MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: The Gambler, Wedding Ringer, Boy Next Door, Paddington, Eddie Coyle, Wolf Hall and more

The Gambler: Blu-ray
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s exceedingly flexible short novel, “The Gambler,” has been strictly and loosely adapted many times since its publication in 1867. I doubt that country-music songwriter Don Schlitz was thinking of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera, “The Gambler,” when he wrote the song that became Kenny Rogers’ signature hit, but, in a sense, all such entertainments lead back to the Russian novelist. The song’s core message – “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em/Know when to walk away/know when to run …” – applies as much to the protagonist of the novel as it does to Mark Wahlberg’s character in Rupert Wyatt’s 2014 adaptation, The Gambler. In it, gambler Jim Bennett can’t push himself away from any table long enough to walk away with his temporary winnings. Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) borrowed rather freely from Karel Reisz’ 1974 adaptation, which starred James Caan and provided James Toback with his first screenwriting credit. Like Dostoevsky, Toback suffered from a severe addicti1on to gambling. Like Caan’s character, Axel Freed, Toback was born into a wealthy New York family and taught aspiring writes at a college in New York. Not to be flip or dismissive of Wyatt’s The Gambler, but in some ways it reminds me of a Bizarro World version of Reisz’ take on the novel. Bennett is the quintessential SoCal bad boy, who wears shades in the dark and somehow manages to look cool in rumpled designer suits. He teaches literature at a school that resembles USC and he lives in a modern hillside dwelling that some real-estate agents might list as a treehouse. He tools around L.A., from Koreatown to Bel-Air, in red BMW 1M convertible that’s always five minutes from being used as collateral for a gambling. Axel Freed settled for a Mustang ragtop. One is Jewish, while the other is a back-sliding WASP. Bennett owes the most money to an enigmatic Korean financier, whose henchmen are proficient in the martial arts. He also has borrowed large sums from an African-American bone-breaker (Michael Kenneth Williams), who lurks in the shadows of the illegal downtown casino here, waiting to for gamblers to require his services, and a sports bettor (John Goodman) who could have been Marlon Brando’s stunt-double in Apocalypse Now. All of them recognize the symptoms of Bennett’s disease and advise him to seek help.

Bennett isn’t as much a degenerate gambler as one who refuses to win, even when he’s holding a pat hand. No matter how much he’s up, everyone from the pit bosses to viewers knows he’s going to give it all back and borrow even more money to keep losing. When he convinces his beleaguered mother (Jessica Lange) to give him a small fortune in cash to pay off the debts, everyone, including Mom, knows he’s going to piss it away. Brie Larson is the pretty student who succumbs to his classroom bullshit and devil-may-care attitude, while Anthony Kelley is the athlete whose cynicism about his future in the pros figures into The Gambler’s fairytale ending. I say that because screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) has elected to tweak Toback’s original conclusion to fit the Bizarro nature of the remake. After failing to rouse any interest from awards-voters in its limited early release, the movie would open in a few dozen theaters at the end of January. I can’t imagine that much money was invested in a marketing campaign, so it came as no surprise when it stiffed. There’s much to recommend The Gambler to renters, however, including much slick cinematography and atmospheric set dressing. Of all the cast members, it’s most fun to watch Goodman play a green-felt Buddha. There’s nothing wrong with Wahlberg’s performance, but we’re never given any reason – except for a death-bed dismissal by his filthy-rich father – to identify with his character. If we sympathize with Bennett, it’s only because he’s being played by someone we’re pre-disposed to like. The fine-looking Blu-ray adds several decent making-of featurettes and backgrounders, along with deleted and extended scenes. Anyone who enjoys this edition of The Gambler really ought to check out the original, along with both of The Hustlers, Robert Altman’s California Split, Joe Pytka’s overlooked comedy Let It Ride and Toback’s Fingers, which was remade in 2005 by Jacques Audiardas as The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

The Wedding Ringer: Blu-ray
It’s called “development hell” and that’s where The Wedding Ringer – a.k.a., The Golden Tux – languished from 2002 to 2013, when the relatively unknown comedic actor Josh Gad and soon-to-be superstar Kevin Hart were assigned roles that may have been written to attract the attention of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. The duo was responsible for Wedding Crashers, after all, the anarchic comedy that ultimately led to such send-ups of modern love and romance as The Break-Up, Knocked-Up, You, Me and Dupre, The Hangover, Hall Pass, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bachelorette, Bridesmaids, Couples Retreat, Date Night and I Love You, Man. Of all these titles, the one that appears to have benefitted most from Wedding Ringer being stuck in development hell was “I Love You, Man.” Both share a common conceit: a young man has popped the question, but, unlike his bride-to-be, hasn’t enough friends to pull together his half of a wedding party. In “I Love You, Man,” Paul Rudd’s search for a best man ends when he meets millionaire investor Jason Siegel at a business function and they develop bro-mantic feelings for each other. In The Wedding Ringer, Gad plays a friendless nebbish, Doug, who hires Hart’s Jimmy Callahan to be his best man and recruit a motley crew of groomsmen for the bachelor party, ceremony and reception. Doug complicates things for Jimmy by telling his fiancé (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) – who’s a million miles out of his league – that he’s never been able to introduce her to “Bic” because he’s been serving overseas as a military chaplain. This, of course, opens the door for Jimmy not only to impersonate Doug’s best man, but also serve as a last-minute substitute for the minister. Co-writers Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender provide the oratory that Hart delivers with the same gusto he brings to his standup routines, minus the n-words. It’s an extremely polished performance. The script doesn’t demand much more of Gad than he’s delivered in previous performances as the unfortunate overweight dweeb, a modern archetype he has mastered. (To see Gad at his best, check out the FX Network’s “The Comedians,” in which he plays Billy Crystal’s comic nemesis.) The Blu-ray adds Gad and Garelick’s commentary on select scenes; quite a few deleted scenes and outtakes; “Going to the Chapel of Love,” in which cast and crew share their own wedding memories; and the music video, “Can You Do This,” by Aloe Blacc.

