MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Escobar, Manglehorn, People Places Things, Pee-wee… and more

Escobar: Paradise Lost: Blu-ray
The reputation of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar – killed in a shootout with police almost 23 years ago – hardly needs any further mythologizing. Depending upon whom one asks, he either was a servant of Satan or a modern-day Robin Hood. Even though he once supplied about 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. and was worth at some $50 billion at the time of his death — taking into account money and gems that were hidden away before his death – Escobar courted loyalty by spreading his wealth to people who desperately needed financial help.  There seems to be no end to the movies, songs, books and television series based on a man whose legend also includes introducing stray hippos – escapees from his private menagerie – into Colombia’s delicate eco-system and possibly murdering a member of his soccer club, who made a costly mistake in a key match. In Andrea Di Stefano’s intense revisionist biopic, Escobar: Paradise Lost, we’re also led to believe that his generosity toward the citizens of Medellin didn’t necessarily extend to a Canadian surfer dude who couldn’t help himself from falling in love with Escobar’s niece. At the time, Nick (Josh Hutcherson) could be forgiven for not knowing the extent of Escobar’s control of the cocaine trade. Before meeting Maria (Claudia Trasiac), Nick’s interest in Colombia to his brother’s idyllic surf camp, built against a backdrop of blue lagoons and white beaches. Neither, though, is Maria fully aware of her kindly Uncle Pablo’s lucrative vocation or infamous reputation. It isn’t until Escobar makes a problem disappear for the campers – quietly, but with deadly efficiency – that Nick begins to fear it might be too late to avoid real trouble.

Benicio Del Toro is exceedingly credible as a man who has fulfilled his wildest dreams many times over, yet is willing to destroy everything and everyone he loves to remain unencumbered by shackles and bars. As agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration belong to close in on him, alongside the handful of Colombian officials he couldn’t control with bribes, the security blanket afforded him by hypocritical clergy, subservient politicians and overmatched local police would begin to shred. By injecting two naïve lovebirds into this story of monumental hubris gone awry, Di Stefano adds a layer of melodramatic fiction that, while cinematically valid, distracts us from the true nature of the beast. Romance is fine, in its place, but not when it’s used to manipulate emotions that have nothing to do with events already fully documented. What next, a telenovela? A better source for gut-wrenching drama would have been “The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel,” written by Roberto Escobar, who kept the books for his brother and was imprisoned for 10 years. Despite being extremely well crafted, I was left with the feeling that, at its core, Escobar: Paradise Lost is simply a story about star-crossed lovers and, as such, could apply as well to Al Capone as Escobar. The making-of featurette is well worth a perusal, as it explains both the film’s conceit and the difficulty of the producing a movie in the Panamanian jungle. It should be noted, for the record, at least, that Escobar’s death had almost no effect on the amount of cocaine entering the U.S., just the direction from which it came.

Manglehorn: Blu-ray
At 75, Al Pacino continues to deliver dynamic performances in movies – Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill and HBO’s Phil Spector and You Don’t Know Jack, notwithstanding — almost no one is going to pay to see, in theaters, at home or on airplanes. It isn’t that such recent pictures as Danny Collins, The Humbling, Salomé and The Son of No One can’t stand up to scrutiny or don’t show the actor in a positive light. For the most part, they have been positively reviewed. If anything the blame lies in extremely limited releases, ahead of lightly promoted send-offs in the after-market. If I were asked to guess, I’d say that Pacino’s appearance on posters and box covers is so intimidating that it frightens off casual browsers. (I wonder if they fare better in POV, where all of the selections are given equal weight.) In Manglehorn, as in other recent assignments, Pacino looks as if he’d just returned from an audition for a pirate movie and couldn’t be bothered with wigs or makeup. With his, by now, trademark modified Van Dyke, earring and a veritable forest of slicked-back hair he could pass for Keith Richard’s wingman. The look is less convincing on A.J. Manglehorn, a locksmith in a small Texas town who doesn’t go into work every day, but is always on call. Critics have described the character as being reclusive, but he gets around, usually with his fluffy-white cat in tow. Bank employees greet him with kindness when he pays them his weekly visit and he argues with friends over lunch at the local luncheonette. He also can be found some nights playing the slots at the local casino. It’s here that we learn that Manglehorn coached baseball as a younger man and favored more athletic boys over his son, whose interests were directed elsewhere. In fact, he still doesn’t seem particularly comfortable in the company of the seemingly well-off Jacob (Chris Messina) and his bourgeois trappings. The really troubling thing about Manglehorn, though, is his obsession with an old flame – the one who got away – with whom he carries on an unrequited correspondence. Jacob reminds him too much of his ex-wife and an unfulfilled expectations. On the occasion of his first official date with a friendly bank teller, wonderfully played by Holly Hunter, Manglehorn spends the entire dinner proclaiming his love for the long-gone Clara. Her disappointment is painful to watch. Director David Gordon Green (George Washington) uses it to demonstrate the old-man’s lack of compassion for anyone who isn’t feline or, possibly, no longer alive. Is his rudeness a functional of a debilitating illness or largely unchecked bad behavior? Whether we like Manglehorn or not, by the end of the movie Pacino has revealed as many facets of the man as he is likely to possess. Also good is Harmony Korine, who credits his former coach for teaching him everything he needed to know as he grew into manhood. Now a massage-club owner and part-time pimp, Manglehorn apparently once saw him as the son he wished he had. That chicken will come home roost as the movie progresses, as well. The movie’s eccentricity makes it difficult to recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Pacino’s work since, say, Ocean’s Thirteen.

