MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Porno Gang, A Separation, Dictator, Chimpanzee, Bernie … More

A Separation
Perhaps the most widely celebrated film made in any language last year, “A Separation” is best known here as the winner of the 2012 Oscar in Best Foreign Language Film category. If the emotionally draining Iranian drama had been nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actors categories – as it rightly should have been — “A Separation” also might have split the vote for such crowd-pleasers as “The Artist,” “The Descendants” and “The Help.” As it is, writer/director Asghar Farhadi was a runner-up to Woody Allen for the Best Original Screenplay. The brilliantly constructed story about a divorce that goes tragically haywire deserved every accolade it got. Anyone who has yet to discover the amazing cinematic achievements of contemporary Iranian filmmakers, especially considering the limitations imposed on them in their homeland, would do well to begin with “A Separation” and work their way backwards from there.

Men and women who have gone through the divorce process, even vicariously, know that nothing about it is as simple as it looks, legally or emotionally. In Iran, such overlapping considerations as civil law, Islamic law and male privilege combine to make it even more complicated and traumatic. “A Separation” opens in Family Court as a woman not only petitions the court to be allowed to divorce her husband, but also to take their 11-year-old daughter with her to a western country, for which she’s already gotten a visa. For this to happen, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) must agree to such an arrangement and he’s already decided that he must stay in Iran to care for his father, who has Alzheimer’s. He’s committed to maintaining custodial rights to Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Not only must Simin (Leila Hatami) deal with the vagaries of the legal system, but also Termeh’s unwillingness to choose sides, believing her parents would reconcile before agreeing to live without her. Though exceedingly stubborn, Nader is portrayed as a loving father and dedicated son, who believes Termeh can get a good education in Tehran. We’re predisposed to side with Simin, if only because of all the negative things we’ve absorbed about Iran since the Islamic revolution and its treatment of women. (Today, it was announced they no longer will be allowed to attend certain colleges and take courses in which they’ve excelled over male students.) Again, the situation here is more complex than it first appears to be.

After Simin moves back in with her mother, Nader hires housekeeper Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father while he’s working and Termeh is at school. Deeply religious, Razieh balks when she’s confronted with the reality of having to assist the old man in the bathroom and help keep him clean. Her imam clears her to do this, but only until a replacement can be found. Her husband agrees to take her place, but Razieh is required to fill in for him while he can square his debts. It’s at this point in the narrative that “A Separation” becomes less a movie about divorce than what can happen when secrets turn into lies and small deceptions lead to much greater calamities. Without spoiling anything, Nader becomes so frustrated after coming home early and finding his father on the floor, tied to the bed, that he pushes Razieh out the door of his apartment and down a flight of stairs. What he doesn’t know – or, perhaps, fails to take into consideration – is that Razieh is pregnant and she soon will be taken to a hospital, where the fetus is declared dead. Under Iranian law, Nader can be charged with murder and, unless a financial agreement is reached, he likely would be found guilty and go to prison. His refusal to accept such an agreement sets the stage for a second legal entanglement. A third one unfolds when Nader accuses Razieh of stealing money from him and neglecting his father.

It would be fair to think Farhadi might have had English writer Walter Scott in mind all along. In the epic poem, “Marmion,” Scott observed, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to device.” Everyone, it seems, is either harboring portentous secrets or offering advice based on facts not in evidence. Complicating matters even further is the court’s tendency to believe the word of a middle-class professional over the accusations of a working-class couple that’s deeply in debt. It explains why a legally binding settlement, with or without an apology, would appear to be the most viable solution to everyone. By the time Farhadi finally is able to revisit the divorce proceeding, we’re far less sure about whose side to take. All of this mishegas is wonderfully choreographed by Farhadi (“Fireworks Wednesday”) and splendidly performed by an ensemble cast, which, collectively, captured the top acting awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. (The director’s daughter plays Termeh.) The DVD arrives with Farhadi’s commentary (in Farsi, with English subtitles), a post-screening Q&A with the director’s comments translated into English and the background featurette, “Birth of a Director.” – Gary Dretzka