The Boy Next Door: Blu-ray
The best thing to be said about The Boy Next Door is that, while it reportedly cost a mere $4 million to make, it look as if 10 times that amount was spent on it. With a worldwide gross approaching $50 million, Rob Cohen’s sexy thriller easily qualifies as one of the surprise successes of the year. For one thing, the entire story was given away in the extensive television-marketing campaign and, despite an R-rating, it wasn’t likely that leading-lady Jennifer Lopez was going to make her first skin-tastic appearance in nearly 20 years. (Newcomer Lexi Atkins assumes that responsibility.) For those who can’t recall seeing the commercials, Lopez plays the recently separated MILF who succumbs to the temptation posed by the ab-tastic teenager, Noah (Ryan Guzman), an accomplished handyman who’s insinuated himself into the life of her oft-bullied son, Kevin (Ian Nelson). Misgivings give way to terror after Mrs. Peterson realizes that the stud next door is morphing into the psycho next door. For one thing, Noah seems determined to save her from the man who done her wrong (John Corbett), as well as the perceived meddling of her best friend and fellow teacher (Kristin Chenoweth). Cohen is too good a director of action sequences to blow a no-brainer ending, so things end on a high note. What I would have preferred to see is an R-rated adaptation of “Leave It to Beaver,” with Lopez and Corbett playing June and Ward Cleaver, Guzman as Eddie Haskell, Nelson as Wally and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver. In hindsight, the sexual tension between June and Eddie should have been obvious, even in 1957. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘The Boy Next Door’”; deleted scenes; and Cohen’s commentary.

Paddington: Blu-ray
No matter the whims of Wall Street, this week’s release of Paddington into DVD/Blu-ray and imminent arrival of Ted 2 in theaters ensure that the anthropomorphic bear market will continue into July, at least. With global box-office receipts of $219.1 million, Paddington now stands as the industry’s highest grossing non-Hollywood, non-animated family film. If Ted 2 takes off at the box office the way its predecessor did on its way to worldwide revenues of $549.3 million, the movie gods may find a way to forgive Seth MacFarlane the hideous ego-trip that was A Million Ways to Die in the West. Paul King’s irresistible adaptation of Michael Bond’s internationally beloved series of children’s books borrows from several different storylines, while featuring a computer-animated Paddington Bear – voiced by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) — interacting with human characters in a live-action environment. Such is the respect accorded the world’s most celebrated and, perhaps, only Peruvian bear that a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins,, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi and Julie Walters lined up to bask in the reflected glare of his computer-animated shadow. The movie opens in the dense rain forest, where a British geographer has discovered a family of highly intelligent, marmalade-addicted bears and invites them to visit him in London if they so desire. Years later, circumstances arise that cause Paddington to take the geographer up on his offer. The problem is that Montgomery Clyde is nowhere to be found and the patience of the family that offers him temporary shelter isn’t limitless. When an evil museum taxidermist (Kidman) discovers that a talking bear is within her grasp, she decides that Paddington belongs in her collection. (Her logic escapes me, but it serves the plot.) To avoid such a fate, the bumptious bruin sets out to find Clyde or die trying. His search takes him from one crazy character to another and misadventures sure to please family audiences. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, except for a features package that isn’t up to par. It includes three short backgrounders, a sing-along feature and “The Making of ‘Shine’” with Gwen Stefani & Pharrell Williams.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle: Blu-ray
I’d be willing to wager the full retail price of the Criterion Collection edition of The Friends of Eddie Coyle that George V. Higgins’ 1970 source novel and Peter Yates’ 1973 no-frills adaptation have influenced more genre specialists than any other kindred entertainments produced in the last 40 years. Once enjoyed, buffs have hardly been able to wait to recommend them to friends. “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is the rare novel that can be savored in a single day. Yates’ film has influenced countless writers and directors, but no one has dared remake it. Here’s what Elmore Leonard said in his introduction to a later printing of the novel, “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free.  So, this is how you do it.” Then, there’s Roger Ebert’s original four-star review of the movie, in which he observed, “Eddie is played by Robert Mitchum, and Mitchum has perhaps never been better.” Personally, since becoming addicted to crime fiction, I’ve recommended both titles to friends, genre enthusiasts and aspiring writers countless times. The only thing I suggest ahead of time is reading the book before watching the movie. The Higgins influence can be seen most in such early Leonard novels as “52 Pick-Up,” which inspired an excellent adaptation by John Frankenheimer; “Switch,” released in 2013 as Life of Crime; and the underappreciated “Unknown Man No. 89” and “City Primeval.” If Leonard gets most of the credit for capturing the unique dialogue shared by cops and criminals, it’s only because Higgins’ best work came early in his second career and only two of his novels were converted to film. Although their literary output was comparable, “Dutch” outlived “George V” by 28 years, dying 14 years and probably several million dollars apart from each other.

