MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

DVD Wrap: 9th Company, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, Drive in Cult Classics, Squeal, Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire … and more

9th Company: Blu-ray

It took several years before American filmmakers could get a sufficiently tight grip on the enormity of the Vietnam War to produce historically accurate and psychologically coherent portraits of our soldiers as they fought in it. Several anti-war documentaries had been released in the wake of the gradual pullout of U.S. forces, as had some very good pictures in which veterans attempted to deal with the after-effects of combat. It wasn’t until the 1978 release of The Boys in Company C and Go Tell the Spartans that filmmakers and distributors felt the public was ready for portrayals of American soldiers in situations that didn’t necessarily end in victory.

The same pattern is playing out now with films about our parallel wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several excellent documentaries have been released to acclaim, but most of the theatrical films — even the duly celebrated The Hurt Locker – have flopped at the box office, causing Hollywood to declare a ceasefire on the subject.

The Soviet Union’s similarly dreadful experience in Afghanistan has been noted in films in which veterans have been required to choose between unemployment and careers in crime. A huge success in Russia upon its release in 2005, Fyodor Bondarchuk’s thrilling 9th Company owes a debt of gratitude both to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Oliver Stone’s Platoon, in that it follows a single group of recruits through basic training and into battle against an enemy that’s almost invisible … until it’s too late.

The fighting depicted in the Soviet soldiers’ defense of Height 3234 is so fierce that I suspect it would make many Americans uncomfortable to watch. Apart from any difficulty in choosing sides between our country’s former and current enemies, it’s impossible not to see how similar the on-screen soldiers are to the hometown men and women now being interviewed in nightly newscasts and magazines. When a transport plane full of soldiers returning home is blown out of the sky by a ground-to-air missile, some viewers are likely, as well, to re-evaluate their knee-jerk reaction to the Soviet defeat depicted in Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s that powerful an image.

Even more poignant, perhaps, is the realization that the ethnically diverse collection of recruits we met at the beginning of 9th Company – those who survived their ordeal – won’t be returning to a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but, in some cases, to a collection of newly liberated nation-states and an economy that is barely recognizable as communism. At its core, however, 9th Company is an extremely exciting and surprisingly familiar war movie. (John Wayne, bless his red, white and blue heart, might even have cheered for the Reds.) The DVD arrives with subtitles and dialogue dubbed into English. I preferred the subtitles.

OSS 117: Lost in Rio

Anyone familiar with Michel Hazanavicius’s uproarious 2006 send-up of 1960s espionage thrillers, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, might naturally think that it was prompted not only by nearly a half-century’s worth of James Bond 007 movies, but also Jay Roach and Mike Myers’ Austin Powers trilogy (soon to be a quartet). Some observers might even have considered it to be a Gallic rip-off.

While the launch of Cairo, Nest of Spies and its similarly inventive sequel, Lost in Rio, might, indeed, have been inspired by the success of Austin Powers, the original OSS 117 secret-agent character was a creation of the prolific French novelist Jean Bruce, who, before his death in 1963, wrote 91 entries in the series, which pre-dated Ian Fleming’s debut of 007 by four years.

The first movie adaptation arrived eight years later, in 1957, with OSS 177 N’est Pas Mort (OSS 117 Is Not Dead). Despite the fact that its elegant protagonist, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, was a Louisiana-born spy of French descent, the series had little impact on the American box-office. “Après 007 le déluge,” as it were. As portrayed by Jean Dujardin, De la Bath resembles Bond in most outward ways. He’s debonair, surrounded by beautiful women, chases the enemy through exotic outposts and can accomplish with a single pistol shot what his adversaries can’t achieve with hundreds of rounds from a dozen machine guns.

In the period-perfect sequel series, though, OSS 117 is also an egotistical klutz, more like Inspector Clouseau than Austin Powers. Unlike its Casablanca-for-Cairo predecessor, Lost in Rio takes full advantage of several Brazilian locations – where a covey of Nazis and their sympathizers are planning nefarious deeds — while paying homage to various genre conceits and time-honored protagonists, ranging from Dean Martin’s Matt Helm to Paul Newman’s Lew Harper. Younger viewers may not be as patient with the French parodies as they were for Myers’ gag-a-second approach, but those who came of age in the 1960s will find a lot to enjoy here.

Drive-In Cult Classics: 32 Movie Set
Squeal
The Evil Dead: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Brainjacked

The titles included in Mill Creek’s latest compilation of genre “classics” from Crown International Pictures have been released, re-released, compiled and re-compiled so many times – in video cassette and DVD, if not Blu-ray — it’s difficult to imagine any cultists who wouldn’t already have most of them in their libraries. That said, a full 1,309 minutes worth of T&A, motorcycle mayhem, gratuitous violence and sex, dope fiends and monsters, all for $29.98 full retail price, has to be considered some kind of bargain. That the DVDs are reasonably free of scratches, slashes, pops and crackles also is good news.