The Dictator: Banned & Unrated: Blu-ray
If the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America” comes to mind while watching Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest assault on politically correct storytelling, the resemblance is probably more coincidental than intentional. Why risk another court case, like the one Art Buchwald brought against Paramount, even if the popular columnist couldn’t have dreamed of as outrageous a character as Cohen’s Admiral General Aladeen, Supreme Leader for Life of the Democratic Republic of Wadiya? (Despite a landmark court ruling against the studio, director John Landis still insists that Buchwald’s early script ideas had no bearing on the final version of the 1988 hit.) Like Murphy, Cohen plays an African potentate, who, while visiting Manhattan, inadvertently experiences life from the point-of-view of an everyday New Yorker. Unlike Murphy’s good-natured prince, Cohen’s dictator is so mean-spirited he makes Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad look like Bernard Baruch. Aladeen is in New York to condemn the UN for imposing sanctions on his country over the likelihood he’s stockpiling WMDs. While in Manhattan, his top aides conspire to substitute Aladeen with a look-alike sheep herder, who will deliver a speech promising reforms and democracy. Shorn of his trademark beard, Aladeen is just one of many ex-patriots claiming to have been robbed of their rightful titles and power. When he isn’t attempting to persuade police and diplomats of his true identity, he’s freaking out New Yorkers and tourists with his mindless bigotry, outrageous behavior and allusions to 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, who, he claims, is still hiding out in his presidential mansion back home. (The Navy SEALS killed a body-double.)

In a reasonably fruitful subplot, Aladeen convinces the manager of a vegan grocery co-op that he’s a political refugee and, in solidarity with the people of Wadiya, she should give him a job. It puts him in a position to insult and antagonize everyone who gets within 10 feet of him. Against all odds, Zoey (Anna Faris) sees something good in Aladeen that no one else has been able to identify. Once that happens, “The Dictator” runs pretty true to form. Needless to say, “The Dictator” will engage the same audiences that loved “Borat,” “Bruno” and “Da Ali G Show,” and deeply disturb most other viewers. (One of the things he discovers in America is masturbation, to which he becomes addicted.) Women, especially, are unlikely to find anything humorous in the rape gags and Aladeen’s other misogynistic beliefs. In Cohen’s defense, however, the offensive material is on a par with the comedy in his previous work and, within that context, often is hilarious. (His characterization of the dogged station inspector, in “Hugo,” proves Cohen isn’t limited to broadly comedic roles.) If only Ahmadinejad and other truly evil dictators were as harmless as Aladeen, the world would be a much more pleasant place to be. Cohen’s fans will be happy to learn that the Blu-ray “Banned & Unrated” edition is about 20 minutes longer than the original 83-minute version of “The Dictator.” It also contains some deleted and extended scenes, a music video of “Your Money Is on the Dresser,” a longer take of the Larry King interview and a DVD of the theatrical version. – Gary Dretzka

Bernie
The idea for “Bernie” began percolating in Richard Linklater’s head after reading an article on the real-life Bernie Tiede in a Texas Monthly article in 1998. He couldn’t resist a story that was so quintessentially Texan – east Texan, to be precise – it truly was stranger than fiction. Here, in a state with more than 300 prisoners living on Death Row, the murder trial of a mild-mannered mortician had to be moved to another venue, because the residents seemed likely to forgive him in the death of a widely disliked woman. Having worked with Jack Black previously in “School of Rock,” Linklater knew he was a perfect fit for the role of such an extroverted character as Tiede. Ditto, Matthew McConaughey as the good-ol’-boy prosecutor, who defied the community by seeking the change of venue. When he convinced Shirley MacLaine to play wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent, Linklater knew he could finally get to work on “Bernie.” To add another layer of credibility to the mix, he scheduled an open casting call in the Carthage area to ensure the additional speaking parts would be filled by people who looked and sounded as if they were raised in the Piney Woods. Indeed, several of the locals who auditioned had known both Tiede and Nugent.

Mostly though, “Bernie” is Black’s show to dominate. Always impeccably dressed in sport coats and slacks that might have come from the Johnny Carson collection at Sears, and sporting a mustache only a carnival pitchman could admire, Tiede was the kind of civic leader who volunteered for any gig lacking a host. He also led the church choir, sang and acted in musicals, and kept the women in town occupied while their husbands played dominoes and drank beer. Nugent considered herself to be above everyone else in Carthage, if only because was the richest and most traveled woman in town. It took a while for the grand dame to warm to Tiede, but, when she did, they became inseparable. He managed her money, while she managed his time. After blowing a gasket when Bernie was late to report for a date – their relationship doesn’t appear to have been sexual – he picked up the rifle she bought to control armadillos in her backyard and shot her dead. He compounded the crime by stashing her away in a freezer and pretending she was still alive.

It took quite a while before the truth was revealed and, by then, he’d contributed a sizable portion of her assets to local charities. So, you can see the prosecutor’s dilemma when it came time to finding an impartial jury. In theaters, “Bernie” suffered from its small-screen scale and proximity to such other based-on-a-true-story movies as “I Love You Phillip Morris,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Social Network” and “Casino Jack.” It has more in common with HBO’s “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” than any of those movies. This isn’t meant to slight Black, McConaughey and Linklater, just to keep “Bernie” in its proper perspective. You don’t have to be a diehard Black fan to love “Bernie,” but his performance is reason enough to put the darkish comedy on your must-rent list. The DVD comes with making-of material, including interviews with the actors, filmmakers and residents of Carthage. – Gary Dretzka

Virginia
Hide Away: Blu-ray
God’s Ears
These new titles argue against two once-prevalent assumptions about straight-to-video movies: 1) great actors can overcome a multitude of sins on the part of a director or screenwriter, and 2) movies that bypass the theatrical circuit are never as good as the ones that find wide distribution. The movie business has become such a guessing game lately that it pays to download a movie-review app before venturing forth to the local video store. (I prefer Metacritic.)