Mitchum famously plays the mid-level mob functionary, Eddie Coyle, who, because he is facing a long stretch in the joint, agrees to cut a deal with a federal agent. Unbeknownst to the gun-running hoodlum, several of Coyle’s “friends” have simultaneously decided to curry favor with various other law-enforcement agencies by dropping his name as a potential bargaining chip. Besides the mob, Higgins anticipated the increasing militancy of the radical left and intersecting interests of the political and criminal underground. The SLA might fairly well have studied “Eddie Coyle” before taking their act on the road. It would take another three decades for other writers and directors to capture the unique flavor and texture of inbred Boston criminality and corruption. Such films as The Boondock Saints, The Departed, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, as well as the neighborhood-specific novels of Dennis Lehane, turned the city into a hotbed for location shoots. Again, though, Yates laid the foundation by electing to not to shoot The Friends of Eddie Coyle on a soundstage. It’s all Boston, all the time. In its infinite wisdom, the motion-picture academy neglected to nominate, Mitchum, Yates or co-star Peter Boyle for top honors. The Criterion Collection’s restored high-definition digital transfer and uncompressed monaural soundtrack has been approved by Yates. It includes his commentary from 2009, a stills gallery, an essay by critic Kent Jones and a 1973 on-set profile of Mitchum from Rolling Stone.

Accidental Love: Blu-ray
Frame for frame, dollar for dollar, no potentially mainstream production has wasted as much top-shelf talent as Accidental Love (a.k.a., “Nailed”). Shot and shelved in 2008, it had “troubled production” written all over it front Day One. Developed as a broad political satire by David O. Russell (American Hustle), Accidental Love was finally given a tentative pre-DVD release this spring with Russell’s name removed in favor of Stephen Greene, a close relation to Alan Smithee. Serious financial troubles, including the repeated stiffing of union cast and crew, caused numerous walk-offs and an abbreviated shooting schedule. The result is a comedy that rightly anticipated the freak-show atmosphere surrounding the debate over Obamacare in Congress, but wasted all of Russell’s good instincts. As it is, several transitional segments appear to be missing and almost none of what’s left warrants the appearance of such fine actors as Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tracy Morgan, James Marsden, Kurt Fuller, Beverly D’Angelo, Bill Hader, Kirstie Alley, Catherine Keener, Paul Reubens, James Brolin, Malinda Williams and a half-dozen other familiar faces. Not privy to the fragile financial situation, the actors must have relished the opportunity to work with Russell, who was between the box-office disappoint I Heart Huckabees and game-changing The Fighter. As written by Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser, Biel plays a small-town roller-waitress who accidentally gets a nail driven into her skull while at her restaurant. Because Alice isn’t insured and the Burger Hop manager denies liability, she seeks the help of her congressman (Gyllenhaal) to pass a bill that would cover such accidents. Besides her boyfriend, a local cop (Marsden), Alice is supported in her crusade by the local Squaw Girl troop. Once in the nation’s capital, the petitioners discover that the freshman representative isn’t likely to rock the boat by supporting the lost cause of health-care reform. Improbably, whenever the waitress accidently jostles the nail embedded in her head, it sets off a reaction closely resembling nymphomania. Unable to resist a pretty woman willing to trade her body for a favorable vote, the congressman pretends, at least, to support her cause. Accidental Love is occasionally funny, but, like the premise, more often stupid than darkly comic.

