In his stunning directorial debut, “Bullet Collector,” Russian filmmaker Alexander Vartanov has done something quite remarkable. While openly conceding his debt to Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Jean Vigo’s “Zero de conduit,” he has created a distinctly Russian drama about growing up alone and defenseless in a society that has other things on its mind than the well-being of distressed youth. “Bullet Collector” seems to have been influenced, as well, by Andrei Tarkovsky’s harrowing wartime drama, “Ivan’s Childhood.” Unlike “The 400 Blows” and “Zero du conduit,” however, Vartanov’s film is unrelieved by any mischievous behavior and humor. Neither is the protagonist particularly heroic. The central figure here is a 14-year-old towheaded boy (Ruslan Nazarenko), who isn’t given a name but, strangely enough, very much resembles Dennis the Menace. Before being sent away to reform school, the boy was bullied by his stepfather and ignored by his mother. As a defense mechanism, he often drifts into a dream state that allows him to experience what life might be like with a caring family, pals who looked up to him and a girlfriend. The dreams that come at night, though, often take the shape of brutal revenge fantasies, during which he’s able to stand up to the boys who are making his stay at the school a living nightmare. Sometimes, the only way to tell fantasy from reality is to pay attention to the changes in the lush black-and-white cinematography. The boy’s less-horrific dreams take on an ethereal quality with wisps of ground fog and soft lighting, his revenge fantasies are captured by the in-your-face lens of a handheld camera. Normal life at the reform school is treated in documentary style. There are other times when the cold, gray skies above the boy’s head, bleed into the cold, gray Russian earth. When that happens, “Bullet Collector” could easily be mistaken for a war movie from the post-Stalin cultural thaw, as was “Ivan’s Childhood.” Then and now, children have paid a stiff price for the mistakes made by their elders and the democracy promised by glasnost and perestroika has yet to pan out. Even so, Vartanov’s collabortation with playwright Yuri Klavdiev doesn’t appear to be making any overreaching points about the necessity for reform, parental accountability or easier access to Levi’s and MTV since the lifting of the Iron Curtain. If anything, there’s something far more personal going on here. As far as I can tell, the Artsploitation Films edition of “Bullet Collector” represents the first opportunity for American audiences to sample Vartanov’s work. The DVD contains a deleted scene, making-of footage and audition tapes. – Gary Dretzka
With the Academy Awards ceremony only a few days away, only two of the nine Best Picture candidates – “Argo” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – have been made available on DVD or Blu-ray. A couple have already disappeared from theaters and one or two have yet to open in smaller cities and towns. The bounce in revenues studios once enjoyed after the show now is felt, if anywhere, in the DVD, Blu-ray and POV markets. Within five years, I suspect, they will have figured out a way to stream or download all of the nominees to the public a week or two before the show, without fear of piracy. The only people not to benefit from such a setup would be exhibitors and, by now, they’re used to being screwed by Hollywood interests. Going into the weekend, “Argo” appears to be the movie with the most momentum. It’s gotten the bulk of the post-season awards, is being supported by an extensive marketing campaign, has already made a bunch of money, is a crowd-pleaser and most importantly of all, perhaps, has the sympathy vote wrapped up. That’s because, despite accruing seven nominations, Ben Affleck somehow failed to make the cut in the Best Director and Best Actor categories. It may be a mystery, but I can’t imagine academy members coordinating anything more sinister than the swapping of for-your-consideration DVDs.
“Argo” is, of course, based on real events surrounding the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran, in 1979, and virtual imprisonment of 52 Americans there. The six Americans who slipped away from the embassy that day found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Because of their vulnerability there, the CIA was asked to come up with a way to get them safely out of Iran without also putting the lives of the Canadian diplomats in jeopardy. The assignment fell to veteran agent and self-described “master of disguise” Tony Mendez. The full details of the escape weren’t revealed publicly until 2007, when records were declassified. Great liberties were taken by Affleck and writer Chris Terrio in the depiction of certain key events, including the thrilling climax, but the heroism of the protagonist, courage of the Canadian ambassador (and his wife) and ordeal of the embassy workers has yet to be challenged.
In his two previous directorial efforts, “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck has proven to be a generous director, who isn’t reluctant to share the spotlight or give credit where it’s due when he’s being lauded in the media. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are terrific together as the CIA’s Hollywood connection, and Affleck also gets wonderful support from Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Page Leong, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Kyle Chandler and the actors playing the captives. In addition to commentary by Affleck and Terrio, the Blu-ray package contains a follow-along picture-in-picture “Eyewitness Account,” with the reflections of Mendez, then-President Jimmy Carter and onetime hostages; four background featurettes; and the 2005 documentary “Escape From Iran: The Hollywood Option.” – Gary Dretzka
Sushi Girl: Blu-ray
In 2008, “The Counterfeiters” became the first submission by Austria to win an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Stefan Rusowitsky’s taut World War II drama was set in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where a team of skilled Jewish engravers, calligraphers and one forger, at least, was being forced to produce enough counterfeit currency to cause an economic crisis in Allied countries. The story was inspired by the Nazis’ actual Operation Bernhard and, at its core, was a career criminal, who wasn’t looking for the personal glory or gain. He merely wanted to survive the war, without also advancing Adolph Hitler’s destabilization strategy. The snowbound crime thriller, “Deadfall,” written by first-timer Zach Dean, represents the first movie Rusowitsky has made on this side of the Atlantic Ocean … Quebec, to be precise. Besides the Oscar-winning director, the script attracted a stellar cast, led by Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Hunnam, Sissy Spacek, Kate Mara, Treat Williams and Kris Kristofferson. With all that going for it, you’d think the distributors of “Deadfall” would prompt something more than a limited run in, at most, 17 theaters, after debuting on VOD. It’s entirely possible the movie would have forgone theaters entirely, if it weren’t for a couple of leaked or pirated clips showing Wilde making love in a darkly lit motel room and standing in a snow drift in a garter belt and torn stockings. Sexually, though, that’s as hot as things get in “Deadfall.” If it’s not a perfect movie, though, “Deadfall” is far from being the kind of picture that’s usually tossed into the straight-to-video mix.
