Leave it to Martin Scorsese to hit a grand slam in his first at-bat in the 3D game, while also delivering a genuinely moving tribute to one of his cinema heroes and a call to action for film preservation. If, to some degree, all movies are magic, it’s fitting that “Hugo” is set in the city, Paris, where the medium’s first great illusionist worked his wonders. We’re not supposed to know upfront that George Méliès is at the heart of the movie’s central mystery, but anyone who’s taken a film-history course will know immediately what’s happening here. Adapted from Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Medal-winning “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” “Hugo” is divided roughly in two halves. The first chronicles a boy’s determination to make sense of the death of his tinkerer father and complete his final creation, an intricately designed automaton able to write and draw. Hugo lives behind the clockwork face of the Gare Montparnasse tower. He subsides on stolen food and, father-like-son, tinkers away the idle hours. After rebuilding the robot, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) discovers that he is missing the heart-shaped key that will make it come alive. Thinking that he might be able to make one, he revisits the station’s toy store, from which he’s stolen countless small items in the past. The proprietor, Georges (Ben Kingsley), recognizes the boy as the perpetrator of the petty thefts and grills him about his purposes. When Hugo shows him his sketchbook, Georges is stunned by the intricacy of the drawings and the subject matter. Hoping to teach the scamp a lesson, he seizes the notebook and takes it home with him as a tool for ransom.
In the movie’s second half, Hugo teams up with Georges’ cute and inquisitive goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), to recover the book. As luck would have it, the necklace she wears has a heart-shaped key hanging from it. They both find it curious that she’s in possession of the one thing necessary to complete the automaton and proceed to investigate the mystery. First, though, Hugo takes her to the local cinema, where a Harold Lloyd movie is playing. Fascinated by what they’ve both witnessed, they decide to pay a visit to the station’s bookstore to learn more about film history. It is owned by Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), who appreciates any youngster interested in reading. The book they find is full of images that Hugo recognizes from discussions with his father. They also find photographs of someone looking suspiciously like Georges. Coincidentally, an actual film historian is passing behind the kids at precisely the moment they’re perusing the chapter on the works of a fellow named Melies. He tells them that the extremely prolific “cinemagician” died in World War I after losing all of his money and becoming disillusioned with life, in general. The upstarts dispute the assertion that Melies is dead, leading to a visit to Isabelle’s house and an encounter with her godfather, who’s in no mood to accommodate their new friend. In any case, Georges apparently is unaware of his contributions to the medium and importance to lovers of movies everywhere. The realization leads to other small miracles, which include resuscitating the automaton and escaping from the clutches of a one-legged gendarme (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his Doberman pinscher. The self-conscious cop is determined to capture Hugo and send him to an orphanage. This wonderful story is close enough to the truth to make “Hugo” both entertaining and educational.
Rated PG, another Scorsese rarity, “Hugo” should hold the interests of kids and young adults based solely on its marvelous visuals and the kids’ excellent adventure. Grownups, especially those with an appreciation for movie trivia, will be captivated by Scorsese’s cleverness in incorporating images of between-wars celebrities and nods to film history into scenes set at the station. Scorsese, in league with screenwriter John Logan (“Rango,” “The Aviator”), has crafted a movie that could hardly be more captivating, and it’s the director’s palpable sense of wonder that inspired the designers who walked away with five Oscars Sunday night. Not having seen the Blu-ray 3D version, I can only assume that it will test the limits of those expensive new home-theater systems people got at Christmas. The Blu-ray 2D edition certainly is equal to the task. As one might expect, the bonus package overflows with compelling featurettes, ranging from those of the making-of variety to the films of Méliès. “Hugo” truly is a movie to be enjoyed as much by family members as buffs, and not just once. – Gary Dretzka
The Myth of the American Sleepover
David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature easily qualifies as one of the most criminally under-screened and neglected movies of the young century. While Hollywood continues to search in vain for the new John Hughes and independents hope to capture the same lightning in a bottle as “American Pie,” “The Myth of the American Sleepover” was there all along. Even in DVD, it succeeds at almost every level in capturing the joys, angst and insanity of being a teenager in middle-class America. It does so without pushing any envelopes or attempting to reinvent the genre, merely capturing teens as they might behave in real life. The story takes place on a late summer day – and night — when kids in a suburban neighborhood in Michigan are preparing for another year of the same-old same-old at high school or getting ready for new adventures at college. Everything that occurs in the daylight hours is in anticipation of parties and sleepovers of various sizes and demographics that will take place on the night before the city’s big parade. The characters know to expect all the usual temptations of such events: excessive drinking and drugging, skinny-dipping, ill-advised late-night driving and carousing, uncomfortable sexual situations and, God hear our pleas, outright promiscuity. Some of the teens will emerge unscarred, while the lives of others will be changed forever. Sound familiar?
