MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Gandu, Killer Joe, Wimpy Kid, Liberal Arts, Red Hook … More

Gandu
If the distance between Mumbai and Calcutta can easily be measured in kilometers – 1,663, to be exact — the gap between Bollywood and the traditional Bengali cinema is every bit as wide. One is obsessed with romantic fantasy, while the other is more invested in real-life scenarios and everyday people. As wildly inventive as it is deliberately transgressive, “Gandu” (“Asshole”) widens that fissure with a study of urban youth so intense and disturbing that it could have emerged fully blown from the bowels of infamous Black Hole of Calcutta prison. If forced to compare it to a single American movie, I’d say “Requiem of a Dream, but minus the laughs. Not surprisingly, perhaps, “Gandu” (aka, “Asshole”) was banned in India and largely denied theatrical distribution here. (Fledgling Artsploitation Films is distributing the DVD.) As directed by Q (a.k.a, Qaushiq Mukherjee), “Gandu” describes the struggles of an impoverished Calcutta youth, who barely stays afloat by stealing money from the wallet of the cool-daddy client of his prostitute mother. He yearns to make a living as a rapper and beat-boxer, but has no idea where to begin. His angry industrial approach to the music more closely resembles that of the Beastie Boys and Eminem than, say, Snoop Dogg, and he adopted the stage name, “Asshole,” from the taunts of neighborhood punks.  One day, quite by accident, Gandu connects with a rickshaw driver with the unlikely name, Ricksha, who literally worships before a shrine dedicated to Bruce Lee. He, too, is a musician, of sorts, and happily turns his new friend onto the joys of hard drugs and day trips outside the slums. The old man who sells Gandu his lottery tickets promises him daily that his ship is about to come and, when it does, he’ll be free to pursue his dreams. Amazingly, it does, and he’s ready to boogie from minute one

Q tells his story in black, white and shades of gray. It’s only when Gandu discovers sex, thanks to a pink-haired punk princess, that “Gandu” shifts from b&w into color. Q’s editing technique, itself, borders on the transgressive. Subtitles bounce around the screen to the hip-hop beat, frequently contained in color blocks and sometimes using symbols in the place of words. This is one DVD you can’t watch while also reading a book or waiting for the popcorn to stop popping. Yawn and you might miss something. The only constant, I suppose, is the oppressive and unrelenting poverty of life in Calcutta, where, for the masses, the lottery provides the only ticket to the future. After visiting his friend’s mostly bare apartment, Ricksha praises the porcelain toilet for being the dump’s sturdiest piece of furniture. Just when things couldn’t get much worse for the boys, Q injects a large dollop of magical realism to the proceedings by interjecting himself into “Gandu.” He does this by offering Gandu a part in the movie in which he already is the protagonist. As prophesized, he’s also allowed to win the lottery. Apparently, Lord Shiva had been listening to his prayers all along. “Gandu” isn’t for everybody, certainly not the kiddies and people whose brains spin after watching 15 minutes of MTV-style hyper-editing. The sex is graphic and the language is raw. If you couldn’t get through the last half-hour of “Requiem for a Dream,” don’t even bother sampling “Gandu.” On the other hand, if you can still recall the tingle brought on by watching “Mean Streets,” “Blue Velvet,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Harder They Come,” “Old Boy” and “Audition” for the first time, you should be similarly impressed with “Gandu.” The DVD includes a lengthy making-of featurette, music videos, short films, festival appearances and a booklet. – Gary Dretzka

Killer Joe: Unrated Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
If the Academy Awards had a category honoring the year’s Best Performance by a Stand-In, the odds-on favorite would be the merkin allegedly worn by Gina Gershon in the shocking opening scene of William Friedkin and Tracy Lett’s inky black, beyond-noir comedy, “Killer Joe.” As it is, a very good case could be made for honoring Gershon, Matthew McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple for their amazing performances in lead and supporting roles. The problem is that almost no one was able to see the movie in theaters and the nature of the material might not go over well with conservative voters. The combination of sex, violence, dark humor and an NC-17 rating made it a non-starter in most markets and the excellent reviews, alone, wouldn’t be enough to make it a cause celebre. (In Q&A sessions, McConaughey and Gershon admitted to their initial reluctance to star in such raw material.) Marketing costs, alone, would have been difficult for a distributor to overcome in general release. In DVD, it’s a much safer investment, especially considering the sterling cast.

After several years’ worth of dull performances in mediocre movies, McConaughey’s stock has risen to historic highs with key roles in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Bernie,” “Eastbound & Down,” “The Paperboy” and “Magic Mike.” Here, he plays the title character: a Texas cop who moonlights as an assassin. Joe is as efficient as he is polite, but toxic when double-crossed. He’s hired by a white-trash family intent on collecting the universally disliked matriarch’s $50,000 life-insurance policy. The son (Emile Hirsch) owes a pile of money to local gangsters, but doesn’t have any to spare. Neither does his no-count father (Church), who married the slutty Sharla (Gershon) after divorcing the boy’s mother. His emotionally damaged 21-year-old sister, Dottie (Temple), spends most of her time in her room in the trailer, eavesdropping on conversations and floating around cloud cuckoo land. When Joe learns that the father and son haven’t raised the agreed-upon down payment, he demands Dottie’s companionship as a “retainer.” Instead of being frightened or indignant, Dottie is turned on by his manners and the gentle respect he shows to her. Joe may be twisted, but he knows how to treat a lady. When, however, he learns that the other woman in the trailer – in this case, Gershon – is attempting to swindle him, Joe drops the gentleman act and treats her with the contempt she deserves. What he does to Gershon in one climatic scene is almost too vile to believe … but in a funny way.