Bana and Wilde play Addison and Liza, a brother-sister team of thieves, who, just as they begin counting their money, are nearly killed in an accident. The driver of the getaway car, since deceased, hits a deer and goes spinning off the highway. The siblings are left to fend for themselves in a dense forest during a blizzard. Addison survives by killing a deputy investigating the crash and stealing a snowmobile from a hunter. Nearly frozen in her skimpy dress, torn stockings and heels, Liza is picked up by a recently released jailbird on a lonely snow-covered road. The former boxer, Jay, is fleeing what he believes to be the accidental death of his corrupt former manager. Using cellphones, Addison and Liza agree to meet up at the remote family home of her rescuer. Even though Jay’s estranged from his parents (Spacek, Kristofferson), he decides to stop at the house for what may be his last Thanksgiving dinner as a free man. In between the time that Jay and Liza meet and reach the house, they enjoy a roll in the hay and seemingly fall in love. After another series of unlikely, if dramatically-licensed circumstances, everyone winds up at the house in time for dinner. Soon enough, the diners also will include a hard-charging female deputy (Rooney) and her crudely sexist boss and father (Williams). It’s here that the final showdown will take place and we’ll learn if blood is thicker than water. (The sheriff’s unsettling treatment of his daughter is the only thing that rings false in the movie.) Backers of the NRA-approved theory that heavily armed citizens can stand up to gun-wielding bad guys probably won’t be happy with some of the things that happen to the contrary in “Deadfall.” Even though everyone in this neck of the woods totes a rifle, side arm or shotgun, they finally are at the mercy of sociopaths with nothing to lose. And, yes, for a while there, I did somehow manage to confuse “Deadfall” with “Skyfall.” It wasn’t until half-way through the Bond movie that I stopped waiting for Wilde to show up in her non-thermal britches from Victoria’s Secret. Duh. The Blu-ray arrives with a making-of featurette, bonus footage and interviews.
“Sushi Girl” followed exactly the same release pattern as “Deadfall,” opening on VOD, before a very limited theatrical run and Blu-ray release soon thereafter. Unlike “Deadfall,” though, the only widely recognizable names on the credit list are those of an unrecognizable Mark Hamill and martial-arts legend Sonny Chiba. (As is his wont lately, Danny Trejo only makes a cameo.) For co-writer/director Kern Saxton and co-writer Destin Pfaff, “Sushi Girl” represents their first feature film. Anyone who goes into the movie thinking it has something to do with a groupie obsessed with Japanese chefs will be in for a surprise. Chiba plays a master chef, alright, but “Sushi Girl” is to cuisine what Mr. Blonde’s dance of death in “Reservoir Dogs” is to shaving. Playing the title character is the truly spectacular looking Cortney Palm, who spends almost all of the movie’s 98 minutes on her back, naked, covered with a variety of sashimi. Also on the menu is the potentially dish, fugu. (If she’s able to escape the scream-queen ghetto, Palm could compete for the roles Emily Blunt is too busy to accept.) Sushi Girl has been ordered by her boss (Tony Todd) to lie lifeless on the table no matter what happens around her. The clamor eventually will include several gunfights, loud arguments and the torture of an ex-con the men sitting around the table believe is in possession of a sack of diamonds. The gems were stolen six years earlier, but they disappeared after the getaway van was struck by a car. We suspect early on that “Fish” (Noah Hathaway) isn’t holding out on his former cohorts, but the identity of the person actually in possession of the stash remains a mystery throughout 95 percent of the film. I think the ending will come as a surprise to most viewers. People easily disturbed by violence and torture are advised to avoid “Sushi Girl.” Those with stronger stomachs and a taste for Tarantino-style dialogue, however, should find a lot to like. – Gary Dretzka
28 Hotel Rooms
I can’t speak for women, but one of the more endearing sexual fantasies is the one that inspired the play and movie, “Same Time, Next Year.” In it, a man and a woman who are married, but not to each other, meet annually at the same inn where they had their first tryst. For lack of a better description, call it adultery-lite. In Matt Ross’ variation on the “STNY” conceit, “28 Hotel Rooms,” Chris Messina and Marin Ireland play a writer and accountant who meet in the bar of a boutique hotel and take an instant fancy to each other. It leads to a night of sexual revelry, but without the hangover of guilt that usually comes with it. Although Woman and Man, as they’re known here, don’t expect to ever see each other again, they do. Instead of once a year, they meet more often and for more than a night at a time. Her job, at least, requires frequent travel to the same city, so she as a built-in alibi. As a writer, Man is required to use his imagination to come up with excuses. Neither of them seems interested in leaving their room to eat, stroll or see a movie, so most of “28 Hotel Rooms” is staged within the cozy confines of a mini-suite. Besides enjoying making love, Man and Woman share a genuine fondness for each other. As the trysts continue, their dialogue evolves from grunts and groans to conversations about their lives away from the hotel. They sometimes bicker, but only out of frustration over not being able to have their cake and eat it, too. Woman is adamant that the affair remain secret, while Man appears ready to take a stand for a more substantial commitment. Besides that, almost nothing of substance happens. “28 Hotel Rooms” is more of a character study than a statement on marriage or monogamy, and Messina and Ireland are definitely up to the task. Writer/director Ross has one of the most familiar faces on television (“Big Love,” “American Horror Story”) and, presumably, he informed the story with elements he found missing in some of the roles he’s been assigned. “28 Hotel Rooms” doesn’t ask much of its audience, so it can be enjoyed or dismissed without much deep thought. It’s possible to suggest, however, that its appeal will be limited to adults whose pipedreams include similar rendezvous. For anyone who suspects that his or her spouse is stepping out during out-of-town business trips, “28 Hotel Rooms” could lead to a call to the private investigators on “Cheaters.” The DVD adds deleted scenes with commentary and an interview with Ross. – Gary Dretzka
Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike: Blu-ray
It’s legitimate to wonder who in their right mind thought that pouring more money into the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy was a good idea. The first installment laid a large egg commercially and critically, and the market for such a diatribe appears to be limited to the English-speaking world. If a production budget of $30 million for two movies doesn’t sound too extreme, consider that the first two chapters have yet to return $10 million at the box office. As such, a planned third chapter could amount to financial suicide. Ayn Rand’s works have influenced untold millions of readers, some positively and others not so much. Based solely on the fact that “Atlas Shrugged” was published 55 years ago, I’d be surprised if many people in the primary movie-going demographic even know how to pronounce her name. Except for her Teabag following, the vast majority of potential viewers of the trilogy aren’t sufficiently engaged politically to even consider a movie that might attack them for caring about people less fortunate than themselves. No matter what one thinks of Rand’s writing and philosophy, though, the first two chapters have been almost comically non-involving and no more evolved technically than the Irwin Allen disaster epics of the ’70s. Even in jail, Gordon Gecko made a better case for greed.
In “Atlas Shrugged 2: The Strike,” artists, scientists and self-made industrials have begun to disappear into thin air, and the question, “Who is John Galt?,” is being repeated across the land. With energy prices through the roof and the working class in high dudgeon, rumors of the existence of a self-sufficient energy generator have tantalized investors, industrialists and consumers, alike. When Dagny Taggart and her powerful lover Henry Reardon stumble upon the motor, while on a cross-country trip, they have no clue how it might actually work. They hire someone to deconstruct it, but she suspects that the only person who can turn static electricity into energy is the mysterious and possibly non-existent John Galt. The closer Dagny comes to the truth, the more she becomes a target for those who don’t want it revealed. The larger question is why the producers decided not to spend the money necessary to make “Atlas Shrugged” a movie event of compelling interest to Rand loyalists and detractors, alike.
