MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrap: Stone, Lebanon, Buried, Piranha 3-D, Death Race 2 … and more

Stone

John Curran’s extremely creepy psycho-thriller, Stone, paints a portrait of a Middle America dominated by religious fanatics, talk-radio Cassandras, trailer trash, clandestine meth labs and two-bit criminals. Good people inhabit the same emotionally barren territory, but the potential for violence in their homes is as close as the nearest gun case, liquor cabinet or wall safe.

The movie opens with Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro), threatening to
drop a child from a window if his wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy) proceeds with plans to leave him. Flash-forward a couple of decades and the couple appear to have reconciled, perhaps through the intervention of a local church. Jack is about to retire from his job as a parole surpervisor at a local prison, but refuses to leave until he clears his current cases. By all outward appearances, he is a perfectly normal American male. If he listens to radio evangelists on the way home from work, so, too, do tens of thousands of other people. At night, he and Madylyn sit on the front porch, sipping whiskey and staring into the distance.

Edward Norton plays the title character, Stone, a convicted arsonist whose greasy dreadlocks, slurred speech and argumentative nature would make him a non-starter for parole in 99 percent of all American prisons. Despite the felon’s last-minute religious conversion, Jack doesn’t seem in any great hurry to grant Stone his freedom, either. It isn’t until the lawman is confronted with the raw sensuality of the convict’s girlfriend – ultimately succumbing to her temptations — that it begins to seem possible the psycho might be released. The parole board serves more as a sieve than a filter, so Jack’s integrity is trusted implicitly. He knows he’s done wrong, however, and it’s only a matter of time before payback comes due.

Although Conroy and Milla Jovovich, who plays the girlfriend, are excellent in their roles, Stone is De Niro and Norton’s show. If their restrained performances are in step with the pressure-cooker atmosphere sought by Conroy and writer Angus MacLachlan (Junebug), the potential for extreme violence is palpable in every one of the film’s frames.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone within a month of retirement would risk his pension and possible jail time for a tryst with a skinny tramp, but stranger things happen every day in the boonies. Nor is Stone’s sudden conversion all that believable. Unless one accepts these conceits, however, Stone is nothing more than an exercise in bad-ass acting. The set includes a making-of featurette.

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Lebanon: Blu-ray
Buried: Blu-ray

Anyone who’s seen Wolfgang’s Petersen’s claustrophobic World War II thriller, Das Boot, will recognize Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz’ intentions in Lebanon. In both, viewers are required to step inside a seemingly impenetrable war machine – there a submarine; here, a tank – to discover what happens when a group of helpless men is presented with a worst-case scenario.

The crews of both vehicles are sustained by pride, optimism and a sense of purpose at the beginning of their missions, but, when they find themselves trapped, are reduced to more primal instincts. Each is confronted, as well, with the consequences of their leaders’ decisions, if only from behind the lens of a telescope or range finder.

Moaz’ film is informed by the filmmaker’s own experiences in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, during which he served as a tank gunner. He was 20 years old and knew only of his country’s victories against larger numbers of foes. Indeed, the tank’s crew here is told not to expect much resistance until they make their way north from the town ahead of them. Instead, bad things start happening almost immediately. A gunner’s inability to pull the trigger against an insurgent’s vehicle results in the death of a paratrooper, while a Lebanese farmer’s car is destroyed as he signals his intention to stop and obey instructions.

The town that was supposed to have been leveled in air strikes still harbors Syrian troops and Palestinian guerrillas, neither of whom is averse to using civilians as shields. Ordered to fight on, anyway, the men inside the tank can only sit back and watch as women, children and old people – along with the odd enemy combatant – are slaughtered within feet of their vehicle, which, they learn to their horror, is officially listed as lost among the ruins of the city. The situation grows even direr as night approaches and their tank is partially disabled by a RPG. In addition to being surrounded by hostile forces, there’s no assurance the vehicle will be able to reach a safe location.

Lebanon is of a piece with Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir, movies in which Israeli soldiers are forced to question not only the tactical skills of their superiors, but the morality of the missions, as well. (Beaufort also resembles the American documentary, Restrepo, in that both are set in a remote hilltop outpost that will be abandoned after the defenders leave it.) Foremost in their minds, however, is survival.