“Killer Joe” was written for the stage in 1991, when Letts was living in Chicago. It subsequently was performed in off-Loop and off-Broadway theaters. He and Friedkin adapted his 1996 play, “Bug,” for the screen in 2006, and decided it was a good fit. John Wells’ anxiously awaited adaptation of Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” is expected to hit theaters in time for awards consideration next year. As screenwriter of “Killer Joe,” he was required to open up the story and allow for some outdoors action, as well as the now-mandatory visit to a strip club. Even so, “Killer Joe” retains a palpable air of claustrophobia bit from the stage presentation. What happens in the double-wide is plenty exciting. Friedkin, who’s only directed four films since 2000, did a nice job with “Bug” and had no trouble sinking his teeth into “Killer Joe.” It’s been a long time since he scored with “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist” and “Sorcerer,” but he clearly still knows how to tear up a set and punish his characters. The Blu-ray comes with a lively discussion with Friedkin and Letts, interviews and a Q&A with the actors at SXSW. – Gary Dretzka

The Words: Blu-ray
Although not a thriller in the traditional sense, “The Words” should keep undemanding viewers guessing until the very end of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s story-within-a-story. Bradley Cooper plays an aspiring novelist who invests too much of himself in his first book, which is praised by one editor but ultimately deemed too brainy to be of any commercial value. In a twist borrowed from Hemingway lore, Rory magically stumbles upon a yellowed, typewritten manuscript that apparently was never submitted to a publisher and may, in fact, have simply been misplaced and forgotten. In a moment of weakness, Rory retypes the words onto a word processor and prints them out to look brand new. Everyone who reads it falls in love with the tear-jerking story and it becomes a best-seller. After receiving an important literary award, Rory is confronted by an older gentleman (Jeremy Irons) who almost certainly is the true author and model for the novel’s protagonist. The revelation confounds and disturbs Rory, less for the damage it might do to his reputation than for the injustice that followed the old since losing the manuscript. Rory practically begs to be allowed to do the right thing by him, but, in return for laying a massive guilt trip on him, the old man lets him off the hook by informing him of his imminent demise due to a terminal illness. The publishing of the novel provides him a sense of closure and, in any case, no one would benefit from his posthumous fame. Layered on top of that scenario is another story, one that begins with a middle-aged author (Dennis Quaid) being honored for writing a story very much like the one we’ve been watching for the past half-hour. Clearly, he’s a man carrying the kind of burden that’s only lightened by the intake of much fine booze and comfort of literary groupies. Normally, a flirtatious character played by Olivia Wilde would be impossible for a jaded novelist to resist. Frankly, though, he’s too polluted to exploit the gorgeous young woman for any other purpose than as a priest-surrogate for a confession. Without knowing the writer’s background, we’re left to wonder why he’s so miserable and speculate how it fits into the parallel storyline.

For their first turn as co-writer/directors, Klugman and Sternthal were able to call in a few favors from actors who probably agreed to work for scale or a free meal from craft services. “The Words” reportedly was brought in somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million, which seems awfully low for the quality of the production. As the story goes, the first table-read of the screenplay was in 1999 and a then-unknown Cooper agreed to play one of the key characters as a favor for his close boyhood friends. It wasn’t until Cooper’s name meant something to producers that the movie finally was green-lit. Toss in co-stars Zoe Saldana, Nora Arnezeder and Ben Barnes, alongside supporting players Zeljko Ivanek, Ron Rivkin, Michael McKean, J.K. Simmons and John Hannah, and you’ve exhausted far more than $6 million in IOUs. Good for them. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of pieces. – Gary Dretzka

Total Recall: Extended Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
If ever a movie didn’t cry out to be extended into a director’s-cut edition, it’s Len Wiseman’s 2012 remake of “Total Recall.” That’s not a slam on its overall quality, rather a different way of saying that the 118-minute original doesn’t benefit from the additional 15 minutes of footage. By adding several more f-bombs, a previously trimmed cameo by Ethan Hawke and a few other things left on the cutting-room floor, “Total Recall” merely becomes that much more bloated. For those lacking total recall, the 1990 original was adapted from a story by the great Philip K. Dick. It starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. By comparison to Wiseman’s take on the material, Paul Verhoeven’s was more of a Dick-sonian sci-fi thriller than the dystopian action flick it’s become.  The 2012 “Total Recall” also bears a more distinct physical resemblance to “Blade Runner,” which likewise was adapted from a Dick story. Advanced digital and CGI technology wasn’t available in the early 1990s, but, two decades later, allowed for a more spectacular visual presentation. Wiseman was able to rely less on the graphic violence that earned Verhoeven a X-rating in the first go-round with the MPAA and a jumpstart for the buzz-marketing campaign.  Despite, or more likely because of the negative publicity, it landed in the No. 1 spot in the first weekend’s box-office tally. The remake made considerably less money.

Here, Earth is divided into two highly reduced civilizations – both English-speaking, somehow – one of which is governed by the autocratic Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Colin Farrell plays an everyday factory worker, Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), whose dreams cause him to believe that something tangible is missing in his life. He suspects that a visit to the memory-enhancing combine, Rekall, could help him feel better and make life with his beautiful and supportive wife (Kate Beckinsale) as satisfying as it should be. Just as Quaid’s about to go through the procedure, a team of robotic cops break into Rekall and start shooting everyone in the place. Quaid is able to escape after taking out a dozen of the cops using only his hands. Stunned, he immediately wonders two things: when did I learn hand-to-hand combat and why are robots chasing me? It doesn’t take long before Quaid begins displaying other long-submerged talents and the one person he believes to be in his corner turns her back on him. While on the lam, Quaid conveniently encounters a resistance fighter played by Jessica Biel, arguably the hottest-looking woman on any continent not named Beckinsale. She leads him to the head of the underground movement (Bill Nighy) that is dedicated to toppling Cohaagen. Bear in mind that Quaid still has no memory of whom or what he might have been before becoming something completely different, so he’s playing everything by ear. It is a dilemma shared by several of Dick’s fictional protagonists, not all of whom enjoyed the company of someone as tantalizing as Beckinsale and Biel.