A solid script and one or two A-list actors, at least, might have given “Atlas Shrugged” a fighting chance in theaters. King Vidor’s 1949 adaptation of “The Fountainhead” didn’t make much money for Warner Brothers, but, at least, the studio had the conviction to hire Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey and Kent Smith. As it is, a more sensible strategy might have been to go the mini-series route and debut it on Fox News and Fox Business, networks dedicated to advancing Rand’s agenda, while ignoring her pro-choice, anti-religion, value-based views on sex and other libertarian positions. Everything about the trilogy — from the C- and D-list cast, to the bargain-basement special effects — screams cable TV or PPV. The grotesquely negative portrayals of opponents of laissez-faire capitalism seem to have been ripped from Mitt Romney’s discredited playbook and unions are always portrayed as being evil. (I wonder how many of the actors would have denounced the Screen Actors Guild if it were the only way to secure a job on the movie … probably none.) On the plus side, though, “Atlas Shrugged 2” contains one of the rarest of all show-business moments when magician and illusionist Teller, playing a security guard at Taggart Transcontinental, briefly breaks his silence. Some folks might find the shocking development, alone, worth the price of a rental. The Blu-ray offers a behind-the-scenes look at the production; deleted scenes; and an extended publicity segment with Sean Hannity. – Gary Dretzka
The Thief of Bagdad: Blu-ray
Although Georges Melies’ 13-minute-long “A Trip to the Moon” was first exhibited in 1902, the unforgettable image of a rocket ship stuck in the eye of a decidedly unhappy Man in the Moon still has the power to enchant cinema lovers around the world. Two decades later, Douglas Fairbanks and Raoul Walsh’s fantasy adventure “The Thief of Bagdad” would weigh in at 150 minutes and contain as many marvelous special visual effects as had been rendered in all of the years since Melies began pushing the envelope combined. The newly released Blu-ray edition of “The Thief of Bagdad” should put to rest the notion that effects-driven movies made in the silent era are naturally less entertaining than the CGI extravaganzas of today. If your child displays any interest at all in the history of cinema and evolution of special effects, put a copy of “Thief of Bagdad” under his or her pillow and say it was left there by the movie fairy. You might even suggest that it was the “Avatar” of its day and no less stunning to its audience than James Cameron’s sci-fi fantasy was to his. There’s no need to be concerned about all of the scratches, tears, blips and burps that make viewing early classics such a chore on television and VHS. The pristine Cohen Media/Entertainment One release has been digitally restored in 2k from two 35mm negatives, incorporating color tints and tones of the original release prints. The audio upgrade also enhances Carl Davis’ thrilling score, which incorporated the Orientalia of Rimsky-Korsakov.
The epic story derives from various elements in “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.” In the hands of Fairbanks, the lay-about thief and pickpocket, Ahmed, is energized by the surreptitious discovery – he uses the Indian rope trick to get over the walls of the palace — of the caliph’s sleeping daughter. She is about to be handed over for marriage to one of three princes from faraway lands who’ve come to the city in all their pompous glory. Not to be undone, Ahmed disguises himself as a man of princely bearing and wealth. By comparison to the princess’ other suitors, Ahmed is far and away the most attractive and amusing candidate. When the caliph is informed of his true character, he orders that Ahmed be whipped to within an inch of his life and torn apart by an ape. After the princess intercedes on his behalf, she buys time for Ahmed by staging a competition between the three princes to see who, after seven moons, can bring her the best gift. The plot thickens when the princess develops a serious illness and the princes conspire against the caliph. In his quest for the greatest gift, Ahmed benefits from a chest of magic powder that will be useful in defeating the demons in his path, making rugs fly and quashing the caliph’s enemies. Fairbanks was 40 when he made “Thief of Bagdad,” but he looks extremely buff and in full command of the stunts that require agility and athleticism. It’s a real tour de force, especially considering that he co-wrote, produced and practically co-directed the movie with Walsh.
Not having seen “Thief of Bagdad,” except in bits and pieces, I wondered how the movie would portray the Arabian, Persian, Indian and Mongol characters. The discovery of oil in the region had yet to be fully charted and exploited in 1924, so Hollywood had been able to play fast and loose with storybook legends and cultural stereotypes. The popularity of “The Sheik” and “Sheik of Araby” forever linked the white-slave trade to insatiable Bedouin princes. By comparison, “Thief of Bagdad” is respectful of Islamic teachings and demonstrates how an infidel like Ahmed can be redeemed by hard work and worshipping God. The writing in the nighttime sky, “Happiness must be earned,” is the movie’s core teaching. The Blu-ray package adds audio commentary by Douglas Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance and Vance’s introductions to 17 minutes worth of stills from the production. – Gary Dretzka
When it comes to parenting, rock stars and NBA players share a certain lack of empathy for the children they’ve fathered out of wedlock. For all they know, there could be one in every city with a stage or basketball court. It’s tough to be Peter Pan when you’ve got kids of your own to nurture. That’s a rather grand generalization, to be sure, but I’ve seen several movies in which musicians are required to come to grips with children they didn’t know existed or have ignored for years. Only 12 months separated So Yong Kim’s “For Ellen” and David M. Rosenthal’s “Janie Jones” on the festival circuit, before being accorded minimal theatrical exposure and quick trip to DVD. Both were distinguished by excellent acting, ethical dilemmas and scene-stealing by child actors. In “Janie Jones,” a strung-out former groupie (Elisabeth Shue) drops a charming girl in her early teens (Abigail Breslin) on a road-weary musician (Alessandro Nivola), with whom she had a brief fling. In “For Ellen,” Paul Dano plays a rock star who has spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles trying to make an impression on stoned head-bangers. When he’s informed that his ex-wife (Margarita Levieva) is divorcing him and wants full custody of their 6-year-old daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) — who hasn’t a clue as to who he is — Joby drives to a snowy corner of Upstate New York to contest it. Apparently, the child represents the only thing that he’s created that’s worth more than two cents and he feels entitled to partial ownership.