We know “Myth” is going to be different, simply because none of the actors look as if they’re past 25, a former Miss America or Mr. Universe contestant or extras in a Michelob commercial. Neither do they appear to have played the “after” face in a Clearasil spot. If gross things happen at the parties, it’s only because gross things do happen at such soirees. They don’t have to be manufactured or exaggerated, as in every teen movie since a guy in “American Pie” pissed off a balcony, filling the cup of an unsuspecting reveler below him. That said, “Myth” does bear a passing resemblance to “American Graffiti,” right down to one desperate boy’s nightlong search for an elusive blond beauty, and “Dazed and Confused.” The only real question in such movies is who’s going to wake up with an incurable hangover, pregnant or immeasurably wiser. It’s enough to say here that the ending is perfectly satisfying and in keeping with everything that’s come before it. The fresh and energetic cast, comprised primarily of actors in their debut performances, also is very good. – Gary Dretzka
The Catechism Cataclysm
If there’s anything that sends up more red flags than the presence of a priest in a contemporary movie, I don’t know what it is. You just never know, anymore, if the character’s going to be cut from the same pattern as Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien or the prelates we meet in the newspapers on their way to hell. If there’s a happy medium, it can be found in movies like “The Catechism Cataclysm,” in which men of the church are no more or less screwed up than any other character. As played by Steve Little (“Eastbound & Down”), Father William isn’t as much disillusioned by religion as he is bored and distracted by other things. When his boss senses that William is bumming out the people who come to him for counseling, he’s asked to take some time off and contemplate his commitment. He’s kind of a doofus, but not remotely evil or disillusioned. William decides to contact a friend from his secular days, who, without any enthusiasm, agrees to go on a canoe excursion with him.
In William’s memory, Robbie (Robert Longstreet) remains a rock-’n’-roll hero and primary inspiration to him. For his part, Robbie can barely remember William, apart from the endless e-mails he sends and being an ex-girlfriend’s little brother. In fact, his rock life was limited to being a roadie and a chronic has-been. Nevertheless, he agrees to join the priest on the trip, not realizing it would mean suffering through sing-alongs and hundreds of dopey jokes. Before they embark, however, the bumbling priest manages to drop his bible into a toilet (yeah, eech), adding an element of paranormal dread in the narrative. “Catechism Cataclysm” shifts abruptly from buddy movie to horror comedy, with Satan represented by a kooky pair of Japanese twins named Huck and Tom. They’re navigating the same river in the company of a large black bodyguard, who doesn’t wait for William to finish relieving himself to ask him to hear his confession. What happens afterward, while sitting around a campfire, ultimately factors into William’s future in the Church and ability to work with troubled parishioners. Todd Rohal’s movie always threatens to take off erratically like a rapidly deflating balloon, if only because the writer/director doesn’t always appear to be in command of the material. By the time it reaches a satisfying ending, though, “Catechism Catalyst” has come together in a convincing and positive fashion. After the bible took its plunge, I wouldn’t have bet on it happening. – Gary Dretzka
One of the great things about Burt Lancaster was his ability to keep studio executives, critics and audiences guessing as to where his next great whim might take him. For a huge Hollywood star, his willingness to appear in such non-mainstream films as “Go Tell the Spartans,” “Atlantic City,” “Executive Action,” “The Swimmer,” “The Unforgiven” and Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” and “Conversation Piece” bordered on the miraculous. Moreover, his commitment to liberal causes always threatened his ability to find work in the Blacklist era. As odd as it might seem to watch a larger-than-life star of Westerns and suspense flicks ensconced in the luxurious trappings of Visconti’s dramas, after five minutes there’s no doubting he belongs there. Unlike “The Leopard,” which was set in 1860s Sicily, “Conversation Piece” finds Lancaster in 1974 Rome. He lives there in a palazzo once owned by his mother, who used a hidden room to shelter Jews and dissidents. Lancaster’s character is an American professor who feels more comfortable in the company of his countless art treasures and record albums than anyone in the outside world, except his longtime housekeeper. It explains why he’s content to leave the upper floor of the majestic house unoccupied. Il Professore modestly describes his paintings and sculptures as “conversation pieces,” as might any gentleman of wealth when complimented for his ability to afford such gems. As fine as they are, though, the pieces fall short of being masterpieces, and that’s just how the professor likes it.
Ostensibly a drama, the movie takes a humorous turn early on, when a rich Italian marchesa tags along with a group of art dealers hoping to make a deal, but fails to leave. She arrogantly insists on leasing the second-floor apartment in the palazzo for her much younger lover, Konrad (Helmut Berger), refusing to take “no” for an answer. Anyone who’s experienced the horror of having a family of raccoons move into their attic knows what the professor will undergo when the woman’s daughter and her boyfriend unexpectedly join Konrad in the apartment. The first sign of trouble comes when the plaster on the ceiling begins falling to the floor of the kitchen and water seeps through the walls downstairs, threatening the paintings. This infuriates the professor, who’s told by Konrad that a lease, which he didn’t sign, allows the tenant to take down a wall to remodel one bathroom. Clearly, everyone in the marchesa’s orbit not only is spoiled rotten, but also suffering from the delusion that they’re entitled to special treatment by everyone below their station in life. At first, Konrad is the most intolerable intruder, bragging of a radical past and many brushes with the law while nibbling on the marchesa’s leftovers. Soon, however, the professor and Konrad find that they share a passion for art and music and develop a bond. It could be of the father-son, mentor/devotee variety, or one meant to signify latent homosexuality on the old man’s part. The other interlopers remain a pain in the butt, even as they begin to form a strange family unit. Looks likely are deceiving, though.
