MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: M:I, Ted 2, Burroughs, Time Out of Mind, Slow Learners and more

Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation: Blu-ray
A year ago, I think it’s safe to say, Alicia Vikander and Rebecca Ferguson probably would have been off the radar screens of paparazzi everywhere, except in Stockholm – if such varmints exist that far north. After her star turns in Ex Machina and The Danish Girl, Vikander no longer will be able to go to Starbucks without a gaggle of photographers sniffing around behind her. Earning two Golden Globe nominations in the same year, for different movies, tends to impress tabloid editors and the bottom-feeders at “TMZ.” For her part, Ferguson received a GG nom last year for her portrayal of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen consort of England, in Starz’ one-season wonder, “The White Queen.” It’s her performance in Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation, however, that will keep her name on Hollywood’s A-list, at least until the next chapter in the “M:I” franchise, to which she’s already been assigned. As long as Tom Cruise is up to the challenge of playing IMF agent Ethan Hunt, she’ll have to share the spotlight with him. After that, who knows? In “Rouge Nation,” though, Ferguson manages to steal it from everyone else in the cast. In it, she plays Ilsa Faust, a MI6 agent working deep cover in the Syndicate, which is the Paramount franchise’s answer to SPECTRE. That ultra-secretive global criminal organization was resurrected, of course, in the latest James Bond chapter. By contrast, the Syndicate is an international criminal consortium that shares its illicit profits with the world’s greediest government officials. Officially, the CIA doesn’t believe the Syndicate exists. It’s more interested in usurping the power of the Impossible Missions Force and taking over its assets.

Essentially, that’s all viewers really need to know about writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s action-packed story to enjoy it. Audiences flock to “M:I” for the chases, fights and interplay between Hunt and fellow IMF agents, played here by Ving Rhames,  Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner. Interior logic runs a distant second. It explains why Paramount may never be required to consider turning “M:I” into a straight-to-DVD series or skimp on budgets that afford location shoots in such places as Morocco, Austria and all over London. Anyone who loves the movies surely will invest the time and money on the DVD and Blu-ray packages, whose bonus material reveals the secrets behind the magic. There’s nothing remotely stale or overly familiar about Paramount’s excellent Blu-ray presentation of “Rogue Nation.” Cruise and McQuarrie provide an enthusiastic commentary track, while the featurettes include “Lighting the Fuse,” a look at McQuarrie’s attachment to the project; “Cruise Control,” about his hands-on involvement in the filmmaking process; “Heroes …,” with glimpses at the four primary IMF characters, plus Ilsa; “Cruising Altitude,” on the film’s spectacular opening action sequence; “Mission: Immersible,” on the grueling underwater sequence; “Sand Theft Auto,” a look at crafting high-speed vehicle chases; and “The Missions Continue,” in which cast and crew discuss the franchise’s staying power. A DVD copy of the film and a voucher for a UV/iTunes digital copy are included with purchase, as well.