The only reason we kinda, sorta sympathize with Joby is that his wife is something of an ogre and we’re pre-disposed to like Dano, despite his thoroughly unlikeable character. It isn’t until fairly late in “For Ellen” that we’re given any solid reason to like Joby and it comes from the easy rapport he exhibits with Ellen, during the two-hour visit allotted him. Although he’s completely lost when it comes to entertaining a 6-year-old, Ellen is wise beyond her years. Mandigo is as self-assured and charismatic as Quvenzhane Wallis and Breslin, at the same age, and the conversations literally kick the movie into another gear. She’s precocious, of course, but without being creepy or obnoxious about it. Now that they’ve met each other, though, the South Korean-born writer/director wisely leaves it up to our imagination as to how the rest of their lives will play out. At 28, Dano’s developed into one of Hollywood’s most interesting and dependently flexible actors, so they make an intriguing pair. In what may be his first appearance as someone other than a geek, Jon Heder does a nice job as Joby’s overmatched lawyer. Jenna Malone also makes a cameo. The DVD arrives with a too-short interview with Kim. – Gary Dretzka
I didn’t hear NFL star Michael Oher’s name mentioned during the course of “Undefeated” — Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Oscar-winning documentary — but its resemblance to the “The Blind Side” extends beyond the gridiron. Oher was the athlete around which John Lee Hancock and Sandra Bullock’s hit drama was constructed. If Oher’s name rings a bell, it’s because he’s a key member of the Baltimore Ravens, the winning team in the Super Bowl. His real mom and screen mom both were in attendance at that game and CBS wasn’t reluctant about mentioning the connection. “Undefeated” is about a team comprised nearly entirely of players like Michael Oher, before he finally caught a break and was allowed to focus on football, instead of survival. Like some of the kids we meet in the documentary he was a homeless, parentless teenager in Memphis. Only one of the two dozen kids we meet in this undeniably inspirational film possesses the talent it would take to legitimately anticipate a pro career, let alone a starring role in the Super Bowl. All of his teammates, however, have experienced the ravages of poverty, rampant crime, urban blight, underfinanced schools and an epidemic of hopelessness. North Memphis has yet to recover from the 1983 closing of a giant Firestone plant, which, when active, provided thousands of jobs for local residents. Into the vacuum flowed hard drugs and despair. Early in the film, a visiting pro athlete asks the Manassas High School players for a show of hands if, first, one parent graduated from college and, secondly, if both had done so. Although a smattering of hands went up for the first question, none was raised for the second. Everyone’s hand went up when the speaker asked if they had any close relations who had served time in prison, were victims of violent crimes or junkies. For years, Manassas’ football program has been as devastated as the neighborhood. In a good year, the team might have won one or two or three games. Fortuitously, in 2009, the filmmakers caught up with the Tigers before they embarked on a season that can best be described as miraculous.
The documentary originally was going to focus on lineman O.C. Brown, the star player whose experiences bear an uncanny resemblance to Oher. Once in Memphis, though, Lindsay and Martin found something even more heart-warming. The Tigers were coached that year by a white businessman, who volunteered his time and money to teach the students how to play the game and understand the value of teamwork and positive thinking. For six years, Bill Courtney experienced frustrations and setbacks unknown to most coaches. Just when the 2009 season was shaping up as a carbon copy of the previous five, however, the team started winning. If it didn’t go undefeated, as the title suggests, several key plays managed to overcome the odds and succeed on and off the field. The climactic game is important, but more as a way to sum up what we’ve already seen. As such, “Undefeated” resembles previous documentaries, “Go Tigers!” and “Hoop Dreams.” The DVD includes commentary, a making-of piece and deleted scenes, including a discarded throughline.
At a mere 72 minutes, Denis Cote’s anti-documentary “Bestiaire” describes how an average day might pass at a giant safari park, without or without crowds and absent the seduction of dead fish, peanuts or applause to perform tricks or amuse customers. It asks us to train our eyes on things we might not necessarily notice when visiting with kids in tow or in peak seasons. The animals observe us, too, not anticipating danger or a handout, but because we’re there. If they had televisions, they’d probably watch them, instead, as would zoo personnel. Moreover, Cote refuses to tell us why he’s picked these animals and personnel to film. There’s no narrative in “Bestiaire” to tell us what to think about what we’re being shown and only a few words are spoken into a phone. By eliminating the narrative, we’re free just to look at things, as would an inquisitive wildebeest or emu. If some of the images of animals going about their business fail to raise your pulse, wait for the shots of hyenas being fed in the tight quarters of a holding pen, a lion attempting break through the chain on a cage and the horrible sound of zebras banging their heads and hooves against the walls of their steel pens — and each other — for no apparent reason. Immediately after these troubling images Cote takes us to the workshop of the park’s taxidermist, where the coats of dead animals are stretched over molds. They are subsequently utilized as unpaid models in a studio where art students will sketch them as if they were alive and staring at them. “Bestiaire” is every bit as difficult, challenging and, perhaps, to some viewers, pointless as it seems. An interview with the filmmaker doesn’t quite explain Cote’s intentions or shine light on his overriding philosophy, but, as in any trip to the zoo, we’re free to stretch our imaginations as far as they will go. – Gary Dretzka
If I were a more cynical person, I’d suggest that “The Cyclist” was made in a rushed attempt to get the non-cycling world’s attention off Lance Armstrong and back on the sport, itself. There must be one or two competitors out there who aren’t juicing … right? Writer/director John Lawrence seems intent on convincing us that amateur cycling remains as pure as the driven snow in Moab, Utah, where most of the movie was filmed. Indeed, the best thing about ‘The Cyclist” is the scenery. Otherwise, it tells the overly familiar story of an athlete who loses his way on the path to glory and tries to bury his future in a bottle. K.C. Clyde, who resembles Mel Gibson from odd angles, plays the over-amped cyclist. In a sport that often requires intricate teamwork, Nash is a hard-charging individualist. This will change after his best friend is killed while riding to the finish of a race in the Wasatch Range. A year later, Nash is called upon to redeem himself and prove that his buddy didn’t die in vain. As lovely as the scenery is, “The Cyclist” is no threat to the supremacy of “Breaking Away” as the best movie about cycling, with “American Flyers” and the German “Phantom Pain” also worth a look. The DVD includes director commentary and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
Top Gun: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Best in Show: Blu-ray
The Insider: Blu-ray
Released in 1944, “Laura” has so many wonderful things going for it that it’s easy to overlook the all too obvious fact that the criminal investigation conducted by Dana Andrews’ police detective, Mark McPherson, makes the LAPD’s case against O.J. Simpson look flawless. Police got away with a lot of monkey business before the Supreme Court clamped down in the 1960s and Hollywood cops have also been given leeway when it comes to solving a case in less than two hours. No more so than in the investigation of rags-to-riches socialite Laura Hunt’s “murder.” Out of the blue, McPherson’s been assigned to re-interview all of the likely suspects who’ve already been grilled. They include a prominent columnist (Clifton Webb) and gold-digging playboy (Vincent Price), a rich dame in love with the playboy (Judith Anderson), a promiscuous model and Laura’s maid. Passive-aggressive to the point of permitting the columnist to sit in on his interviews and make wiseass remarks when it suits him, McPherson also allowed himself to fall in love with Laura, in absentia, solely from what he admired in the painting of her hanging over the fireplace in her apartment. All that said, director Otto Preminger seduces us into staying with the whodunit until the loose ends begin coming together. Tierney couldn’t have been more magnetic in the role of the title character and Webb’s dialogue is wonderfully bitchy. More than anything else, however, it was the hypnotic attraction of the signature melody that pulled the audience into the noir drama. The Fox Blu-ray edition enhances Preminger’s strategic mix of shadows, light and David Raksin’s score. The movie’s fascinating backstory and Tierney’s heart-breaking biography — as laid out in the bonus package, along with other previously released commentaries and featurettes — are essential viewing for lovers of Hollywood lore. The disc can be viewed in its original theatrical cut or slightly extended version that contains a montage of Laura’s rise through the social ranks, which was deemed by Fox to bet too “off-putting in its decadence” for wartime audiences. As romantic mysteries go, “Laura” can’t be beat.