The Barber: Blu-ray
Despite the presence of two razor-toting protagonists, director Basel Owies’ feature debut, The Barber, is surprisingly light on genuinely frightening encounters between psycho-killers and helpless victims. The movie opens with the release from police custody of the likely suspect in a series of 17 murders of young women in the Chicago area. Flash-forward 20 years and the same man, Francis Alan Visser (Scott Glenn), is a model-citizen barber in a small town relatively free of abhorrent crime. Visser looks harmless, but there’s something in his closely guarded demeanor that make us suspect that he’s constantly holding something back. We’re also introduced to the son of the police investigator who committed suicide after Visser was let go due to tampered evidence. It takes us a while to figure out which side of the law the cop’s son, John McCormack (Chris Coy), is working when he arrives in town and confronts Visser – now living under an assumed name – outside a local diner with a knife. For one thing, while waiting for the barber to finish his dessert, McCormack looks as if he’s setting up the restaurant’s outwardly promiscuous waitress for a journey to the dark side. Then, after being grilled by the local chief of police, Visser goes out of his way to befriend the young man, who demonstrates his knowledge of the barber’s true identity. It’s as if two spiders are weaving webs on separate branches of the same tree, hoping that the other will eventually make the mistake of trespassing and getting stuck on his adversary’s silk. The added degree of danger here, of course, comes in knowing that both men are carrying straight-edge razors and the potential for violence fills the air. Beyond that, lie spoilers. Glenn is his usual cool, calm and collected self, playing a fiend who’s remained free for nearly a quarter-century and has no intention of being tripped up now. Coy’s good, as well, as the avenging angel. You can also throw into the mix a cocky female cop (Kristen Hager) who’s followed the same evidence that led McCormack to Visser’s barbershop and fits the description of many of the women he was accused of killing. Unfortunately, this promising scenario doesn’t produce anything particularly scary, except, perhaps, for the serial killer’s next victim. The DVD adds an alternate ending and deleted scenes.

Little Acccidents
Sara Colangelo’s heart-breaking debut, Little Accidents, effectively dramatizes how the dynamics of life in a small American town change in the wake of a tragic event. Here, as the title implies, the tight-knit community is required to deal with more than one catastrophe simultaneously.  Shot in the actual coal town of Beckley, West Virginia, Little Accidents opens several weeks after a mining accident claimed the lives of 10 men. After recuperating from his injuries in an out-of-town hospital, lone survivor Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook) is further traumatized by people who expect him to testify one way or the other before an investigatory board, even though he has little recollection of the accident. Meanwhile, a mining company executive and his wife (Josh Lucas, Elizabeth Banks) are desperately searching for clues in the disappearance of their teenage son. We’ve already been made privy to the terrible secret behind his fate and have developed mixed feelings for the only two people who know it, too, was an accident. Some people think that the disappearance may be connected to a grudge against the executive, who almost certainly required his employees to ignore safety violations. Colangelo adds another layer of melodrama by connecting the emotionally wrought wife of the mining executive with the guilt-ridden son of one of the dead miners and the surviving victim of the explosion. When something as devastating as a mining disaster occurs in small town, already cut off from the world by mountains and rivers, its residents tend to band together as friends and neighbors or be divided by outside interests and ancient passions. Jacob Lofland, who was so good in his first film, Mud, delivers a devastating performance here, as do Holbrook and Banks.

50 to 1
With the 141st renewal of the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” right around the corner, what better time than the present to recall one of the most unlikely victories in the history of the Kentucky Derby.  Jim Wilson’s 50 to 1 may not be the crowd-pleaser that longshot 3-year-old gelding Mine the Bird turned out to be on the first Saturday in May, 2009, at Churchill Downs, but the gelding’s story is entertaining enough to stand on its own four legs. Besides the masterly ride by daredevil jockey Calvin Borel, who plays himself in the film, the primary focus of 50 to 1 is the team of New Mexico yahoos who believed in Mine the Bird, despite its spotty record and goofy stance. Just as Thoroughbreds from New Mexico aren’t supposed to make it to Kentucky, even if they took their first steps on the blue grass, dudes wearing cowboy clothes tend not to mingle with the swells, socialites and sheiks who gather there on Derby Day. If the movie isn’t as technically proficient as, say, the studio-produced Seabiscuit or Secretariat, its charm derives from the same sport that produces unlikely heroes with uncanny regularity. It explains why so many people who’ve never bet on a race pay attention to the Triple Crown series. That wasn’t in the cards for Mine the Bird, but its second- and third-place finishes in the Preakness and Belmont proved the Kentucky Derby victory was no fluke. The DVD adds a comprehensive making-of featurette.

Boy Meets Girl
First Period
The fact that Diane Sawyer’s “20/20” interview with Bruce Jenner attracted an audience of 17.1 million viewers – not counting those tuning in and tweeting via the social media – demonstrates just how far Americans have evolved in matters pertaining to the LGBT community. In households representing the key 18-49 demographic, 17 percent of all active televisions were tuned to the newsmagazine’s two-hour report on the 1976 Olympics decathlon champion’s sexual transition. How many of those viewers are only familiar with Jenner because of his Kardashian connection isn’t broken down in the Nielsen ratings’ data. By comparison, Sawyer’s March 18 “20/20” special “The Untold Story of ‘The Sound of Music’” – which included a chat with Julie Andrews – lagged behind the Jenner interview by a 271 percent margin in the same demographic. As if to prove that the audience – 68 percent of which was female – wasn’t solely interested in seeing how Jenner looked at this point in the process, ratings actually increased in the second and third half-hour segments, before dipping slightly in the final 30 minutes. If “Bruce Jenner: The Interview” had aired on a Sunday night, instead of Friday, those numbers almost certainly would have jumped considerably … or kept DVRs working overtime. I only mention this because, no matter how the geezers on the Supreme Court rule on same-sex marriages in the next two months, the LGBT cat is already out of the bag. But, then, anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolution of the so-called Queer Cinema already is aware of this trend.