The non-stop action and well-conceived CGI backdrops should dilute any confusion you’re sure to have over what’s really the point of “Total Recall.” They did for me, anyway. Maybe it makes more sense in 3D. The less one thinks about it, the more fun there is to have. The Blu-ray adds commentary; the picture-in-picture Insight Mode; a “God of War” game demo; gag reel; featurettes “Science Fiction vs. Science Fact” and “Designing the Fall”; pre-visualization sequences of the Apartment Waterfront Chase, Fall Flight and Tripping Den, Elevator Chase and Car Chase scenes; and making-of interviews with Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel. The Blu-ray visual and sonic presentation is excellent, as well. – Gary Dretzka

Trouble With the Curve: Blu-ray
The natural tendency for fans considering any movie in which Clint Eastwood appears is to assume he’s doing double-duty as director and that’s only going to make the experience that much more enjoyable. The kneejerk reaction on the part of critics is to give any picture Eastwood directs at least a half-star’s worth of a break in reviews, whether it deserves it or not. At the ripe old age of 82, there isn’t much not to admire about Eastwood, his daffy performance at the Republican Convention notwithstanding. “Trouble With the Curve” is the first film in which Eastwood has starred, without directing, since 1993′s “In the Line of Fire.” Therein, methinks, lies the rub here. If he had chosen to star in and direct it, instead of doing what appears to be a big favor for longtime associate Robert Lorenz, “Curve” probably would have packed a greater punch than it does. Here, Eastwood plays the kind of cigar-chumping old-school baseball scout who bases all of his decisions on instinct and experience. Gus has been performing that function for the Atlanta Braves for a long time, but is feeling the heat from the kind of computer-savvy baseball executive (Matthew Lillard) we met last year in “Moneyball.” Here, though, the executive is the antagonist, instead of the hero. (It would have been interesting to see Brad Pitt play the same role in both movies.) Gus has been assigned to assess the potential of a high school slugger, who seems to hit a homerun whenever the opponent’s coach is too stupid to give him an intentional walk. We’re asked to forget for a minute that the usually front-running Braves are in the unlikely position here of being able to choose a kid destined to be the first, second or third pick in the entire draft. That’s a remarkably big deal for any team and Gus takes the responsibility seriously enough not to make his decision based solely on the phenom’s press clips or slugging percentage. Trouble is, Gus’ sight is declining with every new game.

Knowing this, an ally in the Braves’ front office (John Goodman) asks Gus’ daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), to join her dad on the current trip through rural North Carolina and confirm his observations. Gus loves his daughter, but treats her as if she’s the black sheep in the family for being an unmarried professional, instead of a housewife with kids. Instead, she’s a high-powered lawyer gunning for a partnership in a prominent Atlanta firm. Mickey agrees to surprise her dad on the road, even knowing he’ll be the overly protective, male-chauvinist prick he’s always been. Mickey has inherited her father’s instinct for baseball, though, and she ends up agreeing with his assessment of the phenom. In this way, “Curve” becomes the story of two people against the baseball world. But, wait, there’s more. As if that weren’t sufficiently melodramatic, Lorenz and fellow rookie writer Randy Brown couldn’t resist the temptation to throw in the extremely likeable Justin Timberlake as Mickey’s potential love interest. Not so coincidentally, he plays a scout for the Red Sox, a team in nearly the same unlikely position as the Braves. Lorenz and Brown rally in the late innings of “Curve,” but, by then, too much damage has been done.

None of the blame for the movie’s shortcomings should fall on the shoulders of the actors, who are better than they have to be, or on DP Tom Stern, another veteran of the Eastwood wars. The Georgia-for-N.C. countryside is quite beautiful and it provides the perfect background for America’s pastime at the game’s most fundamental level. (The executive offices at Turner Field look impersonal and foreboding, by comparison.) Unmet expectations shouldn’t prevent diehard Eastwood loyalists from taking a shot at “Curve” on DVD or Blu-ray. If nothing else, the price is right. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short EPK-style featurettes on the director and stars. – Gary Dretzka

Red Hook Summer: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time since anyone’s gotten really excited about a new theatrical release from Spike Lee. Any momentum he had going for him from the wrenching memory play, “Summer of Sam,” dissipated completely with “Bamboozled,” a caustic satire that managed to alienate even his most reliable allies. He’s done much fine and important work in the last dozen years, mostly as a documentarian, but something was missing in Lee’s game. If “Red Hook Summer” doesn’t mark a return to form, exactly, at least it’s a welcome extension to his Chronicles of Brooklyn series, which includes “She’s Gotta Have It,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Crooklyn” and “He Got Game.” Even so, “Red Hook Summer” was virtually ignored by exhibitors. At its peak, “Bamboozled” could be found on 244 screens, compared to 41 for “Red Hook Summer.” Both numbers are way down from “Son of Sam,” which opened on more than 1,500 screens. Everything about the look, texture and characters in “Red Hook” screams, “Spike Lee made this movie,” right down to the spic-and-span streets, sidewalks and stoops and brightly painted buildings.

