MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Matinee, Crooked House, Jawbone, Cook Off!, Blue World Order, Into the Amazon, Tuxedo Park and more

Matinee: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Now that two certified lunatics have their fingers on “the button,” I wonder if kids, today, are being prepped for the possibility of a nuclear strike. I haven’t read any reports of people stockpiling goods or hurriedly digging holes in their backyards for bomb shelters, as was the case during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s possible that Americans not only have convince themselves that cooler heads will prevail, as they did then, or they no longer can be conned into believing that ducking underneath a desk and covering their heads could protect anyone from becoming toast. Fifty-five years ago, however, that’s all the hope American school children were given. In Joe Dante’s wonderfully nostalgic Matinee (1992), kids living in Key West, Florida – 90 miles from Cuba, where Soviet missiles were being pointed directly at them – were allowed to take a break from ducking-and-covering exercises long enough to enjoy a movie about a man who turns into a giant ant after a botched X-ray exam at the dentist. Like other black-and-white creature features of the period, “Mant” combined post-war paranoia with a natural fear of the unknown. With a large percentage of the island’s male population already in the air or on the sea, preparing to intercept Soviet vessels carrying ICBM missiles to Cuba, the last thing Key West residents needed was the extra layer of excitement provided by the tub-thumping exploitation director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) and his girlfriend/actress, Ruth (Cathy Moriarty). They arrived just as fighter planes were taking off for possible war, in a Cadillac full of gimmicks designed to heighten the horror experience. In a nod to director/producer William Castle’s The Tingler, Woolsey installs vibrating gizmos in the theater’s seats; assigns Ruth to put on a nurse’s uniform, sit in the lobby and collect signatures waiving liability for any nervous breakdowns; places equipment behind the screen to blow dry-ice vapors at the audience; and hires a local juvenile delinquent to wear an ant costume and appear in the audience when patrons are freaking out from the buzzers in their seats. In Dante’s capable hands, it’s the perfect recipe for mayhem. If that weren’t enough to keep viewers of the movie-within-a-movie occupied, however, he and writer Charles S. Haas (Martians Go Home) added a romantic coming-of-age angle for the young stars, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Simon Fenton and Omri Katz. All that baggage might have sunk the ship, if it weren’t for Dante’s ability to keep it afloat, by blending fact and fantasy with excellent performances by Goodman, Moriarty, theater owner Robert Picardo and the young actors. (Also look for cameos by Jesse White, John Sayles, Dick Miller and Naomi Watts.) Shout!’s “Collector’s Edition” adds several new featurettes and interviews, including those with Dante, Moriarty, Jakub, production designer Steven Legler, editor Marshall Harvey and DP John Hora. Also included is “Mant!,” a full-length version of the film, with an introduction by Dante; deleted and extended scenes; and other vintage material.

Crooked House
As one of those all-star confections that have Agatha Christie’s name etched on every frame, Crooked House probably would have been a better fit for PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” than as a limited release in theaters. In fact, it aired first on Britain’s Channel 5, on December 17, 2017. The temptation to piggy-back on the advertising and publicity surrounding Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, sent out a month earlier by Fox, must have been too much for Sony to resist, however. Logically, the strategy should have worked, even if “Orient Express” is the better-known title, by far. Ironically, many American and British critics found the adaptation of Christie’s twisty 1949 whodunit, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah’s Key) and co-written by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), to be the superior production … and, not merely on a dollar-for-dollar, pound-for-pound basis of comparison. As is usually the case in Christie entertainments, a murder occurs in a relatively closed environment and everyone close to the victim falls under suspicion. This time, the scene of the crime is a splendid mansion in a sprawling estate not far from London. (Locations include the Maughan Library at the city’s King’s College, Bristol’s Tyntesfield mansion and Hampshire’s Minley Manor.) The poisoned business tycoon is Aristide Leonides, a Greek immigrant with a rags-to-riches story that might include some spying for the CIA. Private detective Charles Hayward (Max Irons) is lured by his former lover (Stefanie Martini) to identify her grandfather’s killer before investigators for Scotland Yard turn up dirt on the family. Hayward encounters three generations of the dynasty, including a semi-retired actress, Magda (Gillian Anderson); the old man’s much-younger wife, Brenda (Christina Hendricks), a onetime Vegas showgirl; and shotgun-toting matriarch Lady Edith de Haviland (Glenn Close). Leonides’s eldest son, Philip (Julian Sands), hated his father for passing him over to run the family business and for refusing to take interest in a new play he’d written for Magda. His creepy younger brother, Roger (Christian McKay), has proven to be much better at squandering the family fortune, than saving it. Terence Stamp plays Chief Inspector Taverner, who objects to Hayward’s interference in the investigation, which soon will include a poisoned nanny, sabotaged treehouse and suspicious will. Unlike other Christie adaptations, the film’s climax should come as a shock and surprise to most viewers. The Blu-ray includes the featurettes, “Agatha Christie: A Timeless Fascination,” “Whodunnit?: The Characters of Crooked House” and “Elegance & Innovation: The Design of Crooked House.”