Given the presence of such top-shelf actors as Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Toby Jones and Carrie Preston – all under the direction of Oscar-winning writer, Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) – what possibly could have gone wrong with the modestly budgeted indie, “Virginia” (a.k.a., “What’s Wrong With Virginia”)? As it turns out, almost everything besides the performances. There are more storylines intersecting here than rails in a switching yard outside of Chicago. Keeping track of them all in a two-hour psychodrama requires a degree of patience – and tolerance for damaged characters — most viewers simply don’t possess. Connelly plays the somewhat unstable mother of a personable teenager, who may or may not be the son of the local sheriff and contender for a State Senate seat. She claims not to remember with whom she slept nearly two decades ago, but it’s clear she’s been involved for years in an S&M affair with the conservative Mormon sheriff (Harris). His even more devout wife, played by Madigan, is a stern old prune without a clue about her husband’s fetishes. Complicating things mightily for everyone is the emerging romance between their kids, Emmet (Harrison Gilbertson) and Jessie (Emma Roberts).  Because the sheriff is convinced Emmet is his illegitimate son – the boy doubts it – he forbids Jessie from seeing him. On another tangent, Jones plays the cross-dressing owner of an amusement park, through which several other story threads run. Oh, yeah, despite the likelihood she has cystic fibrosis, Virginia smokes like a chimney.

Black is too good a writer to reduce his characters into generic weirdoes or plastic figurines. He has, however, given them way too much baggage to carry in what appears to be a commentary about intolerance and hypocrisy in small-town America. When Virginia isn’t coughing up blood and piloting a tram in the amusement park, she’s fighting off social workers and hatching plots to keep the sheriff from ignoring her. He’s torn between the passion he found in Virginia and the commitment he made to his wife as a dedicated Mormon. Moreover, a scandal could destroy his political agenda. Apart from HBO’s “Big Love,” for which Black wrote several episodes, I’ve rarely encountered as much Mormon iconography and ideology as I did in “Virginia.” It helps explains why the sheriff is so messed up and why his daughter is in a quandary about falling in love with the non-Mormon, Emmet.

Finally, though, the fate of the characters in “Virginia” hinges on a pair of failed robberies in which the perpetrators wore a gorilla mask and the off-chance Virginia could benefit from expensive experimental treatment in San Francisco. It’s a very unreliable hook upon which to hang such a heavy plot, even if the bittersweet ending ties up most of the loose ends. The movie’s been sitting in a can, somewhere, since debuting at the Toronto film festival two years ago. At some point, there probably was some talk about Oscar nominations for Connelly and Harris. For that to have been realized, though, a distributor would have had to see something more encouraging in “Virginia” than a list of acting credits and Gus Van Sant’s participation as executive director. The DVD adds a making-off documentary.

Anyone who’s ever felt like turning his back on the world and sailing away to points unknown should be able to find something to like in “Hide Away” (“A Year in Mooring”), another grown-up drama that was accorded only the most minimal of releases. In its DVD iteration, however, Chris Eyre’s film deserves a longer look. Josh Lucas plays Young Mariner, a middle-age man inspired by a personal tragedy to find something more meaningful in life than laboring for a company that probably would have laid him off in a couple of years, anyway. To help take his mind off his loss, for which he blames himself, YM chooses to buy a sailboat that will require months of hard work to rescue. As further penance, YM elects to spend the harsh Michigan winter inside the vessel, which would be condemned if it weren’t floating alongside a pier. Moreover, it’s painfully lonely after tourist season in Traverse City, where the average high temperature in January and February is below freezing. Nevertheless, after suffering a near breakdown, YM comes out of his self-imposed shell to make friends with the pretty seen-it-all Waitress (Ayelet Zurer); a fellow urban refugee, Divorced Man (Jon Tenney); a pretty young blond (Casey LaBow) whose problems are worse than his; and a philosophical old salt, the Ancient Mariner (James Cromwell), who plays bagpipes and builds model ships. If Peter Vanderwall’s overwrought script barely holds water – winters in northern Michigan are far more hostile than he imagines them to be here – Eyre and cinematographer Elliot Davis nicely capture the look of the region over the course of a year and one man’s determination to jump-start his life after tragedy. Lucas wisely doesn’t attempt to oversell YM’s breakdown and the script doesn’t require he find relief in all-too-convenient affairs. The DVD adds a making-of piece and interviews. It’s been more than a decade since Eyre, one of several then-promising Native American directors, made “Skins” and “Smoke Signals.” It’s nice to see him back.

