Media decided to add Rory Kennedy’s insightful 2010 documentary, The Fence, which documents the impact of the manmade 700-mile barrier on communities on either side of the same border with Mexico. Also enhancing the Blu-ray presentation is Yves Cape’s brilliant cinematography, which finds beauty in places to many Americans are quick to dismiss as wastelands.

Bordering on Bad Behavior
The South African director/writer team of Jac Mulder and Ziggy Darwish accomplish in Bordering on Bad Behavior what tens of millions of peace-loving citizens of the world have wanted to do for more than 60 years: lock representatives of all warring parties in the Middle East into an inescapable space and demand they arrive at solution to their mutual issues before being allowed to leave. Then, when they reach each inevitable impasse, pump high-grade marijuana into the chamber and substitute the drinking water with booze. It might take a while for the inebriants to take effect, but, once they do, something resembling agreement might be secured. That, I think, is a reasonable summation of what happens in the outlandish military dramedy Bordering on Bad Behavior, whose first half is dominated by vitriol and second half actually resembles a stoner comedy. The story opens with an Australian special-forces commando of Lebanese Arab background getting lost during a stroll with his soldier cousin along the border with Israel. Although Baz (Bernard Curry) has managed to survive for several years in some of the hairiest war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, it isn’t until he’s on leave, visiting his relatives, that he makes the greatest mistake of his military career by accidentally strolling into a top-secret Israeli communications base. It’s here that he’s confronted by Bob, an American officer and full-time Texan in Israeli garb (Tom Sizemore) and a bitter Israeli commando assigned to take over the post in the morning. Don’t ask. In the time it takes Baz to pull back the hammer on his service revolver, the door to the facility slams shut with a loud click. Because he was able to get the drop on the laid-back short-timer, Bob, and the seriously pissed-off Israeli patriot, Avi (Oz Zehavi), Baz succeeds in keeping things from getting out of hand. Even though he’s there to provide the movie’s Arab point of view in the angry exchanges with Avi, Baz has also been assigned a Jewish wife (Liv Jackson) and flashbacks from the day he saved the life of an Israeli seriously wounded in a suicide bombing. Again, don’t ask. The reward for his selfless actions came in the form of being berated by a relative of another victim and hassled by cops for presumably being of the same faith as the suicide bomber. For his part, Ari’s deep bitterness derives from having lost a sister in a suicide bombing – perhaps the same one – and being fed a load of anti-Arab propaganda in school. Knowing that these three outwardly very different men will be forced to co-habit the facility for the next six hours, Bob talks Baz and Avi into observing a ceasefire. Fortunately for everyone involved, their temporary man-cave is well supplied with drugs, booze, steaks, porn and ammo. The soldiers’ willingness to partake in such timely diversions ensures that the second half of Bordering on Bad Behavior will overflow with politically incorrect laughs, good-natured ribbing and other bro-mantic behavior. As absurd as this scenario might sound on paper, it would be nice to think that such rapprochements — however unlikely — were possible in the real world.