Movies about boxing and the men and women who partake in the sweet science have come and gone with great rapidity over the last 100 years. When compared to other subgenres, however, they have fared much better than most. Even the bad and mediocre ones tend to have something worthwhile to offer viewers. That’s because almost everything about the sport is intrinsically dramatic … from the matches to the gangland connections and career trajectories of the fighters. While the addition of heart-wrenching romance and other histrionics isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the typical Hollywood production will shortchange the fighting, in favor of melodramatic clichés and tropes. It isn’t easy to stage a boxing match and make it look credible. And, yes, Rocky is the exception that proves the rule. From England comes Jawbone, one of the best no-frills boxing movies I’ve seen in a long time. Sadly, though, even the marketability of heavyweight actors Ian McShane, Ray Winstone and Michael Smiley couldn’t persuade distributors here to take a shot on Thomas Napper’s feature debut. The real star of the show, however, is writer and lead actor Johnny Harris, for whom Jawbone is his Sylvester Stallone moment. In it, the journeyman television actor plays former youth boxing champion Jimmy McCabe, who, after hitting rock bottom, returns to his childhood boxing club, still run by Bill (Winstone) and corner-man Eddie (Smiley). At first, Harris seems more than a little bit punch drunk. He’s being evicted from the housing-project apartment he shared with his mother and doesn’t appear to know where he’ll find his next meal. Although Bill and Eddie wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Jimmy fall off the wagon, they give him a final chance, anyway. The fastest way to a payday is through an unlicensed match in foreign territory — the West Midlands — arranged by an old friend and gangster, played with ultimate cool by McShane. A local promoter assumes that McCabe will merely provide a punching bag for his undefeated fighter, but the invader surprises everyone with his guts and stamina. And, while a terminal illness involving a key character delivers an emotional punch, halfway through Jawbone, it’s Harris’ performance in and out of the ring that keeps our eyes pinned to the screen. Even if there were space in the 91-minute film for a fixed fight or fairytale romance, they wouldn’t add anything more worthwhile to the story than is already there. Paul Weller, a former member of Jam and Style Council, composed and recorded an evocative original soundtrack for Jawbone. British boxing legend Barry McGuigan and his son, the esteemed trainer Shane McGuigan, served as boxing consultants. Jawbone has been nominated in seven categories by the British Independent Film Association, including Best Actor and Best Debut Screenplay for Harris. He and Napper are finalists in the BAFTA category, Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