Ted 2: Blu-Ray
Unlike fine wine, the aging process isn’t likely to be kind to today’s movies. Once the cork is popped, there isn’t much left to savor. I doubt very much if we’ll ever see Criterion Collection editions of Ted, Dumb and Dumber, Jackass or any of their sequels or marathon showings on TCM. Comedy Central is a different story, altogether, commercials and bleeped-out words notwithstanding. Ted 2 probably made some money for Universal, but not nearly as much as the original, either at home or worldwide. The surprise that comes with watching a cute Paddington Bear look-alike impersonate Andrew “Dice” Clay only lasts so long, even when you’re stoned to the gills. The funny thing about Ted 2 isn’t found as much in the gags as its proximity to being socially relevant. In the years that have passed since the first movie became a smash hit, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and Lori Collins dissolved their marriage and Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) has gotten married to Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), whose desire to have a baby is complicated by his non-existent sperm count. Because a baby would go a long way toward saving their relationship, John agrees to find them a donor. Laughter ensues. In its effort to stifle their plans for artificial insemination, the State of Massachusetts aggressively challenges Ted’s claim to personhood and those rights accorded other citizens. If that scenario reminds you of the very real Dred Scott Case, well, you probably are too well-educated to find much humor in the conceit. Their inexperienced and slightly pot-addled lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) is no match for the state’s legal team, so they attempt to hire a prominent civil-rights attorney (Morgan Freeman) to overturn the decision. He demurs, but only after doing a background check to determine if Ted has done anything positive in his life. The answer, of course, is “no.” Meanwhile, Ted’s longtime nemesis, Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), has approached the head of the Hasbro toy company about abducting the bear and creating more “live” teddies from his DNA, as it were. The climax takes place at New York Comic Con, where the product placement is almost as shocking as John’s clumsiness at the fertility clinic. Nonetheless, Ted 2 is several times less painful to watch than MacFarlane’s odious A Million Ways to Die in the West or the feature version of Entourage, which was produced by Wahlberg. (Here’s an idea: send Ted to California and make him a member of Vince’s posse for the second sequel.) Ted 2 arrives in a 20-minute-longer unrated edition, which likely includes material eliminated to preserve its R rating. It also includes an entertaining commentary track; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and making-of featurettes “Thunder Buddies 4 Lyfe,” “Creating Comic-Con,” “Roadtripping,” “A Giant Opening Dance Number” and “Cameo Buddies,” with Morgan Freeman, Tom Brady, Liam Neeson and David Hasselhoff.

Burroughs: The Movie: Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Everyone who’s fallen in love with the mythos of the Beat Generation has, at one time or another, wondered how William S. Burroughs fit into the bigger picture. Apart from being an extremely cool guy, an accomplished writer, avant-garde artist and intellectual outlaw, the grandson of the man who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Company didn’t fit into any of the molds created by the media to explain the confederation of artists that most prominently included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Herbert Hunke, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso. It’s almost impossible to imagine Burroughs hitchhiking across the country with Kerouac and Cassady, simply to “go,” and not be mistaken for a mortician or bible salesman. And, yet, go he did … to Mexico, Tangier, Paris, Rome, London and the Amazonian rain forest. His drugs of choice were heroin and morphine and to afford his habit he once was reduced to selling the stuff and fencing stolen property with Hunke. Even those who’ve never read a word he’s written are aware of the William Tell “act” in which he accidently killed his second wife, Joan. It might surprise them to learn that the autobiographical novel, “Queer,” even had a wife or enjoyed target shooting. A half-century after the publication of “Junkie” and “Naked Lunch,” and 18 years after his death, Burroughs’ influence on music, fiction, art and lifestyle choices is still palpable. Howard Brookner’s essential documentary, Burroughs: The Movie, was released in 1983, but quickly disappeared from distribution. Aaron Brookner, the late director’s nephew, would discover a clean print of the film in 2011 and spearhead a restoration. At the time, the writer was 69 and far more spry than could be expected of a man who’d been pushing limits for most of those years. Six years later, he would be re-introduced to the hip world in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy – based on a short story from “Exterminator!” — as a defrocked priest addicted to heroin. He died on August 2, 1997, at 83, in Lawrence, Kansas. Brookner’s profile differs from most of the other attempts at encapsulating his life and literary legacy primarily for his access to Burroughs and his willingness to reveal himself to viewers. He freely discusses Joan’s death, which he describes as an accident, and we’re introduced to their son, Billy, who, as an adult, battled addictions to narcotics and alcohol, but also wrote two well-received novels based on his experience. Sadly, he would die of acute gastrointestinal hemorrhage, associated with micronodular cirrhosis, at 33, during the film’s production. Among the witnesses called to testify are Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, Patti Smith, Terry Southern, Jackie Curtis, James Grauerholz and John Giorno. In another poignant scene, Burroughs and his brother, Mortimer, converse in the backyard of his St. Louis home, recalling their Midwestern childhood. (Mortimer allows that he started reading “Naked Lunch,” but couldn’t get through it.) The special Blu-ray edition adds a new, high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new interviews with filmmakers Jim Jarmusch, Aaron Brookner and Tom DiCillo; outtakes; footage from the 2014 New York Film Festival premiere of the film’s restoration; a 30-minute experimental edit of the film from 1981 by inventor and photographer Robert E. Fulton Jr.; an essay by critic Luc Sante; and a collage poster by artist Alison Mosshart.