The eccentricities of elderly people are explored yet again in Diane Crespo and Paul Marcarelli’s thoroughly offbeat study of a family on the brink of chaos. In Clutter, Carol Kane plays the matriarch of a Queens family that’s literally chocking amid piles of souvenirs, tchotchkes, unworn clothes, unusable appliances and just plain crap, which she began accumulating before her husband abandoned the family, citing lack of space. There’s a huge difference between being a hobbyist, who collects stuff that someday might be catalogued or traded, and a hoarder. Somewhere between those two points often can be found a pretty good story. Here, Crespo seems content to showcase an American family in extremis. Kane has made a long and successful career playing women, like Linda Bradford, whose emotional stability is frequently in doubt. Here, the evidence includes a water stain on the garage door, which she allows her neighbors to believe is the visage of the Blessed Virgin. Despite the miraculous apparition, the Bradford house has been cited by city officials as being a potential hazard to public health. The thought of parting with a single item makes her so apoplectic that her family doesn’t feel comfortable cleaning it up until she’s hospitalized for exhaustion. It’s there that she is visited by the specter of her husband, who offers some timely advice. Not surprisingly, the children have inherited the crazy gene from their mother. Charlie Bradford (Joshua Leonard) is an unemployed filmmaker, who began making home movies of his parents arguing over Linda’s then-hobby. Lisa (Natasha Lyonne) is a home health-care aide, who writes bad checks, shoplifts and wears a patch over one eye. Penny (Halley Feiffer) is trying to overcome her agonizing shyness by decorating homes in the precise and orderly fashion missing from her mother’s home. All of them must come to grips with the fact it’s now or never for them to clear the clutter from their own life or risk having it collapse on them. Also appearing are Dan Hedaya, Kathy Najimy and Maria Dizzia.

When Marnie Was There: Blu-ray
If, as speculated, When Marnie Was There turns out to be the final feature produced by Studio Ghibli, at least it means that the great Japanese animation factory went out on top of its artistic game. Based on a YA novel by Joan G. Robinson, it’s the first feature produced without the involvement of either Hayao Miyazaki (The Wind Rises) or Isao Takahata (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), which is the cinematic equivalent of fielding a Yankee lineup without Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig: formidable, but not invincible. Although Hiromasa Yonebayashi had hit a home run in his first at-bat with The Secret World of Arrietty, his name carries far less weight at the international box office. In the hugely expensive world of feature animation, it’s likely the loss of such marquee talent and lukewarm response to When Marnie Was There prompted studio investors to re-think its plans for the future. Theoretically, anyway, none of that should discourage viewers from sampling Yonebayashi’s excellent solo effort, which, if anything, skews younger than previous Ghibli releases. The protagonist, Anna, is a foster child whose asthma has contributed to a significant loss of self-confidence.  In her 12-year-old mind, she’s one of those unfortunate people who live outside the invisible magic circle to which most people belong and it’s caused her to withdraw into her art. Desperate for answers, her guardians are told that Anna might benefit from spending summer in a place with cleaner air and more open space than is available in Sapporo. Such conditions are readily available at the northern tip of Hokkaido, where relatives of her guardian reside. She naturally retreats to the marshes, where she can draw in seclusion. It’s there that Anna becomes attracted to an abandoned mansion — accessible when the tide is out – and makes friends with the decidedly western-looking blond girl, Marnie. Because she is the first person who accepts Anna on her own terms, Marnie represents the breath of fresh air her doctor has said she needs. Their friendship would be less problematic for the family entrusted with her well-being, however, if they could meet Marnie, in the flesh. It’s the kind of story to which ‘tweeners can easily relate, but may be a hard sell in animated form. The naturalistic artistry on display in When Marnie Was There is simply gorgeous, especially in hi-def. The English-language voicing talent includes Hailee Steinfeld, Kathy Bates, Ellen Burstyn, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly and Vanessa Williams. As is typical of Ghibli Blu-ray releases, the bonus package adds a pair of comprehensive making-of featurettes, storyboard re-creations, a behind-the-scenes look at the English voice cast and a selection of international marketing material.

People Places Things
Jemaine Clement has joined fast-frozen lamb chops, hobbits and frightening face tattoos and war chants as New Zealand’s most popular contributions to world culture. The gangly 6-foot-1 musician/actor, whose mother is Maori, was first brought to the attention of U.S. audiences as half of the quirky folk-comedy duo, Flight of the Conchord, and the HBO sitcom based on their attempt to crack the New York market. He’s since added his distinctive Kiwi-tinged voice to several animated features and appeared in supporting roles in Muppets Most Wanted, Men in Black 3 and Dinner for Schmucks. For the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows, he shared directing, writing and acting duties with frequent collaborator Taika Waititi. If anyone had demonstrated the chutzpah to put James C. Strouse’s crowd-pleasing rom-com, People Places Things, into theatrical release after its festival run, Clement might have proven himself to be a box-office favorite, too. He plays Will Henry, an expatriate graphic-novelist, living in New York, whose world has begun to come apart at the seams like a bargain-basement hardball. Although Will would never be confused for fellow countrymen Russell Crowe or Sam Neill in the looks department, it defies logic that his wife, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), would dump him for his even more unkempt and overweight pal, Gary (Michael Chernus), and that they would allow themselves to be caught having sex during their twin daughters’ birthday party. But, that’s the kind of humor on display here. Ever the sad sack, Will uses the incident to inform Strouse’s largely autobiographical work. He’s in such bad shape, actually, that one of his brighter students, the hugely dreadlocked Kat (Jessica Williams), tries to set him up with her mom, Diane (Regina Hall). Not at all a bad match, Will clearly is carrying a torch for his ex-, if only for the sake of the almost impossibly cute twins. Like one of those British rom-coms starring Hugh Grant, People Places Things puts its characters through their paces before devising an ending sure to satisfy everyone, including its audience. Anyone already familiar with Strouse’s previous work – Lonesome Jim, Grace Is Gone, The Winning Season – knows that it sometimes takes patience to get comfortable with his sense of humor.