Visconti is in familiar territory in “Conversation Piece,” describing, once again, the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Indeed, unbeknownst to the professor, Konrad decorates the apartment in a Modern, 1960s-era style, which is the antithesis of everything the professor holds dear. As one of the critics interviewed in the DVD suggests, “‘Conversation Piece’ is like the portraits of families hanging on the professor’s walls. Like him, they exist in a different world than the one outside the gates of the palazzo, which, itself, is an antique. By embracing his new “family,” the professor appears to be accepting the passage of time and cultural milieu. The possibility that he may be imaging the whole thing also exists. Lancaster’s performance reminds me, a bit, of the transformation of oil magnate Felix Happer in “Local Hero” and the small-time gangster, Lou, in “Atlantic City.” Likewise, Berger and Silvana Mangano are entirely credible as the hustler and the marchesa. Anyone who enjoyed “The Leopard,” or is a fan of Lancaster, is urged to give “Conversation Piece” a shot.
Also from Rarovideo comes “The Automobile,” a 1971 confection first shown as part as the “Tre donne” mini-series on Italian television. The great Anna Magnani, in her penultimate performance, appeared in all three segments. In Alfredo Giannetti’s hands, she plays a former prostitute, Anna (a.k.a., the Contessa), who remains something of a living legend among Rome’s “la dolce vita” crowd. Finally tired of walking everywhere and being confined to the city, the grand dame buys a flashy new Fiat convertible, which quickly becomes her pride and joy. One weekend, like everyone else in the city, she decides to venture forth to the beach and it introduces her to the reality of an epic Italian traffic jam. In a scene that might have been inspired by Jacques Tati, the traffic jam takes on a life of its own, with insane drivers yelling and blowing their horns at each other, maneuvering for every precious inch of open highway. While at the beach, Anna spots an attractive young man, showing off his physique and skills on the diving platform of a fresh-water pool. Like any experienced cougar, she puts herself in a position to be noticed by him, as well. He and his older, bearded buddy need a ride back to the city, and, conveniently, Anna has room for them in her Fiat. Much to her consternation, the young man insists on driving. Needless to say, the ride home proves disastrous. Even at 63 and well beyond her prime, Mangani could still turn heads with her formidable beauty and fire. (She would be dead two years later.) “The Automobile” may be interesting mostly as a diversion, but, for fans of Italian comedies, there are plenty of worse ways to kill a couple of hours. – Gary Dretzka
Felipe Esparza: They’re Not Gonna to Laugh at You
Like most other comedians featured in Showtime’s urban-comedy showcase, Felipe Esparza is an expert at breaking down ethnic stereotypes one minute and, seconds later, demonstrating how accurate they might be. At a time when trigger-happy lawmen and grubby Republican politicians see illegal immigrants behind every rock – and the border remains as porous as ever — there’s plenty of boils for Esparza to lance in “They’re Not Gonna Laugh at You.” A product of East L.A., Esparza draws much of his material from decades of first-hand observations of barrio life. After winning the 2010 edition of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” the mop-top comedian naturally has been required to broaden his reach beyond the Southwest and Galavision. After starting out with some predictable icebreakers here, Esparza finds his rhythm and starts knocking the gags out of the park. And, the audience of locals is putty in his hands. Fans of his buddy, Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, will especially enjoy “They’re Not Gonna Laugh at You.” – Gary Dretzka
King of the Triads
Three-time “WWE Babe of the Year” and “Diva of the Decade” Trish Stratus breaks into feature films in the Canadian indie, “Bounty Hunters” (a.k.a., “Bail Enforcers”), a movie solely distinguished by the athleticism of her bad-ass character and that of her equally tough antagonist, Andrea James Lui. Indeed, if I were scoring on points, I’d say that Lui got the best of the heroine, until her inevitable demise before the final bell. They’re both extremely talented pugilists and, as far as these things go, anyway, competent actors. Everyone else turns in performances one would expect to find in the late-night skin flicks on Cinemax, minus the benefit of nudity. The plot, such as it is, involves a team of bounty hunters who pick up a small-time hoodlum in an Asian-Canadian S&M joint and agree to flip him for a fugitive of far greater value, to the cops and the mobsters on whom he snitched. Honorable to a fault, the chief bounty hunter resists the $1-million temptation, but manages to lose the guy anyway. None of it is very convincing, especially the fights between the male characters. As diverting as Stratus and Lui may be, Patrick McBrearty’s “Bounty Hunters” is about as realistic as Stratus’ fake love affair with slimeball WWE boss Vince McMahon in her days as a wrestler.
