MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Straight Outta Compton, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Howl, I Am Thor and more

Straight Outta Compton: Blu-ray
As difficult as it might be for fans of Straight Outta Compton to believe that it was nearly shut out of Oscar competition, it’s just that hard for me be to believe that enough voters in any category actually watched enough of the movie to endorse it. Unlike The Help and 12 Years a Slave, the story behind the rise and fall of the genre-shattering hip-hop group, N.W.A., had several things working against it from the get-go. Not all of them can be attributed to racial insensitivity and the lack of diversity in the academy, although they can’t be discounted out of hand. For example, I can’t imagine any voter over, say, 40, rewarding a movie whose acoustics required them to keep a tight grip on the remote control every time the explosive musical soundtrack kicked in on their state-of-the-art Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 system. And, then, feel it necessary to readjust the sound when dialogue is exchanged. Even if that obstacle could be overcome, of course, there still was the matter of what was being said. The theatrical cut, alone, included 293 f-bombs and at least as many colorfully delivered variations of the n-word for people who depend on studio-provided screeners to endure. Clearly, such concerns were of little consequence to those who actually were required to purchase tickets for the privilege of watching a movie. The fact that Straight Outta Compton grossed $200 million at the international box office argues that it effectively crossed over to audiences of several distinct ethnic groups, all conceivably below the age of 40. That, to me, is what should have made F. Gary Gray’s extremely well executed film a candidate for one of 10 potential spots in the Best Picture category. (In fact, only eight were deemed to be “of extraordinary merit.”) Beyond the irony of having its four white writers nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category, observers were left scratching their heads over the omission of Gray as a Best Director.

If the academy was more diverse, or had been required to see the movie in a theater full of hip-hop fans, the Best Picture voting might have been different. As it is, other organizations did the right thing by honoring the movie’s ensemble cast. The larger and more obvious injustice – to outsiders, at least — could be found in the Best Supporting Actor category, in which Sylvester Stallone was honored for his work in Creed, at the same time as Michael B. Jordan was being stiffed in the Best Actor race. Finding Stallone’s name on the ballot after all these years likely was too great a temptation for old-timers in the actors’ branch to ignore … once they figured out that this Michael Jordan didn’t wear a “23” on his robe. Many predictions had Idris Elba a finalist in the supporting-actor category, for Beasts of No Nation, and Will Smith a Best Actor contender for Concussion. (If I was of Chinese background, I’d be angry that The Assassin wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and several design categories.) Oscar-ceremony host Chris Rock probably will have the last laugh on the subject come February 28.

Straight Outta Compton tells the story of the “seminal” gangsta-rap group, N.W.A., whose appeal crossed racial boundaries and withstood attempts by police, the FBI and other conservative groups to silence its message. The outsider drama stars O’Shea Jackson his real-life dad, Ice Cube; Corey Hawkins, as producer extraordinaire Dr. Dre; Jason Mitchell, as the doomed wordsmith Eazy-E; and Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, as the less visible MC Ren and DJ Yella. Gray eloquently dramatizes the group’s us-against-the-world origin story, which provided a beacon of hope for a legion of rappers to follow. Moreover, even before the Rodney King beating and acquittal of the officers involved in it, the song “Fuck tha Police” would shine a light on the very real problems of police brutality, racial profiling and arbitrary prosecution of minority youths. (The same issues would enflame passions a quarter-century later.) Predictably, perhaps, paranoia over the distribution of great wealth among the artists, promoters and labels prompted the artists to take sides against each other. Old-school rock manager Jerry Hellman (Paul Giamatti) exploited the fissures, causing some members to take shelter in the evil empire of Shug Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). Foreshadowed here, too, are the murders of Tupac and Biggie and emergence of such rappers as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Snoop Dog, LL Kool J and Sean Combs as cross-media actors and celebrities. The women are relegated to roles as pool-party ornaments, coke whores, and blindly supportive wives and girlfriends. (What was left out of this storyline probably could have filled another 20 minutes.) The extended director’s cut edition seamlessly adds 20 minutes to the theatrical version, as well as deleted scenes, a deleted song performance, the director’s commentary track and several making-of and background featurettes.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Blu-ray
Teenage girls are notoriously protective of the thoughts they collect in their diaries. They’re maintained with a nearly religious dedication and hidden from their nosy moms with the same care the government reserves for state secrets. It’s the rare diary, though, that can avoid detection by a person who has almost unlimited access to dressers, pillow cases and closets, and, of course, probably kept a diary of her own. The jottings that teens feared would shock parents, back in the days when Sandra Dee, Sally Field and Annette Funicello served as role models, probably would be viewed today with amusement and no small amount of relief. The innermost thoughts of 15-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley), as revealed in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, might even raise a blush in the cheeks of Bridget Jones. As originally conceived by novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and later adapted for stage and screen by Heller, Minnie is the daughter of Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). The divorced San Francisco mother of two is still living the Flower Power dream, a decade after it began to wither. They live in a neighborhood that looks very much like the Haight-Asbury of old (and probably still does). Minnie is exposed on daily basis to a wide variety of individuals specific to the city’s post-hippie generation, including all manner of libertines, predators and misfits. In her brief time on Earth, Minnie has developed precocious notions about the holy trinity of big city life in the 1970s: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Among other things she admits to in her dear-diary confessions are trysts with her mother’s sexually blasé boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), and a growing fondness for hallucinogens. More telling than anything in her taped missives, perhaps, are illustrations in her notebook inspired by underground comics artist, Aline Kominsky, who, in 1978, would marry R. Crumb. The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls few punches in its depiction of sex that qualifies in most jurisdictions as statutory rape, no matter how consensual. Powley may be 23, but she easily passes for 15. As such, parents of teenage daughters, especially, might find scenes depicting Minnie’s sexual awakening to be uncomfortably realistic, no matter how integral to the story and non-exploitative they are. In this way and others, I was reminded favorably of Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Larry Clark’s Kids and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Powley, Heller and the ensemble cast have been nominated for Indie Spirit Awards in three categories. The Blu-ray arrives with a strong making-of featurette, deleted scenes and L.A. Film Festival Q&A.