Having sat on the shelf two years longer than “Virginia,” the romantic drama “God’s Ears” also has made a belated debut on DVD this week. In it, a gorgeous blond stripper, Alexia (Margot Farley), falls head over platform heels for a handsome young man, Noah (Michael Worth), with autism. Yes, you read that right. There are no limits to what a determined lap-dancer can do in the movies. Alexia and Noah meet cute in a diner, where he unexpectedly begins a conversation about chickens and eggs, about which he knows more than most farmers. Fascinated by his willingness to break his usual silence in her company, the dancer begins to stalk him to see what’s what. In addition to being a chicken savant, Noah works as a go-fer in a boxing gym and, more importantly, looks pretty buff with his shirt off. No dummy, Noah picks up on Alexis’ offer to accompany her and another stripper north to a farm, where his grandmother lives and guards his mother’s ashes. Just as everything begins to click for the two lovebirds, Alexis inexplicably flakes out on him. Noah takes out his surprise and disappointment on a punching bag held by the gym’s owner (John Saxon). Is this relationship doomed to failure or will Alexis and Noah find common ground for the most unlikely of love affairs. Duh. Farley is appealing as a stripper who isn’t required to remove all of her clothes in our presence, while Worth does a fairly good job juggling acting, writing and directing duties. As straight-to-DVD movies go, I’ve seen worse. – Gary Dretzka

Disneynature: Chimpanzee: Blu-ray
In the grand Disney tradition, the makers of “Chimpanzee” follow a playful young ape, Oscar, as he learns from his mother, Isha, how to survive in the wild. The filmmakers, who spent three years in the dense Tai rainforest of the Ivory Coast, had originally planned to make a mother-son story, but had to shift gears Isha was killed in a raid by rival chimps. Instead of having to kill the project, directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield caught a huge break when the pack’s alpha male, Freddy, uncharacteristically adopted the toddler and began to pass along his survival skills. They were extremely fortunate, as well, in being accepted by chimpanzees that had mastered the use of rocks and small logs to separate nuts from their shells and sticks to collect honey and ants without being stung or bitten. At a time when chimps are making headlines for cannibalizing their young in zoos, chewing the faces off their owners in captivity and escaping into the wilds of Las Vegas to do God-knows-what, “Chimpanzee” paints a portrait that is more in keeping with what adults expect from Disney and its Disneynature offshoot.

After the familiarization process takes hold, Freddy allows the filmmakers to follow the gang as it treks into enemy territory for food. It’s here that I would caution parents about letting young children watch “Chimpanzee” without supervision. Although the MPAA raters don’t seem to think kids might need guidance when it comes to chimps attacking and killing rival chimps, babies being orphaned and hungry apes trapping and feasting on colobus monkeys, I’d beg to differ. Even if no carcass is revealed, the ferocity of the attack in which Oscar’s mom presumably is killed could chill an animal lover of any age. That said, however, the Blu-ray presentation is terrific, especially in the bonus featurettes that examine other territories and aspects of the team’s research. In one, the filmmakers are besieged by bees to the point where they’re unable to shoot for days. Kids won’t mind Tim Allen’s often quite silly narrative, but adults will tempted to turn down the sound. – Gary Dretzka

Freelancers
One in the Chamber
I’m old enough to remember the heyday of Blaxploitation movies, when any void in plot or logic could be filled with gratuitously violent attacks on “the man,” gratuitous sex with a blond hooker, the assassination of a heroin pusher by cops or mobsters, or a romantic interlude accompanied by a song from the Motown catalog. Those were the days. Although the name has changed, I sense that the Blaxploitatation era is being revisited in straight-to-DVDs that are a tad more racially inclusive and back the action with hip-hop music. Instead of pitting the Brothers against the world, the protagonists and antagonists, alike, come in all shapes and colors. “Freelancers” is typical of the urban-action pictures now finding a home in video stores. In addition to a star from the world of hip-hop – here, 50 Cent – there are actors who will be recognizable to audiences of all persuasions. Here, they include Robert De Niro, Forest Whitaker, Vinnie Jones and Dana Delaney, the latter two actors appearing in what essentially are cameo roles. I’d rent any movie with De Niro and Whitaker’s names on the cover, even knowing that their recent track record hasn’t been all that terrific. Generally speaking, the mostly anonymous women need only look good in Victoria’s Secret lingerie or stripper’s gear.