The story is told anecdotally, with new obstacles presenting themselves around nearly every corner. All of the actors are extremely believable, whether they’re playing grunts, officers, Syrian prisoners, Phalangist thugs or civilians. Moaz’ tight focus on what’s happening inside and outside the tank, as viewed through the lens of his camera and the vehicle’s range finder, ultimately leaves us feeling nearly as helpless as the soldiers inside the iron casket. The gentle ending is nearly as stunning as violence in the streets.

If anything, the protagonist in Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried is faced with an even more hopeless dilemma, although in the service of suspense, pure and simple. When we meet Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), he’s confined to a box roughly the size of XXL coffin, minus the padding. The screen is pitch black, but it’s clear he’s awakening from an unconscious state. It isn’t long before the flame of a cigarette illuminates the box, which appears to be buried underground, somewhere unknown.

Although Cortes is slow to reveal all of the details of Conroy’s circumstances, he does allow that his victim is a contract worker in Iraq and that his convoy of supply vehicles was attacked by insurgents. He may or may not be the sole survivor of the attack, which actually could have been perpetrated more to collect a ransom than to rid Iraq of American troops. In addition to the lighter, Conroy was left with a pencil, flask of water and cellphone, which is used to call various people in the U.S.

Knowing this, the only relevant question left is, “Will Conroy be rescued by the end of the movie’s allotted 90 minutes or endure a horrible death in an anonymous grave?” Some AT&T customers might also ask, “What’s the name of the company supplying service for a cellphone able to reach the U.S. from under three feet of earth?” Although “Buried” is a one-trick pony – Reynolds is the only actor we see – it’s an entertaining enough diversion. Both Buried and Lebanon include interesting making-of featurettes.

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Piranha 3D: Blu-ray
Death Race 2: Unrated: Blu-ray

In the more than 40 years between Piranha and Piranha 3D, the special-effects industry has grown and multiplied like so many killer fish in a lake filled with teenagers on spring break. To understand just how much has changed, pick up newly released DVD copies of the 1978 original and this, the latest entry in the Piranha franchise. If nothing else, watch the making-of featurettes, which go into great detail on the process of creating the many bloody effects. Otherwise, not much has changed, except the setting. Here, a sudden shifting of tectonic plates has opened the gates for a billion or so prehistoric piranhas, which find easy pickings in the waters of the Colorado River and Lake Havasu.

Richard Dreyfuss, dressed in full Jaws regalia, is the first victim of the torrent of unloosed fish. After that, anyone within hailing distance of the resort city’s London Bridge is fair game, and director Alexandre Aja (“Mirrors”) doesn’t hold back on the mayhem … or faux gore. It’s carnage, pure and simple. Even in its 2D iteration, “Piranha 3D” makes good on its promise of honoring the Roger Corman original, while advancing the story technically. That said, however, there’s really only about 35 minutes worth of story in the movie’s 88-minute length and even that has been padded with the inclusion of more bare breasts and buns than one usually finds in such genre fare.

Not in possession, yet, of a Blu-ray 3D player or compatible television, I couldn’t say how Piranha 3D looks on the small screen. In 2D, though, it’s easy to see where the stereoscopic effects kick in. Give yourself a gold star if you’ve already guessed that genitalia and vomit are among the things that are rendered in 3D.

I’m no expert on the subject, but, to hear producer Paul W.S. Anderson tell it, the straight-to-DVD Death Race 2” is a prequel to the 2008 edition of Death Race, which, itself, was a prequel to Roger Corman’s 1975 cult classic, Death Race 2000. In the original, drivers accumulated points by running down pedestrians, some of whom volunteer to be sacrificed.

In the prequels, the combatants are prisoners housed at Terminal Island, just offshore from Los Angeles. Here, they’re competing to save their lives and dishonor law-enforcement officials and the media. The latter two movies also describe the origins of the myth of wheelman extraordinaire Frankenstein, played by David Carradine in 1975 and Luke Goss in 2011. For the most part, the action is fast, furious and insanely goofy. The casting of veteran hard guys Sean Bean, Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo and Robin Shou only adds to the fun. Considering that “DR2” was pre-destined to skip theaters, certain budgetary sacrifices were imposed on director Roel Reine. I doubt they were any more severe than those imposed on Corman’s stable of directors, though, back in the good ol’ days.