Time Out of Mind: Blu-ray
Homelessness is an issue that disappears from the public’s eyes as soon as something more media-friendly comes around to replace it on the evening news … like terrorism or, in L.A., a car chase. While the problem doesn’t disappear, the absence of pressure on public officials neutralizes its urgency. For the millions of Americans who aren’t required to skirt the local Skid Row on their way to work or be confronted by panhandlers while shopping, that’s just as well. Until it hits home, anyway. Oren Moverman’s grinding drama Time Out of Mind is a perfect example of a movie that asks all the right questions about a difficult social issue, but might as well have not existed outside a few film festivals. And, that’s really too bad, because Richard Gere delivers one of his best performances in years as a man whose daily struggle to find food and shelter has begun to affect his cognitive skills … that, and years of alcohol abuse. George is a fairly representative of a type of homeless person who once had a job, home and family, but pissed them away for reasons of his own. Indeed, he won’t even admit to being homeless. Every time George is rousted from a temporary squat, he argues that he’s only waiting for his long-gone wife to get home. Gere plays the character straight down the middle, seeking empathy for a fellow human being, but refusing to sugarcoat the conditions that led to his homelessness and mental illness. When George finally acknowledges that he’s no longer in control of his own well-being, he voluntarily seeks refuge in New York City’s no-nonsense social-welfare system. Like all the other men in the shelter, George is required to obey a tough set of rules and adjust to life in a community of similarly damaged residents.  Among them is a former jazz musician (Ben Vereen) who’s lost his ability to rest his vocal chords for more than 30 seconds at a time. Before the chatterbox gets on George’s last nerve, however, Dixon dispenses the kind of street knowledge his new sounding board will need to survive in the mean streets of Manhattan. As is probably the case with such down-and-outers, George and Dixon encounter as many predators as Good Samaritans. Jena Malone plays George’s estranged and embittered daughter, from whom he seeks forgiveness but is treated to a cold splash of well-earned resentment in return. Steve Buscemi portrays a contractor, who, in the course of rehabbing a tenement building, stumbles upon a bruised and battered George sleeping off a hangover in a bathtub. The appropriately gloomy Blu-ray adds commentary, interviews and a PSA with Gere.

Slow Learners
While Sarah Burns is far from a household name, fans of “Married,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Drunk History” and “Enlightened” should have little problem placing her face. As a resident performer at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Burns is blessed with the same improvisational gift as Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Maya Rudolph and Tina Faye. In Slow Learners, her quirky personality dominates the character of Ann Martin, an unlucky-at-love teacher whose awareness of her own dorky persona causes her to seek a hipness replacement over summer break. Ann isn’t just socially awkward, though, she’s aggressively unpleasant. Adam Pally, of “The Mindy Project” and “Happy Endings,” plays her similarly nerdy best friend, Jeff Lowry. The puffy and slightly effeminate guidance teacher is a decent enough guy, but he might as well have “buzz kill” tattooed on his forehead. Jeff, too, commits his summer vacation to a crash course in cool behavior. It isn’t as if they are shunned by the cool kids, it’s just that they always succumb to their worst instincts and winning personalities aren’t something that can be easily taught. What distinguishes Slow Learners from most other nerd-centric comedies – including SNL’s hilarious skit, with Lisa Loopner (Gilda Radner) and Todd DiLaMuca (Bill Murray) – are Burns and Pally’s well-honed comedy chops and improvisational reflexes. Everything else is window dressing in Don Argott (Rock School), Sheena M. Joyce (The Atomic States of America) and writer Heather Maidat’s story. Because of its raunchy humor, Slow Learners is the kind of off-the-wall romance that will appeal primarily to teens and fans of free-form, Internet-based comedy.