“King of the Triads” opens briskly with a confrontation between Chinese police and a gang of counterfeiters. What makes it interesting is the absurd notion that the cops could be talked into holstering their weapons by the gangsters, who would prefer to duke it out with fists and feet of fury. Within days of the gang leader being apprehended with the plates in his possession, he’s escorted to a nearby soccer field and shot in the back of the head by a rifle-wielding PRC soldier. You don’t find stuff like that in the tourist brochures. The rest of “King of the Triads” involves the battle to choose a successor to the boss and take possession of family resources. As is the case in most of Dennis Law’s other martial-arts thrillers, logic and plot development henceforth takes a backseat to the almost non-stop violence choreographed by Li Chung Chi and shot by Herman Yau. After about a half-hour, I lost track of who was doing what to whom and why … not that it matters all that much. The struggle for power within the previously close-knit family requires a colossal suspension of disbelief and I was far too interested in watching foxy and desperately ambitious Bernice Liu slaughter her brothers and in-laws to care about the triad’s line of succession. Also appearing in “King of the Triads” are Simon Yam, Eddie Cheung, Pinky Cheung, Lam Suet, Andy On, Xiong Xinxin, Ken Lo, Jiang Luxia and Chris Lai. A making-of featurette describes the always-fascinating preparations for the fight scenes. – Gary Dretzka
Answers to Nothing
Fans of such ensemble dramas as “Short Cuts,” “Magnolia,” “Crash” and “Powder Blue” should find in the interlocking stories that comprise “Answers to Nothing” something to their liking. Set, like the others, in Los Angeles, Matthew Leutwyler’s story is enhanced by an excellent cast of largely unheralded actors, playing characters that have more problems collectively than a megaplex full of troubled souls. The most prominent storyline involves the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl and the search for her kidnaper and probable killer. None-too-realistic media coverage can be heard in the background of most of the scenes, effectively diminishing the importance of everyone else’s problems. Another throughline involves a young alcoholic woman who appears to have been involved in an accident that turned her marathon-running brother into quadriplegic, and wants to compensate for it by wheeling him along in races he might otherwise have entered. Dane Cook plays a therapist whose affair with an aspiring rock star threatens his marriage and his wife’s increasingly desperate attempts to be artificially inseminated. The therapist also must deal with his mother (Barbara Hershey), who’s deluded herself into believing that the man who abandoned his family will miraculously reappear at Christmas, which celebrates every day of the year, apparently. I would have believed Cook as any other male character in the movie, except as the thoughtful therapist. Not only does his comic persona precede him here, but his character looks as if he should still be in med school. Among his patients is a pretty African-American woman (Kali Hawk), who’s offended by her white co-workers’ propensity to defer to her race, yet is bothered by the fact she “hates black people.” The most compelling characters are the therapist’s wife (Elizabeth Mitchell) and his lover (Aja Volkman), both of whom are tortured by his inconsistent behavior, bad moods and inconclusive plans for the future. As the musician, Volkman proves to be the real deal, belting out the same kinds of songs that made Alanis Morissette a star, only better. What the women and Leutwyler see in Cook is a mystery. He’s a cad to his very nice and undeniably pretty wife and too square to be credible as the lover of an edgy rocker. More reasonably cast are Julie Benz, Zach Gifford, Erik Palladino, Miranda Bailey, Mark Kelly and Greg Germann. They continually dig deeper into their characters to give us reasons to stick with the spotty screenplay and find answers to, yes, nothing. – Gary Dretzka
As you can probably guess from the title, “Stags” concerns the midlife crises of a group of middle-age men, who appear to be professional bachelors. The best gag in the movie comes early on, when the buddies are gathered in a private room in a restaurant and a stripper asks which one of them is the person getting married. After they reply, “no one,” the other stripper follows up with, “Then, why did you hire us for a bachelor party?” The answer, “Because we’re all 40 and still bachelors.” Ruining the party, for both the guys and the strippers, is the revelation that another close pal has announced his engagement and soon will be a non-bachelor. The men have been close friends from boyhood and haven’t made much effort to grow up in the meantime. As if to prove that their decision to remain unmarried has always been the right way to go, the friend has only been married a few hours before suffering a heart attack and dying “in the saddle.” During the course of sitting Shiva, the men have plenty of time to think about what his death means to their future. Basically, it boils down to dumping old incumbencies and getting laid as often as possible. One of the guys becomes close to the widow, who somehow was unaware – as were the men – of their friend’s brilliant career as a porn star. Jamie Greenberg’s dramedy might not have found much in the way of distribution, but, considering the vapidity of the characters, is surprisingly watchable. (I say that as a guy. Something tells me women might come away from it with a much less favorable opinion.) I didn’t recognize any of the actors, whose roles mostly have been limited to guest appearances in television shows. (Is there a New York actor who hasn’t appeared in at least one episode of “Law & Order”?) They keep things moving in a forwardly direction, though. – Gary Dretzka
Beneath the Darkness: Blu-ray
In Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s nifty debut thriller, the characters endure so many truly awful punishments – none of them involving infected raccoons or bats — that I began to wonder if the Israeli title “Kalavet” hadn’t been mistranslated. According to the marketing material, “Rabies” is Israel’s first American-style slasher flick. In a scenario all too familiar to audiences here, a madman is loose in a forest near Tel Aviv, torturing young couples and slashing the throats of their pets. (In decades of watching news footage from Israel, I’ve never seen images of any of the forests in which saplings donated by American kids were planted. This one is full of nice-sized trees.) One attack leads to a string of killings, accidental or otherwise, involving perverted cops, teenage girls in tennis outfits, their dopey boyfriends, the bloodied brother of the first victim and a hunter. Hunting for something besides terrorists in Israel, who knew? Among the ways people die are impalement, bludgeoning, brutal beatings, gunshots, automobile collisions and explosives. One man manages to step into a bear trap – again, who knew? – while one of the tennis-playing girls picks a deserted minefield in which to take a piss. Even as the deaths mount up, the characters remain on their cellphones, chatting and arguing with friends back in the city, never mentioning the bad craziness occurring in the woods surrounding them. It adds a surrealistic element to a story that might have begun its life as an inky black comedy. Somehow, Keshales and Papushado are able to harness the madness and turn it into something entirely watchable and thoroughly creepy.