Not to put too fine a point on an arguable proposition, but, Eric Schaeffer’s genuinely heartfelt coming-of-age rom-dram-com, Boy Meets Girl, could very well mark a coming-of-age moment for independent films in the LGBT niche. For years, genre specialists have been searching for ways to tell stories that cross over to mainstream audiences, without compromising emotional sincerity, sexual integrity and honest portrayals of complex characters. In other words, is there a way to get the same viewers who flocked to see Tootsie, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Crying Game to embrace a low-budget film that stars a transgender actor? In Boy Meets Girl, newcomer Michelle Hendley is remarkable as the girl hoping to make her mark on the world outside rural Kentucky, where the fashion industry exists only on cable television. Thanks to the unforced understanding of her father and longtime best friend, Robby (Michael Welch), Ricky has managed to find a niche for herself after overcoming serious identity issues and the early death of her mother. While waiting to learn if she’s been accepted in a fashion school in New York, Ricky and Robby become friends with the pretty daughter of locally prominent parents. Unaware of Ricky’s current state of transition, Francesca (Alexandra Turshenra) is impressed by her senses of style and humor. Francesca, who’s engaged to a Marine stationed in Afghanistan, takes the news of Ricky’s sexual identity in stride, even to the point where she commissions a party dress from her and invites her new friends to a swank party at her parents’ home. Francesca’s curiosity will soon get the better of her, leading to a tastefully handled romantic interlude in which Ricky is every bit as nervous about making out with a woman as she is. Everything that transpires from this point on is blessedly free of clichés and enhanced by some genuinely surprising occurrences. Anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by the media circus surrounding Bruce Jenner – or teenagers facing identity issues of their own – ought to pick up a copy of Boy Meets Girl, which also benefits from some lovely scenery and cinematography.

The gentle spirit of Harris Glen Milstead (a.k.a., Devine) hovers cherubically over the broad teen farce, First Period, which could serve as the missing link between John Waters and John Hughes, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “Freaks and Geeks,” “Hairspray” and “Grease.” Limited to a “dental-floss budget,” Charlie Vaughn and Brandon Alexander III successfully avoid the many pitfalls that have tripped up other filmmakers attempting to emulate the work of such past masters as Waters, Hughes, Amy Heckerling, Alexander Payne, Cameron Crowe and the many graduates of the Roger Corman Film School. Comedy isn’t nearly as easy to pull off as these guys make it look and it’s rarely pretty. Anyone who’s enjoyed Chris Lilley’s delightfully off-kilter “Summer Heights High,” “Ja’mie: Private School Girl” and “Jonah from Tonga” – exported from Australia to HBO – will have a pretty good idea what to expect in First Period. Alexander plays Cassie, the new girl in school whose unsavory habits and obesity turn off everyone, except Maggie (Dudley Beene), who’s even more off-putting than Cassie. Together, they decide the quickest way to impress the ruling clique of cute boys and popular girls is to come in first at the school’s talent show. Their lack of talent doesn’t matter, because none of the other students are remotely talented, either. Their nemeses, the Heather and Other Heather, expect to win the contest as models. The Heathers hope to further humiliate the “girls” – who are anticipating their “first period” – by instructing their boyfriends Brett and Dirk to go on a date and check out what’s under their hoods. Naturally, their scheme backfires when the boys develop a taste for plus-size girls. It helps that Alexander and Beene aren’t required to carry the entire weight of the 1980s-era comedy on their ample shoulders or rely on sight gags for laughs. They get plenty of help from Jack Plotnik (“Reno 911!”), Judy Tenuta (“Chant Mania”), Cassandra Peterson (“Elivra: Mistress of the Dark”), Tara Karsian (“ER”) and Diane Salinger (“Carnivàle”).

Always Woodstock
Debut features don’t have to imitate the ever-changing rhythms of life to be credible, but too many plot twists based solely on coincidence can ruin a picture before the first reel has unspooled. No matter how much good will is invested in a film by its cast and crew, nothing can keep viewers interested once they’ve been asked to buy into one too many convenient contrivance. How many movies and television shows have we seen in which the lead character, who’s already having a bad day, arrives home early and unannounced, only to capture their lover or spouse in delicto flagrante. In Always Woodstock, aspiring record-label executive Catherine Brown (Allison Miller) is fired for failing to kiss the ass of a punk singer (Brittany Snow), whose bad behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in the monkey house of any zoo in the country. Upon her arrival home, Catherine discovers her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) in the shower with a friendly blond bimbo. Distraught, she decides to drive up to Woodstock, New York, the rural musicians’ ghetto where her parents still own, but don’t inhabit, a cabin. The disgusting condition of the place, gives Allison an excuse to postpone her new career as a songwriter, by making a beeline to a local honky-tonk. It’s here that she’ll meet everyone she needs to know for the remainder of the movie, including a local legend singer and family friend, Lee Ann (Katey Sagal); a bartender (Rumer Willis) who happily overserves the newcomer; and the town’s handsome young doctor, (James Wolk), who’s in the right place at the right time to rescue her from alcohol poisoning. Before drinking herself into oblivion, however, Allison is able to demonstrate her karaoke skills. To fill the next 80 minutes, or so, Merson demands of her protagonist that she piss off everyone already in her corner with unnecessary temper tantrums and false accusations. Anyone who can’t guess what happens from here has never watched a Lifetime movie. Always Woodstock probably could have been saved if Merson had focused less on her boring protagonist and more on the redemptive power of a location only a hop, skip and a jump from Big Pink, a shrine to the singer-songwriter’s art if there ever was one.