I Believe in Unicorns
Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature I Believe in Unicorns bears easy comparison to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, in that it tells the story of an awkward teenage girl, in San Francisco, coming to grips with her first not entirely pleasurable sexual experience. The boy the waifish Davina (Natalia Dyer) chooses to share her coming-of-age is a skateboarding Adonis, who plays the guitar, shoplifts and wouldn’t look out of place in an ad for denim jeans. Sterling (Peter Vack) also is genetically predisposed to violence towards women when things get difficult for him. In addition to being obsessed with unicorns, the seemingly grownup Davina sometimes dresses in animal costumes and collects dinosaur figurines. She also is required to take of her invalid mother, who once enjoyed many of the same fantasies. That Davina’s impressionistic dreams and fantasies are rendered in stop- and fast-motion cinematography is what makes I Believe in Unicorns so compelling. Jarin Blaschke’s camera also does a nice job chronicling Davina and Sterling’s excellent adventure through the rolling hills of northern California. The inclusion of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” familiar from the Badlands soundtrack, almost immediately surrounds the lovers with an aura of dread. Visually, I Believe in Unicorns could hardly be more inventive and the story, itself, carries the ring of truth. Although, it debuted on the Internet after a run on the festival circuit, I can easily see how it might enjoy a cult following among teenage girls, if they can only find the DVD.

Howl: Blu-ray
Unlike movies featuring vampires and zombies, it isn’t often that one comes across a werewolf movie to recommend. From British makeup-effects specialist Paul Hyett (The Seasoning House), Howl borrows from three different sub-genres for a very decent thriller, set in and around a broken-down commuter train, stuck in the woods somewhere outside of London. It’s late at night and the cars are sparsely populated with a variety of passengers and railroad employees, none of whom is particularly thrilled to be large at all. Things begin to get weird after the engineer leaves the train to investigate the extent of the damage and discovers a stag crushed under one of the carriage’s steel wheels. This, in itself, wouldn’t be sufficient cause for alarm, except, perhaps, for a vegan passenger who might blame themselves for the deer being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It doesn’t take long for viewers, at least to discover what spooked the animal and it doesn’t bode well for the people on board. Naturally, when the engineer fails to return, they begin to frighten themselves with all of the various possibilities. Even after they barricade themselves inside one of the stalled cars, the passengers begin the serious job of looking out for their own best interests. They defend themselves admirably against what they believe to be the killer, not anticipating that the werewolf might not be alone in the darkness. Soon enough, the full extent of the threat is revealed and all that’s left for viewers to do is sit back and wait for the fun to begin. It’s a simple story, really, but writers Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler – perhaps inspired by their work on “Thomas the Tank Engine” – have given Hyett all the story he needs to create thrills and chills out of prosthetic gore, nasty fake fur and frightening masks and teeth. His team of set designers, lighting specialists and composers do the rest. The Blu-ray adds several making-of vignettes.