A couple of years ago, a multi-reel “Top Gun” slot machine was introduced into casinos around the country. Anyone fortunate enough to reach the bonus round was put behind the stick of a fighter jet and given opportunities to score points by taking out targets and dodging rockets from enemy fliers. The machine was designed to match the look of a cockpit and a subwoofer underneath the seat caused it to vibrate whenever certain obstacles were overcome. The game was fun to play, while it lasted, but, like too many other licensed titles, it didn’t pay out as often as punters desired. At the time, the slot machine was the closest fans of the blockbuster could come to a 3D experience. Now, though, those with 3D TVs can save their quarters and take the cinematic experience to an exciting new level. Early reports on the quality of “Top Gun” in the Blu-ray 3D format have been extremely positive, even compared to the most recent 2D Blu-ray version, which is included in the double-dip from Paramount. (The set also offers a digital copy and UltraViolet capability.) The digital conversion of Tony Scott’s 27-year-old thriller, which combined exciting aerial acrobatics, with elements of romance, comedy and melodrama, represented a challenge to techies who hadn’t before worked on a movie quite that old. If it comes close to succeeding commercially – even lacking a critical mass of consumers with 3D-ready TVs — more action-adventures will be added to the 3D pipeline. Newcomers to “Top Gun,” if there are any, might be surprised by the movie’s Cold War context. The first Mideast war was still years away and our fliers were virtually untested in combat situations. Instead of engaging in dogfights with Soviet pilots, as in the movie, our top gunners were limited to dodging anti-aircraft fire from Iraqi positions on the ground and picking off sitting-duck tanks, trucks and Mercedes fleeing Kuwait. (In fact, the once-vaunted Iraqi Air Force decided to high-tail it out of the country and hand over the keys to their fighters to their Iranian enemies.) All of the bonus features from the previous Blu-ray iteration have been restored here. They include commentary with Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, co-writer Jack Epps Jr., Captain Mike Galpin and technical advisor Pete Pettigrew and Vice Admiral Mike McCabe, a Tom Cruise interview and several featurettes.
Now that another Westminster Kennel Club competition is in the books, there’s no better time to revisit Christopher Guest’s hilarious sendup of show dogs and the people who obsess over them, “Best in Show.” Anyone who’s been closer than the first balcony to such an event knows how close to the mark Guest gets in the portrayals of owners, trainers, judges, groomers, walkers and announcers. As he had already demonstrated in “Spinal Tap” and “Waiting for Guffman,” Guest has a keen eye for the peculiarities of people whose involvement in singular pastimes tells only part of the story of their lives. The term “mockumentary” typically is attached to his work, but it’s difficult to detect much that qualifies as mocking or ridicule. Buried under the characters’ idiosyncrasies and wacky dreams is something resembling admiration. If we enjoy such things as dog shows and amateur theaters, it’s because people like the ones we meet in “Best in Show” make them happen. If anyone is getting ridiculed here it’s Fred Willard’s clueless color commentator, who knows nothing about dogs or their owners and proves it every time he opens his mouth. No one has ever done that sort of thing better than Willard. Otherwise, the impeccable ensemble cast includes Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Larry Miller, Ed Begley Jr. and Guest himself, playing the owner of a lovely bloodhound, with whom he practices ventriloquism. The Blu-ray contains commentary by Levy and Guest and deleted scenes.
Today, most people who pay attention to what’s happening in the world assume that while the titans of industry, government and media sleep in the same beds, it’s the consumers and taxpayers who are getting screwed. To some degree, this always has been the case. It wasn’t until the events described “The Insider” were revealed – along with other slimy deals involving the country’s most influential interests — that the average Joe learned how deep the corruption went. Michael Mann’s gripping corporate thriller told the story of one former tobacco researcher’s attempts to blow the whistle on his bosses, who knowingly lied to Congress about the addictive ingredients used in the production of cigarettes and the secret memos that showed industry executives’ culpability in the deaths of millions of smokers. Russell Crowe was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Jeffrey Wigand, a research-and-development executive who put his career, financial security and personal welfare on the line to expose reprehensible practices at Brown & Williamson. By overriding an agreement he signed with the company forbidding him from reporting on the manipulation of tobacco levels, Wigand left himself open to expensive lawsuits and physical threats from company goons. Once he committed to exposing the practices to “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), Wigand thought the hard part might be over for him. Instead, the nightmare was just beginning. What they couldn’t have predicted was how easy it was for tobacco interests to intimate CBS by threatening to sue over the network’s complicity in Wigand’s decision to break the non-disclosure agreement. The “60 Minutes” piece was heavily edited, causing Bergman to quit the show, and leaving Wigand hanging. Even veteran correspondent Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) blinked when his bosses aired their reservations about the report. It was widely believed that then-CEO Laurence A. Tisch had put the kibosh on the segment because of his financial involvement with the tobacco industry and fears a lawsuit would complicate takeover talks with Westinghouse. (Likewise, ABC sold its correspondents down the river after their report on the tobacco industry aired on “Dateline.” Shortly after news that a multibillion-dollar lawsuit had been settled out of court, the network was sold to Disney.) Mann was able to turn what essentially was a disgraceful episode in corporate and media history into an entertaining and enlightening thriller on the order of “All the President’s Men.” It still holds up in Blu-ray. It comes with commentary by Crowe and Pacino and a backgrounder. – Gary Dretzka
Kill For Me
Throughout his 15-year directorial career, French writer/director Gael Morel has successfully integrated gay themes and characters into movies that don’t fit the straitjacket that’s typically applied to them by distributors, exhibitors and critics. In “Apres lui,” for example, Catherine Deneuve delivers a powerful portrayal of a woman, who, while mourning the death of her 20-year-old son in an automobile accident, becomes obsessed with sharing her grief with the young man, his closest friend, who inadvertently caused it. Their intimate, if forced bond disturbs everyone in her orbit. The latest release from Breaking Glass’ Queer Cinema catalogue, Morel’s “Our Paradise,” demands that viewers consider the frequently conflicting forces of sex and violence, love and hate, youth and decay, perception and reality, narcissism and selflessness. Most, but not all of the people we meet in “Our Paradise” are gay. Some are victims of violence, while others are perpetrators. Here, a thirty-something Parisian thief and rentboy, Vassili (Stephane Rideau), graduates to attempted murder when confronted by an even older customer about his age. One night, while cruising through the Forest of Boulogne, he discovers a much younger hustler, lying unconscious after a beating. Perhaps recognizing a younger version of himself, Vassili takes him home to recover and make sure he sees a doctor. Not long thereafter, they form a relationship that switches from symbiotic to paternal, depending on the circumstances of a date or threesome. Inevitably, their customers begin choosing the younger Angelo (Dimitri Durdaine), who doesn’t mind providing cover for his lover’s more nefarious activities. After a near disastrous attack by bouncers alerted to Vassili and Angelo’s game, they decide to split the city. Their first stop is the home of a lover (Beatrice Dalle) from the older man’s bisexual days. While she’s working as a magician’s assistant at night, the men babysit her precocious young son. From there, the three males visit the luxurious mountain home of another former lover of Vassili. The age difference between them is approximately the same as that between Vassili and Angelo. The older man’s Moroccan lover, who’s older than Angelo but younger than Vassili, immediately recognizes in the visitors the potential for danger. After all, he had been in the same business as they were before settling down. The climax, while not unexpected, is made even more wrenching by the boy’s realization that everything he’s come to like about his new role models may be wrong. In a very real way, we’ve also been sucked into Vassili desperate search for the fountain of youth.