Strange Magic
Maya the Bee Movie
Nickelodeon: Team Umizoomi: Meet Shark Car
Rarely have “George Lucas,” “Lucasfilm” and “Disney” appeared in the same sentence as “bomb,” but that’s exactly what happened in box-office summaries of the weekend Strange Magic opened on 3,020 screens across the U.S. As executive producer and story creator, Lucas probably hadn’t experienced this much negative press since the bumbling Jar Jar Binks was introduced in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Not only did the animated fairy tale tank at the box office, but it was trashed by critics, who, as a group, have yet to forgive Lucas for creating the aforementioned Binks and fear the Naboo native will make a cameo in Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Primarily influenced by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and two other Shakespearean comedies, Strange Magic deploys 60 years’ worth of Top 40 hits “to tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with the imaginative settings and characters, as drawn, and an excellent voicing/singing cast that includes Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Kristin Chenoweth, Meredith Anne Bull, Alfred Molina, Maya Rudolph and Peter Stormare. What I found awkward was the juxtaposition of cutting-edge technology and a soundtrack loaded with songs lifted from an era when vinyl was king and analog was the sound. (A few of the songs were of more current vintage, but none that stood out as much as the golden oldies.) Youngsters attracted to the fantasy and fairies likely were intimidated by the Shakespearian conceit and unimpressed by a libretto enhanced by songs made famous long before they were born. Without the kids’ insistence, parents weren’t likely to drag them to the multiplex just to hear a few songs from their teen years. And, even in its third week, Paddington was still able to finish third that weekend. That said, Strange Magic is far easier to endure on DVD and less expensive, to boot. I kind of enjoyed hearing the tunes again, this time sung in the wee voices of enchanted forest creatures. The animation looks terrific on my 4K screen, too. Strange Magic could end up doing well on DVD, but only if parents and Boomer grandparents can find a way to convince the kiddies that they’ll dig songs made famous by Freddie Mercury, Robert Palmer, Bob Marley, Mickey & Sylvia, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Heart, the Doors and ELO as much as they do. The DVD adds a couple of making-of featurettes.

Shout! Factory didn’t bother to invest a great deal of time and money in an effort to attract kids to an animated tale of German-Australian origin, based on a Teutonic fable written in 1912 by Waldemar Bonsels, about a newborn bee possibly afflicted with ADHD. There was nothing to gain by releasing Maya the Bee Movie in theaters and plenty of good reasons to focus on a DVD strategy, instead. Alexs Stadermann (The Woodlies Movie) wasn’t blessed with an easily marketable voicing cast and the story was more familiar to European and Japanese families. In fact, Maya the Bee Movie represents the latest in a long line of adaptations of Bonsels’ “The Adventures of Maya the Bee,” a book that appeared to espouse militarism, naturalism and racism in defense of the common good of the hive. Sound familiar? These “-isms” have lost most of their sting over the course of a century, in which the book was adapted for a 1924 live-action feature film (starring bugs), comic books, an anime, a pair of television series, video games, a children’s opera and merchandise. In the latest iteration of the story, Maya isn’t at all keen about being born into a world of rules and group-think. She prefers flitting around the meadow, making friends with a violin-playing grasshopper, a dung beetle and a young member of the much-maligned hornet tribe. When the Queen’s royal Jelly is stolen, the hornets are the prime suspects and Maya is thought to be their accomplice. Maya may have been banished from the hive, but she and her friends understand the value in finding the missing jelly and preventing a potentially disastrous war between the bees and hornets.

Preschoolers who may be a year or two away from Maya the Bee Movie can get their animated kicks from the latest Nickelodeon compilation, “Team Umizoomi: Meet Shark Car.” In it, Milli, Geo and Bot use their math powers to find Shark Car and return it to their friend, Jose, before the ferry leaves. Other episodes include “Umi Toy Store,” “Stompasaurus” and “Lost and Found Toys.”