I Am Thor: Blu-ray
One of the most endearing things about rock ’n’ roll is its ability to surprise even its most jaded critics with unexpected twists on genre clichés and weird coincidences. Who would have guessed, even 35 years ago, that the deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frye and Lemmy Kilmister would warrant notice on the front page of the New York Times? And, yet, there they were … on the newspaper’s website, at least. I wonder how many editors of the august publication could have picked Lemmy out of a lineup at the Hall of Fame before his death, at 70, on December 28. God knows, how they’ll handle the deaths of Ozzy or Jimmy Page … not to mention Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. I doubt very much that Canadian rocker Jon Mikl Thor would warrant more than a few inches in the Times or any other American newspaper. That’s part of what makes Ryan Wise’s I Am Thor such a welcome addition to already saturated field of rock-docs and bio-pics. Equal bits Spinal Tap and Last Days Here, which chronicled the rise, fall and resurrection of Pentagram singer’s Bobby Liebling, I Am Thor introduces us to the onetime bodybuilding champion whose stage act included bending steel bars, smashing concrete blocks and blowing up hot-water bottles. Before emerging as Thor the Rock Warrior, the Vancouver native was best known as the first Canadian to win both the Mr. Canada and Mr. USA trophies, competing against Lou Ferrigno, among others, in international competition.

He retired in 1973, at 19, to pursue a career in entertainment, first as a naked waiter in a Vegas revue and, then, as a cosplay rocker at the old Aladdin resort. Thor attracted the attention of Merv Griffin, mostly as a novelty act, appearing on television from Caesar’s Palace. While there was no denying his certifiably gruff “metal” voice and innate showmanship, bad timing and worse luck would account for Thor and the Imps’ inability to compete at the same level as Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, KISS and Lemmy’s creation, Motörhead. The zenith of his career came in 1984, when “Thunder on the Tundra” and “Let the Blood Run Red” topped the British charts. After an untimely nervous breakdown three years later, Thor would retire from live performances to focus on movies and his own record label. While living in North Carolina, Thor would be encouraged to dust off his props and send his costumes – which now barely fit his pot belly – to the dry cleaners for an attempt at a comeback. Director Wise and producer Alan Higbee met Thor in 2000, began filming in 2001, and only finished shooting in 2014, in time for last year’s Slamdance festival. Besides much background material, I Am Thor capably demonstrates how difficult it can be to re-ignite the fire under an act reduced to ashes 10 years earlier. It isn’t pretty. Even so, I Am Thor is blessedly free of sad tales of substance abuse, burned bridges and corporate rip-offs. Instead, it is informed by the singer’s winning personality and drive to make audiences happy. Against all odds, we’re left with the feeling that Bob Seger was thinking of Jon Mikl Thor when he wrote “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.”

Starz: Da Vinci’s Demons: The Complete Third Season
PBS: Frontline: Inside Assad’s Syria
PBS: Off the Menu: Asian America
The Saint: Seasons 3 & 4
Sisters: Season Three
PBS Kids: Caillou: Caillou Learns to Share
Although it would be difficult to exaggerate the amazing achievements of the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, the highly entertaining Starz’ mini-series, “Da Vinci’s Demons,” suggests that he might, in fact, have been the first Marvel superhero. Impossibly handsome, a gifted swordsman and capable of visualizing complex scientific concepts in thin air, the troubled genius portrayed by Tom Riley more closely resembles Leonardo di Caprio or Leon Trotsky than the “portrait of a man in red chalk,” attributed to a 60-year-old Da Vinci, currently housed at Turin’s Biblioteca Reale. Riley’s Leonardo da Vinci wouldn’t be out of place in the CBS Western series, “The Wild Wild West,” playing Artemus Gordon to Secret Service agent James West. Through three seasons, Starz audiences have followed Da Vinci’s search for the mystical Book of Leaves, which, in Season Two, even found him in the New World. In the show’s third and final stanza, the Medicis and Pazzis continue their terrible rivalry, even as Turkish forces have established a beachhead at Otranto. This year, DaVinci’s vulnerability to the whims of the powerful leaders of Rome and Florence – as well as representatives of Satan, in the Labyrinth – nearly does him in. As the season comes to a close, however, a multi-episode re-appearance by Vlad the Impaler turns Italy’s darkest hour into a delightfully excuse for war. “Da Vinci’s Demons” must have been a terribly expensive show to mount, as it never looks less than convincing historically and the CGI touches never feel anachronistic. The show’s primary drawback, ratings-wise, might have resulted from a scarcity of the gratuitous nudity that attracts male eyes to other premium-cable shows. It’s there, but blink and you’ll miss it. Everything else about “Da Vinci’s Demons,” even the ending – re-shot after the cancelation was announced — is first-rate.