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The Naked Kiss/Shock Corridor: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

No one made movies quite like Samuel Fuller. Listen to the interviews included in the Blu-ray editions of The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor and you’ll discover a man who put every inch of his being into his films and informed them with memories of years spent turning police blotters into prose and poetry. Before he picked up his first camera, Fuller was navigating the world of pulp in New York and other large American cities. He would go on to make films that were the cinematic equivalent of tabloid headlines and the photojournalism of Weegee. Like Fuller, his characters lived lives that ended in exclamation points.

Constance Towers plays the female leads in The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, movies that upon their release in 1963 and 1964 were regarded as genre fare and relegated to the B-side of the aisle. Within a few years, however, French New Wave artists would hail them as modern classics and a new generation of American filmmakers would study and emulate.

In Naked Kiss, Towers plays the hard-as-nails prostitute, Kelly, who, after pummeling her pimp, decides that she’s getting too old for the game. After finding a wrinkle on the face looking back at her in the mirror, Kelly finds works at a home for crippled children. Turns out, she’s a natural. One doesn’t need to be a film scholar to predict that Kelly’s past soon will come back to haunt her, but, by then, she has the kids and audience in her corner. Besides the ferocity of the opening beatdown, Naked Kiss is noteworthy for its condemnation of hypocrisy in Middle America and willingness to absolve Kelly of her sins. (Hollywood was still guided by the Production Code, after all.) Stanley Cortez’s B&W cinematography is nothing short of brilliant and the inclusion of a haunting children’s song was another masterstroke.

In Shock Corridor, Towers plays a stripper whose journalist boyfriend, Johnny, thinks the best way to win a Pulitzer Prize is to solve a murder mystery in a mental hospital. The ambitious, if naive reporter (Peter Breck) expects that all he has to do is act nuts, gain the confidence of his fellow patients and reveal an administrator or “therapist” as the killer. That accomplished, he’ll be able to walk out of the loony bin none the worse for the wear. By the time the truth is discovered, however, Johnny has become trapped in a web of his own weaving.

The murder is something of a red herring, in that Fuller’s primary mission here is to demonstrate how much like a mental institution American society has become, with patients and officials representing various societal woes. The primary reason Shock Corridor continues to be studied, though, are the amazing visuals devised by Fuller and Cortez. They include a hospital corridor that provides the setting for a hallucinatory rainstorm; a striptease that’s as sexy in its own pulpy way as Rita Hayworth’s dance in Gilda; and an attack on Johnny by a gang of nymphomaniac female patients.

Besides restored hi-def digital transfers, the individual Blu-ray sets are distinguished by lively new interviews with Towers; excerpts from interviews with Fuller originally shown on British and French television, and the 1996 bio-doc, “The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera”; vintage trailers; and booklets graced by the illustrations of cartoonist Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) and essays by Fuller and critics.

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Jack Goes Boating

If Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty were to remounted for television and film today, and cast properly, Philip Seymour Hoffman would be the natural choice to play the lead role. Already familiar with characters who sip their morning coffee thinking the best part of their day has already passed them by, Hoffman would find a way to mold a natural defeatist like Marty Piletti into something noble. (Knowing Hollywood instincts, of course, the teleplay probably would be handed first to Tom Arnold or Kevin James.)

In Jack Goes Boating, Hoffman’s Jack also feels as if it’s too late in the game to find a woman with whom he can share homemade dinners, enjoy reggae music and, yup, go boating. He navigates the concrete canyons of Manhattan as a chauffeur, observing how other people have fun and wondering if there’s a cure for acute social awkwardness.

Fortunately, Jack has a pair of married friends, Clyde and Lucy (John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega), who not only sympathize with his plight and but also know a woman as uneasy in social situations as he is. Amy Ryan, who’s terrific in everything she’s assigned, plays the unlucky-in-love telemarketer, Connie. These four characters form the nucleus of Jack Goes Boating, which was adapted from an off-Broadway play by Bob Glaudini. Hoffman and Ortiz produced the play and starred in it, alongside Rubin-Vega. It represents Hoffman’s first directorial turn.