The Tarantino-inspired Grindhouse Revival may have slowed to a crawl, but there’s still a lot of entertainment value here, even if none of the movies has been given the Criterion Collection treatment. For my money, most of the fun came in watching such familiar names as Zalman King, John Savage, Karen Black, Jayne Mansfield, Donald Pleasance, Peter Cushing, Bruno Kirby, Dennis Christopher, Robert Reed, Robert Carradine and Jay ”Dennis the Menace” North either slumming it or attempting to make a name for themselves. Because nudity remained something of a taboo for legit actresses, the casts also include a disproportionate number of nudie-cutie models, strippers and former Playboy bunnies.

Among the titillating titles are The Babysitter, Blood Mania, Carnival of Crime, Click: The Calendar Girl Killer, Malibu Beach, The Pom Pom Girls, The Stepmother, They Saved Hitler’s Brain and Trip With Teacher. Although many graduates of Roger Corman’s school of on-the-cheap filmmaking have gone on to bigger and better things, Crown International alums have earned their place in the Drive-In Hall of Fame.

In the absence of drive-in theaters, movies that once might have debuted on the big outdoor screen now tend to be released as DVD originals, primarily because they’d never be able to recover the costs of prints and marketing in general release. True grindhouse movies rarely were accorded reviews in mainstream publications and, unlike today, niche services were far and few between. Not a lot of people, cultists included, have seen Squeal. If they had, I suspect word-of-mouth might already have made it a must-see. It’s the kind of sub-genre flick that gives trash a good name.

As the picture opens, it’s winter in the Midwestern Corn Belt. A stranded motorist can’t get a signal on his cell phone before he’s kidnapped by someone or something we know is horribly sinister. After a Chicago-based rock band and its groupies get lost on the same road, they begin making the same kinds of mistakes all young adults tend to make in these kinds of pictures.

This time around, however, writer/director Tony Swansey allows the audience a good look at the forces planning untold carnage. They include a trio of pig-people, victims of a long-ago agricultural experiment gone horribly bad. Except for a prominent snout and squinty eyes, Daddy Pig looks a lot like most farmers in the area. Pig Junior, though, is a real piece of work. Compared to Dad, he’s a tiny little thing. Unfortunately for their victims, Junior is far more pissed off about his condition than his parents and enjoys painting his face and dressing up like a clown.

Mommy Pig, who doesn’t show up until much later, appears to be jealous of all the attention her husband is paying to the female captives. The sty turns into a slaughter house as Dad and Junior do unto the humans what humans have done unto their swine cousins. Even the vegan chick is far game. The rockers put up a hell of a fight, but it’s not easy. Did I mention that Squeal is genuinely scary and almost unconscionably gory?

Of course, that description applies, as well, to Sam Raimi’s landmark horror title, The Evil Dead. Made on a miniscule budget, it told the now-familiar story of a group of college kids who make the mistake of renting a cabin with a haunted history. Here, a visit to the basement reveals an audio tape made by a previous owner/victim who discovered he could use the words in a Sumerian Book of the Dead to resurrect local ghouls and evil spirits.

Oblivious to the potential ramifications, the kids play the tape at a volume loud enough to raise the dead … literally. The result is a bloody, balls-to-the-wall battle for survival inside the house and in the forest outside. It was deemed too violent for most American distributors and by the censorship boards in several foreign countries, including Ireland, Iceland, Finland, England and Germany. Evil Dead didn’t take off here until it made the transition to DVD. In Germany, the movie was released simultaneously in theaters, if briefly, and on DVD to avoid outright banishment. It would hardly seem necessary to release in Blu-ray a movie that was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution, but Evil Dead isn’t just any horror movie. Its imdb.com trivia page, alone, is longer than some screenplays.

The two-disc edition adds a new commentary track with Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and star Bruce Campbell; plus several making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes; reunion footage; TV commercials; and a photo gallery.

Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Legends of the Canyon: Classic Artists
Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison
Cactus: Live, Loud & Proud

Lost for more than 30 years, Tony Palmer’s Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire” is as good a concert film as I’ve seen in many a moon. How anyone was so preoccupied with their own interests that they could forget the existence of such a wonderful film is beyond me. I sense, however, Palmer wasn’t pleased with the editing and its backers ran out of money for anything more than a brief UK release.