I can’t remember the last time Dennis Quaid was assigned a role of any real substance. He’s a well enough known commodity to draw attention to virtually-direct-to-DVD movies, but nothing remotely reminiscent of his turns in “Far From Heaven,” “The Big Easy” and “Traffic.” In the insufficiently thrilling thriller, “Beneath the Darkness,” he plays a former small-town sports hero and mortician who creeps out a group of teenagers with his bizarre nocturnal activities. We know he’s evil because, in the opening scene, he buries alive a jogger and possible lover of his dead wife. (All too coincidentally, the teens are studying Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in English class.) Overly curious as to the shadows they see dancing on the shades on the windows of the mortician’s bedroom, the youthful sleuths are unable to resist the temptation to break into the man’s home. The cops don’t believe that they’ve seen the embalmed corpse of his dead wife in the bedroom and advise them not to risk being shot by the owner. Kids being kids, they ignore the warning and proceed as if they never received one. It allows the mortician to pick them off one-by-one, keeping them alive long enough to bury them, as well. Fortuitously, the mortician is far too nuts to pull off his scheme, as planned, and it adds a nice touch of strangeness to the climax. The final five minutes are better than anything else in “Beneath the Darkness.”
In another paper-thin psychological/supernatural thriller, an ER nurse is accidentally electrocuted by a backfiring defibrillator, while attempting to save the life of a stabbing victim. As played by Natalie Zea (“Justified), Kaitlyn not only is capable of channeling the dead patient’s memory of the crime, but also is forced to deal with the sublimated feelings of guilt left over from the death of her mother (Veronica Cartwright). As Kaitlyn is able to form a picture in her head of what happened in both incidents, the ghosts begin to drive her increasingly crazy. A doubtful police detective, played by Sean Patrick Flanery, decides to give her the benefit of a doubt, while a psychiatrist (Adam Baldwin) allows her to bounce her theories off him. Kaitlyn’s flashbacks add some intrigue to Richard Gabai’s story, but not much clarity. By the time the true villain is revealed, you’ll either be as confused as I was or happy that “InSight” is finally over. Coincidentally, Zea and Quaid’s characters end up in exactly the same place. – Gary Dretzka
Left and Loose in the Lot
Jesus, the Total Douchebag
Fans of such stoner comedies as “Half-Baked,” “Harold & Kumar” and “Up in Smoke” are the primary and, perhaps, only audience for “Left and Loose in the Lot.” It involves a pair of ne’er-do-well security guards in a parking structure who seem to function better when wasted on marijuana than when they’re straight. The other people who work the night shift at the lot are every bit as motley as Left and Loose (Wayne Waynee, Demetrius Dedmon). When they observe a pair of crimes taking place, via security cameras, Left and Loose snap into action, which is to say that they hop into a golf cart and try to avoid getting lost on the way to the scene of the crime. Naturally, it involves marijuana. “The Lot” won’t make anyone forget any of Cheech & Chong’s comedies, even “The Corsican Brothers.” It should, however, amuse viewers who are fully baked and hungry for comedies about people like them.