Sex, Death and Bowling
While it can be argued endlessly as to whether bowling is a sport, hobby or excuse to smoke, drink beer and pretend it’s exercise, there’s no question as to how it’s been depicted by Hollywood filmmakers. In Five Easy Pieces, bowling alleys were where embittered oil worker Jack Nicholson went to drown out memories of being raised in a family of effete classical musicians. In Deer Hunter, King Ralph and Joe, bowling was used to establish blue-collar bona-fides. In The Big Lebowski, it marked the border between anarchy and order (“This is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”). Kingpin is a delightfully low-brow parody of The Hustler. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore exploited the irony of giving away guns to promote sound capitalistic practices. Likewise, in There Will Be Blood, unlimited greed and power turned a simple spherical implement designed for leisure-time pleasure into a crushingly murderous capitalist tool. Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Great Bikini Bowling Bash and Dream with the Fishes locate the nexus of bowling and sensuality. If the title of Ally Walker’s debut feature, Sex, Death and Bowling, was chosen to remind potential viewers of Sex, Lies and Videotape, it’s likely to have the exact opposite effect. Walker’s character-driven drama may indeed deal with sex, death and bowling, but not as a unified whole. They could just as well be chapter headings.

The “sex,” which is less graphic than implied, is largely limited to flashbacks to a scandalous event in one of the primary character’s high school days. “Death” is a preoccupation shared by everyone, especially 11-year-old Eli McAllister (Bailey Chase), whose curiosity over his father’s terminal illness leads him to seek the consul of a Roman Catholic priest and his catechism full of answers, however dubious. “Bowling” is the common denominator in a community whose carved-in-stone rituals and traditions long ago forced Eli’s Uncle Sean (Adrian Grenier) into self-exile in London. An annual bowling tournament also provides the opportunity for redemption and reconciliation among long-estranged family members and longtime rivals. Walker’s underdeveloped script and characterizations collapse under the weight of drama that’s stacked like a layer cake. Fortunately, a cast that includes such familiar pros as Selma Blair, Drea de Matteo, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Drew Powell, Melora Walters, Richard Riehle and Daniel Hugh Kelly keeps the narrative from succumbing to its more maudlin tendencies. In the central role of Uncle Sean, Grenier demonstrates more emotional range in five minutes than in the entirely of the Entourage movie.

Walt Before Mickey
It’s been a heck of a year for those who worship Walt Disney and everything he accomplished in a life cut short at 65, by lung cancer. In addition to Sarah Colt’s exhaustive “American Experience” bio-doc, “Walt Disney”; Saving Mr. Banks; The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story; and As Dreamers Do: The Amazing Life of Walt Disney. The latest addition to the list is Walt Before Mickey, a fact-based depiction of Uncle Walt’s formative years. Like “As Dreamers Do,” Khoa Le’s debut feature complements the epic “American Experience” doc, by focusing specifically on his pre-“Steamboat Willie” period and early financial struggles in forming an animation company. As such, it hues pretty closely to Timothy S. Susanin’s book, “Walt Before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928,” for which Diane Disney Miller supplied a forward. Shot on what must have been a miniscule budget, Le’s film looks as if it might have been intended for television, first, ahead of a DVD release. And, while the story rings true, the production values leave quite a bit to be desired. That said, Walt Before Mickey should interest newcomers to Disneyana, especially kids interested in the history of animation. At the ripe old age of 35, Las Vegas-native Thomas Ian Nicholas is convincing as Disney in his early adulthood. Once his fiancé, Edna, convinces him to grow a mustache, Nicholas is a dead-ringer for the real Disney. It might surprise some viewers to see the honest depiction of his cigarette addiction, which began during World War I, during which he served the Red Cross, and continued unabated for the rest of his life. Tom Hanks, who played the studio chief in Saving Mr. Banks, has said that the movie would have gotten a R-rating if it showed him smoking. Maybe so, but Walt Before Disney was accorded a PG and it accurately portrays his drug of choice. Where Bogart and Bacall made smoking look sexy, it looks like suicide here. Jon Heder does  a nice job as older brother, Roy Disney, whose influence on Walt can’t be understated.