Last year, more than 290 rolls of film from the original shoot were found in a Hollywood warehouse and sent to Palmer for a personal restoration. This is the first time it’s been made available on DVD. Palmer followed Cohen around Europe, on and off stage, during his 1972 tour. The Canadian singer-songwriter had already achieved icon status, especially there, and his concerts were a hot ticket from Dublin to Jerusalem. What raises Bird on a Wire above most concert-tour docs is the portrait Palmer paints of an artist at once at the height of his popularity and a prisoner of his dark moods and various hang-ups.

In addition to the novelty of watching Cohen blow off two beautiful groupies, we also see him agonizing over a temperamental sound system, his and the band’s performance, security issues and dealing with the media. Despite Cohen’s reservations, the music is splendid. He also reads four poems. The DVD package includes a reproduction of the original film poster and a booklet of photos.

Legends of the Canyon starts out as one movie, but ends up as quite another. For the first half-hour or so, Henry Diltz’ documentary portends to be just another movie in which a bunch of geezers reminisce about how much cooler things were in the ’60s, especially in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon. Before long, though, those memories are supplemented by interviews with actual musicians, including Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Dallas Taylor, Michelle Phillips, Van Dyke Parks and members of America and Three Dog Night.

They not only discuss their own careers, but also the contributions of absentees Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Mama Cass, John Phillips and others. More than any other entity, though, CSN&Y is the sun around which the talking-heads’ stories orbit. And, yes, that’s very interesting stuff. Diltz was able to survey the scene from his catbird seat overlooking Laurel Canyon’s artist colony, as well as his success as a folk musician and in-demand photographer. The set adds a variety of original photographs, rarely seen home movies, rehearsal sessions, bootleg footage from a Oklahoma City tour stop, extended interviews, photo galleries and pieces on the naming of Buffalo Springfield and “Henry’s Acid Trip.”

Beatles fanatics are the target audience for Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison. I can’t imagine anyone else being interested this hoax of a hoax. Back in 1969, when anything seemed possible, a rumor was floated that the Cute Beatle had been killed in a car accident, and the evidence one needed to prove this outrageous claim could be found in the band’s lyrics and album covers. The new hook arrives in the form of a pair of audio cassettes purporting to be the “last testament” of the late George Harrison, in which the lead guitarist and songwriter admitted the vast scheme, which also included the MI5 spy network. Clearly, someone has done their homework, because the tapes make a compelling case for the deception … if you’re bombed out of your mind. There’s also featurettes about the time Bob Dylan met the Beatles and turned them on to pot.

Cactus would never be mistaken for either CSN&Y or the Beatles, but, like the former, it was one of several so-called rock supergroups that formed and disbanded with great regularity in the early 1970s. The concert tour captured in Live, Loud and Proud took place 2006 and 2007, when the much-splintered ensemble was comprised of original members Carmine Appice, Tim Bogert and Jim McCarty, and former Savoy Brown vocalist Jimmy Kunes. The DVD adds interviews with the band, an music video for “The Groover” and testimonials from Vinnie Moore (UFO), Shawn Drover (Megadeth), Ty Tabor (Kings X), Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions) and Chad Smith (Red Hot Chilli Peppers).

Soundtracker

The funny thing about many eccentrics is that the more one learns about them, the less one empathizes with their particular crusades. Such is the case with Gordon Hempton, an award-winning sound technician whose longtime quest has involved finding the quietest place in America. In Soundtracker, Nick Sherman follows Hempton around the Pacific Northwest as he records various remote locales for his collection of sounds stored at his Puget Sound home.

Sherman never actually explains how Hempton supports this pursuit, which, if nothing else, requires the purchase of substantial amounts of gasoline, or uses the sounds once gathered. At first, it’s easy to admire Hempton, who shares most people’s abhorrence of unnaturally loud machines and conveyances. He’s respectful to the land and drives an ancient VW van. The longer we’re in his company, though, the more his idiosyncrasies grate. For instance, he makes a big deal about a passenger plane flying high above his campsite, but rhapsodizes about his ability to capture the nearly concurrent sound of a meadowlark and freight train. While also whining about the everyday sounds made by cars and electrical transformers, Hempton ignores the put-put-put of his van and professional need for the electricity supplied by high-tension wires.

Sherman also allows Hempton to insinuate that his ex-wife was intolerant of his pursuits, even as we wonder how anyone could put up with his quixotic wanderings and long absences from the family. Still, Soundtracker has its merits, among them being some splendid scenery and a wonderful dialogue among coyotes, recorded under a full moon.