Connie has good reason to be suspicious of men, but, if nothing else, Jack seems harmless enough. For his part, Jack goes to humorous extremes not to blow the opportunity. In addition to sitting at Connie’s hospital bedside after she’s been mugged, Jack asks Clyde to give him swimming lessons and to help him find someone who can teach him how to cook. That the chef he recruits is one of Lucy’s former lovers adds tension to a story that probably doesn’t need it.

Hoffman’s achievement here is creating an environment for romance that isn’t stagebound or limited to a couple of cramped apartments in Manhattan. The mens’ job gives them an excuse to tool around the city, at least. Mostly, though, Jack Goes Boating is an actor’s showcase, with Hoffman and Ryan given the greatest amount of time to shine. The DVD package adds deleted scenes and the featurettes, “Jack’s New York” and “From the Stage to the Big Screen.”

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Feed the Fish
Paper Man

Among the many stock characters in American independent movies is the author with a debilitating case of writer’s block. Typically, the protagonist has already enjoyed some popularity from his writing, but, for some mysterious reason, can’t get past the lead paragraph of their next book. If workers in other trades experience similar problems – welder’s block, perhaps – it’s rarely dramatized.

In Feed the Fish, Joe Peterson (Ross Partridge) has published one successful children’s book, but can’t find a suitable subject for a follow-up. His condition is compounded by a failing romance and a pet goldfish he believes was assassinated by his fiancé. Surely, a change in scenery would do the Los Angeles resident a world of good. For inspiration, Joe travels to scenic Door County, Wisconsin, where locals splash around in 33-degree water on New Year’s Day and ride snowmobiles to work. Moreover, it’s populated by the kind of people who wear cheese hats to Packers games and celebrate the opening day of deer-hunting season as if it were a religious holiday. Surrounded by these just plain folks, Joe finds all sorts of reasons to live and write.

Feed the Fish appears to have been a labor of love for Green Bay natives Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”), who also produced and played a key role, and freshman writer/director Michael Matzdorff. It’s sweet, without also being saccharine, and quite well made. Neither does the romantic element overwhelm Joe’s evolution as a tolerable human being. The DVD includes an entertaining featurette about the joys of making a movie in northern Wisconsin in the dead of winter.

Paper Man is set in Montauk, New York, another tourist community left mostly empty between October and April. The author in crisis here is played by Jeff Daniels, who’s no stranger to characters undergoing midlife crises. In Kieran and Michele Mulroney’s quirky dramedy, writer Richard Dunn has been dispatched to a ramshackle cottage on the tip of Long Island by his highly successful wife, a surgeon played by Lisa Kudrow. Once left to his own devices, Richard finds a million ways to avoid work.

One is to ride a child’s bicycle into town, where he befriends a teenage girl, Abby (Emma Stone), who’s as screwed up in her way as Richard is in his. Both of them are shadowed by invisible “friends,” who help fill emotional vacuums in their lives. Richard’s is a take-charge superhero, Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds), while Abby’s is an adoring slacker (Kieran Culkin). To acknowledge that none of these characters – with the possible exception of Abby – is remotely realistic is only to state the obvious.

Paper Man tries way too hard to be wise, hip and observant. I would have preferred to see Abby given most of the screen time, with Richard and his wife used as counterbalances to the loss of a twin sibling years earlier, by drowning. Completely eliminating the fake friends might not have been a bad idea, either. But, then, it wouldn’t be the Mulroneys’ movie anymore, would it? The DVD also adds a featurette about making the movie in off-season Montauk.

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Denis Leary & Friends Presents: Douchbags & Donuts
Kathleen Madigan: Gone Madigan

As he’s proven time and again, Denis Leary is fine actor and a heck of a comedian. His Douchebags & Donuts
tour benefits a worthy cause, as well: the Leary Firefighters Foundation, whose mission it is “to provide funding and resources for fire departments to obtain the best available equipment, technology and training.” At the ripe old age of 53, however, you’d think Leary wouldn’t need to play to the lowest common denominator for audiences willing to fill the coffers of the foundation.