The Surface
Melbourne-born model Harry Hains has the kind of deep-set blue eyes and long brown hair that can’t help but lure magazine readers into ads for jeans, gym shorts and all manner of au courant hipster attire. He’s frequently called upon to shed his shirt, revealing a cowboy-angel physicality and androgynous persona, that once might have defined “heroin chic.” In his feature-film debut, Hains could have been called upon to play a vampire, like those in the Théâtre des Vampires scene in Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. In The Surface, however, Hains plays a young gay man who was raised in a series of foster homes and emerged grasping for anything that resembles a family. Evan’s dreamy appearance has attracted a wealthy lover, close to his own age, but from a far loftier social class. College isn’t working out as planned, but he knows that things could be worse. One day, at a yard sale, Evan picks up an old 8mm camera that belongs to an elderly gentleman, who, long ago, stopped using it to capture family memories. He sells it to Evan at a rock-bottom price on the condition that he develops the film already in the camera and shows it to him. He returns in two weeks with the footage, only to learn from the man’s adult son that he’s died. After striking up an unlikely friendship with the 43-year-old Peter (Michael Redford Carney), Evan feverishly begins work on a film spliced together from the home movies. His lover, Chris (Nicholas McDonald), feels slighted in the shift of attention to Peter, causing a serious rift. Writer/director Michael J. Saul (Crush) avoids the usual sturm-und-drang associated with such breakups, maintaining an unusually low-key approach to the drama and its resolution. It takes a while to get accustomed to the deliberate pace, but it should leave viewers satisfied. Like too many other underseen niche films, The Surface deserves a shot at success outside the LGBT festival circuit.

Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story
If you can imagine an artistic endeavor that merges “Dancing With the Stars” with Best in Show and Babes in Arms, it might look a lot like Justin Turcotte’s offbeat documentary, Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story. It follows an aspiring theatre director – simply, Ray — as he realizes his dream of mounting the first ever theatrical performance featuring dancing dogs, their amateur handlers and indoor kite flying. Ironically, perhaps, Ray’s inspiration for the show was Cirque du Soleil, which, in its first iteration, became famous for eliminating animals from the circus experience. He might also have been encouraged by the musicals staged by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and community-theater director Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman. As easy as it is to watch “Unleashed!” and laugh at its conceit, there’s no questioning the dedication and zeal of the women who’ve literally taught their dogs to dance alongside them in coordinated routines. The Vancouver group spent more than two years, helping their first-time director realize his vision, by writing scripts, building sets, raising funds and rehearsing to the point of exhaustion. As is the case in any live production memorialized on screen – from “Guffman” to A Chorus Line, but writ much smaller — we’re also made privy to the mounting tensions and unexpected potholes along the way to Opening Night. Animal lovers won’t have any trouble falling in love with “Unleashed!” The dogs truly are amazing and their handlers easily recognizable as kindred spirits. I don’t know what to say about the kites.

What Have You Done to Solange?: Blu-ray
Count Dracula: Blu-ray
Zombie High: Bluray
The Dungeonmaster/Eliminators: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Blood Rage/Nightmare at Shadow Woods: Blu-ray
Arrow Video has almost singlehandedly breathed new life into exploitation flicks long dismissed as being cheapo knockoffs of American genre fare. At its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Italian movie industry was churning out about 350 titles a year, only a handful of which found their way into arthouses here. If most of them weren’t very good by anyone’s standards, some have aged pretty well. Taken in context, they are quite entertaining and not at all cheesy. An Italian-German co-production from 1972, What Have You Done to Solange?, can be enjoyed as both a classic specimen of early giallo and an erotic whodunit. Typically, once it reached these shores, the film was given at least four different names – “Terror in the Woods,” “The School That Couldn’t Scream,” “The Secret of the Green Pines” and its current, more representative title – and it almost certainly was independently edited for full-frontal nudity and some very nasty stuff involving knives and surgical tools. That most of the violence is perpetrated on sexually active teens – played by older-looking actresses – must have made American theater-owners queasy, as well. What immediately distinguishes What Have You Done to Solange?, though, is a creative team that includes director Massimo Dallamano (cinematographer on both A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More), veteran writer Bruno Di Geronimo (Dead Men Ride), music by the great Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Joe D’Amato, a sleaze-meister of the first water. The plot boils down to a search for a serial killer preying on the students of a prestigious all-girls academy in London. (The English setting and international cast was intended to snare global distribution.) There’s no shortage of suspects or clues, some of which may have been left behind as fool’s bait. Fresh off a key role in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Fabio Testi plays the prime suspect in the case, an oily gym teacher and seducer of one of the murdered students. Camille Keaton, who plays the missing girl, would go on to star in the infamous I Spit on Your Grave. As usual, the bonus package comes loaded with interesting making-of featurettes, commentary and freshly shot interviews, including one with Spanish co-star Cristina Galbó, who freely dishes the dirt on the production.