If there’s any genre that television handles better than the movies these days, it’s the police procedural. The proliferation of such intricately plotted and realistically cast shows as “CSI” and “Law & Order” have convinced viewers that there are very few crimes that can’t be solved in 60 minutes. Storylines that require more creative latitude — “Dexter,” “Justified,” “Southland” — can be found on premium and basic-plus cable services. Where the movies reign, however dubiously, is in the production of torture porn and women-in-extreme-jeopardy titles. Although not very good, “The Factory” combines both subgenres, while also taking a stab at the police procedural. In it, John Cusack plays a Buffalo cop who gets increasingly more agitated with every new disappearance of one of the city’s stable of working girls. He can barely maintain his temper as he bulldozes his way through town in search of clues. His partner, Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter”), is far more in control of her emotions and, therefore, less a help than a hindrance to the cop. The depraved kidnaper, played by Dallas Roberts (“The Walking Dead”), is made out to be a criminal mastermind, but hardly a match for Cusack, whose daughter (Meg Whitman) ever so conveniently is also kidnaped by the fiend. Even so, almost nothing about the investigation rings true. What’s differentiates “The Factory” from other run-of-the-mill genre flicks, besides a relatively unique torture chamber, is an ending that comes from so far out in left field it might as well be from another movie entirely. It helps explain why a Cusack vehicle, reportedly made in 2008, is going straight-to-DVD in 2013.
“Kill for Me” combines elements of the crazy-roommate and revenge-is-sweet subgenres into a reasonably entertaining, if familiar thriller targeted at young adults willing to take a chance on a direct-to-DVD flick. The only actor I recognized here is the antagonist, played by Donal Logue, a scruffy-looking actor who plays characters of dubious moral character exceedingly well. Youthful fans of such prime-time soaps as “Arrow,” “Gossip Girl” and “Melrose Place” should, however, be familiar with Katie Cassidy (David’s daughter) and Tracy Spiridakos, whose credits include stints on “Revolution” and “Being Human.” Cassidy plays Amanda, a college student whose boyfriend gets his kicks beating her up. Spiridakos is her new roommate, Hailey, who clearly has experienced her own fair share of abuse growing up in the boonies. One day, Hailey arrives at home in time to save Amanda from what could be a fatal attack. At the same time as the rescue cements their friendship, it effectively binds the two women together as accomplices in a major crime. (Has no one heard of justifiable homicide?) This gives Hailey an opportunity to avenge what she describes as a lifetime of abuse and the death of her mother at the hands of Logue’s backwoods Lothario. The closer Amanda aligns herself with Hailey, the more she fears that she isn’t telling her the whole story. It takes a while to get to the truth, but some viewers might not mind the wait. Even if no one trusted “Kill for Me” to perform in theaters, the stars’ performances shouldn’t impede their careers. – Gary Dretzka
The Package: Blu-ray
Special Forces: Blu-ray
Considering how many people die in “The Package,” there’s surprisingly little blood and gore shed during the movie’s 96-minute length. It’s just as well, though, because it would only make the floors too slippery to trade kicks, chops and punches. Nothing about “The Package” is terribly realistic, let along logical. I suspect that action junkies won’t complain, given the amount of hand-to-hand combat and automatic-weapons fire on display. Stuntman/director Jesse V. Johnson keeps his foot on the accelerator throughout “The Package,” rarely giving viewers enough time to wonder about such things as why the bad guys are so inaccurate and their guns never run out of bullets, or how the good guys became so impervious to pain. Here, Steve Austin uses everything from his feet to his forehead, and then some, to kill his enemies. They’re after a mysterious package he’s been assigned to deliver to a super-stud criminal, known simply as “The German” (Dolph Lundgren). He’s not to look at what’s inside it or tarry. If he lives to hand over the package, the boss will forgive a large debt owed by his brother, who’s cooling his heels in prison. How the assassins he confronts on the road from Seattle to Vancouver know about the package is another mystery. In the end, nothing matters except the action, of which there’s plenty.
Remember when Francophobe yokels in the United States attempted to ban all things French from sacred American soil, even going so far as to rename French fries and boycott the Paris resort in Las Vegas? The boneheaded movement was in response to France’s refusal to join American, British, Polish and Australian forces in the quagmire that became the 2003 invasion of Iraq. With 20/20 foresight and hindsight, it was the smart decision. Still, somewhere in the U.S., it’s likely that one or two restaurants still insist on selling 10-year-old Freedom fries to their customers. “Special Forces” serves as a reminder that French forces not only participated in the first war in the Mideast, but also fought bravely in Afghanistan for 11 years. They’re currently in Mali, battling Islamist militants who attempted to take over the country and presumably aren’t great fans of the U.S., either. “Special Forces” describes a mission to rescue a French journalist (Diane Kruger) from Taliban troops holed up in a desert stronghold. The mission is led by a special-forces commander played by Djimon Hounsou. The journalist was in Afghanistan working on story about the role of women in the country, especially now that the Taliban are experiencing a resurgence in influence. – Gary Dretzka
Bath Salt Zombies
Prison: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Nest: Blu-ray
TerrorVision/The Video Dead: Bluray
I must be getting old. Last spring, when it was widely reported that a homeless man in Miami had his face chewed off by a bath-salt abuser, my first impression was that Epsom salts and other bathtub additives somehow could turn a mild-mannered dope fiend into a flesh-eating ghoul. It was a new one on me, but, having lived through the electric-banana craze of the 1960s, I reserved judgment. According to the coroner assigned to the case, the “cannibal” who was shot and killed by police that day had nothing resembling bath salts in his system … some residue marijuana, yes, but not the designer drug known on the street as “bath salts.” That substance, which contains synthetic cathinones, looks enough like Epsom salts to have been accorded the name by enterprising dope dealers. No one is precisely sure how it works, but, worse case, it has been known to induce behavior similar to that attributed to cocaine, speed and PCP. It’s just as possible that car-wash employee Rudy Eugene was having a really, really bad day at the office when he attacked 65-year-old Ronald Poppo. Possibly to deflect questions about whether or not the cop used his sidearm when other options might have been available, a Miami police spokesman presented the bath-salts story to the media, which couldn’t wait to run with it. They’d done the same thing in the 1930s, when marijuana and hemp were outlawed based primarily on the premise that Satan grows the stuff in the Back 40 of hell and sells it to kids.