All of the action in “Red Hook” revolves around Flik Royale (Jules Brown, in his first role), a middle-class kid from the ATL whose father was killed in the current war and is being forced to spend the summer with his bible-banging grandfather in projects of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. Flik wears a Mohawk and sees the world through the display screen of his ever-present iPad. His first great shock comes when he’s directed to his bedroom, which is minute compared to the one in his Atlanta home and not air-conditioned. The second comes when the Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) requires Flik to earn his keep by handing out religious flyers and working at the church. For his part, the minister is appalled to learn that Flik is a vegan and conditioned by circumstances not to believe in a benevolent God. They get along well enough, though, considering that their only common denominator is their DNA. Much of the pressure building inside the boy is dissipated by the arrival in his life of the irrepressible Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith, also in her first role), with whom he enters into an uneasy alliance against the rest of the world. Somewhere past the halfway mark in “Red Hook,” I began to look for the conflict that would need to be resolved before the end credits could roll. Would it come in the form of a come-to-Jesus moment for Flik and his grandfather, or might he be tempted to join the block’s none-too-frightening gang? Flik and Chazz’s relationship works as long as they’re buddies, not lovers, so it would be cruel to inflict a sexual dilemma on them. Maybe the boy would decide not to return to Atlanta, choosing to remain with gramps in Red Hook. Nope.

What does happen in the closing scenes is so unexpected and jarring that any hint of what it is would set off a major spoiler alert. Suffice it to say that the surprise occurrence comes completely out of the blue and has the effect of making us rethink everything that’s come before it occurs. There’s an excellent chance you’ll hate it. What isn’t in dispute is Lee’s ability to elicit terrific performances from his cast members and have their characters inhabit a world that, in some ways, is as deceptively calm as sleepy Lumberton, in “Blue Velvet.” The Blu-ray edition adds plenty of sparkle to the proceedings, as well as a decent making-of documentary, commentary and a music video. – Gary Dretzka

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days: Blu-ray
By successfully creating a franchise series targeted at ’tweens and early teens, 20th Century Fox has accomplished something that currently borders on the remarkable. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” is the third successful adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s Internet sensation, which, since going analog, has translated into 8 books and 58 million in total sales. “Dog Days” combines elements of 2009’s “Dog Days” and “Last Straw,” both of which take place during the summer break. At 14, Zachary Gordon still looks sufficiently age appropriate to play Kinney’s “wimpy” middle-schooler, Greg, for at least one more installment. The rest of the family (Steve Zahn, Rachel Harris, Devon Bostick) is back as well, along with his socially inept best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron). This time around, Dad wants Greg to take the initiative of finding a job, while all that the boy wants to do is play video games with Rowley. By way of compromise, Greg pretends to take a job in the same place that Rowley’s dad works, while actually spending his days at a country club where the girl of his dreams, Holly, teaches tennis.

Consumed mostly with thoughts of his own, Dad takes quite a while to figure out the truth. As punishment, he threatens Greg with a transfer to a school known for enforcing discipline in its delinquent students. To avoid such a dire turn in his life, Greg decides to impress Dad with his behavior on a Boy Scout camping trip. When things go embarrassingly wrong for Scoutmaster Dad, Greg conspires with the other boys to turn the tables on pop’s nemesis. At last, he’s found something he can do well and impress the folks, as well. Meanwhile, back home, his brother and his truly crappy punk band, Loded Diper, are preparing to perform at a Sweet Sixteen before the girl of his dreams. The predictably disastrous results help push the story down the final stretch. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director David Bowers; deleted scenes; Class Clown animated short; a gag reel; and a FX Movie Channel piece, “Wimpy Empire.” – Gary Dretzka

Liberal Arts: Blu-ray
The thirtysomething character Josh Radnor plays in “Liberal Arts” — his sophomore effort as writer/director/star — is at the point in his life where he feels queasy about having sex with a college student who digs him, but not at all freaked out by the thought of hooking up with his “second favorite” professor …  during the same night. The age difference between Jesse and both women is approximately the same, but one sexual encounter carries a negative connotation in his mind while the other is somehow OK. It’s an interesting predicament for a recently separated man to suddenly be required to handle. Because he’s merely an alumnus, Jesse isn’t breaking any established guidelines by encouraging the younger woman’s adoration, and neither is his former “second-favorite” professor for treating him like an after-dinner aperitif. That resolved, however, Radnor doesn’t hesitate to draw a line in the sand for viewers on the question of acceptable adult behavior and the point where a moral stance end and hypocrisy begins. By giving his protagonist an easy way out of his problem makes it easier for the audience to walk away with a smile, even if the women don’t.

Shortly after watching the last embers of his marriage burn out, Jesse is asked to return to his alma mater to speak at a retirement testimonial for his “favorite” English literature professor (Richard Jenkins). Within a few hours’ time, he is introduced to 19-year-old literature student, Zibby (Elizabeth Olson), and spots from a distance the still desirable Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). Having a day or so to kill before returning to New York, where he’s an admissions counselor, Jesse is able to dazzle the Zibby with his knowledge of the classics and determine that they’re kindred spirits. An exchange of letters serves to intensify their budding relationship, even as it gives him time to fret about their age difference. There’s nothing terribly neurotic about Zibby’s attraction to Jesse, except for the fact that he’s probably the first guy to treat her as an adult and listen to her opinions on a subject about which she takes seriously. The boys and men she’s met in her young life have been less interested in her brain than her boobs and it’s a refreshing change for her. At precisely the same time as Jesse comes to grips with Zibby’s desire to take their romance to the next level, the news that she’s a “virgin” throws him into a panic. Is it the proper response or is he being hypocritical? After making his lame apologies, he heads for a bar, where he’s surprised to find Dr. Fairfield. The quintessential cougar, she practically drags him to her boudoir. After the tryst, Dr. Fairfield demands that he immediately take a powder, but not before she delivers a bitter diatribe about former students who romanticize literature and are disappointed to discover that a life of the mind is only possible on college campuses. Olson and Janney are absolutely terrific as women on opposite ends of Jesse’s learning curve. At the same time, Jesse befriends two male students: one a hippie out of time (Zac Efron), who encourages him to loosen up, and the other a very smart kid (John Magaro) obsessed with a book by an author who committed suicide.