Motivational Growth: Blu-ray
Class Of Nuke ‘Em High II: Subhumanoid Meltdown
The Toxic Avenger Part II: Blu-ray
From a Whisper to a Scream: Blu-ray
Jonah Lives
In the 1990s, homeowners lived in mortal dread of discovering toxic black mold growing on the walls of their basement or hidden behind the drywall upstairs. Besides the real and imagined health fears associated with the mycotoxins present in Stachybotrys chartarum, hurriedly passed legislation prevented owners from selling their homes without full disclosure or proof of eradication. Forget the Blob, black mold was a real-life horror whose progress could be followed as it spread through one’s home. In Don Thacker’s wildly imaginative first feature, Motivational Growth, a clinically depressed young man survives a suicide attempt, only to awake in a fever dream in which his one-room apartment has been overtaken by a clump of black mold growing from the filth in his bathroom. The reclusive Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) is so far off the deep end that he’s named his ancient television set Kent and exchanges dialogue with “The Mold,” whose voice is supplied by horror-genre veteran Jeffrey Combs. (Imagine Darth Vader impersonating the carnivorous Audrey II in Frank Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors.) Occasionally, a stranger will be appear at the door, like an unexpected visitor to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, bearing gifts or conversation designed to further mess with his mind. Between the Mold’s stentorian advice and Kent’s bizarre selection of vintage infomercials and video games, Motivational Growth occasionally drifts into freakazoid territory previously surveyed by David Cronenberg in Naked Lunch and TerrorVision. The longer it goes on, the more surrealistic things get. Fans of more conventional horror film might tire of Thacker’s hallucinatory dissection of one man’s descent into madness. As far as I’m concerned, however, Motivational Growth really hit the spot. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Combs, DiGiovanni and Thacker.

While we’re on the subject of fever dreams committed to film, the good folks at Troma Entertainment would like you to revisit the madness of Class of Nuke ‘Em High 2: Subhumanoid Meltdown and The Toxic Avenger Part II on Blu-ray. I can hear some of you saying, “Releasing these low-tech franchises on hi-def is like putting lipstick on a pig.” Part of the fun of watching Troma films is the groddy audio-visual presentation, which masks the endearingly cheeseball special effects and famously illogical narratives. Those of you who’ve worn out their VHS copies of the originals, however, might as well upgrade to the advanced technology, if only to catch up on the featurettes already added to the DVD and handful of new ones. Class of Nuke ’Em High 2 takes place six years after the extraordinarily messy events chronicled in the original. Out of the ashes of Tromaville High has risen Tromaville Institute for Technology (TIT), now located inside the Tromaville Power Plant. The school’s foxy genetic scientist, Professor Holt (Lisa Gaye), has developed a human life form that matures within nine months and performs tasks no one else wants to do. These Subhumanoids are identified by belly buttons that function as mouths. It’s almost impossible to condense what happens next into words, except to say that, yes, a giant squirrel is involved in the mayhem. In The Toxic Avenger Part II, the former Melvin Junko is lured to Japan to look for his father, but not until he deals with the fiends who blew up the Tromaville Centre for the Blind. While Toxie’s away, the bad guys at Apocalypse Inc. return to Tromaville to play their evil games. Here, too, what follows defies logic and easy explanation. The sequels won’t make anyone forget the originals, but, given enough killer weed, viewers won’t know the difference.

Jeff Burr’s surprisingly good horror anthology, From a Whisper to a Scream, didn’t even register a blip on my radar screen when it was released in 1987 as “The Offspring.” I’m glad that I caught up with it now in its new Scream Factory Blu-ray edition. The quartet of short horror films are set in a rural Tennessee town over the course of four different historical periods. Wrap-around segments hosted by Vincent Price and Susan Tyrrell set up each individual chapter, while explaining the connection to the town of Oldfield. In the first, Clu Gulager plays an elderly man pursues a romance with a younger woman to the grave and beyond. It’s followed by a story in which a wounded man on the run from creditors is rescued by a backwoods hermit with the secret to eternal life. My favorites involve the freakish events that occur when a glass-eater in a travelling carnival attraction develops a bad case of indigestion and a platoon of Civil War soldiers is treated to a dose of their own medicine by a household of malevolent orphans. The story behind the creation of these stories is nearly as entertaining as anything else in the package.  It’s covered in a full-length making-of featurette, with Burr and his creative team, and another documentary about how a group kids growing up in Dalton, Georgia, fell in love with filmmaking by making pictures on now-primitive, then-sophisticated Super 8 equipment. Also included are commentaries with Burr, writer/producer Darin Scott and writer C. Courtney Joyner; a stills gallery; and original “Offspring” TV spots.