Cook Off!: Blu-ray
Even if there’s no good reason to add a freshness label to movies released on DVD-Blu-ray – or medical alert, for that matter – the long-delayed delivery of Cook Off! begs a couple of interesting questions, at least. Cathryn Michon and Guy Shalem’s mockumentary landed on VOD outlets last November, nearly 11 years after its debut at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, in Aspen. The cast is comprised of veterans of the L.A. improvisational-comedy scene, including members of the Groundlings, Off the Wall and “Reno 911!” While vaguely familiar to viewers, then, the faces of Wendi McLendon-Covey (“The Goldbergs”), Melissa McCarthy (“Mike & Molly”), Gary Anthony Williams (“The Soul Man”), Niecy Nash (“Claws”), Diedrich Bader (“Veep”), Mindy Sterling (“Con Man) and Jennifer Elise Cox (“Idiotsitter”) will immediately ring bells today. I should have smelled something fishy with the appearance of Marcia Wallace (“The Bob Newhart Show”), who passed away in 2013, but spent more time wondering if Gavin McLeod (“The Love Boat”) was still alive. He is. The thing is, though, Cook Off! isn’t all that bad. While it may not be in same league as Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s hilarious sendup of the Westminster Kennel Club Show, Cook Off! offers more than its fair share of laughs at the expense of the same sort of American archetypes. Here, the targets of Michon, McLendon-Covey and W. Bruce Cameron’s scattershot script are finalists in the Van Rookle Farms Cooking Contest, which offers $1 million first prize. Michon, who wrote the source novel “The Grrl Genius Guide to Life,” plays Sharon Solfest, a hot blond hoochie-mama who sells Lutheran-approved sex toys to women in her Minnesota home town. Strangely chaste, herself, she’s saving her most precious possession for Lars (Williams), a gregarious black man she describes as “the most Swedish guy in Minnesota.” It’s pretty clear, however, that Lars is saving his virginity for a dude. Sharon’s sister, Pauline (McLendon-Covey), also qualified for the finals. She is a nursing-home dietician who specializes in a lactose-free version of creamed corn. McCarthy steals the show with a concoction that is created from ingredients that come in cans and boxes. Two years before “Mike & Molly,” her star quality was already on full display. Also funny in smaller parts are Louis Anderson, as mayor of the sponsoring city, Blue Earth; Wallace and McLeod, as the celebrity judges; Little, as the costume mascot, Mister Muffin; and Markie Post (“Night Court”), as the food-channel announcer. As ragged as it is, Cook Off! should provide fans of the actors, at least, more than a few moments of pleasure. The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes and outtakes; and the featurette, “Cook-Off!: The Ultimate Food Fight.”

Blue World Order
With Billy Zane on board, how could any post-apocalyptic sci-fi action picture go wrong? A lot of different ways, really, but none of them here can be laid at the feet of the Titanic star and Straight-to-Video Hall of Famer. If Blue World Order co-directors Ché Baker and Dallas Bland had a few more million dollars on hand, it might have been easier to recommend to American fans of Ozploitation flicks. As it is, Blue World Order more closely resembles a pilot for a series on FX or Syfy, than a free-standing adventure. On October 19, 2022, an attack on an international web of bio-power plants spews irradiated bacteria around the northern hemisphere, killing most adults. Meanwhile, a massive electromagnetic pulse has wiped out all the planet’s children, with the exception of Molly (Billie Rutherford), the daughter of Jake Slater (Jake Ryan).  After two years in the wilderness, Ryan and his now-comatose daughter team up with the bumbling misfit, Madcap — Stephen Hunter, who played Bombur in The Hobbit – who concocts a plan to shut down the spread of the virus and destroy a tower, which sends intermittent signals to control the actions of infected survivors. Naturally, Zane leads the gang of rebels that controls the tower and is determined to capture Jake and Molly to see how they’ve managed to stay alive. Australian favorites Bruce Spence (Road Warrior) and Jack Thompson (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) liven up the proceedings, as well.