By the time Jesus Franco convinced Christopher Lee to reprise his signature role of Count Dracula in his adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, he had already portrayed the Prince of Darkness a half-dozen times at Hammer Studios. Lots of people think he’s the best actor to put on fangs. Franco convinced Lee to join his multinational production, shot largely in Spain, by promising him that Count Dracula would faithfully re-create Stoker’s narrative, minuses the flourishes added by the dozens of filmmakers who felt they could improve on genius. Lee remains the primary draw here, as well, but he gets more than ample support from Herbert Lom (the “Pink Panther” series); nutty Klaus Kinski, as the bug-eating Renfield; Franco’s muses Maria Rohm and Miranda Soledad; and versatile regulars Fred Williams and Jack Taylor. And, Franco does play it straight … more so than fans of his soft-core work would have expected or desired. As movies about alpha vampires go, it’s pretty darn good. Extras for the Severin Blu-ray release include the uncut feature at Franco’s approved aspect ratio of 1.33:1; “Cuadecuc, Vampir,” an experimental making-of documentary by Pere Portabella; commentary with horror historian David Del Valle and actress Maria Rohm; “Beloved Count,” interviews with Franco, Taylor and Williams; “Stake Holders,” an appreciation by filmmaker Christophe Gans; and Christopher Lee’s dramatic reading of the original novel.

Virginia Madsen, Sherilyn Fenn and James Wilder had hardly begun their careers in earnest when they agreed to play lead parts in the teens-in-jeopardy horror flick, Zombie High, which, even by 1987 standards, was pretty weak stuff. Their association with the zombie-less stinker didn’t hurt their careers, however, for the simple reason that no one bothered to go see it, apparently not even casting directors. In it, Madsen plays the perky new blond at a classy prep school, where a sexy brunette, portrayed by Fenn, is her roommate. It doesn’t take long for viewers to sense that something sinister has cast its spell on the student body, apparently composed of the sons and daughters of the Stepford wives. The faculty members are quite a bit livelier, if only because they’re the beneficiaries of the blood that once flowed through the veins of the student body. When the voluptuous blond and her townie buddy (Richard Cox) discover the school’s secret laboratory, they’re confronted by their teachers and seemingly lobotomized classmates. By comparison to almost everything else in the genre in 1987, Zombie High could have passed as an afterschool TV special. How it earned an R rating is a mystery. Co-star Paul Feig would survive, as well, going on to create the TV series “Freaks and Geeks” and direct such films as “Spy,” “Bridesmaids” and the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters.”

Released and retitled at the height of the Dungeons & Dragons craze and dawn of the Nintendo and Sega home-entertainment era, Dungeonmaster (a.k.a., “Ragewar”) required the services of seven different directors and eight writers to create a film that delivers about 15 minutes of entertainment. Prolific-to-a-fault producer Charles Band thought it might be fun to assign different levels of the arcade-game experience to members of his creative team who wanted to add their stamp to a feature film, however sliced and diced it might be. Jeffrey Byron plays a young computer wiz, Paul, who becomes so obsessed with a new arcade game that he begins to ignore his girlfriend, school work and meals. Paul has been challenged by the deus ex machina, Mestema (Richard Moll), to a series of seven death-defying encounters, which he must survive not only to beat the game but also to save the life of his girlfriend (Leslie Wing). No one knows what happens when a player conquers all seven levels, because it hasn’t been done. It doesn’t take more than 73 minutes for us to find out, however. Dungeonmaster probably would have been a more entertaining film if Band had allowed his team the freedom to fully test their imaginations in the anthology format. Until I watched the featurettes, I was unaware that each level was conceived by a different filmmaker.