Knowing that Bill Zebub’s list of credits includes “Zombiechrist,” “Forgive Me for Raping You” and the surprisingly funny “Antfarm Dickhole,” should give you a pretty good idea of what passes for humor and insight in “Jesus, the Total Douchebag.” To say it isn’t for everyone is like saying Draino isn’t everyone’s idea of a refreshing beverage. It is “The Passion of the Christ” as interpreted by perverts, degenerates and people whose brains have been scorched by too much crystal meth and death-metal music. Typically, Zebub plays the title character, opposite GWAR’s Oderus Urungus, as Satan, and alongside lots of naked skanks. (Mary Magdalene is played by Taylor Trash.) Only fans of unabashed blasphemy and creative freedom, however anarchic, will find something to like in the Passion Play that is “Jesus, the Total Douchebag.” The DVD also contains “Metalheads,” a more contemporary examination of the agony and ecstasy of being a metalhead. Don’t say you weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka
Enemies of the People
The Spectre of Hope
Among other things that separate human beings from apes and other living things is a willingness to periodically and systematically murder people we don’t like in numbers so staggeringly large as to be unimaginable. In some cases, we don’t even bother to keep score. Such was the case in Cambodia, when Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot declared war on his own countrymen, leaving anywhere between 2 million and 4 million of them dead. The slaughter was chronicled in Roland Joffe’s “The Killing Fields,” which also outlined the evacuation to the countryside of millions of intellectuals, teachers, doctors and property owners living in Phnom Penh. If American audiences were surprised by what they saw, it’s only because the Vietnam War had begun to fade from our collective memory and, well, good riddance. No one wanted to revisit the mess we helped make of Southeast Asia. Nearly 30 years after that movie was released, filmmakers Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath returned to the killing fields, literally, to record the memories of participants, witnesses, relatives of the victims and some of the people who green-lit the murders. “Enemies of the People” is a stunning documentary, if only for the matter-of-fact recollections they got and images of peasants knowingly living and working within feet of mass graves.
Sambath, an investigative reporter who lost his parents and siblings in the massacres, spent years gaining the confidence of the people he wanted to interview. In doing so, he admittedly neglected his family and invested his income in the project. Thanks to his his well-earned familiarity with the subjects, Sambath was able to inform his film with the unforced testimony of soldiers and officers, some of whom admit slitting the throats of “enemies of the people” and agree to demonstrate how it was done. In some cases, as well, the filmmaker is able to elicit the confessions by bringing along the officer who pumped them full of palm wine and demanded they do it. These men were told that Pol Pot personally ordered the execution of anyone suspected of posing a threat to the communist government or, maybe, someday, thinking about threatening the regime. If it wasn’t a certainty that anyone in the chain of command who disobeyed orders would be murdered on the spot, it might be easy to dismiss their claims of being forced into performing such acts. At one time, Americans believed that the just-following-orders defense was baloney and ex-Nazis should be held liable for their crimes. By the time the My Lai massacre was exposed to the public – and, later, the crimes perpetrated at Abu Ghraib and by Blackwater mercenaries – it became apparent that, at most, one or two guys would be scapegoated for the atrocity, while the people who gave the orders (or closed their eyes to it) went free. All guilt became relative. Sambath’s largest coup was locating and gaining the confidence of Nuon Chea — Pot’s second-in-command – who not only admitted the killings, but also his belief that they were justified. (The 85-year-old “chief ideologue” has since been jailed, awaiting a UN trial. Some have argued that Henry Kissinger ought to be put on trial, as well, for plotting the illegal bombings of Vietnamese positions inside Cambodia that set in motion the events that would lead to the Khmer Rouge coup. It’s complicated.) The two-disc set comes with deleted scenes, extended interviews, a making-of featurette, exclusive footage from a videoconference between Khmer Rouge survivors and killers featured in film, television reports, a 28-page booklet on the film, PBS interview with the directors and Q&A with David Puttnam, producer of “The Killing Fields.”
Paul Carlin’s “The Spectre of Hope” is less a documentary than a thought-provoking discussion of the effects of globalization on poor and displaced people around the world. It was inspired by photographs taken by Sebastiao Salgado for his book, “Migrations.” British critic/novelist John Berger joins the photographer for a soulful exchange of views on the role of art in times of great turmoil, as were the 1990s. As an economist for the World Bank, the native Brazilian traveled around the globe, often witnessing conditions and situations that troubled him. He turned to photojournalism in the 1970s, before focusing his attention on social documentary photography. For “Migrations,” he shot heart-wrenching photographs of people forced to leave their homes due to war, genocide, natural disasters and political and religious schisms. Viewers can read their pain in the eyes of their children, not to mention the hacked-up corpses lining the roads. Among the places he visited in his six-year journey were Rwanda, Mozambique, Sudan, Kosovo and Albania, Mexico, Eastern Europe and Asia. Although the photographs mostly speak for themselves, Salgado has plenty to say about the economic conditions that put displaced people at a disadvantage wherever they settle. Berger’s job here is to ask the questions we might have been inspired to ask, given the same access to the photographer. – Gary Dretzka
Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury
El Monstro del Mar!
The common element in both of these bargain-basement genre parodies is that they largely take place on water. In the case of the former, it’s the chlorinated ponds in the backyards of homes throughout the San Fernando Valley, while the latter is set along the Australian coast. “Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury” stars Kevin Sorbo (“Hercules”) as a Rambo-like Vietnam veteran who returns to L.A. after too many years in the warzone, only to find his former profession taken over by illegal immigrants from Mexico. It isn’t the only thing he doesn’t recognize in his Van Nuys neighborhood. Determined to reclaim his stake in the SoCal pool-servicing industry, Sorbo is required first to take on his chief rival, played by Danny Trejo, a veteran actor who seems to be everywhere these days. A key part of the joke here is host Saint James St. James, who purportedly produced the movie in 1990, but lost it for 20 years after it was deemed un-releasable. “Poolboy” is a hit-or-miss comedy, distinguished by some amusing sight gags and diminished by lots of over-the-top racial humor. Writer/co-star Ross Patterson already has a pair of Saint James St. James (the St. is pronounced “street”) sequels on the drawing boards, so expect more silly direct-to-DVD stuff down the road. I don’t know what, if any connection Patterson has with Milwaukee sports teams, except to point out that Sorbo’s character is named Sal Bando (a former Brewer) and one of his buddies is Sidney Moncrief (a former Buck).