There’s a special place in hell reserved for movies by first-time filmmakers in which a group of bored teens attempt to establish contact with the dead, using a Ouija board. This week’s attraction at the 666 Multiplex is Luis Carvalho’s schizophrenic thriller, Jonah Lives. While their parents and other adults frolic upstairs, at an alcohol-fueled “key party,” a bunch of unremarkable teens in the basement hopes to allay their boredom with a Ouija Board. After some false starts, they decide to conjure the spirit of Jonah, a murdered gent whose widow (scream queen Brinke Stevens) is upstairs putting her body up for grabs. Indeed, Jonah does show up at the appointed hour, but with an appetite for blood that’s practically insatiable. Again, while the slaughter continues only a few feet below them, the grown-ups anxiously await the draw of keys belonging to that night’s booty call. It isn’t until the very last moment of Jonah Lives that a connection between the two halves of the movies are linked to one another. Apparently, Carvalho couldn’t come up with a way for the horror and frivolity to overlap, as is sometimes done in more accomplished films. Even so, younger genre buffs might find it amusing to watch fellow teens attempt to run away from a slowly plodding zombie.

Any new horror movie made by the son of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) is going to attract a modicum of interest, at least, in the genre press. Because G. Cameron Romero has already weighed in with such titles as Staunton Hill, The Auctioneers and Repressed, however, the pressure is on to finally produce a breakthrough film worthy of the name. Auteur isn’t it … not by a long shot. It probably not fair to lay all of the blame at Romero’s feet, however, since the very capable and prolific James Cullen Bressack shares the writers’ credit with two newcomers and a director lives and dies on the strength of his source material. Here, a dimwitted documentarian is promised an opportunity to break into Hollywood, but only if he can locate his employer’s semi-legendary son and bring back the film he directed, before walking off the set with it. To locate the burn-out filmmaker, Jack Humphreys (B.J. Hendricks) rounds up cast and crew members – including the hyper-prolific Tom Sizemore — and uses the ruse of making a documentary on the production of “Demented” to trace his tracks. In fact, Charlie Buckwald (Ian Hutton) is about as difficult to find as a Starbucks on Wilshire Boulevard. Apparently, Buckwald went crazy attempting to add some real demonic hocus-pocus to his movie about faux satanic hocus-pocus. Like most alcoholics, he’s only lucid in fits and starts. The same can be said about Auteur.

PBS: Masterpiece: Wolf Hall: Blu-ray
PBS: Ken Burns: Story of Cancer/Emperor of All Maladies: Blu-ray
PBS: Twice Born: Stories From the Special Delivery Unit
PBS: The Physics of Light
Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 5
Nickelodeon: Wallykazam!/Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M.
PBS: Mia & Me: Discover Centopia
Through history books and works of fiction across all media platforms, the life and legend of King Henry VIII has been well-documented. We’re similarly familiar with his wives and challenge to the supremacy of the Roman church. I think it’s safe to say that we know more about the larger-than-life English monarch than most of American presidents. Apart from being dullards, our leaders have been required to govern within boundaries the crowned heads of Europe couldn’t imagine. Only a relative handful of them were allowed the freedom and opportunities to shine as individuals. Given what we’ve learned about Henry VIII and other prominent royals, that’s probably a good thing. The engrossing BBC/PBS production “Wolf Hall” reminds us that behind these powerful men and women stood largely anonymous counselors and advisers with agendas of their own. It’s through that prism that Hilary Mantel’s wrote her Booker Prize-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” The best-selling historical novels describe the role played by Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII, with an eye toward changing the generally accepted perception of him being a manipulative power-broker to one that shows him to be a multidimensional man of the world, brilliantly pragmatic strategist and loyal servant to his masters: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and King Henry. As powerful as he became, however, the lords and ladies of the court continually dismissed Cromwell as the lowly son of a blacksmith and, as such, less than a gentleman. Because of his extensive travels throughout Europe and ability to speak several languages, Wolsey and Henry both paid attention to his advice on matters of state, religion and backroom politics. Here, he’s played by Mark Rylance (“The Government Inspector”), a cunning actor who looks as if he’d just stepped out of a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. As was the case in Showtime’s “The Tudors,” where Henry VIII was played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) portrays the king as being handsome and in athletic shape, rather than robustly built and plain-looking. In a steely performance by Oxford-trained Claire Foy (“Little Dorrit”), Anne Boleyn is a formidable suitor and queen, willing and able to preserve her place in history, although she couldn’t possibly imagine how their marriage would impact the future of England and the world. Not at all surprising is the visual appeal of the six-part series, which begins with the impeccable costume designs and continues through the choice of medieval and Tudor structures at which it was shot. “Wolf Hall” caused me to wonder if Henry Kissinger – Cromwell’s equal in American political affairs – might someday well into the future get similarly sympathetic treatment in mini-series form. The Blu-ray adds several background and making-of featurettes, as well as cast and crew interviews.