Although Douchbags & Donuts is sporadically funny and his fellow comics (Whitney Cummings, Lenny Clarke, Adam Ferrara) pour a great deal of energy into their bits, it feels more like a Dane Cook concert than something viewers of Rescue Me would savor. Working with a feisty all-woman band, Leary takes shots at predictable targets – the Catholic Church, closeted Republican politicians – and performs such songs as “Douchbags,” “Asshole” and “Fuck You.” I enjoyed his reading of reported health risks associated with popular pharmaceuticals (“anal leakage,” among them), but have already heard all I care to hear about priests buggering altar boys.

In addition to the material shown on Comedy Central, there are six minutes of bonus concert material; an 11-minute boys-will-be-boys documentary “Snapshots from the Road”; a look at the foundation; and a PSA.

Kathleen Madigan has been a fixture on the standup-comedy circuit for more than two decades, but it seems as if her profile has only now begun to rise among audiences outside the club circuit. Her Showtime special Gone Madigan certainly won’t hinder her progress. Madigan covers a wide range of topics from the political – she’s collaborated with Lewis Black — to such safe topics as growing up short and Irish in St. Louis and spending time among the hillbillies in the Ozarks. She’s also the only comedian in the history of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” to go unchallenged by any other comedian. The special was shot at the Gramercy Theater in New York City. The DVD adds behind-the-scenes material and an interview.

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Marvel Knights: Black Panther

The Marvel Comics character Black Panther (a.k.a., “T’Challa”) made his first appearance in 1966, as part of the Fantastic Four franchise. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby insist that the introduction of the first black superhero predated the Black Panther Party and African-American superheroes in other series. The new DVD is a compilation of episodes intended to be shown on BET. Due to a change in direction by the network, Marvel Knights: Black Panther aired only in Australia.

Although the motion-comic style feels primitive by comparison to other animated shows, Black Panther tells an interesting story and is full of action. The comic book and animated series is set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, where the title Black Panther is bestowed on the chieftain of the most powerful clan.

The first Black Panther we meet turns back a platoon of Nazis hoping to usurp the country’s unique resources. In addition to wiping out the Germans, the superhero also convinces Captain America that it wouldn’t be in the Allies’ interest to attempt an invasion of Wakanda. Flash ahead a few decades and Wakanda is once again threatened by imperialist forces, including representatives of Halliburton. Leading the assault is Klaw, a deadly assassin who murdered the reigning T’Challa’s father. Among the actors contributing their voices to the series are Djimon Hounsou, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Stanton, Carl Lumbly and Kerry Washington.

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Fire on the Amazon

It isn’t often that a bad movie lives down to its reputation as being one of the worst of all time. Fire on the Amazon is just such a film. Even though it was shot on location in Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest and was made by a director, Luis Llosa, who’s gone on to create some decent genre fare ( Sniper, The Specialist, Anaconda), Fire on the Amazon truly stinks.

How bad was it? So bad that, despite the presence of rising star Sandra Bullock, it received only the most limited of releases, three years after it was completed. It might never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for a love scene in which Bullock reveals the sides of her breasts in a drug-induced love scene.

Her character is an environmental activist hoping to stop the devastation of the rainforest. Her partner in the love scene is egotistical photojournalist (Craig Sheffer), who’s prettier than almost all the women in the film. He’s implicated in the death of a union leader who’s joined forces with native Indians in the fight against deforestation and uncontrolled ranching. It’s Bullock’s job to save the photographer, the Indians and the rainforest. In 10 years, she would have been able to accomplish that without raising a sweat. In 1993, Bullock couldn’t even save the picture.

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Sins of My Father

As boss of Colombia’s Medelllin drug cartel, Pablo Escobar was responsible for the production and importation of most of the cocaine that entered the United States and other hard-partying countries in the 1980s. He didn’t personally force yuppies and college students to snort the stuff, but he made sure there was enough cocaine available to meet their desires.

In certain parts of Colombia, Escobar used a portion of his vast wealth, at least, to upgrade the infrastructure, education and sporting venues of local residents. It made him a very popular man among the poor. His entry into politics disturbed many establishment figures, who not only were disturbed by Colombia’s growing economic dependence on the export of cocaine, but also threats by the American government to withhold aid if the cartels weren’t harnessed. When pushed, Escobar pushed back harder. Among other things, he declared war on his political enemies, killing several prominent leaders.