Apartment Troubles
The more indie an indie gets, the more likely it is that one or more of the primary characters is certifiably crazy. In Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler’s Apartment Troubles, both of the protagonists display all the grace and finesse of baby birds forced to leave the nest before they’re able to fly. Clearly from upper middle-class backgrounds, Olivia (Prediger) and Nicole (Weixler) are profoundly co-dependent roommates in a Manhattan flat, whose electricity has been turned off for failing to pay the bills. They’ve also neglected to pay the rent and their landlord (Jeffrey Tambor) is no longer willing to accept free showers and implied sexual favors in lieu of monthly payments. Apparently, the young women are artists of one stripe or another, but business is too slow even to pay for cat food. When the poor thing keels over after digesting some poorly stored painting supplies, Olivia goes completely bananas. She convinces Nicole to call in a favor from her filthy rich father, who makes a private jet available to them for a cross-country flight home. (Why she simply didn’t ask for enough bread to cover expenses is a question left unanswered.) The only person waiting for them in Beverly Hills – after they accept a ride from a dangerously inebriated maniac (Will Forte) – is Nicole’s wildly eccentric aunt (Megan Mullally), who, when she isn’t producing shows like “American Idol,” is a practicing wino and sexual predator. After Olivia joins her in a show tune, she convinces the visitors to audition for her show. Instead of performing a number recognizable to most viewers, they come up with something so profoundly avant-garde that it wouldn’t last 10 seconds on “The Gong Show.” If the majority of the gags in Apartment Troubles are more disturbing than funny, the filmmakers were able to create characters that demonstrate genuine sisterly solidarity and unspoken communication. If only they had handed the characters over to someone who knew how to direct them, Apartment Troubles might have amounted to something greater than a Rorschach Test.

The Anomaly: Blu-ray
After failing to scare up any real interest at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Noel Clarke’s complex sci-fi thriller The Anomaly finally arrives here in a Blu-ray package that is several times more enticing than anything in the movie … unless one discounts the presence of model-turned-actress Alexis Knapp. Her conflicted prostitute, Dana, isn’t always naked, but, even when fully clothed, she’s the most interesting thing on the screen. Dana’s just one of several characters trapped in an overly complicated narrative that could have benefitted from a thorough rewrite. Clarke doubles as former soldier and PTSD patient Ryan Reeve, whose reward for his service to queen and country is a debilitating case of blackout amnesia. When Reeve regains consciousness, it’s only for 9 minutes and 47 seconds at a time – days or weeks apart – which doesn’t leave much time to figure out what in God’s name is happening to him. After determining that he’s been programmed to serve as a lethal operative for a mysterious organization, Reeve also must come to grips with the fact that he’s being targeted, as well. Because he doesn’t know what’s transpired during the blackouts, he isn’t always sure who’s on his side and who isn’t, when, and how to recognize them. As director, Clarke doesn’t make it any easier for us to keep track of who’s who and what’s what, either. The Anomaly aspires to be mentioned in the same breath as such brain-burners as The Matrix, Inception, Crank and Memento. Fat chance of that happening. Luke Hemsworth and Brian Cox also make their presences felt at various times in the narrative.