When considering a rental of Stuart Simpson’s parody of grindhouse and Ozploitation flicks, feel free to ignore the Spanish title, “El Monstro Del Mar.” It’s about as Hispanic as Foster’s beer and Australian-rules football. Think of it as “Monster of the Sea” and you won’t come away disappointed or misled. In fact, considering its resemblance to several recent Roger Corman and Syfy collaborations, a better title might be “Octo-Hydra” or “It Came From Down Under.” It opens with three hootchie-mommas stuck on the side of a country road, laying a honey trap for passing horndogs. After stealing their car, the ladies head straight for a seaside community that is mysteriously absent of crowds and buff beach boys. Nonetheless, they party until the cows come home. It soon becomes apparent that the ocean is haunted by the aforementioned “monstro del mar,” a giant squid-like creature with toothy mouths on the tips of tentacles that bark like seals. Mayhem ensues. The best thing about the movie is its grainy period look and 75-minute length. Any longer, and he would have been pushing his luck. – Gary Dretzka
The Guild: Season 5
Internet mini-mogul Felicia Day takes Season 5 of “The Guild” on a road trip – along with the Knights of Good — to a gamers’ convention populated by even more nerds than your average ComiCon. Over the course of the three-day MegaGameORama-Con, Codex (Day) hopes to have non-virtual relations with the panel-obsessed Zaboo. Otherwise, the 32-going-on-17 ditzoid is determined to prevent the developer of the massively multiplayer online role-playing “Game” from selling it to mainstream interests. Meanwhile, all of the other knights are busy, working angles of their own. This unrated DVD includes all 12 episodes, featuring guest stars Nathan Fillion, Wil Wheaton, Kevin Sorbo, Stan Lee and Brent Spiner. As usual, there’s also plenty of original bonus material, including cast interviews, audio commentaries, a gag reel, a table, script PDF file and the featurettes, “How to Build a Con Featurette” and “Steampunk Verite.” – Gary Dretzka
There’s an entire subgenre of documentaries that focus on conventions and beauty contests dedicated to the pursuits of people who flourish in the backwaters of American mainstream culture. Coverage of Trekkie events and “drag” beauty contests got the ball rolling, with dozens of other such gatherings to follow in due course. (Morgan Spurlock’s “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” debuts in April.) “Kink Crusaders” describes what transpires at the world’s oldest kink/fetish contest — International Mr. Leather – which has taken place in Chicago for more than 30 years. By now, such competitions aren’t nearly as shocking or quasi-legal as they were before the advent of the gay-rights movement. Certainly, no Gay Rights Parade is complete without a leather-fetish contingent and respectful media coverage. Michael Skiff’s film goes beyond the on-stage posing and backstage primping to chronicle the evolution of the event, which has grown from an event catering strictly to white, gay males, to one that includes men of all colors and ethnic backgrounds, as well as straight, disabled and transgender participants … and, of course, the women who love them. Skiff eavesdrops on panel discussions and interviews the founder, whose bar has been a leather landmark for a half-century. – Gary Dretzka
American Experience: The Amish
Todd & the Book of Pure Evil
Top Gear 17: Blu-ray
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?: The Complete Series
Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century: Complete Series
Archies Weird Mysteries: The Complete Series
Normally, the Amish avoid headline-making situations like they would electric power tools. Occasionally, an elder would protest efforts to make horse-drawn carriages conform to laws written for automobile owners, but that’s what lawyers are for. In 2006, however, the nation was stunned by the ritual killings of five young girls and wounding of five others in a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa. Nearly was shocking as the attack by the non-Amish gunman – who would commit suicide after shooting the girls — was the outpouring of forgiveness on the man’s family by the members of the tight-knit community. As unexpected and unpredictable as that crime, if in a less tragic way, were the attacks perpetrated last fall by members of a breakaway Amish sect on co-religionists in Ohio. Eventually, 10 men and 2 women would be charged under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in five separate beard- and hair-cutting incidents. For the first time, headline writers would call attention to “Amish-on-Amish crime.” The 2006 incident inspired filmmaker David Belton to make “The Amish” for PBS’ “American Experience” documentary series. Chronicling 500 years’ worth of traditions, beliefs and practices might have been easier for Belton if anyone in the community actually cared to be interviewed or open their books to “the English,” as outsiders are known. Even so, he was given unprecedented access to the people who didn’t mind having the message of their lifestyle clarified. In fact, the Amish Mennonite movement isn’t as easy to portray in the media as one might think. Turns out, their history is anything but “plain” and “simple.”