PBS: American Experience: Into the Amazon
PBS: American Experience: The Secret of Tuxedo Park
PBS: American Masters: This Is Bob Hope …
PBS: Great Performances: Havana Time Machine
PBS: Nature: Nature’s Miniature Miracles
They don’t make presidents like Teddy Roosevelt anymore … former presidents, either. Anyone who watched Ken Burns’ comprehensive bio-doc, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” already knows what the elder Roosevelt cousin contributed to the American presidency, democracy and psyche. The “American Experience” presentation “Into the Amazon” expands on an eight-week period in TR’s life that is as fascinating as any chapter in his biography. In 1914, the former president joined Brazilian explorer and naturalist Candido Rondon in a journey that would take them to the heart of the rainforest to chart an unexplored tributary of the Amazon, the Rio da Duvida. The crew included his son, Kermit, a physician and a representative of the American Museum of Natural History, as well as 16 porters and oarsmen. The adventurers set out on December 9, 1913, at the height of the rainy season and a mere two years after a would-be assassin’s bullet narrowly missed his heart and became lodged in his chest. That wound would become relevant when TR suffered a cut on his leg, after jumping into the river to prevent two canoes from smashing against the rocks. Already in a weakened state, Roosevelt soon contracted a tropical fever that resembled the malaria he had experienced, while in Cuba, 15 years earlier. By the sixth week of the trek, he couldn’t walk. The infection in his leg required the physician’s constant attention. TR insisted that Rondon continue the poorly provisioned expedition without him, but Kermit persuaded him to continue. Anyone who’s seen The Lost City of Z already knows how challenging such a mission could be, then and now. Indeed, “lost” Amazonian tribes are still being identified. The two-hour “Into the Amazon” not only captures the intricacies of the expedition, including tensions between the leaders, but also takes viewers on a visual journey on the same river.

More than 70 years after the end of World War II, we’re still being introduced to unsung heroes and discoveries that changed its course. Alfred Lee Loomis is one such man. An attorney, investment banker, philanthropist, physicist, inventor of the LORAN Long Range Navigation System and a lifelong patron of scientific research, Loomis created a laboratory and think tank where the allies’ top minds could work and exchange ideas, without having to anticipate budget cuts and other governmental interference. In 1940, as German bombs rained on London, Winston Churchill bypassed the Pentagon and took his country’s advances in radar technology straight to Loomis, who provided the money necessary to mass-produce the devices and install them in airplanes. MIT director Lee DuBridge would observe, “Radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it.” PBS’ “American Experience: The Secret of Tuxedo Park” describes the positive consequences of such trans-Atlantic cooperation, while also giving viewers a tour of Loomis’ Tuxedo Park mansion, which attracted such great minds as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, James Franck and Enrico Fermi.

Being profiled in an episode of PBS’ “American Masters” series is an honor that’s unique in the mass media. At two hours, the producers have plenty of time to touch all the bases in an important American performer’s career, with easy access to archival material and the cooperation of relatives, peers and historians. I wonder what the subject of “This Is Bob Hope …” would say about having to wait more than three years to be accorded the same treatment as his friend and partner, Bing Crosby. During his eight-decade career, Hope was the only performer to achieve great success in every form of 20th Century mass entertainment: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song and personal appearances. “American Masters” explores the entertainer’s life with unprecedented access to his personal files and clips from his classic films.

It’s possible to enjoy “Great Performances: Havana Time Machine” as an extension of Wim Wenders’ great musical documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, which introduced Americans to Cuban artists who’d almost completely disappeared from view in record stores here and on the island. If the element of surprise is missing, the music performed remains revelatory. Raul Malo, the wonderful lead singer of the Mavericks, explores his Cuban heritage alongside such musicians as Eliades Ochoa, Ivette Cepeda, Roberto Fonseca and the Sweet Lizzy Project. Once again, Havana provides a lovely background for the collaborations and history lessons. “Time Machine” begs the same question raised in “BVSC,” however: When is America going to get over itself and lift a boycott that’s punishing innocent Cubans far more than the country’s Communist Party elite?

PBS’ “Nature” series goes to the ends of the Earth to find rarely seen animals and capture them photographically in their natural environments.   “Nature’s Miniature Miracles” chronicles the epic survival stories of the world’s smallest beings. These tiny “heroes” have developed extraordinary skills through evolution and achieve amazing feats. They include the wee sengi, considered the cheetah of the shrew world; a hummingbird who travels thousands of miles, twice each year; a small shark that walks on land; and an army of baby turtles, as they instinctively race from their sandy nests to the safety of the open ocean.

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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