Stigmata: Blu-ray
If the Vatican ever wanted to extend its franchise, what better way than to open its archives to screenwriters and take a cut of the action. The Inquisition, alone, would provide fodder for dozens of factually informed mini-series and torture-porn flicks. The statute of limitations has run out on most of the Church’s crimes, so its army of lawyers probably wouldn’t have to worry about lawsuits, except, perhaps, from the descendants of the Jewish babies who were kidnapped and handed over to childless Catholic families or sent to convents and seminaries. With every new mini-series and movie based on the Crusades, Henry VIII, the Borgias, the House of Medici, the Gnostic Gospels, the post-WWII “ratlines,” exorcism and other manifestations of Christian mysticism, Vatican copyright specialists are practically giving away money. If nothing else, we might be spared such half-baked entertainments as Stigmata, a 1999 suspense vehicle newly re-launched in Blu-ray. There’s nothing wrong with basing a thriller on the bewildering phenomenon, in which an ordinary person mysteriously displays the marks of the wounds of Christ. No less a writer than Elmore Leonard found a way to work the stigmata into a novel – albeit, his most obscure title – later adapted into a decent thriller, Touch, by Paul Schrader. In Stigmata, Rupert Wainwright’s very loud, if stylish thriller, the question isn’t whether a young blond hairdresser’s wounds are legitimate or not, the writers also demanded that Frankie (Patricia Arquette) undergo the full Exorcist experience, babbling in ancient tongues and scribbling Coptic text on a wall in her loft. (Actually, Hebraic lettering was substituted for Coptic or Aramaic.) As a self-described atheist, Frankie hasn’t the vaguest clue as to what’s happening to her or why the hallucinations appear to be triggered by strobe lights or flashbulbs. (Would St. Francis Assisi’s stigmata react to the same stimuli if he were to reappear today and go clubbing?) Gabriel Byrne plays the Vatican-based priest who travels the world investigating the validity of such miracles, but is snubbed by his superiors when he has the temerity to take his job seriously. When a priest knowledgeable in Christian mysticism chances on one of Frankie’s stigmatic freak-outs on a subway train, his report raises Byrne’s eyebrows and causes panic within the heeby-jeeby crowd in Rome. Suddenly, we’ve gone from Linda Blair’s bedroom and into territory Dan Brown would mine in “The Da Vinci Code.” The set designs are far more compelling than the narrative, while a Billy Corgan/Mike Garson should still be of interested to younger viewers. Also notable are appearances by Jonathan Pryce, Portia de Rossi, Nia Long and the ever-ominous Rade Sherbedgia. Arquette, who won an Oscar this year for her key role in Boyhood, later would play a housewife who communicates with the dead in CBS’ paranormal drama, “Medium.” Scream Factory adds commentary with Wainwright; deleted scenes; the featurettes, “Divine Rites” and “Incredible But True,” taken from a History Channel special about stigmata; and a Natalie Imbruglia music video from the film’s soundtrack.

Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing
Neil Young: The Road Goes On Forever
On Tender Hooks
All This Mayhem: Blu-ray
With the possible exception of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, there probably aren’t two American musicians more thoroughly analyzed than Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who, unlike most singers before them, also composed the lyrics to their songs. It’s difficult to imagine anything more to add to Dylan’s back pages since the publication of his memoirs, “Chronicles,” and airing of Martin Scorsese’s authorized profile for PBS, “No Direction Home.” Young bared his roots and inspirations for Jonathan Demme in “Journeys” and “Heart of Gold.” Once famously enigmatic, both of these amazing musicians have become as elusive as robins in May. More than a few Dylan/Young-centric bio-docs of European origin have already been released by MVD Visual, which distributes titles from such niche companies as Sexy Intellectual, Chrome Dreams, Pride, Jinga, IMV/BLUELINE, Iconic and Gonzo. These labels also have direct access to concerts televised in Europe and previously unavailable here. Even so, you’d think that the appeal for Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing and Neil Young: The Road Goes on Forever would be drastically limited by their complete dependence on public-domain resources, promotional videos, news clips, second- and third-hand witnessing, and other archival material. It’s made perfectly clear on the DVD jackets that the subjects didn’t participate in the creation of the film or agree to lift licensing considerations. It hardly matters, because the lack of access to these famously guarded celebrities – in some cases, not always – allows for an open discussion from critics, musical and business associates, and artists with unique points of view on the subject. Here, the absence of authorized concert and studio footage allows for thorough discussions of the historical context in which Dylan and Young emerged and triumphed. Snippets of songs are all one usually needs to recall them in total, anyway.