Even before Syria erupted in civil war, the country inherited by Bashar al-Assad from his dictatorial father was something of a mystery to most Americans. We knew that Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had been a thorn in the side of western nations for most of his 30 years in charge of military and government affairs, specifically for harboring terrorists (including a Nazi war criminal), fomenting turmoil in Lebanon and being a staunch ally of the former Soviet Union. Syria remains, of course, a constant threat to Israel, with which it shares a disputed border. Beyond that, however, zilch. When the country did explode, as part of the Arab Spring uprising, the U.S. somehow convinced itself that Assad would be the next tyrant to topple at the hand of its own people. What President Obama and his advisers didn’t take into account, however, was the lack of common purpose in the Syrian resistance. Syrians were divided by religion, wealth, politics and ability to mount a rebellion. ISIS emerged from the fog of that war, as did a million or so refugees. What we’re learning today is just how desperate is the state of Syrians outside Damascus and the region controlled by ISIS. Entire populations are being starved to death and relief efforts are stymied. In the “Frontline” investigation, “Inside Assad’s Syria,” correspondent Martin Smith (“Obama at War,” “The Rise of the Isis”) was accorded access to government officials, militia leaders and areas generally off-limits to journalists. One of his guides, an Arab journalist, was killed in combat a day after they parted company outside the capital. Even as the death toll mounts, Smith was able to find delusional elements in the government and business community willing to promote Syria as a destination for tourism. He could hardly believe what he was seeing and hearing.

In their continuing efforts to keep pace with the Food Network and other food-centric programming, such PBS shows as “Off the Menu: Asian America” draw viewers by championing diversity and our willingness to merge cross-cultural influences. A half-century ago, no cuisine was as foreign to the American palate as that of Pacific Rim countries. Outside of New York and San Francisco, Chinese food came out of a can and Japanese dishes practically were non-existent. One of the great victories in the foodie revolution came with the realization that fresh ingredients and exotic spices could be blended to satisfy famously picky American tastes. Young people turned to their grandparents for recipes that reflected their ethnic backgrounds, instead of disguising them with ketchup, sugar and gravy. “Off the Menu” looks beyond China and Japan for examples of Asian/Pacific/American fusion. It takes us on a journey from Texas to New York, and from Wisconsin to Hawaii, using our obsession with food as a launching point to delve into a wealth of stories, traditions and unexpected characters that help nourish this nation of immigrants.

In the third season of “Sisters” Georgie (Patricia Kalember) carries Frankie’s baby via surrogacy and gives birth while trapped in car after an accident. Following the birth, Georgie has maternal feelings for the baby and feels unable to give the baby to Frankie (Julianne Phillips). Teddy (Sela Ward) finds success as a fashion designer; Alex (Swoosie Kurtz) feuds with Teddy and Alex’s daughter, Reed (Ashley Judd), gets married to Kirby (Paul Rudd). Frankie and Mitch (Ed Marinaro) deal with custody problems when they divorce and Alex battles cancer. Otherwise, nothing of much consequence happened. At the time considered groundbreaking for focusing on the lives of four women, “Sisters” dealt with human issues with warmth, heart and sensitivity.

A timeless figure of adventure since his creation by Leslie Charteris in 1928, “The Saint” has thrilled adventure aficionados with his exploits in a variety of media, including novels, movies and radio, but nowhere was the dashing Simon Templar more indelibly realized than in his 1960s television series. It starred the pre-Bond Roger Moore in the title role and, in Seasons Three and Four, featured early appearances for such actors as Burt Kwouk (“The Pink Panther” films), Carol Cleveland (“Monty Python’s Flying Circus”) and Donald Sutherland. The generous package adds “Behind the Scenes, With Sir Roger Moore as Director” and commentaries on “The Happy Suicide,” with guest star with Jane Merrow, “The Saint Bids Diamonds,” with Moore, producer Robert S. Baker guest star Eunice Gayson.

From PBS Kids, “Caillou Learns to Share” teaches his young fans one of the toughest and longest-lasting lessons they’ll ever have to learn. In it, Caillou discovers that sharing his things with the people he loves always turns out better in the end. From teaching his classmate Clementine his special art technique, to taking turns at playing conductor with his friends and family, to sharing his favorite things with little sister Rosie, Caillou learns that sharing not only makes him feel really good, it makes those around him feel good, too.

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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