50 Cent/Curtis Jackson plays Malo, the son of an on-the-take NYPD officer who goes from mean streets to the police force at lightning speed. I think he might have spent some time in the slammer, as well, but I could have been hallucinating. No sooner does he graduate from the police academy than Malo is assigned to the same team of rogue cops that ran with his dad. The dirtiest cop in the bunch, Sarcone (De Niro), takes the rookie under his wing and gives him the keys to the corrupt kingdom mere moments after their first meeting (in a strip joint, naturally). Two of Malo’s buddies from their days in the ’hood somehow manage to be assigned to the same precinct, as well, allowing them to form a cell within the team that threatens to be as evil as the one run by Sarcone and Whitaker’s LaRue. Even though the NYPD may be one of most frequently monitored forces in the country, the money and drugs flow like wine and everyone gets a cut. Conveniently, the two most hideously depicted characters are a virulently racist white cop and the Italian mob boss, who everyone fears. Director Jessy Terrero and writer L. Philippe Casseus take their time getting to the point of the story, which is to explain the role Malo’s father played on the team and help him exact his revenge. If it’s mindless violence you’re looking for, there’s plenty of it in “Freelancers.” Look elsewhere, though, if its vintage performances by De Niro, Whitaker and Delaney.

The same basic theory applies to films in the international-crime genre, but only in the titles designed to go straight-to-DVD. One of things that Hollywood still does well is make political, espionage and crime thrillers — “Mission:Impossible,” the Bourne flicks, “Eastern Promises” – and audience continue to flock to the best of them. “One in the Chamber” is pretty representative of the non-theatrical products in that it has recognizable international stars – Cuba Gooding Jr., Dolph Lundgren, Billy Murray, Louis Mandylor – several generically beautiful female stars and lots of violence, although it isn’t always graphic. There’s usually some T&A, but not as much as in American hip-hop movies. Here, B-list action faves Gooding and Lundgren play rival assassins, whose loyalty is in question throughout “One in the Chamber.” So many Russian mob bosses get eliminated, it’s impossible to determine where the director is taking us and what makes them so despicable. A safe bet is the importation of drugs and Euros, and export of sex slaves and enriched uranium. – Gary Dretzka

Bonsai
It isn’t easy to find a movie that isn’t reluctant to remind us that literature was the first social medium and served much the same purpose as Facebook did when Mark Zuckerberg co-founded the social networking site. How better than a chat over coffee about a good book to break the ice between like-minded strangers? The same thing probably happens today in literary-minded websites on the Internet, even if the surroundings aren’t quite so romantic as a bistro or cafe. In Cristian Jimenez’ introspective romantic drama, “Bonsai” – adapted from a novella by Alejandro Zambra — Julio is an archetypal struggling writer who’s developed a writer’s block that seems insurmountable. He begins to chip away at it after a meeting with a successful novelist in need of a transcriber. His disappointment over losing the position becomes the inspiration for seeking renewed momentum on his own work. Instead of revealing the truth to his girlfriend, though, he steals an idea from the author’s manuscript for his own use. It involves a love affair he may or may not have had eight years earlier with a fellow student and lover who needed help with Proust. Before long, of course, the past begins to appeal to Julio more than the present and the border between reality and illusion fades completely. The title refers to the solace Julio gets from the maintenance of the miniature trees. – Gary Dretzka

The Life and Death of a Porno Gang: Blu-ray
Even before the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and subsequent wars for self-determination, the country’s filmmakers could be counted on to deliver closely observed tales of a society driven insane by Cold War politics and the realization that any freedoms they’ve enjoyed could disappear overnight. Now that an uneasy truce appears to have taken hold in Bosnia, Kosovo and once-disputed parts of Croatia, the savagery that marked those struggles continues to haunt the cinemas of the newly independent states. The ongoing war-crimes tribunals are a constant reminder of the horrors committed on all sides as is the continued presence of UN peacekeepers. It explains much of what happens in Mladen Djordjevic’s inky black dramedy “The Life and Death of a Porno Gang,” a movie that, we’re told, will remind the cognoscenti of Srdjan Spasojevic’s “A Serbian Film.” Both titles exemplify what can happen when the border separating horror and pornography is breached and arthouse values collide with graphic representations of sex and violence. For me to point out that these movies aren’t for everyone is like suggesting fugu sushi may not be an appropriate appetizer to serve at a White House state dinner.