“Todd & the Book of Pure Evil” is the title of a sitcom that airs on Canada’s Space network, an outlet that specializes in sci-fi, horror, fantasy and paranormal programming. It is being shown on America’s Fearnet cable channel, of whose existence, until today, I was unaware. The series resembles most shows set in a modern North American high school, in that there’s a firmly entrenched caste system and teachers who run the gamut from dweebish to enlightened. The scene at Crowley High is unique in that it is the only secondary school in a town founded by Satanists. Somehow, their “Book of Pure Evil” has gone missing and currently is believed to be lurking within the bowels of the school. Every time it falls (literally) into the hands of a student in need of a granted wish, chaos follows. Typically, it arrives in the person of a grotesque being or unintended disaster. Todd is one of only a few students who understands the pluses and minuses of the book’s gift and, after it allowed him to become a guitar hero, has volunteered to help kids who have fallen under its spell. Free of the usual censorship that neutralizes the impact of shows aimed at American teens, “T&TBOPE” provides solid laughs and cheap thrills for viewers of most ages. As entertaining as the show might be, however, it will be a long time before a mainstream American network schedules a series in which Satanists comprise the school board. Jason Mews plays the school’s janitor, who, when he isn’t swabbing the floors, dispenses sex advice to students and satisfies the itches of horny female teachers. Be advised that in addition to some grotesque creatures, the series also can be pretty raunchy.
Now in their 18th season, the car nuts of “Top Gear” just keep rolling along the highways and byways of Great Britain and beyond. For those who have yet to locate BBC America on their television, the 17th season package has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD. It opens with Jeremy throwing a lavish party to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Jaguar E-type. Meanwhile, Richard is in South Africa testing a rugged alternative to the Hummer and James tests the latest Mini rally car with British Olympian Amy Williams. In future episodes, the lads attempt to find the world’s best hatchback; pit the McLaren MP4-12C against the Ferrari 458; and invite guest celebrities, including Alice Cooper, to test “reasonably priced cars.” The Blu-ray adds an episode of the U.S. spinoff of “Top Gear”; a new series intro; a test of the Nissan GT-R’s launch-control system; and several behind-the-scenes featurettes. The series’ only drawback comes in knowing that with gasoline prices at record levels, no one except oil-company executives will ever be able to afford driving high-performance automobiles under optimum conditions.
The series represented in Mill Creek Entertainment’s Cookie Jar collection arrive with spiffy new covers that distinguish them from most other titles in the company’s catalog. The newest entries include complete-series editions of “Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?,” “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century” and “Archie’s Weird Mysteries.” In all three of the series no small amount of crime-fighting and detective work takes place. Carmen Sandiego, of course, is determined to steal the most valuable objects in the world, without being caught by the teen detectives Zack and Ivy. The set adds the bonus feature film, “The Secret Garden” and the bonus episode, “Liberty’s Kids.”
As unlikely as it sounds, “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century” focuses on the cases solved by a reincarnated Holmes and the pickled brain of companion Dr. John Watson, which has been transplanted in the head of an android. Holmes hasn’t looked this good since he was 25, the first time around. Unfortunately for the private detectives, Professor James Moriarty has also made the journey to the 22nd Century, which, apparently, has hitherto been relatively crime-free. The set contains all 26 episodes, as well as bonus episodes of “Stargate Infinity,” “Carmen Sandiego,” “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” “Flight Squad” and “Liberty Kid’s
At one time or another, most American teens have wanted to attend Riverdale High, with Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie and Jughead. In the animated adaptation of the still-popular comic strip, a failed physics experiment opens the door to a menagerie of monstrous newcomers, including a swamp creature, Frankenstein, mad scientists, werewolves, vampires, giant ants, UFOs and zombies. It’s up to Archie and the rest of the malt-shop gang to keep Riverdale safe from harm. In addition to all 40 episodes, the DVD adds episodes of “Sabrina’s Secret Life,” “Sabrina: The Animated Series” and “Mona the Vampire.” – Gary Dretzka
Justice League: Doom
Even as its collaboration with DC Comics continues to pay dividends at the box office, Warner Bros. is finding an enthusiastic audience for ancillary superhero fun with its feature-length animated features. Such DC Universe Animated Originals as “Justice League: Doom” take already established storylines – here, Mark Waid’s “JLA: Tower of Babel” and Alex Ross’ “Justice” – and expand on them by tweaking the narratives, amplifying the color scheme and liberating the characters’ physicality. The better the response from fans, the more effort is put into the movies by the animators and authors and money by the studio. In “Justice League: Doom,” Batman’s contingency plans for the eventuality of a rogue superhero are stolen by wannabe supervillains. The Dark Knight’s concerns aren’t widely shared by his fellow JLA members, so the revelation of their existence is met with suspicion. It complicates the retrieval process. If it weren’t for the super-villains propensity for attempting to destroy the world, they probably would have been just as happy to not find the plans. As usual, Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly and Nathan Fillion lead the voicing cast. It arrives with a preview of the upcoming “Superman vs. the Elite.” – Gary Dretzka