Road Hard: Blu-ray
Call Me Lucky: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about comedians of the standup persuasion, it’s that life on the road is a living hell to be avoided at all possible costs, even if it means taking such stay-at-home gigs as talk- and game-show hosting, podcasting and appearing in really lousy sitcoms. On the other hand, finding regular work in a popular, well-written series is the comedy equivalent of stumbling upon the Holy Grail on a hike through the Santa Monica Mountains. In his nearly 20-year career, loose-cannon comic and social provocateur Adam Corolla has done everything worth doing as a professional comedian, as well as some things that are meant to be funny, like busting crooked builders on Spike TV’s “Catch a Contractor.”  His new film, Road Hard, appears to have been informed by every high and low point he’s experienced in the last two decades.  In it, he plays middle-age entertainer Bruce Madsen, whose ability to attain gainful work as an actor or TV host is fading rapidly. His reputation as a one-time bigshot still attracts customers to the Podunk comedy clubs into which he’s booked by his hideously bewigged agent, Barry “Baby Doll” Weissman (Larry Miller). Baby Doll tries to find satisfying work in Hollywood for Bruce, who’s still nursing the wounds of an ugly and tortuously embarrassing divorce and needs the bread for their daughter’s college tuition. Sadly, he’s too vain to be satisfied warming up talk-show audiences for his famous pal (Jay Mohr) or performing at corporate gatherings, without insulting audience members accidentally or intentionally. Corolla’s fans should be able to get past his character’s abrasive, self-pitying approach to underemployment long enough to enjoy watching Bruce endure the budget-chain hotels, broken contracts, coach seats on a puddle-jumpers and subsisting on junk food. Others, not so much. It’s easier to take when Bruce kvetches over breakfast with friends played by David Alan Grier and Philip Rosenthal, who are experiencing the same career doldrums. What’s that about misery loving company? Just when some viewers would voluntarily donate the money it would cost Bruce to buy the rope necessary to hang himself, the screenplay provides a new lease on life. Some viewers will see the solution coming from a mile away, but welcome it, nonetheless. Corolla’s faithful might find it to be too schmaltzy for their acid tastes or, worse, Disneyesque. The credit for pulling it off belongs to Diana Farr, an actress who’s always been equal parts fire and ice, and does a nice job here as the woman who comes into the comic’s life from out of the blue. Wisely, she makes Bruce makes him work very hard for her acceptance of him. Also adding some sparks to the proceedings are Howie Mandel, Illeana Douglas, Larry Clarke, Windell Middlebrooks, David Koechner, Christopher Douglas Reed, Dana Gould, Sam McMurray, Brad Williams and other familiar funny-faces. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and bits with Bryan Cranston. Because Road Hard was financed through crowd-sourcing, the closing credits are almost ridiculously long … longer, in fact, than most comics are ever allowed on the late-night talk shows.

Plenty of well-known comedians are featured in Call Me Lucky, Bobcat Goldwaithe’s sometimes funny, more frequently heart-breaking profile of Boston comedian and club owner Barry Crimmins. A product of the 1960s counterculture, he’s continually channeled his anger at government-sanctioned hypocrisy and lack of positive social change into an extremely angry satirical voice, more strident even than Lewis Black. His passion and fire often is directed at child abusers and institutions that inadvertently save them from prosecution. Even with his generally churlish and self-destructive demeanor, Crimmins has influenced an entire generation of Boston-area comedians. It wasn’t until he revealed himself to be a victim of terrible childhood abuse that they understood one of the reasons, at least, that their mentor was so obsessed with the Roman Catholic Church, which has protected countless pedophiles from prosecution. Crimmins found a national platform in Congress at the dawn of the Internet age, when he confronted the leader of AOL on the company’s complicity in providing space in unmonitored chatrooms for pedophiles and purveyors of pornography involving children. The more the AOL executive denied his claims, the more vigorous and pointed Crimmins’ attack became. While not admitting culpability, the company would change its self-policing policies dramatically after the hearing. Among the comics testifying in his defense are Margaret Cho, Lenny Clarke, David Cross, Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt, Kevin Rooney Jr., Jimmy Tingle and Steven Wright.

The Only Real Game
Golden Shoes
With the baseball playoffs in full gear, might I suggest something entertaining to kill time during a long rain delay, besides the usual videos of bloopers and miraculous plays? Mirra Bank’s fascinating documentary, The Only Real Game, takes viewers to roughly the same unlikely region as Disney’s 2014 fact-based sports drama, Million Dollar Arm, in which agent J. B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) stages a contest for Indian cricket players interested in trying out for a Major Leagues baseball team. Here, the remote Indian state of Manipur has a longer, if slightly more obscure relationship with the sport Babe Ruth called “the only real game in the world.” In fact, Manipur may be best known to trivia nuts as the place where polo was introduced to British colonialists. World War II buffs should have no trouble locating the former autonomous kingdom – one of many in the region – and immediately recognizing how it might have played a key role in the Allies push to deprive the Japanese of their foothold in Burma, as well as a staging area for flights over the Himalayas to China. As you might already have guessed, American soldiers and pilots stationed there spent much of their free time playing baseball, frequently with makeshift equipment. When local men, women and children weren’t providing necessary services to the GIs, British and Indian troops, they studied the game with rapt attention. The equipment left behind by the soldiers would require almost constant repair or replacement by reasonable facsimiles thereof. A couple of decades later, the story of baseball in Manipur reached the New York-based non-profit venture, First Pitch, which, in turn, contacted Major League Baseball International and Spalding Baseball. They not only provided new equipment, but also a pair of former players to coach current players and encourage new ones. They also attempted to explain the many nuances of the game and its rules to people whose native tongue would be foreign even to fellow Indians. Among the surprising things we learn about baseball in Manipur is that women play a central role in the organization and training of teams. The film doesn’t ignore a political situation that is as ugly as anywhere else in the world, where separatist groups long to control their own destinies. In Manipur, several such groups are fighting government troops, police and each other for control of the state, which the king annexed to India after the war. Since then, martial law has been a fact of life for citizens, as have unfettered police brutality and unusually high rates of HIV/AIDS and unemployment. Then, there is the occasional sacred cow that decides to take a nap in the outfield.