In Nicolas Entel’s Sins of My Father, Escobar’s son and widow tell their side of the story for the first time since the narco-trafficker was killed in a police raid in 1993. Through home movies and family photographs, they describe what it was like to live a life in which they literally could experience their wildest dreams. As the dragnet closed, however, their fates were tied directly to that of the most wanted man on two continents.

It’s a fascinating story, but viewers will be struck more by efforts on the part of Escobar’s son, Sebastian, to come to grips with his father’s worst crimes and connect emotionally with the sons of two of the political leaders he had murdered. In doing so, Entel also examines what it means to seek and attain redemption for actions over which they couldn’t control and still reverberate through their lives. Entel was given remarkable access to the family members and his portrait of a country under siege is extremely effective.

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Let Me Die Quietly

In this micro-budget indie, a New York man is tortured by psychic visions of other people’s deaths. They appear to be the root cause of his alcoholism and self-destructive couplings with anonymous men in sleazy movie theaters and bath houses. Nearly at wits’ end, he turns to a psychiatrist with a mustache that, in the 1930s, would have immediately telegraphed evil intentions. Miraculously, perhaps, his life changes after sharing an elevator with a fellow psychic, a woman who can predict mayhem, if not visualize the results. Together they make a wonderfully complementary pair of lonelyhearts.

Instead of going for irony or comedy – The Thin Man comes to mind — Mitchell Reichler and Charles Casillo’s Let Me Die Quietly is positioned as a neo-noir thriller with slasher aspirations. When dealing with psychics, the natural question asked is, “If they’re so smart, why can’t they recognize the threat on their lives?” For once, though, that question is answered with a clever twist. Casillo’s Mario can only see the end-product of evil, not the people who perpetrate it. If Dana Perry weren’t in on the scheme, she could supply the information Mario’s missing … and, vice-versa. With a larger budget, Let Me Die Quietly could have been made to look as accomplished as the plot.

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Dark Skies: The Declassified Complete Series
Aliens, Abductions and Extraordinary Sightings
End of the World: 2012 Apocalyptic Prophecies and Inexplicable Phenomena

In the incestuous world of television, it’s a small leap from, “The truth is out there,” to “The truth can now be told.” In strictly linear terms, it’s the difference between the 1993 launch of The X-Files and Dark Skies, which began its one-year run on NBC three years later. Like the Fox hit, Dark Skies was founded on the belief that intergalactic aliens were in cahoots with secret agencies within the U.S. government. Standing between the forces of evil and goodness were a handful of heroic men and women who understood the problem and would risk their lives to solve it. Among them were freedom fighters played by Eric Close and Megan Ward.

The difference between the two series was that Scully and Mulder inhabited the present, while Dark Skies looked back at conspiracies beginning in the 1960s, including the JFK assassination. If the show had been successful, it would have taken Dark Stars to reach the present. The show, which also featured the late J.T. Walsh and Jeri Ryan, still has its partisans. They’ll welcome the inclusion of a pilot “movie,” commentaries, a making-of featurette, glossary, network promos and a sales presentation.

Mill Creek’s Aliens, Abductions and Extraordinary Sightings contains 12 hours’ worth of seminars, discussions and documentaries about various aspects of extraterrestrial activity, including alien abductions, UFO sightings, government cover-ups, ancient archeology and medical evidence of infestation from above. Needless to say, almost all of the material is open to much conjecture and suspicion. But, you knew that already.

The same distributor has collected 24 documentaries examining apocalyptic prophecies, in End of the World. The set is keyed to the year 2012, which, as everyone knows, everyone will be required to carry a Mayan passport, but goes on to explore the predictions of Nostradamus, the Order of the Alchemists, alien encounters, UFOs, historical conspiracies, government experiments, crop circles and “occult magick.”

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Hey Vern, It’s Ernest!: The Complete Series
Redneck Comedy Roundup 1&2

Jim Varney was an extremely clever actor, comedian and impressionist, who shot to national stardom in the early 1980s after TV viewers in the South embraced commercials in which he played a hayseed named Ernest P. Worrell. Shoving his face directly into the camera, Varney would smile broadly and, at some point, say his catchphrase, “KnoWhutImean, Vern?” The gimmick caught on and future commercials were designed for generic use around the country.