At 121 minutes, Roads Rapidly Changing leaves plenty of time to expand on Dylan’s place in a folk scene that was already thriving when he arrived in Greenwich Village, from Minnesota, in the early 1960s, but was on the verge of a complete re-invention of itself by the time he “went electric.” By way of introduction, director Tom O’Dell focuses on the roles played by Lead Belly, Josh White, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the genesis of the folk movement and its relation to left-wing activism in the 1930s-’40s and near destruction in the communist witch hunts of the ’50s. By the time Dylan had become a media darling and commercial commodity, dozens of singer-songwriters were finding homes on niche record labels and folk-rockers were bridging the gap separating Laurel Canyon and Nashville. We also learn how Dylan chose to bypass the Woodstock festival, practically within shouting distance of Big Pink, and use a hitherto obscure musical gathering on the Isle of Wight to announce his recovery from a serious motorcycle accident. In addition to the input provided by British authors and critics, Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis and the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, we also here from contemporaries Maria Muldaur, Eric Andersen, Martin Carthy, former Fug Peter Stampfel, Tom Paxton and Izzy Young, founder of the Folklore Center and producer of Dylan’s first major concert.

Exactly twice as long as the Dylan bio-doc, The Road Goes on Forever isn’t nearly as intimidating as it might seem. While the alternately candid and repetitive second disc is comprised of broadcast and promotional interviews conducted over the course of the last 40 years, the more entertaining first half of the DVD package traces Young’s rock and folk roots from deepest, darkest Winnipeg, and early bands the Squires and Mynah Birds; past the folk clubs of Toronto; to the Sunset Strip, where Buffalo Springfield would begat a solo career and CSN&Y, which would begat Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators, the Stills-Young Band and a collaboration with Pearl Jam; and more baffling genre experimentation than Dylan ever dared. All along, there’s no question that Young continues to follow his own drummer and stick to principles that inspired his co-founding of Farm Aid and the acoustic Bridge School Benefit concerts, as well as political and environmental activism. Fans will find The Road Goes on Forever to be two-plus hours well spent.

One doesn’t enter a viewing of Kate Shenton’s tortuous documentary On Tender Hooks lightly. Shining any light on the “body modification and suspension community” necessarily requires graphic demonstrations of the piercings and other procedures that most people consider too painful to endure, but the fetishists we meet here anticipate in the same way as some chronic-pain suffers welcome sessions with their chiropractor. Anyone who’s seen images of a Plains Indian enduring the Sun Dance ceremony – tethered to a pole by a rope attached to rawhide thongs affixed to the skin of his chest – already has a pretty good idea what to expect here. Outlawed in the U.S. and Canada for nearly 100 years, the ritual employed pain and personal sacrifice as both a cleansing mechanism and as a prayer to benefit family and community. In On Tender Hooks, the practitioners find something resembling bliss through being suspended on metal hooks pushed through the skin on their backs. Why stop with piercing one’s earlobes or genitals, when so much other epidermal landscape awaits exploitation?) To help her audience understand what’s required of novice fetishists, Shenton undergoes the painful procedure so we don’t have to do it ourselves. It’s pretty horrifying and, yes, it’s almost possible to feel some of her pain. But, hey, whatever floats your boat. Also included in the DVD are several of Shenton’s short films, for which she duly acclaimed.

All This Mayhem tells the all-too-familiar story of niche athletes who didn’t see the price tag that comes with fame and allowing themselves to be exploited by purveyors of T-shirts and sporting goods. The cautionary tale of Australian brothers, Tas and Ben Pappas, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi and Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator in that the subjects spend so much time honing their skateboarding skills and partying their brains out, they are unable to recognize the point where the cocaine and booze turned them into monsters. What differentiates All This Mayhem from a dozen other rags-to-riches-to-rehab docs is the brotherly bond and high-octane personalities that connected the skateboarding standouts on the way up and down that same ladder. Because Eddie Martin’s film ends on a marginally optimistic note, the dark parts probably aren’t sufficiently bleak to keep aspiring superstars from desiring the same wealth and fame that allowed the Pappas bros to skate on the edge of oblivion for as long as they did. The DVD adds lots of deleted scenes and other skateboarding stuff.