By now, it takes a lot for a sports-inspired fairytale to break away from the pack and make an impression on critics, let alone audiences with plenty of other things to do with their money. Lance Kawas’ family-friendly Golden Shoes starts in the usual way, with an undersized 8-year-old, Christian Larou (Christian Koza), who’s coming to grips with the fact that he isn’t likely to realize his dream of making the national soccer team. His father is a soldier, who recently went MIA in Afghanistan, and his mother soon will become incapacitated in an automobile accident. While she’s recuperating, Christian is taken in by their Jekyll/Hyde neighbor, Frank (Eric Roberts), who has a financial interest in seeing the soccer team do poorly. Against all odds, the coach (David DeLuise) shows his sympathy by letting Christian play every so often, sometimes at the expense of Frank’s son. Pretending to be nice to Christian, as a way to insinuate himself into the heart of the boy’s lonely mom (Dana Meyer), he takes him to a shoe store, where he asks the clerk to show him the cheapest possible soccer cleats. Of course, the crappy-looking shoes possess just enough magic to turn Christian into the second coming of his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo. Kawas does a nice job navigating the story around all the usual clichés associated with such underdog tales. He couldn’t avoid all of them, but our enjoyment of Golden Shoes doesn’t depend on huge surprises. If a few tears are jerked, they flow naturally.

Blunt Force Trauma: Blu-ray
Westerns don’t come any more revisionist than Blunt Force Trauma, a contemporary tale of a gunslinger, John (Ryan Kwanten), who may or may not push his luck too far by the time the final credits roll. Cop-turned-filmmaker Ken Sanzel combines elements of Fight Club, Cockfighter and the Wii game, “Fast Draw Showdown” to form a conceit that only makes sense to a lawman who’s had their life saved by a bullet-proof vest. Yeah, it’s that simple and that dumb. Duelists wearing Kevlar vests stand in opposing circles in a ring or a long pit once used for changing oil. At the clank of a metal bolt on the concrete floor, they will open fire on each other, aiming strictly at the Kevlar vests on their chests. The idea, then, is to force an opponent into submission, simply through the powerful impact of the bullets, one of which normally is enough to knock a normal-sized police officer on his butt. Here, it sometimes takes more than the allotted six bullets to keep the loser from returning to the circle and firing back at his foe. Money is wagered on the outcome, of course, and anyone accidentally shot outside the Kevlar shield is either declared winner or dead. John is on a winning streak that he expects will lead him to the reigning champion, Zorringer, who lives on a hilltop somewhere in South America and is played by Mickey Rourke … naturally. The closest thing resembling a plot here is John’s largely professional relationship with a steaming hot shootist, played by normally dainty Frida Pinto, who’s seeking revenge for the death of her brother. Maybe, for a sequel, the participants can trade their six-guns for Tasers or bean-bag guns. Fact is, though, Blunt Force Trauma is an extremely well made movie that looks better than it has any right to be.

White Shadow
Nothing I’ve seen in genre fiction comes close to equaling the unspeakable horrors perpetrated in the name of religion, superstition and tribal custom in real life. As hard as it must be for documentarians to confront such significant issues as female genital mutilation and excision, honor killings, ritual executions by torture, the scourge of HIV/AIDS and Ebola, genocidal wars and the violent persecution of LGBT citizens, it’s just that difficult for audiences to watch them play out on screen as fact or fiction. Noaz Deshe’s excruciating drama, White Shadow, depicts yet another unspeakable practice, this one perpetrated by unconscionable ignorance, greed and bigotry. It is the story of Alias, one of many Africans with albinism who’ve been hunted from birth, like so many elephants and rhinos, because of bounties put on naturally occurring physical characteristics. In Tanzania, where the movie is shot, witch doctors have been known to pay as much as $75,000 for an entire corpse and $6,000 for individual body parts hacked from the bodies of murdered albinos. The “conjure men” use them to make potions they insist will bring wealth and good luck to their customers. A U.S. survey conducted in 2010 found that, while most people in Tanzania are Christian or Muslim, 93 percent said they believed in witchcraft. At least 74 people with albinism have reportedly been murdered in the east African country since 2000. In the same time period, only 10 people have been convicted of murder. Earlier this year, Tanzania banned witch doctors from practicing their juju. For White Shadow, Deshe was able to recruit first-timer Hamisi Bazili, whose albinism ostensibly has put a target on his back, as well. After witnessing the brutal murder of his father, Alias is sent by his mother to the nearest large city. Although largely protected from persecution there, Alias finds it difficult to survive doing odd jobs. After he visits a shelter for young people with albinism, he returns to the bush with a younger boy, with ambitions of becoming a witch doctor, himself. The competition for customers is intense, however. Along with Bazili’s hauntingly realistic performance, White Shadow’s impact is enhanced by Deshe’s near-documentary approach to the material. The DVD adds valuable interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers
In an experiment that harkens back to Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” reports for CBS News, college students Greg Grano and Sarah Sellman hit the road in American Bear to test the hospitality of average American citizens, who they had never met and, by Hollywood standards, anyway, are decidedly unremarkable. The idea was to approach complete strangers and, after a bit of conversation, ask if they knew where they could bum a place to sleep that night. The reception was generally cordial, even if the person being interviewed couldn’t personally accommodate them. It helped, of course, that Greg and Sarah had a concept to sell – the route was based on visiting disparate towns named Bear – and a camera that suggested that 15 minutes of fame was just around the corner. The countryside is beautiful and most of the people we meet have stories of their own to tell. I wasn’t terribly surprised by the results, if only because the towns visited aren’t beaten down by crime news every night on the local news, as viewers are in most large cities. The findings would be even more credible if one or both of the travelers was African-American, Hispanic or a hippie. The DVD adds material trimmed for length.