Varney created other memorable characters, as well, but Vern would follow him forever. They all would show up, again, in Varney’s Saturday-morning show, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! and the feature films, Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Scared Stupid and Ernest Goes to Jail. All have been newly packaged and sent out by Mill Creek. (Before his death, in 2000, Varney supplied the voice for Slinky Dog, in Toy Story 2.)

A direct line can be drawn from Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies, through Hee Haw and Vern, to the Redneck Kings of Comedy and Blue Collar Comedy tours. Redneck Comedy Roundup 1 & 2 is a compilation of bits performed by such good ol’ boy humorists as Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, John Fox, Ron White, Blacke Clark and Ron Shock two decades ago at the Improv and other comedy venues. Among the ringers are Jerry Springer, Gary Mule Deer and Bobcat Goldthwait. Most of the material is dated, but fans of the stand-ups might enjoy seeing their favorites as up-and-coming entertainers.

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Justified: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Groucho Marx TV Classics Box Set
Nite Tales: The Series
Merlin: The Complete Second Season
Waking the Dead: Season 5
Dallas: The Complete Fourteenth Season

Blessedly, it’s no longer true that mature TV viewers need pay premium rates for the kind of high-quality programming that assumes their ability to absorb four-letter words and PG-13 sexuality without being shocked. The FX Network was one of pioneers in breaking the censorial barrier separating the commercial networks and HBO, Showtime and other premium channels. Justified is an example of the kind of splendid, adult-oriented programming for which FX has become known.

In the first season, charismatic hard guy Timothy Olyphant stepped into the shoes of Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, protagonist of Elmore Leonard’s Pronto, Riding the Rap and Fire in the Hole. He has a notoriously short fuse and an uncanny ability to avoid being charged with unjustified homicide. Givens was based in south Florida, until he unceremoniously shot and killed a notorious mob boss. He was cleared in that shooting, too, but his bosses decided it would be better if Givens laid low for a spell back home in Harlan County, Kentucky.

They don’t call the place Bloody Harlan for nothing, though, and it wasn’t long before the lawman had provoked the ruling crime family, all of whom he knew growing up. Justified was resplendent with gunfights, arson and the occasional RPG attack. It took all 13 episodes to clear up that mess. The DVD and Blu-ray packages include several commentaries, character profiles, backgrounders, a music video and the featurettes, “What Would Elmore Do?,” “Shooting for Kentucky” and “The Marshals.”

Even after 60 years, Groucho Marx’s landmark game show, You Bet Your Life, still has the capacity to illicit belly laughs and happy memories of a time when contestants didn’t require the lure of a million-dollar prize to stay interested. Even by mid-century standards, the prizes on You Bet Your Life weren’t all that lucrative. People tuned in primarily to hear Groucho comment on the personalities, backgrounds and discomfort of the contestants. They especially relished the double-entendres the host would attempt to slip past the censors.

The newly repackaged three-disc set includes 16 vintage episodes of the show; the 1949 pilot; a “stag” reel of bleeped outtakes; an episode of “The Hollywood Palace” in which Margaret Dumont helps Groucho re-create the “Hooray for Captain Spalding,” from “Animal Crackers”; the 1956 pre-election special, “See You at the Polls”; an episode of Dinah Shore’s radio; and an episode of George Fennemen’s game show, “Anybody Can Play.”

The inexplicably prolific Flavor Flav hosts Nite Tales, a syndicated anthology series that puts an “urban” spin on such shows as Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. Most of the segments have trick endings and a celebrity star. Among the guests are Essence Atkins, Gary Busey, Ray J, Rodney Perry, and Brigitte Nielsen. Deon Taylor directed all of the episodes.

The BBC fantasy/adventure/romance series, Merlin, returned for a second season with no scarcity of dragons, assassins and evil sorcerers to battle. Merlin is still in his teens, learning magic skills that would serve him well in the future. Also on hand are Lady Morgana, Lancelot, Lady Catrina, Mordred, Uther Pendragon, Magister Gaius, Gwen and Arthur. The DVD set includes a cast and crew introduction and audio commentaries; a behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes; photo gallery; and wallpapers.