Sharing the Scream Factory double-bill with Dungeonmaster is Eliminators, a very silly sci-fi/action/adventure flick also produced by Charles and Albert Band’s Empire Pictures. The protagonist is a half-human, half-cyborg Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds), created as part of a sinister time-travel experiment by an evil scientist, Abbott Reeves (Roy Dotrice), and his well-meaning assistant, Doctor Takada (Tad Horino). Takada helps Mandroid escape the jungle laboratory before he’s decommissioned by Reeves, but is struck with amnesia on the way to civilization. To prevent the scientist’s scheme from being carried out, Manimal enlists the help of Andrew Prine, Denise Crosby and Conan Lee. Before they reach the lab, however, Manimal leads them through a time warp or two, where they encounter cave men, river pirates and a robotic Tinkerbell ’droid. The making-of featurette provides a glimpse into what must have been a very bizarre location shoot. As it is, Eliminators is more fun than it has any right to be and, for guys, anyway, the presence of Der Bingle’s granddaughter is worth the price of a rental.

What’s that old line about something being so nice, they made it twice? In the opinion of Arrow Films’ crack restoration team, the 1983 slasher epic Blood Rage was so nice, they not only made it thrice, but they also gave it three different titles: “Slasher” (clapboard), “Blood Rage” (1983) and “Nightmare at Shadow Woods” (1987 U.S. release). Even in its final incarnation, John Grissmer and Bruce Rubin’s movie wasn’t something anyone would wait in line more than 10 minutes to see. Almost 30 years later, it’s worth a visit for several buff-specific reasons: 1) the violence and gore are  gloriously excessive, even considering how late it arrived in the subgenre’s heyday; 2) Louise Lasser, still riding the success of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” is a delight, despite a push-up bra that would make Frederick of Hollywood choke on his popcorn; 3) the female characters’ ridiculously “big” hairdos; 4) a punishingly creepy synth score; and 5) special makeup effects that deserve enshrinement in the Hollywood Museum, housed in the Max Factor Building. By any name, Nightmare at Shadow Woods boils down to a good-twin/bad-twin picture, in which the good twin was committed to a mental facility by mistake, after a brutal ax attack on naked lovers at a drive-in movie theater, and, 10 years later, his escape threatens to trigger a killing spree by the evil twin. Apparently, the impressionable lad was traumatized by watching his parents make out and decided to punish all young lovers. The Blu-ray bonus package is extremely generous, copious making-of featurettes, interviews, outtakes and three complete versions of the film.