As Jesse, Radnor wears the same hangdog expression as he does in most episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” and did in “Happythankyoumoreplease.” For all I know, it may be the face of a generation of men who are as afraid of commitment as they are reluctant to admit they’re too self-absorbed to entrust their egos to a woman who recognizes bullshit when she sees it. Clearly, Jesse’s wife had her fill of his hipper-than-thou attitude. By contrast, Zibby is attracted to everything that his wife had come to despise. The other woman in his life is an employee of a New York bookstore (Elizabeth Reaser), who only manages to get his attention in the final scenes. Her sporadic appearances throughout “Liberal Arts” far too easily signal the direction Jesse ought to be heading. The resolution may be on the predictable side, but it benefits from being logical and satisfying. The Blu-ray includes commentary, a brief interview session and deleted scenes that reveal a discarded story thread and a revealing scene with his ex-wife. – Gary Dretzka

Sleepwalk With Me: Blu-ray
Mike Birbiglia’s name should be recognizable to listeners of such radio programs as “This American Life” and “Fresh Air” and the syndicated “Bob & Tom Show,” as well as those who keep up with what’s happening on the comedy circuit. “Sleepwalk With Me” is the film adaptation of the monologist’s popular stage show and book. Autobiographical to the point of being a confessional, the movie describes his character’s struggle to become a standup comic, while maintaining a relationship with a longtime girlfriend he’s in no hurry to marry. Matt’s nearly perfect girlfriend, Abby, is played by the always wonderful Lauren Ambrose. She sticks with the terminally neurotic Matt (Birbiglia) for reasons that will escape 99 percent of all viewers. That’s because, as the movie begins to unfold, Matt has no noticeable talent beyond bussing tables and pouring drinks at a local Comedy Dungeon. When we meet his hugely unpleasant and completely unsupportive father, a physician, it’s easy to see why Matt is such an emotional car wreck. He lives for the moment when his boss will ask him to substitute for a missing comic, if only for a five-minute bit.

When he gets the call, Matt is forced to acknowledge that he only has about 20 seconds of usable material. Still, he’s able to convince an agent to find him bookings at colleges and at the bottom of bills on the circuit. Mostly, his performance serves to convince audience members that nothing that follows could be less funny. The money is lousy and the road trips are relentless. It isn’t until a club owner listens to his pathetic personal story and judges it funnier than any of his material that Matt begins to find his groove. Not so funny, at least to Mike, are his terrifying nightmares and his tendency to act them out during his sleep walks. Neither is Matt and Abby’s concurrent realization that getting married wouldn’t solve either of their problems, which include his desperate need for approval and her tendency to enable his bad behavior. This is the point, as well, that Matt becomes a character viewers can support. As proof, “Sleepwalk” won the 2012 Audience Award at Sundance. The Blu-ray adds outtakes, a making-of featurette, behind-the-scenes shorts and commentary and a Q&A with director Ira Glass and Birbiglia, moderated by Joss Whedon at the Writers Guild Foundation. – Gary Dretzka

10 Years: Blu-ray
I’m no semanticist and I don’t play one on TV. Still, I’m willing to go out on a limb by suggesting that the curiously precise, if silly-sounding term, “dramedy,” might have been added to the lexicon by critics looking for a single word to adequately describe movies about high school reunions. The nature of the beast requires that such films feature an ensemble cast of reasonably attractive characters – some more easy on the eyes than others – who look as if they might have attended the same school and were either traumatized or exhilarated by the experience. For the most part, none of them has changed significantly and they have unfinished business to which they must attend or forever hold their peace. Although “10 Years” naturally shares some things with “American Reunion,” “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion” and “Gross Pointe Blank,” it isn’t nearly as raucous, satiric and anti-nostalgic. Only one doofus character reverts completely to form, as the class bully and all-around jerk, and no one suffers much from humiliation or startling revelations that have festered for a decade. Most, at least, have found and kept decent jobs — some more lucrative than others – and none looks much worse for the wear. There are plenty of laughs in “10 Years,” but they’re hardly uproarious. The drama comes in the characters’ gradual recognition of the fact that, while they aren’t getting any younger, the harmful effects of high school go away in time. Freshman director and third-time screenwriter Jamie Linden’s low-key approach to the reunion pleased several mainstream critics, as did the acting of such recognizable actors as Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Justin Long, Oscar Isaac, Ari Graynor, Kate Mara, Rosario Dawson and Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza, who play an offbeat couple in “Parks and Recreation.” Based solely on the lack of much licensed period music, it’s like that Linden was working on an extremely tight budget. Its absence is noticeable in the party scenes, but is compensated for by the cast’s good work. The Blu-ray adds some deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Good Doctor: Blu-ray
I was surprised to learn that this creepy-doctor thriller was directed by Lance Daly, the same Irish filmmaker who previously gave us “Kisses,” the powerful story of two kids from dysfunctional suburban families who have a scary Christmas Eve adventure in downtown Dublin. Populated with compelling characters and a largely unfamiliar cast, it made us care desperately for the fate of the children as they tried to make sense of what it means to be an adult. Although Orlando Bloom delivers a credible portrayal of an unstable Brit doing his residency in an American hospital, “The Good Doctor” simply fails to deliver the thrills and chills promised on the DVD’s cover. Such creepy-doctor movies as “Malice,” “Dead Ringers,” “Coma” and “Pathology” should cause viewers to rethink the necessity of their next appointment, while, at its best, “The Good Doctor” offers one very good reason not to invite your internist to dinner. The basic premise of writer John Embry’s story isn’t bad and the execution doesn’t lack much. The script simply makes it far too easy for Bloom’s fiendish Dr. Martin Blake to evolve from mild-mannered resident to someone willing to put the life of a patient at risk, simply to win the respect of his peers by saving her at the last minute. Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough, plays the young woman, Diane, whose potentially lethal kidney infection is successfully treated by the doctor. During a very strange visit to her home for a thank-you dinner, Blake notices her life-saving medication and decides to switch out its contents on a return visit. After he does the deed, Diane returns to the hospital, where Blake once again has her under his control and can plot another miraculous recovery. This time, however, things don’t go as planned. Still, no one believes he’s bungled her treatment* and no autopsy is performed. Only one other person in the hospital, an orderly, knows the truth and his decision to blackmail the doctor seems fool-proof … until it isn’t. Viewers aren’t supposed to be allowed the time or inclination to ponder ways they would have constructed the crimes or profiled the protagonist differently, but the opportunity presents itself here far too easily. Besides the presence of Bloom, which his young admirers will enjoy, “The Good Doctor” benefits from supporting turns from by Taraji P. Henson, Michael Peña, Rob Morrow and J.K. Simmons. – Gary Dretzka