3 Holes and a Smoking Gun
Of all the mysteries of the cinema, the art of coming up with a saleable title is one of the most difficult aspects to master. Some, like Titanic and Gone With the Wind, come easy. Others demand far too much familiarity with the source material or presence of a mega-star – Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, The Lone Ranger (Johnny Depp), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (Eddie Murphy) – to support the weight of leaden content. While it’s unlikely that the backers of “Three Holes, Two Brads and a Smoking Gun” had the money to afford test marketing, at some point in the post-production process the title was pared down to the only slightly less unwieldy, 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun. Either way, when combined with the ominous cover art, I was instantly reminded of Guy Ritchie’s much copied, rarely matched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. If anything, though, Hilarion Banks and Scott Fivelson’s inside-Hollywood conceit more closely resembles Robert Altman’s The Player, in that the theft of a screenplay is the catalyst for all of the intrigue, mayhem and hubris that follows. Newcomer Zuher Kahn plays Jack Ariamehr, an aspiring filmmaker and student of a burned-out Hollywood screenwriter, Bobby Blue Day, who split for New York with his tail between his legs. It isn’t until he writes Ariamehr’s assignment script that Day begins to think he might have found his return ticket to the Big Show. What neither teacher nor student see, however, is the toxicity that radiates from the pages of the screenplay. It leaves everyone who touches it under the sad misapprehension that the story belongs to them and they actually deserve to claim all royalties it meet accrue. It isn’t a bad premise, but Banks and Scott Fivelson add so much baggage to the load 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun already was carrying that it began to sink before it could swim. On the plus side, anyone who’s wondered whatever happened to Richard Edson —Desperately Seeking Susan, Stranger Than Paradise, Do the Right Thing – will find the answer here.

C.P.O. Sharkey: The Complete Season 1
DirecTV: Rogue: The Complete Second Season
Netflix: Orange Is the New Black: Season Two: Blu-ray
Spike: Bar Rescue: Toughest Rescues
UP: My Dad’s a Soccer Mom
Known far and wide as the insult comic with a heart as big as the great outdoors, Don Rickles has enjoyed a career that has spanned nearly 65 years and continues as a popular guest on talk shows and occasional live stage appearances. He’s found success, as well, in such movies as Casino, Kelly’s Heroes, a series of ’60s beach-party movies and as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story series. After risking his fledgling show-business career and possibly his kneecaps taking potshots at Frank Sinatra while on stage in a Miami Beach nightclub, “Mr. Warmth” found a home in Las Vegas as the king of late-night lounge comedians, attracting audiences filled with post-show performers and camp followers of the Rat Pack. On television, he became a popular guest star on talk shows, sitcoms and the “Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast” specials. His shtick became so familiar by the late-‘70s, his fans couldn’t go to a hockey game without recalling Rickles’ trademark “hockey puck” gags. Before landing the starring role in “C.P.O. Sharkey,” he hosted a short-lived variety show on ABC. In 1995, he gave the sitcom racket another shot, co-starring with Richard Lewis in the doomed “Daddy Dearest.”  Time Life’s new collection of first-year episodes of “C.P.O. Sharkey” is newly available on DVD. Besides the politically incorrect material, the show is best remembered for the times when 6-foot-7 Seaman Lester Pruitt (Peter Isacksen) would stand alongside the 5-foot-6 Sharkey, exchanging homilies and barbs. Having served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Cyrene in World War II, Rickles frequently looked more comfortable in his role than the calculatedly diverse cast of targets, er, characters. John Landis’ 2007 documentary for HBO, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” re-introduced him to another generation of comedy lovers. When Rickles passes, knock on wood, he’s certain to match the same volume of praise from peers of all ages accorded Joan Rivers on her demise last September.