How many thousands of doctors, surgeons, researchers and scientists have spent their entire careers searching for a cure for cancer, only to retire knowing that they hadn’t made a dent in controlling, let alone conquering the terrible disease? As far back as 4,000 years ago, Egyptian physicians studied cancer, finally concluding there was no cure for it. The only thing subsequent generations of doctors knew for sure was that cancer honored no borders and struck, as If at will, people of all ages, racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. The more we learned about it, the scarier it became. Even saying its name out loud was discouraged, as if it carried the same stigma as a sexually transmitted disease. The Ken Burns-produced documentary series, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It not only attempts to demystify cancer by explaining everything we know to be true about the disease, but it also serves as a reminder of the fact that tens of thousands of highly trained men and women have refused to surrender to the many threats made by cancer. It’s the nature of the disease that every forward step is rewarded with two steps backward. Therapies and drugs hailed in newspaper headlines one day more often than not outlive their promise over the course of field trials. And, yes, the experimental remedies frequently have proven more deadly than the disease. Still, the fight continues on more fronts than most people know exist. Despite the cautiously optimistic note struck at the end of the three-part series, no punches are pulled or false hopes for a cures offered. It does so by presenting the data and anecdotal evidence as matter-of-factly and dispassionately as possible. Even so, the human factor is never far from view. While it’s impossible not to feel helpless as we watch children suffer, we’re also impressed by the specialists who comfort patients and families through the emerging palliative-care discipline. The series interweaves a sweeping historical perspective with intimate profiles of current patients and investigations that take us to the cutting edge of science. The three segments are titled: “Magic Bullets,” “The Blind Men and the Elephant” and “Finding an Achilles Heel.” The question that remains, of course, is why the governments of the world continue to waste billions of dollars each year fighting killing each other’s patriots, when the money saved in a ceasefire could be used to mount an international crusade against cancer. Even if took years to make progress on a cure, think of all the people who wouldn’t die from bullets and bombs.

Better news is reported in PBS’ “Twice Born: Stories From the Special Delivery Unit,” which relates heartbreaking and life-affirming stories from inside the world’s leading fetal surgery center, the Special Delivery Unit at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The mini-series invites us to step into operating rooms, where state-of-the-art technology allows surgeons to enter the womb and operate on babies before they’re even born. Unlike the war on cancer, the battle to save children from being delivered with terrible maladies likely to kill them, anyway, appears winnable. Viewers are left to decide for themselves if fetal surgery is just another way to take God out of the equation or it’s our obligation as God’s children to keep hope alive as long as possible for all parents.

I really can’t say whether or not the six-part PBS series “The Physics of Light” answers any more questions about how our universe was formed and continues to grow than such deep-science books and films as “A Brief History of Time,” “Stephen Hawking’s Universe” and “The Theory of Everything,” or, for that matter, “The Big Bang Theory,” “Monty Python: The Meaning of Life” and “Futurama.” Growing up, I probably enjoyed math and science more than the next student, but hit a wall at physics and trigonometry. No amount of studying — or prayer – helped me understand anything beyond the most basic concepts. Fortunately, my teachers understood how unlikely it was for some of us to grasp the subtleties of math and science and rewarded us with bonus points for simply showing up and staring blankly at the blackboard. That’s kind of how I feel about such productions as “The Physics of Light,” which use Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as a starting point for explorations into the nature of light, the intricacies of the atom and cutting-edge theories in physics. It’s divided into the chapters, “Light and Time,” “Light and Space,” “In Pursuit of Light,” “Light and Atoms,” “Light and Quantum Physics” and “Light and Strings.” By connecting available research to the miracle of light, “we can gain a deeper understanding not only of our immediate reality, but of the unseen realities that are hidden beyond our perception.”

StarVista/Time-Life’s subdivision of its comprehensive “Mama’s Family: The Complete Series” continues apace with the latest “Mama’s Favorites” package, covering the show’s penultimate fifth season. The episodes included here are: “The Really Loud Family,” “Naomi’s New Position,” “Found Money,” “Mama’s Layaway Plan,” “Mama in One” and “Dependence Day.”   I’m not sure how much thinner this pie can be sliced.

In Nickelodeon’s “Wallykazam!,” a boy named Wally Trollman and his pet dragon, Norville, live in a forest among giants, goblins and other fantastic creatures. Wally has a magic stick that makes words come to life on the screen, playfully transforming the world around him. It the network’s first preschool series that embeds a literacy curriculum into a full-length story, introducing skills such as letter and sound identification, rhyming, vocabulary development and comprehension strategies. “Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M.” introduces kids to join their favorite Nick characters in an exploration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.) curriculum. “Mia & Me: Discover Centopia”: On her first day at a new school, Mia is given a book and bracelet that are more than they appear. The items have the power to transport Mia to a magical storybook world, Centopia, where she becomes a flying elf who has the ability to talk to unicorns.

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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