“Porno Gang” is set in Serbia during the final days of Slobodan Milosevic’s government, in 2000. Marko (Mihajlo Jovanovic) has recently graduated from film school in Belgrade, but isn’t having any luck finding investors for his horror screenplay. Desperate, he accepts an offer to direct porno flicks of the crudest possible variety. To satisfy an artistic itch, Marko creates a “porno cabaret” comprised of out-of-work actors and assorted exhibitionists. Any chance that it will become a hit is dashed when the mobsters to whom Marko owes money demand he clear up his debt before embarking on another dubious project. Instead, he decides to take his show on the road and present it to appreciative farmers, voyeurs and old-school nationalists with chips on their shoulders. It’s like commedia dell’arte for perverts. Still, it beats staying at home watching “Kojak” reruns in Serbo-Croatian. While on the road, Marko encounters a dapper older gentleman who identifies himself as a reporter who once covered the wars in Balkan states for major news outlets. He also moonlighted by providing footage of battlefield casualties and ghastly atrocities to rich freaks who get off on such dubious entertainment. Now that the wars have ended, however, the supply of this kind of material has dried up. If Marko agrees to produce snuff films for the reporter, everyone will profit.

The troupe members agree to stage the executions in ways meant to titillate the purchasers of such fare, but only because the victims are terminally ill and want to leave something behind for their family. They’re able to convince themselves the murders are Kevorkian-like mercy killings, only with more painful instruments of destruction. Naturally, the increasingly bizarre rationalizations they invent to justify the killings stop making sense after a while, just as the effect of watching people die in violent ways becomes ever more toxic. Meanwhile, their sloppy disposal of the corpses has put police, gangsters and vigilantes on their trail. It’s easy to see in Djordjevic’s story a connection between the war and the executions. When the killing stopped in Bosnia, a void was left in the battered souls of some of the combatants. Constant reports of atrocities, along with the endless finger-pointing that followed, left many civilians numb to extreme violence, as well. What else to think when images of soldiers playing soccer with the head of an enemy prisoner are mimicked by actors doing the same thing with the head of one of their volunteers?

In addition to several deleted and extended scenes and an almost whimsical making-of featurette, the Blu-ray offers Djordjevic’s feature-length documentary “Made in Serbia.” The often hilarious, always outrageous film profiles four domestic porn actors, as they go about their business in front of and behind the cameras. They include a male star, forced to commute to Hungary to find willing and attractive female co-stars; a bisexual actor on his visit home; an elderly actress whose husband can’t get it up when asked to share a scene; and a portly middle-age man introduced as a peasant version of John Holmes and Rocco Siffredi. The doc is framed around a filmmaker’s search for an ex-girlfriend who’s disappeared into the porn underground. The movies are being distributed by Synapse Films, which has cornered the market on titles that mix horror, sex and violence. – Gary Dretzka

The Aristocats: Blu-ray
It’s the rare Tuesday in August when the folks at Disney release as many new Blu-ray editions of its animated features as it did this week. The “Special Edition” combo packs aren’t being accorded the same marketing push that normally accompanies the release of it classic titles in “Diamond Edition” volumes — look for “Cinderella,” in October, for that — but it’s the audio-visual content that counts and it’s up to snuff here. “The Aristocats” is notable primarily for being the last animated feature to be green-lit by Uncle Walt, his own self. The rest of the bounty is comprised of “The Rescuers: 35th Anniversary Edition” (1977) and “The Rescuers Down Under” (1990); “Pocahontas” (1995) and “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World” (1998); “The Tigger Movie: Bounce-A-Rrrific Special Edition” (2000); and “Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure” (2001). “Aristocats” describes what happens when an opera star and wealthy Parisian socialite (voiced by Hermione Baddeley) leaves her fortune to her pampered cats, one of whom is voiced by Eva Gabor. The butler attempts to thwart the socialite’s intentions by eliminating the competition and reaping the fortune himself. The cats avoid a watery grave, but must adapt to life in the countryside. As befits the location, the soundtrack is filled with jazzy French music. The extras include a discussion of a storyboarded song and character that didn’t make the cut; a profile of pet Disney composers, the Sherman Brothers; another deleted song; a quintet of sing-alongs; a music video; the 1956 short, “The Great Cat Family,” hosted by Walt Disney; and the cartoon, “Bath Day,” with Minnie Mouse and Figaro.

A similar assortment of standard-definition and hi-def bonus features accompanies the direct-to-video “Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure” and “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.”  “The Rescuers” combo adds the 31-minute documentary, “Water Birds: A True Life Adventure,” from 1952,” while “The Tigger Movie” adds 10 Winnie the Pooh mini-movies, narrated by John Cleese, to the mix of music and making-of pieces. One need not be a Disney completist to enjoy these vintage titles and share them with your kids. – Gary Dretzka

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers: Blu-ray
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers: Blu-ray
Devote fans of the “Halloween” franchise probably already are aware of this quirk in distribution patterns, but it’s worth repeating: this week’s release of “Halloween 4” and “Halloween 5,” from Starz/Anchor Bay, precedes by a month the release of “Collector’s Editions” of “Halloween II” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” from the newly formed Shout Factory offshoot, Scream Factory. I’m not sure what, if any, significance should be attached to the change from Roman to Arabic numerals or how the original “Halloween” managed to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The important thing to remember is that Michael Myers continues to maintain a hold on the collective psyche of horror fans everywhere, and his name still sells tickets. Even the sequels have spawned sequels and remakes.