The Final Girl
Men for Sale
Surprise, Surprise
Dream Boy

In writer/director Todd Verow’s enigmatic soft-core romance, The Final Girl, a beautiful diarist’s mysterious absence inspires several other attractive, highly tattooed women to jump into the sack and make hot love. Wendy Delorme plays the Final Girl, one of three women obsessed with the journals of Leeza, the previous resident of FG’s new apartment.

Verow interprets the material in the journal in stark black-and-white, while presenting the stalking, wooing and fucking in blast-furnace color. A silent partner in the intrigue is Paris, itself, which is alluring in any color scheme. The sex scenes aren’t graphic, but they definitely are hot. And, unlike many of the characters in The L Word, these women are as credible both as lesbians and strangers searching for an emotional connection to a ghost. The original music is pretty good, too.

In Canadian filmmaker Rodrigue Jean’s documentary, Men for Sale, a year in the life of a dozen male prostitutes is chronicled as part of a study of sex workers, for the Montreal AIDS outreach organization Action Séro Zéro. For the most part, the attractive young men speak directly into Jean’s camera, detailing how they came to be hustlers and what kept them on the streets. They describe what they will and won’t do for cash and their struggles with drugs, crack mostly.

Men for Sale is more interesting than revelatory, as the men interviewed tell very similar stories. The biggest plus is the doc’s non-exploitative approach to the subject and absence of forced melodrama.

Based on a stage play, Surprise, Surprise describes what happens when the homophobic 16-year-son of a closeted television star unexpectedly shows up at the Malibu home the father shares with his younger lover. By upsetting the balance in the posh home, the newcomer forces all three of the men make compromises and re-define the meaning of family.

In James Bolton’s coming-of-age drama, Dream Boy, the New Kid in Town discovers that his hunky next-door neighbor shares his sexual preferences, but that compatibility alone isn’t a guarantee for overall happiness. There’s a huge rift between father and son, and his BMOC neighbor has yet to come out to his friends. That’s a pretty familiar story by now, but the rural Louisiana setting adds much to the film’s appeal.

Seven Days

If American viewers are drawn to Shin-Yeon Won’s nifty crime thriller, Seven Days, the credit probably belongs to the movie’s star, Yunjin Kim, who played Sun Kwon in Lost. Kim plays an incredibly successful Seoul defense attorney, less interested in discovering the truth than keeping her clients out of jail.

That changes after her young daughter is kidnapped by someone who demands she win the release of a well-known miscreant who was convicted of murder and rape, and has a date with the electric chair. It seems unlikely that the guy is innocent, as his fingerprints placed him at the scene of the crime, but the lawyer smells something fishy in the speed of the initial investigation and conviction. The case takes several abrupt turns on its way to a final verdict and the violence gets ratcheted up as the narrative progresses.

Beatdown

Say what you will about movie clichés, when rendered with care and imagination, they often make the difference between an entertaining flick and a failed experiment. There’s nothing in recent depictions of the no-holds-barred world of bare-knuckles fighting and mixed martial arts that hasn’t been beaten to death already in movies about boxing, pro wrestling and other sports. But they ones I’ve seen lately have held my interest.

Beatdown is about a tough cage fighter whose brother-manager manages to squander all of his earnings, including payments to a local crime boss. When the brother is killed, the fighter is expected to pay back the $60,000 owed to the greasy thug. Instead, the fighter moves to a small rural town, where his father (Danny Trejo) lives and underground cage fighting thrives.

Rudy Youngblood plays Brandon, the fighter who almost immediately makes enemies with the hard-ass brother of the girl to whom he’s attracted. The rest of the movie plays out as expected. What’s good about Beatdown is the genuinely fierce action and presence of actors who aren’t phoning in their performances. Youngblood is joined by UFC fighter Michael Bisping, who adds verisimilitude to the narrative.

Wade in the Water, Children

Timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the release on DVD of this fine 2007 documentary underscores the personal tragedy of the horrific event. Wade in the Water, Children is especially compelling because of the participation of students at the Singleton Charter School, who were given video cameras with which they could chronicle the impact of the storm on their families, friends and neighborhoods.

Filmmakers Elizabeth Wood and Gabriel Nussbaum worked with the teenagers, who came back with highly personal and often quite poetic material.

Thriller: The Complete Series
The Vampire Diaries: The Complete First Season
FlashForward: The Complete Series
Dark Oracle: Complete Series
Sons of Anarchy: Season Two
Brothers & Sisters: Complete Fourth Season
Lost: The Complete Sixth and Final Season: Blu-ray

The good news this week comes in the form of Image Entertainment’s long-awaited Thriller: The Complete Series. Hosted by Boris Karloff, the crime and horror anthology series ran between 1960-62 on NBC and featured such up-and-coming actors as William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, Rip Torn, Richard Chamberlain, Cloris Leachman, Robert Vaughn, Werner Klemperer, Donna Douglas, Richard Kiel, Marlo Thomas, Marion Ross, Tom Poston and Ursula Andress. It also hired some of the finest writers and directors in the TV arena.