The Timber: Blu-ray
Anyone who ranks Jerimiah Johnson among their favorite movies should find something to like in The Timber, a Western that captures what it must have been like to spend a winter in the upper elevations of the continent, without such amenities as indoor plumbing, forced-air heating, hot-water heaters and satellite dishes. After being left high and dry by their psychopath father – a miner, who, when he ran out of luck and money, killed his laborers – two brothers resort to bounty hunting to save their property from being foreclosed by the bank. It’s the dead of winter in Alaska (a.k.a., Romania) and the women folk have been left behind to fend for themselves. The lads are plenty game, but the woods are full of men wearing head-to-toe animal skins and wielding Bowie knives longer than a baby’s arm. After being ripped off repeatedly by the banker, they’re offered the bounty that’s been put on their father’s head. Apart from being an exquisitely shot movie, there’s more than enough blood-soaked action in The Timber to keep hard-core Western fans from getting bored. I wouldn’t vouch for its accuracy, but, what co-writer/director Anthony O’Brien’s story lacks in narrative skill, he more than makes up for in atmosphere. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the director, interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Beyond the Mask
Burns Family Studios, the company behind Beyond the Mask and Pendragon: Sword of His Father, bills itself as being committed to producing “quality, Christ-centered action-adventure films, because we believe stories can touch hearts, and Christ can change lives.” This, alone, wouldn’t make it unique among producers of faith-based material. What sets it apart, so far, is that the action doesn’t support dystopian or apocalyptic themes, related to end-times prophesy.  “Pendragon,” was set at the end of the Roman period in Britain, circa 411 AD, while Beyond the Mask takes place in Philadelphia, immediately before the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. In a wild historical contrivance, the potential for widespread rebellion prompts the head of the East India Company, Charles Kemp (John Rhys-Davies), to develop an elaborate plan to sabotage the Second Continental Congress, using barrels full of gunpowder and electronic detonators that Benjamin Franklin (Alan Madlane) might already have patented. Hoping to thwart the plan is a former assassin for the company, William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney), who’s only recently turned to God for redemption. Things get complicated for the swashbuckling Reynolds when he falls for Kemp’s alluring blond niece, Charlotte (Kara Killmer), who can’t imagine her uncle to be such a dastardly fellow. Considering that most of director Chad Burns’ budget probably was invested in costumes and casting, Beyond the Mask, offers a solid 103 minutes’ worth of “family” entertainment, and it demonstrates marked improvement from the 2008 “Pendragon,” which was more of a DIY affair. While some in the Christian film-production community might slight Burns’ films for not banging the bible as loudly as possible, it would be difficult for members of the target audience to mistake the message or not be entertained. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

We Are Still Here: Blu-ray
Eli Roth Presents The Stranger: Blu-ray
Nocturna: Blu-ray
Navy SEALs vs. Zombies: Blu-ray
Tremors 5: Bloodlines
Anyone feeling nostalgic for such funkadelic cannibal flicks as Eating RaoulParents, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 and such grotesque Italianate fare as Cannibal Holocaust should run, don’t walk, to find a copy of Gravy for their Halloween viewing pleasure. Those with weaker stomachs for such fare probably will want to steer clear of this slice of hipster horror from James Roday and Todd Harthan (“Psyche”). Supposedly influenced by an incident that took place at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, co-writer/director Roday imagines a scenario in which a trio of costumed flesh-eaters (Jimmi Simpson, Michael Weston, Lily Cole) blockade themselves inside a nearly closed taco emporium, ahead of a trick-or-eat banquet whose menu is comprised of the owner, chef and wait staff. The “tricks” involve playing such games as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and a William Tell archery contest. The meal’s ingredients are to be provided by Paul Rodriguez, Gabourey Sidibe, Gabriel Luna, Lothaire Bluteau, Molly Ephraim and Sutton Foster. If the humor ranges from darkly macabre to infantile, at least the actors seems to be having fun chewing the scenery, as well as the prosthetic limbs. Also making an appearance is Sarah Silverman, as a bunny-eared convenience-store clerk who develops a crush on the cannibal in a Robin Hood costume. As they say in the funnies: It is what it is.

Far more conventional an entertainment is We Are Still Here, a haunted-house mystery with several tantalizing trope-twisters. Revealing almost anything that happens after the first 15 minutes of expository material would spoil everything that follows. It’s safe to say, however, that a couple still traumatized by the death of their teenage son in a car crash decides to move to the New England countryside to try to start a new life. It doesn’t take long for Paul and Anne (Andrew Sensenig, Barbara Crampton) to learn that their new home comes with a history that their real-estate agent neglected to mention. In fact, it once served as a funeral home. When they visit a local pub for dinner with friends, they’re greeted with the same warmth accorded Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper when they stopped for breakfast in a redneck café, during Easy Rider. Unlike most other genre flicks these days, the cast of We Are Still Here is comprised primarily of adults, who’ve been around the block a couple of times before the events described in the film transpire. The Blu-ray package adds an informative commentary with writer/director Ted Geoghegan and producer Travis Stevens, and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Eli Roth lends his formidable brand to The Stranger, a revisionist vampire flick written and directed by rising horror star Guillermo Amoedo, with whom he partnered on The Green Inferno and Aftershock. Cristobal Tapia Montt plays the mysterious Martin, who, one day, arrives in a small town to kill his wife, Ana (Lorenza Izzo), with whom he shares an unfortunate blood malady that makes them thirsty for blood. Unlike most other such creatures of the night, whatever serum that passes for blood in his body also has the capacity to heal. Before he gets an opportunity to find Ana, though, he’s set upon by a trio of local punks, one of whom is the son of a corrupt cop. Beaten to a pulp after he challenges the thugs to do their worst to him, Martin finds shelter in the home of teenage graffiti artist and his freaked out mom, who informs Martin that Ana has died and is buried in a nearby cemetery. Believing his only release from the horror to come is to commit suicide — easier said than done for the undead – doesn’t appreciate it when the bad cop comes after him, thinking he’ll squeal on his son. Is it relevant that Ana was pregnant the last time Martin found her noshing on a still-warm human corpse? Perhaps. While The Stranger isn’t particularly scary, the gore factor should satisfy some genre enthusiasts. In an interview in the Blu-ray package, Amoedo has some fun explaining his rationale for casting English-speaking Chileans to play Canadians here. South America is ripe for exploitation by American producers seeking fresh talent. The Stranger is far from perfect, but, at least, it’s different.