In “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers,” we learn that the fiend wasn’t actually killed in the fire at the end of “Halloween II,” but has been in a coma. After coming out of his deep sleep and escaping from custody, Myers heads straights for the daughter of Laurie Strode. In “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers,” he has recovered from gunshot wounds and a mineshaft explosion, but must bide his time before pursuing Laurie, who is being dangled as bait by Dr. Loomis. The sequels each cost about $5 million to make, so diminishing box-office revenues ($17.8 million, $11.6 million) had to be recouped in the video, DVD and Blu-ray marketplace. “H4” arrives with commentary, deleted scenes and a panel discussion, while “H5” adds commentary, an original promo and raw production footage. – Gary Dretzka

Sedona
In 1980, “Serial” lampooned the post-hippy lifestyles of the wealthy residents of northern California’s beyond-trendy Marin County. It was adapted from Cyra McFadden’s novel, “The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin Country,” which, among other things, helped boost sales of hot tubs around the country. What Marin County was in the 1970s, Sedona is today … or, maybe, yesterday. The gorgeous Arizona town is both a destination for high-end tourists drawn to the spectacular Red Rock vistas and refuge for middle-age dropouts in search of spiritual healing. Sedona is one of the few places on Earth where New Age philosophy and healing are accorded the same respect as traditional medicine and science. Its leading exports are therapeutic crystals and the kind of music usually reserved for the massage rooms in expensive spas. Tommy Stovall’s dramedy, “Sedona,” takes a gentle stab at satirizing the folks drawn to the Arizona mecca by some sort of mystical concordance of spirit waves and electromagnetic vortexes. Mostly, though, Stovall wants us to know that, for all its eccentricities, Sedona remain a groovy place to live and visit. He also suggests there might be something completely legitimate about all of this New Age stuff. It helps mightily, of course, if newcomers arrive with lots of money to spend and a tolerance for the occasional nutcase and charlatan.

Frances Fisher plays a harried marketing professional traveling by car from Portland to Phoenix for a series of client meetings. As she approaches Sedona, her car is pushed off the road by a lightplane making an emergency landing on the highway behind her. While waiting for her car to be fixed, Tammy encounters the kind of blissed-out folks most people outside certain precincts of California, Arizona and New Mexico still consider to be wackos and unrepentant hippies. The closer Tammy comes to missing her first meeting, the more hysterical she gets. This is in marked contrast to the Sedona residents, who don’t let anything get them rattled. Meanwhile, in the Red Rocks wilderness, a big-city attorney and his partner fear that one of their sons has gotten lost. With the help of a Native American hiker, the attorney is able to track down the boy, who’s been having the time of his life and doesn’t think he’s lost.

In Stovall’s Sedona, nothing happens without a purpose, including the plane’s emergency landing, an interrupted reflexology session, the car’s broken axle and time spent searching for the boy. It takes Tammy nearly the entirety of “Sedona” to accept that her professional life sucks and her stars are directing her to the Arizona desert. If the movie is a lost opportunity for satire, the natural beauty on display itself is worth the price of a rental. – Gary Dretzka

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
One of the great fallacies of our democratic system is that an extraordinarily large percentage of the citizenry will vote against its own best interests, even when all available evidence argues against it. For example, any American worker who’s been laid off and stills elects to vote for the current Republican candidate, either is a masochist or hasn’t been paying attention for the last 30 years. Likewise, any barely unemployed Democrat who blindly follows the party line and doesn’t question the President’s economic policy, whatever it is, is guilty of the same thing. It’s become exceedingly clear that neither party has the best interests of its less affluent constituents in mind, but we continue to treat third- and fourth-party candidates as if they were Martians or insane. I’ve seen nearly two dozen documentaries in the past year that have spelled out exactly why this country is in trouble and what needs to be done to take the first baby steps toward a solution. I’d be surprised to learn that more than one or two of them have been seen by even half of our congressional leaders. I know they aren’t as popular among the citizenry as the latest hit action movie or best-selling romance, if only because the truth hurts and we, the people, feel powerless against the institutions in charge.