Netflix: Marco Polo: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: Althea
PBS: Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans American History
PBS: Frontline: My Brother’s Bomber
PBS: Nova: Dawn of Humanity
PBS: The Mind of a Chef: David Kinch: Season 4
PBS: Nature: Pets: Wild at Heart
Although I would encourage students of Asian history to take what is depicted in the Netflix mini-series, “Marco Polo,” with more than a few grains of salt, it would be nice if lessons were presented in as entertaining a fashion. Teachers could require their students to watch movies and mini-series, then work backwards by pointing out the mistakes and actual history of the events portrayed. The scene in which a naked-except-for-swords royal courtesan, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng), uses her kung-fu skills to defend herself from a trio of soldiers loyal to Chancellor Jia Sidao (Chin Han) from brutally raping her, alone, would provide enough incentive for any young scholar to check out its accuracy in Wikipedia, at least. The same merger of dubious history and 21st Century sensuality prevails in such period mini-series as “Rome,” “The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” “The White Queen” and “Da Vinci’s Dreams.” Here, Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) is a Venetian stud, whose father built the land bridge connecting the trade routes of Asia and Europe. When the strangely ecumenical Kublai Khan decides to test the mettle of the Holy Roman Empire, he orders the father to return to Italy and bring back emissaries of the Pope. The son, Marco, is left behind as collateral. In the meantime, he makes himself extremely valuable to the Khan as an intellectual and military adviser. He also becomes proficient in the martial arts, under the tutelage of a blind monk known as Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu). The Mongol empire has long been in conflict with the Song Dynasty, soon to be led by Jia Sidao, whose headquarters are behind the fortified walls of Xiangyang. For fans of graphic violence, the Khan’s willingness to brutally dispatch with anyone perceived to be thwarting his will is well represented, with beheadings, slave soup and enemies trampled by Mongolian horsemen, while wrapped in rugs. What I liked about the mini-series most, aside from the aforementioned sword fight, are the magnificent Kazakhstan locations, which closely approximate the Mongolian steppes. The interior settings and costumes are splendid, as well. Netflix reportedly invested $90 million in the 10-episode project and every penny shows. This includes music by Mongolian bands Altan Urag and Batzorig Vaanchig of Khusugtun, who appears as a singer. The lavish presentation includes the many interesting bonus features, among them a 40-minute documentary on the historical Marco Polo, with the filmmakers and their technical advisers; several other making-of pieces; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

It’s entirely fitting that PBS’ “American Masters: Althea” should arrive almost simultaneously with the naming of Serena Williams as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. While it’s entirely possible that Serena and Venus Williams might have become tennis champions without Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe first paving the road for them, the color barrier might still have been in place upon their arrival on the scene. As it is, they faced an uphill climb in the press and tennis establishment. When Gibson emerged from the streets of Harlem in the 1950s, much of the sporting world was as segregated as any capital of the American South. She would become the first African-American to play and win at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, a decade before Ashe. The profile covers her roots as a sharecropper’s daughter, the family’s migration north to Harlem, her mentoring from Sugar Ray Robinson, David Dinkins and others, and the fame that thrust her unwillingly into the glare of the early Civil Rights movement.

Ric Burns’ “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans American History” aired on Veterans Day, as a tribute to the history of disabled fighting men and women. It isn’t always a pretty or particularly honorable picture that Burns paints. “Debt of Honor” takes an unflinching look at the reality of warfare and disability, beginning in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and continuing through today’s conflicts in the Middle East. It is informed by interviews with some of the country’s most prominent disabled veterans.

For some 25 years, filmmaker Ken Dornstein has been haunted by the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The ghastly terrorist act killed 270 people, including his older brother, David. Now, Dornstein sets out to find the men responsible, hunting for clues to the identities and whereabouts of the suspects in the ruins and chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya in the “Frontline” spy thriller, “My Brother’s Bomber.”

For PBS’ “Dawn of Humanity,” producers from “Nova” and National Geographic were accorded exclusive access to an astounding discovery of ancient fossil human ancestors, deep in a South African cave. A special team of experts has brought to light an unprecedented wealth of fossils bridging a crucial gap in the record of our origins that spans the transition between the ape-like australopithecines (such as the famous Lucy) and the earliest members of the human family.

The latest installment of PBS’ “The Mind of a Chef” follows award-winning Chef David Kinch as he reflects on his inspiration, creative drive and the unforeseen challenges faced by chefs in their pursuit of excellence. In Season Four, Kinch invites us to explore a night of service at his restaurant, the people that make it work, the purveyors that provide the ingredients and his travels back to New Orleans to cook with old friends.

And, finally, what would box full of DVD screeners from PBS without at least one for lovers of domesticated animals. The “Nature” presentation “Pets: Wild at Heart” invites viewers into a secret world of wild behavior and natural abilities that we hardly notice or recognize. This two-part series explores the extraordinary senses and special skills of our pets, using with all sorts of high-tech devices:  spy cameras, moving X-rays, night-vision cameras, drones, miniature on-board cameras and high-speed cameras.

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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