Forced to Fight: Blu-ray
Five months short of 50, onetime kick-boxing champion Gary Daniels remains in amazing physical shape and would probably be a top contender on the mixed-martial-arts seniors’ tour, if such a thing existed. He’s appeared in several dozen movies and TV series, but lacks the certain something – emotional range, perhaps — that has enhanced the acting careers of Randy Couture, Steve Austin, John Cena, Roddy Piper, Gina Carano, Dwayne Johnson and Jean Claude Van Damme.  He was cast in “The Expendables,” with a half-dozen other profession hard-asses, but in a subsidiary role. Daniels plays a retired MMA fighter, Shane, whose cocky younger brother breaks a promise to a promoter about throwing a match. Now, Danny G (Peter Weller) not only wants the fighter to reimburse him the money he lost betting on the bout, but also to exact his pound of flesh. To settle the debt, Shane reluctantly agrees to get back in shape and return to whatever passes for a ring in the illegal underground sport. Even though he’s up against some real monsters, Shane succeeds to the point where Danny G no longer is able to make any money betting on him, so he orders him to take a few dives. The insult to his integrity and his inability to refuse the demand pisses him off to the point where he’s uncharacteristically short and unreasonable with his wife, son and brother. The abrupt transition from cool dad to tyrant isn’t remotely believable, and neither is Shane’s ability to take on all comers in a single night.

“Forced to Fight” is set in a warehouse neighborhood of New York, but all of the interiors were staged in Romania. Curiously, all of the male extras and some of the fighters look and dress as they probably have since the fall of the Coucesceau regime. The card girls and other beautiful young women in the crowd – some of whom get fake blood splattered on their perfectly made-up faces – look as if they were cast on the dance floor of the hottest night club in Bucharest and wouldn’t be caught dead with their respective escorts. As capable as the 5-foot-10 Daniels was in the ring, battling fellow lightweights, he lacks the physical stature necessary to convince anyone that he could actually dominate the movie’s steroid-enhanced behemoths in a no-holds-barred fight. If he added a tattoo to his face, like Mike Tyson, perhaps he’d be taken seriously as an actor. On the other hand, Peter Weller has no excuses for accepting the role of the Danny G in Jonas Quastel’s thoroughly illogical and cliché-ridden “Forced to Fight.” The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of short behind-the-scenes pieces. – Gary Dretzka

Hermano
I usually don’t give much credence to blurbs on the covers of DVDs, primarily because a creative publicist needn’t be an alchemist to pull three or four positive words from an otherwise negative review and spin them into gold. One quote compares “Hermano” to “City of God” and “Goal! The Dream Begins,” which is accurate in that it’s set in a dangerous Caracas barrio and the protagonists’ escape route is through soccer. Although it would be extremely difficult for any filmmaker, especially one new to features, to match the level of expertise it took to make “City of God,” Marcel Rasquin’s freshman effort can lay claim to being a kindred spirit, at least. With “Goal!,” “Hermano” shares a faith in dreams coming true for young Hispanic athletes who might have only one shot at success. “Hermano” tells the story of two unrelated teenagers, who live together as brothers in a Caracas slum, the younger having been abandoned at birth and rescued from a trash heap by the older boy’s mother. They are the stars of a team funded by a local hoodlum, but have the talent to move into the pro ranks. In a tragic accident, the mother is killed while passing by the scene of a violent crime. The younger brother, Daniel (Fernando Moreno), witnesses the crime, but is afraid to tell Julio (Eliu Armas) the name of the boy responsible, because he’s his good friend, a teammate and trigger-happy. Not knowing the truth eats at Julio like a cancer, just as withholding the truth torments Daniel. Before this dilemma can be resolved, however, the brothers are given the rare opportunity to try out for Caracas’ professional team. Their fate rests on the outcome of a championship game with another formidable barrio team and Daniel’s unusual double-or-nothing bet with the pro coach. Even if the ending seems easy to predict, it’s what happens in advance of the final whistle that makes “Hermano” a superior entertainment. Rasquin captures the gritty texture of barrio life and desperation of many of its inhabitants, but what stands out is Daniel’s determination to save the hot-headed Julia, just as he was rescued by the woman they both recognized as their mother. The DVD adds an informative interview with Rasquin. – Gary Dretzka