In the fifth season of BBC forensics series Waking the Dead, grumpy Detective Superintendant Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve) has returned to the Cold Case Squad, a multidiscipline police team of detectives and scientists. Boyd remains shaken by the events of Season 4, during which a comrade was killed, and it requires all his patience not berate fellow team members unmercifully. It’s a terrific, if emotionally complex show.

After 14 seasons, the prime-time soap, Dallas, ended its unprecedented run in a blaze of glory. There would be reunion specials, but all of the loose ends were snipped and knotted during the final session. The sand under the cowboy boots of J.R., Bobby and Cliff has shifted dramatically. The producers even gave J.R. the opportunity to reflect in an episode inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life. Look for special appearances by Susan Lucci, Barbara Eden, Mary Crosby, Linda Gray, Joel Grey, Steve Kanaly, Jack Scalia, Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark.

Mill Creek is also sending out repackaged additions of Thirtysomething: Season 1, Volume 1, Simon & Simon: The Best of Season 2, 21 Jump Street: Season Four and My Two Dads: You Can Count on Me!

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Ultimate Death Match

Just when you think you’ve seen it all when it comes to cornball DVDs, a really bad movie jumps out of the pile and threatens to take your breath away. Such is the case for Ultimate Death Match, a picture any 16-year-old wrestling fan could make, given a Walmart camera, a trampoline and a box full of used leotards. No one forced me to watch the DVD, of course. If nothing else, I now know exactly how little value I put on my time on Earth.

After a death in the ring, a wrestling promoter has lost his license to stage bouts. To make ends meet, he arranges a series of Internet matches that ultimately would lead to final showdown in which the loser literally is killed in the ring. The winner stands to walk out of the arena with $5 million. It may sound absurd, but Roger Corman became rich by conjuring death races and other such gladiatorial pursuits.

The problem here is that the “superstar” wrestlers all look as if they had recently been convicted of lewd behavior and their punishment was to run head-first into a brick wall, until they say “uncle.” The battle royal is staged in gymnasium that could double as a bingo hall and their costumes would embarrass Mexico’s poorest luchador. The wrestling, itself, is even worse. Al Snow is the only recognizable face in the whole bunch and he plays the ring announcer.

And, yet, someone somewhere someday will lay down good money to watch it. That person can’t say he wasn’t warned.

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Hollywood Comedy Legends: 50 Movie Pack
Explosive Cinema: 12 Movie Collection

If there’s one good thing to be said about owning a truly crappy television it’s that one needn’t fret about not having a hi-def or 3D platform. One movie looks pretty much as crummy as the next. Mill Creek specializes in sending out bargain compilations of movies – as many as a 100 at a time — people too poor to afford a new TV can savor as much as any “Collector’s Edition” or “Director’s Cut.”

The 50 titles collected in Hollywood Comedy Legends represent nearly a half-century of Hollywood enterprise … or frustration. There doesn’t seem to be any discernible pattern to the choices, which include such immortal entertainments as Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven, Rescue From Gilligan’s Island, Hillbilly Blitzkrieg, Earthworm Tractors and Love Laughs at Andy Hardy. Among the many noteworthy stars represented are Joe E. Brown, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Jayne Mansfield, Phyllis Diller, Harold Lloyd, Bela Lugosi and Bon Denver. The video and audio presentations may be far less than pristine, but no movie is too messed up not to watch.

The titles in Explosive Cinema have one thing in common, at least, and that’s a willingness to destroy lots of stuff very loudly. Among the stars are John Carradine, Richard Roundtree, Leslie Nielsen, Morton Downey Jr. (that’s right), Cameron Mitchell, Leo Fong, Harry Dean Stanton, Troy Donahue and Chris Mulkey. I’d mention the titles, but they all sound pretty much the same. Nevertheless, like boxes of Cracker Jack, I always find something surprising in Mill Creek compilations.

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King of Paper Chasin’

According to the authoritative Urban Dictionary, “paper chasin’” refers to “tryin’ to make that money.” In La Monte Edwards’ debut feature, New York hoodlum Carter Blanche is designated the ruler of that sometimes ignoble pursuit. He’s talented enough to become a kingpin in the hip-hop realm, as well, but going legit threatens the livelihoods of friends, family and former business associates. It’s an age-old story, but one that transcends all borders and demographic groups. It stars rapper and record-company executive Dwayne “DL” Clark, who also produced and financed the project.

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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