The set includes re-mastered and uncut versions of all 67 episodes, 27 of which come with commentary. It also adds promotional material and still galleries; isolated music and effects tracks; and other goodies. The stories on Thriller were comparable to those seen in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond, but benefited from the one-hour format. Keep Thriller: The Complete Series in mind when pondering gift choices for Boomer parents and grandparents.

Any similarity between the CW network’s The Vampire Diaries and the Twilight movies probably is less than coincidental, even if the series was based on the books of L.J. Smith.

It involves Mystic Falls High School student Elena Gilbert and her vampire boyfriend, Stefan, and his brother, Damon. The show was an immediate hit for the CW and winner of People’s Choice and Teen Choice awards. In addition to its vampire population, the Virginia city of Mystic Falls has a well-known history of other supernatural events. The featurettes include Into Mystic Falls: Bringing Vampire Lore and the High School Experience from Page to Screen, When Vampires Don’t Suck!: The Popularity of Vampires and the Fans Who Love Them, A New Breed of Vampires: Casting the Series, Vampires 101: The Rules of the Vampire, pilot commentary, unaired scenes, webisodes, a gag reel and downloadable audio book of Smith’s novel, The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening.

Fans of the canceled ABC series FlashForward will have to get their kicks from the new complete-series compilation. Lest we forget, the show was predicated on the belief that a mysterious flash caused everyone in the world to lose consciousness for a few minutes, during which they were allowed to glimpse significant events six months down the road.

If only … The supplements add answers to leftover questions, a behind-the-scenes look at the opening freeway-disaster scene, insider stories from the cast and crew, commentary, interviews from the Mosaic Collective, a blooper reel and deleted scenes.

Dark Oracle, which appeared on Canada’s YTV network, was created by actor/writer Heather Conkie and Jana Sinyor, a writer on Degrassi: The Next Generation” and creator of Being Erica.

It follows 15-year-old fraternal twins, Cally and Lance Stone, who one day awoke enmeshed in a world of comic-book danger and clairvoyant alter egos, Violet and Blaze. As such, the show combined live action and cartoon animation. The set adds the 90-minute live-action movie, Sally Marshall Is Not an Alien, and bonus episodes of Mona the Vampire and Treasure.

Who could have predicted the popularity of Sons of Anarchy, a dramatic series about a hard-core outlaw motorcycle gang? The second season of the show focused as much on internal alliances and primal conflicts within the club as retribution against its enemies and law-enforcement officials.

Among the guest stars were Tom Arnold, Adam Arkin, Titus Welliver, Henry Rollins, Mitch Pileggi and Ally Walker. Season Three, which begins in a few weeks, reportedly will deal largely on SAMCRO’s origins. The set adds deleted scenes; John the Revelator music video; a gag reel; commentary; and the featurettes, The Moral Code of Sons of Anarchy, A Night Out With the Crew at Happy Endings Bar and Sons of Anarchy Happy Ending Roundtable.

A far more traditional prime-time soap opera is Brothers & Sisters. In the series’ fourth season, the Walkers faced – stumbled into? – traumas so convoluted it would take a scorecard to keep them all straight. Like so many billiard balls, every new relationship, business setback or ghost from Williams’ past would trigger a chain reaction that got everyone’s panties in a bunch.

The DVD adds bloopers, deleted scenes, Off The Clock, with cast and crew, interviews and a visit to the season’s premiere party.

Anyone who feels as if their life won’t be complete without another season of Lost will find relief in the final-season box, which comes with a final recap of the challenging series and a discussion of their final destinies. The Blu-ray set includes a new chapter of the island’s story from executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse; the featurettes, The End: Crafting a Final Season, A Hero’s Journey and See You in Another Life, Brotha; bloopers and deleted scenes; commentaries; and Lost University: The Masters Program.

4 Responses to “DVD Wrap: 9th Company, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, Drive in Cult Classics, Squeal, Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire … and more”

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Dretzka

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“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
~ Dallas Sonnier

“My first objective relationship in life was with the camera. I didn’t understand anything but then I realized the camera is my friend. It doesn’t lie to me. It doesn’t manipulate me. It only reports what I’m doing. And therefore, for me to work with a camera and the camera to be directed by an artist, a craftsman, someone who knows what he or she wants, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
~ Elliot Gould