Backwards
Every two years, depending on the season, NBC tries its best to involve us in sports about which, normally, we couldn’t possibly be less interested, whether it’s the modern pentathlon or competitive kayaking. This year, viewers were required to endure an inordinate number of rowing matches, mostly at the expense of boxing, weightlifting and other traditional events deemed to be of no special interest to Americans. I enjoy watching rowing more than the next guy – which isn’t saying much, really – but, this year, the coverage seemed excessive by half. The Brits love the sport and turned out in great numbers to support it. Consequently, we heard more than the usual number of up-close-and-personal stories about rowers. The inspirational sports dramedy, “Backwards,” is an 89-minutes extension of one of those segments. Besides acting, writer/producer/star Sarah Megan Thomas is a very capable amateur athlete and knows what it takes to get and stay in shape for competition. In “Backwards,” she plays a star rower, Abi, who’s proven herself sufficiently proficient to be an alternate on the U.S. team. For an athlete, this is the equivalent of attending Mass every Sunday of your life and going directly to purgatory, because heaven is fully booked. As much as we admire the 30-year-old’s tenacity, it’s easy to see in her a slightly past-her-prime athlete who never tires of reading her press clippings and dusting off the trophy case in her bedroom. She puts every other aspect of her life – including anything remotely romantic — on hold to make the Olympics and doesn’t seem to mind sharing a cramped dorm room with a rower who’s 10 years younger. The only person that thinks she’s being delusional is her mother (Margaret Colin), who has gotten tired of supporting her adult child in this endeavor. When Mom suggests she start supporting herself, Abi treats the request with the same disdain as a 30-year-old, unemployed stoner might when told to get a job. It isn’t as if we’re surprised by her addiction to training or obsession with the Olympics, because Americans have become conditioned to expect such sacrifices on the part of their amateur athletes. Still, we begin to suspect her sanity when she stands up an old flame, Geoff – played by the studly James Van Der Beek – in order to spend another half-hour on the rowing machine, because her coach insinuated she was a couple of pounds overweight.

When Abi’s named alternate for the second time, she freaks out and quits the team that’s come to depend on her. She returns to her former high school to beg Geoff’s forgiveness for the diss and, after accepting her apology, asks her to consider coaching the girls’ team in his place. Not only does she take the job, but she’s also able to convince two of the rowers to invest the same kind of energy as she did in becoming a champion. You might be able to guess what happens next, but, if not, it involves being given a choice between doing the right thing or choosing the selfish alternative.  By this time, though, “Backwards” has gone all melodramatic on us, creating unbelievable coincidences as solutions to make-believe problems and very nearly squandering any sympathy viewers had invested in Abi. That’s too bad, because the first half of the movie started nicely with director Ben Hickernell (“Lebanon, Pa.”) capturing beautiful shots of early-morning training sessions on a scenic Pennsylvania river and a credible narrative. The characters share a sharp edge and the protagonist aren’t nearly as picture-perfect as those we meet between matches on TV. The perceived need to squeeze in a romantic throughline only serves to diminish the drama. As it is, the picture wound up being a movie only a teenage girl might admire. The DVD includes an interview with Thomas. – Gary Dretzka

Big Tits Zombie 3D
Resident Evil: Retribution: Blu-ray
In the world of horror, it’s become axiomatic that the cheaper and more tawdry a straight-to-DVD is, the better the title. Good titles build word-of-mouth and sell product. “Big Tits Zombie,” in its original manga incarnation, was known as “The Big Tits Dragon: Hot Spring Zombies vs. Strippers 5,” a normally unbeatable title. By shortening it and adding “3D,” it becomes a candidate for cult-classic status. Japanese “pinku” specialist Takao Nakano is responsible for such Japorn and horror efforts as “ExorSister,” “Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy,” “Playgirl 7: Most Extreme Bawdy Games,” “Queen Bee Honey,” “Aspiring Home Tutor: Soiled Pure Whiteness” and “Hop Step Jump!,” about a bullied school custodian who turns into a giant frog with superpowers. “Big Tits Zombie” is not a movie in which busty undead humanoids attack whatever it is such fiends normally would attack, but big-busted women in stripper outfits who are forced into working at a brothel, where they destroy zombies with chain saws and swords. There’s more, but why spoil the surprise for those attracted to the title. They should know, however, that while the strippers have larger than average busts for Asian women, they are not huge and they’re revealed only very briefly. Moreover, they don’t look any larger in 3D than in 2D. As these things go, “Big Tits Zombie” is as funny as it is cheesy, primarily because the English words put into the characters’ mouths are reminiscent of those given the actors in Woody Allen’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily.” It comes with a making-of featurette and old-fashioned 3D glasses.

I hope that what I am about to say won’t sound like a cop out or holier-than-thou preaching, but so many people are slaughtered in automatic- weapons fire in the first 15 minutes of “Resident Evil Retribution” that I couldn’t help but flash on all the recent massacres at schools and shopping malls. Children are put in harm’s way, as well. That was enough death for me. Viewers already drawn to the “RE” franchise probably will find something to like in the latest sequel, even if I didn’t. To them, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the NRA. For what it is worth, the Blu-ray arrives with separate commentary tracks with writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson, Milla Jovovich and Boris Kodjoe, and Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt; outtakes; the featurettes “Drop (Un) Dead: The Creatures of Retribution” and “Resident Evil: Retribution: Face of the Fan”; the film’s soundtrack; and several other backgrounders. For those with a high threshold for pain, “RE” also is available in 3D. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World
PBS: Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War 
Nature: An Original DUCKumentary: Blu-ray 
Lest we forget, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you can’t recall passing this important milestone, it’s probably because the media was still obsessing over the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. That makes some sense only when one considers that, even before James Cameron’s excellent submersible adventure, more information was available to the public on that disaster than anything dealing with our near-apocalyptic confrontation with the Soviet Union. Exactly how close our nations came to exchanging nuclear missiles in October, 1962, has only come to light recently and, in some cases, begrudgingly. None of the three countries involved in the situation was completely innocent of pushing the world to the brink of disaster and all of the prominent players were guilty of putting their own self-interests ahead of those of their citizens. It wasn’t until the last few hours of the passion play that they finally came to their senses. (In fact, Fidel Castro never forgave his allies for cutting a deal with JFK behind his back.) Among the documentaries released this year on the subject are “Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World” and “Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War,” both from PBS. “The Man Who Saved the World” chronicles the drama that unfolded inside a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine, when it appeared as if it was being attacked by a U.S. destroyer in what seemed to be the opening volley of a third world war. It merely was an attempt to scare off the sub, which was following American ships, but the crew didn’t know that at the time. It would have taken the approval of all three senior officers of the submarine to agree on the deployment of a nuclear-tipped torpedo on an American aircraft carrier, but Vasili Arkhipov vetoed it. The program is informed by eyewitness accounts and expert testimony about the critical event.

“Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War” profiles the three leaders responsible for the fates of millions of people, most of whom lived in Europe and would have been targeted in the first wave of missiles. Cuba would have been decimated, but, it’s safe to say, Kennedy and Khrushchev worried more about what might have occurred in the second and third waves. JFK’s role made him a hero, while Khrushchev was lambasted for blinking. In fact, in a move kept secret until much later, the Soviet leader was able to get Kennedy to agree to remove our nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy, an agreement conservatives would have used to roast Kennedy. Although he’s managed to outlive almost everyone involved, Castro considered Cuba to be the loser. The documentary contains interviews with such well-positioned observers as Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet premier; Ted Sorensen, formerly of the Executive Committee of the U.S. National Security Council; former KGB and CIA operatives; and Captain Jerry Coffee, the reconnaissance pilot who almost accidentally revealed a new type of nuclear weapon that could have annihilated invading American forces.

And, now for something completely different from PBS: “An Original DUCKumentary.” Apart from Donald and Daffy, ducks simply haven’t been accorded the respect due them. Even in Hollywood, heavily armed male characters are encouraged to bond during soggy mornings spent huddling in a “duck blind.” Wooden effigies are used to attract the potential victims, too naïve to suspect a trap. Here, we are invited to follow a male and female wood duck, as they create a bond, migrate together across thousands of miles, nurture and protect a brood of chicks, then come full circle. That is, if they can get past the heavily armed costumers of the ZZ Top look-alikes on “Duck Dynasty.” And, yes, the ducks’ colors sparkle in hi-def. – Gary Dretzka

Tosh.0: Deep V’s: Blu-ray
Gabriel Iglesias Presents: Stand-Up Revolution: Season Two
Backstage at Budz House
Daniel Tosh looks like too nice a guy to host one of television’s most wicked clip shows and, yet, he’s the primary reason “Tosh.0” is so nasty and fun to watch. Each week, Tosh and team pore through the craziest and most viral of videos on the Internet, pick out the most painful to watch and script funny comments for each one. Going way beyond what’s expected of other hosts of such clip shows, however, Tosh sometimes will invite the victims of the most spectacular fails to join him on the show and relive the experience in his “Web Redemption” segments. The titles of his new Blu-rays, “Tosh.0: Deep V’s” and “Cardigans Plus Casual Jackets” refer to his completely misleading Joe College look. (The latter is available only at Walmart.) The double set includes web redemptions with Tron Guy, the backyard wrestler, the N64 kid and David After the Dentist; Old Lee reads Miley Cyrus tweets; Daniel gets to the bottom of an epic Beard Man Fight; the grossest thing you’ve ever seen on television; and Tosh.0 enters the Winter Olympics. There also are plenty of extras.

In comedy, as in life, when you’re hot you’re hot. Few standup comedians are hotter right now than Gabriel Iglesias. In addition to touring and appearing in “Magic Mike” and Cartoon  Network’s “The High Fructose Adventures of Annoying Orange,” the man also known as Fluffy has spent the last year hosting and exec-producing the second season of Comedy Central’s hit show, “Stand-Up Revolution.” Both stanzas now are available on DVD, as are re-releases of his previous comedy specials. “Season Two” extends the mix of comedy sketches, funny guests, animated shorts, wild Hawaiian shirts and Ozomatli. The bonus package adds outtakes, a music-video backgrounder and more “Hey, It’s Fluffy” animated shorts.

As the number of states with legalized marijuana grows, I wonder if the number of comedians whose entire act is based in getting high will diminish. One of the leading purveyors of stoner humor is Faizon Love, whose 2011 “Budz House” I found to be reasonably amusing. An episode of “Backstage at Budz House” was included in that movie’s bonus feature and this is an extension. It stars comedians Kevin Hart, Luenell, Scruncho and Chris Spencer as they perform in front of a studio audience in a talk-show setting. Love is the host of the raucous affair. – Gary Dretzka

Leave a Reply

Quote Unquotesee all »

“I wanted to make you love a murderer. There’s no way of redeeming him. He’s a drunk and a killer. He killed at least seven people (that we know of). But there were reasons he was a bad guy. He was surrounded by evil in those days. A lot of people were killed building modern Florida—modern everywhere. Watson had plenty of opportunities to see how rough those guys were playing and he thought he could do it too. At least he rationalized it that way. He had the devil beaten out of him and became a very dangerous guy. And he couldn’t handle his liquor, which is one of the worst aspects of him. And he went crazy. Understanding how that happened is useful, I think. There’s no reason any one of us couldn’t be Edgar Watson.”
~ Peter Mathiessen On Writing “Killing Mister Watson”

 

“Objects and their manufacture are inseparable, you understand a product if you understand how it’s made.”
~ Jony Ive