In Jennifer Baichwal’s achingly humanistic “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,” the writings of author, critic and activist Margaret Atwood provide the foundation for a wide-ranging discussion of debt and what it means to “wipe the slate clean.” It isn’t limited to the national debt, credit-card debt or other anchors on our economy. Instead, Baichwal focuses the discussion on the debts we owe each other as human beings, in ways that range from a simple apology to corporate responsibility and reparations for harm done. All of these forms of debt – financial, societal, personal, environmental, spiritual or criminal — combine to deaden the psyche and kill our will to fight back. Along the way, we’re asked to consider a years-long Albanian blood feud; the BP oil spill’s impact on the environment and Louisiana residents; the mistreatment of Florida farm workers and willingness of one grower to do the right thing; media mogul Conrad Black’s prison experience; and a convicted felon whose crimes hurt people profoundly in ways not related to violence. If our attitudes don’t change, Atwood argues, how will we ever lose our chains? Not surprisingly, “Payback” asks more questions than it answers and is weighted toward pie-in-the-sky solutions. The only person representing the rich and greedy here is Black and he appears to have discovered his conscience while incarcerated. The DVD adds a post-screening Q&A with Atwood and Baichwal; deleted scenes; and other short docs.

The primary problem with documentaries in which gaming nerds attempt to explain their obsession with setting meaningless records is that the only people who can address to the question at hand are the ones who speak in a language not shared by most other human beings. No matter how appealing the game, and Tetris is one of the most popular of all time, watching people play it and listening to them discuss their motivations makes cricket seem endlessly fascinating, by comparison. One championship-level chess match is infinitely more revealing than all of the games made for Nintendo ever played. And, yes, I once was a compulsive player of Tetris and other such games, even as an adult. Tetris, as they say, is a cool game. The story of its creation is rather interesting, as well. The people we meet in “Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters” are neither. Its focus is on a reunion of past champs who probably aren’t any more observant or eloquent than there were in their prime, 20 years ago. Neither does it seem as if anyone we meet has gotten a life in the interim. In a bonus feature, we get to watch over the shoulder of a man in his 30s as he attempts to set a record on Asteroids. Blessedly, we only are asked to share 15 minutes of this 52-hour marathon. The truth is that making time fly faster is reward enough for playing these games and sharing the experience seems rather silly. – Gary Dretzka

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Season 1, Vol.1
I’d almost put the existence of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” out of my mind, entirely, until the arrival of this collection of episodes from the first season. It’s taken me nearly 30 years to get used to the idea that 90 percent of all children’s programming would henceforth be animated, so I was taken aback by this return engagement of these live-action teenagers with superpowers. Once the anchor of Fox’s Saturday-morning kids’ block, the show – really, only 20 years old – looks as if it preceded “Captain Video” on the Dumont network. The characters look as if they’d stepped out of a “Buck Rogers” serial and wield weapons that seem as medieval as they are futuristic. The uniforms were startling bright and the mythology behind the show was as confusing and nonsensical has it could be. Still, the series was incredibly successful with American kids, who had no idea it was based on the 16th installment of the Japanese “Super Sentai” franchise, “Kyoryu Sentai.” How Japanese toy makers and programming executives come up with this stuff is beyond me.

As the mythology goes, explorers from another galaxy land in a suburb of Los Angeles, where they discover an extraterrestrial vehicle – known for its shape and smell as the Dumpster – in which the evil empress Rita Repulsa has been imprisoned for 10,000 years. The wise sage Zordon orders his robotic aide Alpha 5 to recruit a team of “teenagers with attitude” to be known as the Power Rangers. Their assignment was to save the world from Rita and her monstrous thugs … or, something like that. If that sounds as incomprehensible to you as it did to me, it’s worth recalling the impact the show had with American kids and likely could have again. Every day was Halloween for “Power Rangers” fans. Neither is it surprising to learn that parent’s groups attempted to curb the violence on the show, which was about as realistic as the costumes, thus adding to its appeal with kids. The three-disc DVD set contains 600 minutes of whacked-out programming. – Gary Dretzka

The Complete History of the New York Giants
Recent Super Bowl history suggests that New York Giants won’t repeat as NFL champions, not matter how good they may be during the regular season. The Green Bay Packers were one game away from a perfect season last year, yet lost in the second round to the wild-card Giants. It’s with this likelihood in mind that NFL Productions has decided to pull out all the stops to exploit the Giants’ championship and serve fans in the country’s largest media marketplace. “The Complete History of the New York Giants” follows by six months “New York Giants: Super Bowl XLVI Champions,” and by two months the release of “New York Giants: Road to XLVI.” In 2009, we saw “New York Giants: 10 Greatest Games” and, in 2008, recaps of that year’s Super Bowl victory. What could possibly be left? Football fans are insatiable, though, and any reminder of past glory or current championships will sell DVDs. Nice to know that they all look pretty good. – Gary Dretzka

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One Response to “The DVD Wrapup: Porno Gang, A Separation, Dictator, Chimpanzee, Bernie … More”

  1. Roy Batty says:

    It’s “Frances” Fisher, not Francis.

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“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho

“But okay, I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me. Oh, it will be scorched earth. I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”
~ Steven Soderbergh