In Nocturna, first-timer Buz Alexander takes full advantage of southern Louisiana’s abundant supply of empty mansions, rotting fishing shacks and hoodoo-on-the-bayou vibes, some of which have already proven their value to producers of horror flicks anxious to take advantage of Louisiana’s generous post-Katrina tax breaks. Although it more closely resembles a pilot for a television series than a theatrical film, Nocturna is stylishly made and the characters are creatively drawn. While investigating the disappearances of dozens of kids, NOPD detectives Harry Ganet and Roy Cody are led by a survivor to the hideout of the Molderos, a group of merciless vampires who feed on young blood. The detectives’ lives are rescued from the Molderos by a more benevolent trio of ancient vampires, who despise the fiends but require something of a quid pro quo for further considerations. Only in New Orleans, right? Blond bombshells Mariana Paola Vicente and Estella Warren add to the intrigue, when Harry develops a taste for some strange and ancient fruit.

Is there a greater sin than wasting a perfectly good title and concept? Not in Hollywood, there isn’t. In fact, it should be illegal. In Navy SEALS vs. Zombies, an elite team of battle-hardened warriors is summoned to Louisiana – this time, to Baton Rouge — when the Secret Service loses contact with the Vice President, who’s in town for a campaign stop. Besides having more resources available to them than local police and National Guard troops, the SEAL team members are significantly more buff, photogenic and capable of dealing with roving gangs of zombies. You can guess the rest. How cool would it have been if the zombies were comprised of undead Al Qaeda fighters, led by a seriously decomposed Osama Bin Laden, who avoided capture as they shuffled their way across the Rio Grande? Border Patrol agents could have been pre-occupied that day with protecting Republican presidential candidates posing for photo ops on its muddy banks. It took a while for the Islamic commandoes to make their way from Nuevo Laredo to Big Easy, of course, but Bin Laden would be determined to avenge his assassination by SEAL Team 6. And, besides, he had already grown bored sampling the virgins assigned to him in heaven. Given that several of the cast members actually are former SEALs, both sides would be highly motivated foes. Also along for the ride are Ed Quinn (“Eureka”), Michael Dudikoff (“American Ninja”), pro wrestler Chad “Gunner” Lail, Molly Hagan (“iZombie”), Olympian Lolo Jones and former NBA star, Rick Fox. It marks the directorial debut of Stanton Barrett, a former NASCAR driver and still-active stuntman.

After receiving a M.F.A. from Yale’s esteemed School of Drama and appearing in 171 episodes of “Family Ties,” as ex-hippie dad Steven Keaton, Michael Gross probably couldn’t imagine a time in the future when his name would be just as associated with survivalist Burt Gummer in the 25-year “Tremors” movie and TV franchise. (He also played mine owner, Hiram Gummer, in the 2004 prequel, Tremors 4: The Legend Begins.) But, hey, that’s show biz. In the fifth edition, Gummer’s hired to capture a deadly AssBlaster — the third and final stage of the Graboid life-cycle – now known to be terrorizing the deserts of South Africa. Gummer and his new sidekick, Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy), don’t always agree on the tactics, but Welker manages to negotiate a sizable bit of funding for Burt’s TV show in exchange for dealing with the infestation. Burt probably didn’t need much convincing, however. Tremors 5: Bloodlines continues the tradition of combining action with humor, which has pulled the series through the doldrums when the giant worms didn’t do the trick. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes, outtakes and “Tremors 5: Behind the Bloodlines.”