Sometime very soon after the news of the Miami Cannibal broke, production began on a crazy DIY movie, “Bath Salt Zombies.” It could very well be the first such film to capitalize on both the “epidemic” and zombie-movie craze. Although made on budget that topped out at an estimated $5,000, it bears a resemblance to “Reefer Madness,” in that it combines what’s known about the drug with a wildly over-the-top cautionary tale. Although crude by most cinematic standards, “Bath Salt Zombies” is strangely entertaining and surprisingly coherent. I say, “surprisingly,” because do-it-yourself auteur Dustin Mills’ previous films – “Night of the Tentacles,” “Zombie A-Hole” and “The Puppet Monster Massacre” – went out of their way to defy good taste, logic and most other cinematic conventions. As conceived by co-writer Clint Weiler, a preppy-looking street dealer convinces a customer to try some bath-salt cigarettes and, of course, they have the least-desired effect on the young man. After being turned on by his voluptuous girlfriend, who reacts to the drug by climbing on a bed and doing a striptease, he chews off her face. In a concurrent throughline, a SWAT team is preparing to raid the underground pharmacist responsible for bringing bath salts to the USA. That things don’t turn out exactly as planned for anyone involved is a good thing here. Like the vast majority of DIY efforts, the lower your expectations, the more fun you’ll have watching “Bath Salt Zombies.” The DVD includes Mills’ commentary, which should be of interest to aspiring horror directors, who will never have enough money to afford film school.
Based on found-footage discovered after a terrible event in the English countryside, “Hollow” is sufficiently different from other titles in the subgenre, which now relies too much on hidden surveillance cameras, to recommend it to suspense junkies. Here, four young people drive to Sussex to spend the weekend in the lovely home of a vicar’s daughter. It’s been a year since the vicar died and the building has remained unoccupied and without electricity even since then. Once they arrive, all of their eyes are drawn to a large, leafy tree that’s been the source of rumors and speculation for centuries. Also located on the property are the ruins of an ancient cathedral, which supposedly harbors a dark spirit that wills couples to hang themselves from the branches of the tree. Naturally, the wiseass kids scoff at the legend and don’t hesitate to tour the ruins. Soon enough, though, their revelry is disturbed by mysterious noises and visions. They also find books left behind by the vicar that reference the tree and hangings, but go back hundreds of years. The difference between “Hollow” and most other found-footage movies is that it doesn’t limit activity to the interiors of homes or airplanes. The beautiful scenery provides a temporary respite from the tension that begins to build immediately after dusk. It’s the feeling of abject helplessness on the part of the characters when it’s their turn to die that will give you the willies. The DVD adds a short interview with director Michael Axelgaard.
Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin made his American debut in 1988, with the low-budget genre flick, “Prison.” He has since enjoyed huge box-office success (“Die Hard 2,” “Cliffhanger,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street IV”), while also enduring the pain of having his name attached to some of the most notorious flops of our time (“Cutthroat Island,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Driven,” “Exorcist: The Beginning”). He’s spent the last couple of years directing some of cable-television’s best series, but a reputation for demanding costly additions to already-expensive productions haunts him. If “Prison” was produced strictly to milk money from the horror crowd, it nonetheless was greeted with solid reviews from the critics who take genre pictures seriously. In it, the vengeful spirit of an executed convict haunts the recently reopened prison in which he was put to death. Clearly, the convict’s ghost doesn’t want any company. Harlin benefited from being able to stage the picture in the former Wyoming State Prison, a facility that looks as if it might have been built during the Crusades. Except for Lane Smith, the cast was comprised mostly of actors whose faces and names – Viggo Mortensen, “Tiny” Lister, Chelsea Field, Tom Everett — would become familiar much later. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray, which looks very good, adds Harlin’s commentary and a decent making-of featurette.
I watched almost the entirety of “The Nest” without realizing that it originally was released in 1988 by one of Roger Corman’s offshoot companies. To my eyes, it looked very much like one of those made-for-Syfy flicks that employ half-assed special effects and homicidal creatures born of flawed scientific experiments. One of Corman’s companies also supplies these movies for the cable and DVD market. All one needs to know about “The Nest” is that the flawed experiment here involves cockroaches and the hybrids have now infested an entire island. If the few remaining residents, who haven’t been skinned alive by the meat-eating cockroaches, aren’t able to stop them they could spread to the mainland. Knowing its background, I’m far more disposed to approve of “The Nest,” whose nasty special-effects and disembowelments were done without the aid of CGI technology. The cockroaches speak for themselves. In Blu-ray, though some of the effects look sillier and more fake than they would in VHS. The set adds commentary by director Terence H. Winkless.
Also from Shock! Factory comes a double-feature of TV-inspired horror from the late 1980s. It was at about this time in cinema history when anyone able to afford a camcorder could realize his or her dream of making a movie or music video and having it seen by bleary-eyed viewers over emerging cable, cable-access, large-dish satellite and VHS platforms. The editing process wasn’t nearly as affordable as it would become in the digital era, but neither was it prohibitively expensive. Doors also opened for dabblers in special video and makeup effects. Horror and sci-fi fanatics benefitted the most from the convergence of production and delivery systems. No longer was cost an impediment to creativity. If any film epitomized what was happening in the video underground, it was David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome.” It was so unique for its time, 1983, that only a few mainstream critics bothered to look beyond the horror to see the prophesy at its core. Although “Videodrome” underperformed at the theatrical box office, it would become a cult hit in video. It’s even been deemed worthy of a Criterion Collection makeover.
Released in 1986, writer/director Ted Nicolaou extended Cronenberg’s monster-in-the-box premise into the realm of dark comedy with “TerrorVision.” Among the stars of the sci-fi parody was Mary Woronov, who also played a prominent role in Paul Bartel’s campy “Eating Raoul,” which it resembles. In “TerrorVision,” a C-band satellite disc installed in the backyard of a wealthy couple conjures images from cable stations near and far. Between the porn and genre flicks, the dish also captures transmissions from a distant planet inhabited by lizard-like beings. A representative of the alien culture interrupts the broadcast to inform viewers that the dish’s signals are having an adverse effect on communications there and a sinister force has transmigrated itself to Earth. The monster is an insatiable killing machine, with a taste for swingers. It’s as nutso as these things get. The second half of the double-feature is taken up by Robert Scott’s “The Video Dead,” in which a television delivered to a rural household provides a gateway through which killer zombies enter the world. The ghouls look and act the same as every zombie in the post-Romero era, but differ in their ability to move swiftly when motivated, survive severe mutilation, wield chain saws and, when their appetites are sated, socialize with their prey. “VideoDead” isn’t nearly as campy as “TerrorVision,” but gore freaks should enjoy it. The Shout! Factory releases are better than most straight-to-DVD movies released in their wake. Both movies contain interesting bonus material. – Gary Dretzka
Naked City: 20 Star-Filled Episodes
American Experience: Henry Ford
Nova: Ultimate Mars Challenge
Nova ScienceNow: What Will the Future Be Like?