At a lithe 5-foot-3, Thandie Newton probably would have a tough time meeting the physical requirements of an undercover detective in most big city police departments. Fortunately, besides being a terrific actor, the native Brit of Zimbabwean descent is just game enough to convince Bay Area hoodlums that she’s a drug queenpin, gangster’s moll, revenge killer, prostitute (of course), mother of a sexually precocious teenager and, yes, emotionally troubled rogue cop. Produced by DirecTV, “Rogue” feels very much like a European mini-series, in that the protagonist walks a thin line between heroism and anti-heroism and occasionally puts people she loves in precarious positions. Being a premium offering, there’s rarely a scarcity of nudity and graphic bloodshed. At the start of Season Two, detective Grace Travis is still struggling with painful issues left over from the first go-round, when a sexual relationship with a prominent gangster went way beyond the call of duty. After convincing a fellow agent to go undercover as a sexual plaything for the target in an even more complex and dangerous sting, Grace is devastated when it goes sideways. The investigation’s tentacles eventually reach from Oakland to the Pentagon, Vancouver and Pakistan. Several peoples’ jobs are put on the line, as is Grace’s relationship with her conspiratorial mother and vulnerable daughter.

The fact that Netflix’s terrifying prison drama “Orange Is the New Black” is required to compete among comedies and musicals in Golden Globe and Emmy voting is a mystery to me. There are more laughs in a single episode of “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men” than an entire season of “Orange Is the New Black.” Maybe, it’s just me, because I don’t find Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” particularly comedic, either. In Season Two, Taylor Schilling’s “suburban white girl” character isn’t required to carry most of the narrative load. While remaining a key story thread, Piper’s ordeal is subordinate to the battles of will being waged in other racial, sexual and power cliques. The addition of Lorraine Toussaint’s sociopathic Yvonne “Vee” Parker to the cast of character raised the level of tension to alarming heights. At the same time, prison officials were required to pay the toll for their avarice and greed. There’s no better show on television right now, but it’s definitely not for the skittish … or anyone looking for laughs or music. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and commentary on a couple of episodes.

Growing up in a suburb of Milwaukee reputed to have more taverns per capita than any other city in the country, I took for granted that the corner bar served as a home away from home for almost everyone I knew. Some even curried a quasi-family appeal with bar food and fish fries. Trick-or-treating the boozehounds would become half the fun of Halloween. As an adult, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand why, all things being equal, one bar made money and another went broke. By the time Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue” came around, I was too old to realize the childhood dream of everyone raised in Milwaukee, by opening a tavern to call one’s home. It’s just as well, because the responsibility of maintaining my friends’ addiction to alcohol would probably have landed me in the poorhouse. And, that was before the competition for customers required tavern owners to emphasize aspects of the business beyond bar food, happy hours and the occasional free round. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when loyal patronage was rewarded by the occasional free round.) “Bar Rescue” isn’t any different than other reality-rescue shows in which an expert tears employees of a troubled restaurant, beauty salon or country inn a new asshole, before putting them on the right road to profitability. Here, Nightclub Hall of Fame inductee and bar-management specialist Jon Taffer is commissioned to save dying businesses from themselves by scaring the crap out of owners and employees, first, and, then, providing them with the wherewithal to correct mistakes and woo new customers. He accomplishes this in collaboration with a rotating team of specialists with expertise in drink and food preparation, customer service, economics and interior design. Not all of the owners are ready to admit their mistakes when Taffer unloads on them, but the smart ones eventually get with the program. “Bar Rescue: Toughest Rescues” adds the featurette “Taffer’s Top 10: Most Disgusting Bars” to the four featured episodes.

Anyone old enough to remember Rodney Dangerfield’s 1992 sports comedy, Ladybugs, is 1) already familiar with what happens in My Dad’s a Soccer Mom and 2) probably has kids or grandchildren young enough to enjoy it.  The gist of the story is that “Marion “Mad Dog” Casey (Lester Speight) has run out of NFL teams that are willing to employ him and is stuck performing the chores associated with being an archetypal “soccer mom.” It requires chauffeuring his 10-year-old daughter, Lacy, from school to ballet and theatre class activities – neither of which she really enjoys – and, then, to soccer practice, which she loves. Much of the humor derives from the fact that Marion is a very large man and something of a bull in a china shop on the soccer pitch. Because Up TV is short for “Uplifting Entertainment” and began as the Gospel Music Channel, the fun is family oriented and important lessons are learned.

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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