Earthfall is a standard-issue SyFy product, with death and destruction following in the wake of a catastrophic intergalactic event no one could have possibly anticipated. It takes a small army of gallant teens and C-list actors to prevent our beloved planet from being dragged into the void by the magnetic pull of a rogue planet, which tears through our solar system carrying killer meteors in its wake. Kids just discovering sci-fi are likely to enjoy Earthfall more than anyone else. It teams freshman filmmakers Steven Daniels and Colin Reese, and a no-star cast that includes Joe Lando, Michelle Stafford, Denyse Tontz, Pressly Coker and Lou Ferrigno Jr.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Out of the Vault Christmas Collection
Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!)
PBS: Particle Fever
PBS: Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail
PBS: Earth: The Inside Story
While it isn’t common, anymore, to hear Pee-wee Herman’s name mentioned in the same breath as “great family entertainment,” there’s no question in my mind that the Blu-ray edition of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special” deserves a place on the same shelf as holiday specials hosted by dozens of other pop-cultural icons. (In the early days of television, holiday variety shows hosted by big stars were more prevalent than Westerns.) More so, even, than Pee-wee’s weekly show, the 1988 Christmas show can be enjoyed by anyone able to recognize such time-honored performers as Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Charo, The Del Rubio Triplets, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, Magic Johnson, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Little Richard, Joan Rivers, Dinah Shore and Oprah Winfrey in themed cameos. If Pee-wee isn’t always the perfect host, it’s only because his creator, Paul Reubens, has allowed him enough leeway to play little pranks on his friends and break the “fourth wall” with snarky in-jokes. As always, the delightfully cluttered and warmly colorful playhouse, itself, is as much a part of the fun as anything else. The running gag involves Pee-wee miscalculating of the number of gifts he’ll need to cover everyone on his Christmas list. It’s so long that, if fulfilled, there won’t be enough presents for all the other kids in the world. When Santa Claus pleads for help, Pee-wee reluctantly learns a lesson about the true meaning of Christmas. It’s the one that doesn’t include the preparation of lists, trips to the mall, threatening kids with chunks of coal or camping outside the nearest big-box store on Thanksgiving and fighting for bargains. Another bit of misdirection occurs when a choir of uniformed Marines is revealed, in the bonus interviews, to be the Men’s Choir of UCLA, which stood in for the servicemen, who were otherwise engaged. Also lending a hand are such regular “friends” as Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), the King of Cartoons (William Marshall), Reba the Mail Woman (S. Epatha Merkerson), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) and Mrs. Rene (Suzanne Kent). The terrifically entertaining package adds commentary, several interviews and making-of featurettes.

The archivists at Shout! Factory and Nickelodeon were asked to work overtime for “Out of the Vault Christmas Collection,” which arrives with 16 cartoon episodes, instead of the usual 10 for previous “Out of the Vault” compilations. A big selling point here is the ability of parents of young children to share the Nicktoons shows and characters they loved with their kids, who may have grown accustomed to the more digital look of current fare. The collection contains holiday favorites from such shows as “Hey Arnold!,” “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters,” “The Angry Beavers,” “Rocko’s Modern Life,” and “CatDog.”

There’s only one more month left to wait for The Peanuts Movie, the first theatrical presentation featuring the Peanuts gang in 35 years and the first since the death of Charles M. Schulz, in 2000. The last full-length feature to hit theaters was Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!), which has been made available this week. In it, Charlie Brown and Linus are invited to be part of a student-exchange program that will take them to Europe, with Snoopy and Woodstock in tow. At another nearby school, Peppermint Patty and Marcie are participating in the same program. While the girls are welcomed in the home of a little farm boy named Pierre, Linus and Charlie Brown are surprised to find their destination, the Chateau of the Mal Voisin, deserted. Charlie is disturbed because he expected to be welcomed by the mysterious French girl who sent him the invitation to visit her in France. These and other questions will be answered in the next 75 minutes. It’s interesting to learn that the château is based on the one in which Schulz was billeted at for six weeks in World War II. “Bon Voyage” is the only Peanuts feature film to include adults on-screen with speaking parts, rather than the usual “wa-wa-wa” trombone sound. Kids can’t help but notice how the animation here differs from the CGI style in the new movie.

This week’s selection of documentaries from PBS is heavy on science and none of the three DVDs qualifies as kid’s stuff. Among them, “Particle Fever” is especially timely. This week, scientists from Japan and Canada won the Nobel Prize in physics for key discoveries about cosmic particles that whiz through space at nearly the speed of light, passing easily through Earth and even our bodies. They showed that these tiny particles, called neutrinos, have mass. “Particle Fever” follows six brilliant scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, marking the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet, pushing the edge of human innovation.

The title, “Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” was inspired by the Australian Aborigine legend that posits there’s a world beneath this one, where the Dragon sleeps … warm, coiled and ready to spring. It even goes on to advise against waking the Dragon. Without knowing its name or scientific number, the native people had long ago identified properties that make uranium different from other elements and used pictographs to locate it for future generations. That’s the starting point for a scientific journey that leads to Los Alamos, Hiroshima, Ukraine and beyond. Host physicist Dr. Derek Muller, the creator of the YouTube channel, Veritasium, goes to great lengths to demystify uranium for us, even using a soccer ball left behind at a deserted playground in Chernobyl. When he accepts an invitation to tour the underground hospital in which the first-responders died – and their clothes still register high levels of radiation – we’re able to share his anxiety over the highly dangerous assignment.

Do kids still believe it’s possible to dig a hole to China and walk out the other side? I did, although the closest I ever got before giving up was two feet. The PBS documentary, “Earth: The Inside Story,” explains, in ways even a child might grasp, why such an experiment would yield nothing more than a backache. Cameras take us as close to the center as anyone as gone, revealing volcanic vents, which ultimately could reveal the origins of earthly life. Adults, too, will gain a greater appreciation of the forces that continue to shape our planet, imperceptibly and violently. Drawing on the latest scientific research, the doc features the geologic forces that built our planet, from its sun-hot core to its life-sustaining atmosphere. It also lends scientific perspective to a question raised in light of recent earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and extreme weather: Is Earth undergoing a period of increased geological upheaval, in addition to global warming?

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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