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: Fionna & Cake 4
Compilations of classic television series can present problems for collectors. For one thing, it’s difficult to know ahead of time the condition of the individual episodes, especially those recorded via Kinescope. In VHS, very little attention was paid to scratches, breaks, chronology and artifacts. This often applies to the first DVD iterations, as well, and the many releases arranged by season and “best-of” series. If fans are patient and fortunate, however, a distributor will go to the trouble of digitally polishing the episodes, making them look as close to brand new as possible. In the case of the unforgettable police-procedural “Naked City” – “There are 8 million stories in the naked city and this has been one of them” – “20 Star-Filled Episodes” represents a fourth- or fifth-generation release. The good news is that the show looks swell and the stories remain as entertaining as they’ve been all along. Much of the credit for this belongs to writers, actors and directors who lived and worked in New York in the so-called Golden Age and split their time between the theater, television and motion pictures. The stories reflected the city’s grit and its immigrant and artist community, although African-Americans were typically underrepresented. When the production of most network series moved to Los Angeles for good, it signaled the beginning of the dumbing-down of police and P.I. shows. It wasn’t until such adaptations of Joseph Wambaugh books as “Police Story” and “The Blue Knight” began airing in the mid-1970s that the door was opened for “Hill Street Blues” and other intelligent series. Among the classic New York-based series, “Naked City” was noteworthy for its emphasis on the extenuating circumstances of crime, especially mental illness and conflicting impressions of the same evidence. Several of the entries included in “20 Star-Filled Episodes” have appeared in previous collections, but quite a few of them are fresh. The emphasis here is on the young actors who soon would begin to make their mark in the movies. They include Dustin Hoffman, Robert Morse, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen, Peter Fonda, Jean Stapleton, Ed Asner, Suzanne Pleshette, Jon Voight, James Caan, Doris Roberts and Diane Ladd. Dustin Hoffman, for example, made his debut in the 1961 episode, “Sweet Prince of Delancey Street,” alongside emerging Broadway stalwart Robert Morse. Then, less than an hour later, there’s the pairing of Martin Sheen and Peter Fonda in their second and first TV appearances.
That Henry Ford was an industrialist of Shakespearian proportions – a man who changed the way Americans would live and work in the 20th Century and beyond — is an inarguable fact. Like many of the great men introduced to us by the Bard, Ford also was a megalomaniac. A man of great contradictions, he bullied and belittled his heir, Edsel, but happily took credit for his successes; showed great generosity to his workers one minute and sicced thugs on them the next; believed he could create a better world for the masses, but bought a weekly newspaper to circulate anti-Semitic tracts; was a great innovator, but nearly lost his business for refusing to adapt to change. Ford infuriated his wealthy peers by raising the salaries of his workers, cheating them on stock dividends, and using the assembly line to maintain low prices for his automobiles. In other times and different countries, he might have been handed a crown to wear and throne upon which to sit. If elected to office in America, Ford would have been hard-pressed to compromise on anything that clashed with his personal beliefs. Democracy wasn’t his strong suit. All of the man’s pluses and minuses are weighed in the fascinating PBS bio-doc, “American Experience: Henry Ford.” It’s left to viewers as to whether the man’s genius outweighed his flaws.
Depending upon how one feels about the significance of possibly finding alternate life forms on a faraway planets, the successful landing of the roving scientific laboratory, Curiosity, could prove to be the most significant first step taken in the last 50 years or a huge disappoint. Imagine, for example, how unhappy all of us would be if Curiosity found evidence of ancient societies, but, instead of caves and pyramids, the inhabitants emerged fully blown from long-abandoned shopping malls and buried their dead in landfills. We’ve always assumed that any aliens that revealed themselves to us would be smarter and more evolved than we are. What if the people of Mars were no more intelligent than characters who inhabit the cartoon shows on Fox every Sunday night and, in fact, were too lazy to construct spacecraft of their own? Such a discovery might require us to spend the rest of eternity avoiding further contact with them. So far, however, the Curiosity’s mission continues to hold our interest, even providing the occasional hint of the presence of ice, once-flowing water and potentially interesting gases and minerals PBS’ “Nova” series has been chronicling the mission since its launch and asking the same question of scientists that we would. The result is “Ultimate Mars Challenge.”
In the latest installment of the “Nova” spinoff series, “ScienceNow: What Will the Future Be Like?,” David Pogue continues his exploration of technologies still in their infancy that someday might be as common as iPhones and Androids. Among the subjects are the development of a robotic exoskeleton that gives humans the strength of supervillains in such movies as “Ironman” and “Spider-Man.” He also shows how someday our cellphones might be able to read our minds and detect warning signs of illness much earlier than is possible today.
When did cartoons get so far out? A steady diet of Looney Tunes and “Rocky & His Friends” made it possible for me to accept a universe in which animals and humans could converse and co-exist, if primarily in an adversarial way. With every new DVD compilation of cartoon shows on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network that I receive in the mail these ways, I’m inclined to wonder what’s really going on inside the heads of their creators. Learning how popular the shows are on niche services also tells me that kids today not only are obsessed with fart jokes, but they also are able to accept concepts that teens and adults might automatically filter from their consciousness. The widely disputed theory that the children of hippies might inherit LSD-altered chromosomes from their parents might not be so far-fetched, after all. “Adventure Time” is one of several series I’ve watched lately that have convinced me such a thing might be possible. For one thing, I find it highly unlikely that kids under the age of 7 or 8 are able to get their tiny heads around the concept of a “post-apocalyptic” anything, let alone a dystopic land of Ooo, or one in which a size-shifting human boy with a funny hat, Finn, and a magic and mischievous dog, Cake,” encounter all manner of creatures, living and dead. Apparently, creator Pendleton Ward is an art-school graduate heavily influenced by the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. In my day, detractors would warn of hidden communist propaganda embedded in cartoons, but, knowing what we do now about the red menace, it’s inconceivable that a Marxist could invent the stuff that’s kept American kids laughing for the last 30 years or so. The new “Adventure Time: Fionna & Cake 4” compilation features 16 episodes from all four seasons of the show, which, by the way, is one of the most popular and most honored on Cartoon Network. Fans already know that these DVD packages shouldn’t be mistaken for full-season compilations. Sadly, consecutively available episodes are being dealt out on a PPV basis. – Gary Dretzka
Mick Vs. Keith: The Strange Case of Jagger and Richards
The Rolling Stones may have actively celebrated the 50th anniversary of their founding last year, but Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ friendship extends even further back than 1962. They were schoolmates while growing up in Dartford, Kent, and found each other again, years later, on a railway platform. The records that Jagger was carrying — Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters – demonstrated a kinship that transcended all other possible mutual interests. American blues and rock ’n’ roll would be the bond that soon would unite Jagger and Richards with Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watt. Once the Stones began performing their own songs, the Jagger/Richards brand would become as recognizable as that of Lennon/McCartney. Stop me, if you’ve heard this tune already. No matter how many times it’s been, there will always be another book, record, website or DVD devoted to the band’s music, biographies, iterations and influence. Logging in at 224 minutes, the two-disc “Mick Vs. Keith: The Strange Case of Jagger and Richards” may provide more ephemera about the band than anyone, except the most loyal fans, could absorb in one or two sittings. Still, it takes almost that long to make a “strange case” for or against any two people who have been together for more than a half-century. – Gary Dretzka