MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup

Gravity: Blu-ray
For those few who haven’t already seen “Gravity” in a theater – 3D, large-format or traditional – the primary thing to know about the DVD/Blu-ray experience is that, unless your screen is larger than the door of your garage, it won’t be nearly as immersive. Can’t be. You’d also have to invest in the whole Blu-ray 3D/HDTV package. 3DTwo, the extremely generous bonus features, alone, are worth the price of a purchase or rental. That’s why, one way or another, Alfonso Cuaron’s 91-minute masterpiece ought to be seen under optimal conditions Oscars are handed out. That said, however, the Blu-ray visual presentation is as good as it gets right now and even the sounds of silence are deeply profound. Ultimately, though, it’s the generous bonus package that sells the Blu-ray, and it can be appreciated as much by repeat viewers and first-timers. Because “Gravity” contains several crucial surprises, there’s no way to go into any depth on the storyline without ruining the fun for potential viewers. Suffice it to say that a pair of astronauts, extremely well played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are working outside the shuttle when they’re suddenly forced to go into survival mode. After the Russians use a missile to destroy a spy satellite – presumably – the debris flies through space like shrapnel from a hand grenade. When the shards cross the orbital path of the shuttle, they not only destroy the spacecraft, but they also sever Stone and Kowalski’s lifelines to Houston. They’re afforded one thin chance for survival, but we’re given no reason to think they can pull it off. The passengers on James Cameron’s “Titanic” had a better chance of making it to New York than Stone or Kowalski have making it back to Earth. And, yet, there it is directly below them, with nothing in between to spoil their view of it. Large, luminous and inviting, the safety of home appears to be within arm’s length of the crippled shuttle.

As viewers have learned from a half-century of space exploration, passing through the planet’s atmospheric shield isn’t as easy as it looks from Earth or space. Hit it at the wrong angle and you’re toast. The astronauts in “Apollo 13” may have faced the same problem, but the ending was foretold decades earlier. Somehow, Ron Howard keep us on the edge of our seats, anyway. “Gravity” is the reason “spoiler alerts” were invented. Knowing too much about the story going into theater defeats the purpose of buying a ticket. On the other hand, there are all sorts of unwritten rules in Hollywood that suggest stars of the stature of Bullock and Clooney survive most such disasters and the excitement comes in watching them navigate the escape routes. They don’t look much like any astronauts we’re ever seen, but, then, neither did most of the actors in “The Right Stuff.” It will be interesting to see if, in 10-20 years, people hold “Gravity” in the same esteem as “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” whether or not it wins an Oscar. If nothing else, I think “Gravity” deserves a second or third viewing, if only to more clearly identify and contemplate Cuaron’s metaphorical through-line, which, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” involves physical and spiritual re-birth. The Blu-ray’s 107-minute making-of featurette, “Mission Control,” is absolutely fascinating, especially because the option of making the movie in space and zero-gravity wasn’t available to Cuaron. How did he make it look as if he had convinced NASA to build an orbiting soundstage? Among the other bonus features are breakdowns of five different scenes (37 minutes). To appreciate co-writer/son Jonas Cuaron’s land-based short, “Aningaaq,” one needs to have seen the entire movie, as it amplifies on a seemingly incidental sequence in space. In the informative documentary short, “Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space,” Ed Harris describes how the film’s centerpiece disaster isn’t as unrealistic as some might think, given the number of “retired” satellites in Earth’s orbit. (Harris, who was in “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13,” provides the disembodied voice of Mission Control, in “Gravity.”) – Gary Dretzka

Thor: The Dark World: Blu-ray 2D/3D
At a time when marketing costs for potential blockbusters are hovering around the $100 million mark, it’s become impossible to parse the difference between a hit and a near miss, based solely on box-office grosses. In 2011, “Thor” brought in a nifty total of $449.3 million, worldwide, with production costs of some $150 million. Two years later, “Thor: The Dark World” – for my money, a more entertaining picture – did almost the same amount of business, if one counts the inevitable rise in ticket prices that comes with building fancy new theaters in previously underserved markets. Whether any of the film’s investors or exhibitors made a dime is always open to conjecture and lawsuits. Based on the sequel’s explosive opening — $147 million over the first two weeks domestically – I’d say that Disney’s marketing team deserved to find some kind of bonus in their Christmas stockings. Actually, I thought “The Dark World” would get a better bounce than it did from the astounding success of “The Avengers,” in which Thor and his power-hungry brother, Loki, play prominent roles. That one collected total revenues of $1.5 billion worldwide, with American audiences contributing roughly $638 million. One is left to wonder why so many viewers skipped “The Dark World,” even though it picks up roughly where “Avengers” left off and early reviews were positive. The mind boggles …

My problem with the original “Thor” was that it felt overly Earth-bound and unnecessarily expository. The special effects were terrific, of course, but too much room was reserved for history lessons. In “The Dark World,” the balance is restored. With Loki in the hoosegow for crimes committed in Midgard (the Earthly realm) in “Avengers,” calm has been restored to the Nine Realms. In his time on Earth, Thor not only found his hammer but also became familiar with the concept of humility, which pleases Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo). Back in Midgard, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is possessed by a sinister energy weapon, just as the Dark Elf, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), decides that Asgard is ripe for picking. Determined to save Jane from harm and keep the lights burning in the heavens, Thor enlists Sif, the Warriors Three and Heimdall. Against his better judgment, he even solicits help from the imprisoned trickster, Loki.  Meanwhile, on Earth, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is running around London in his skivvies, hoping to draw attention to the potential for disaster when the once-in-a-millennia alignment of the Nine Realms (a.k.a., the Convergence) occurs. Fans of the series will be happy to learn that most of the action in the sequel takes place on the fantasy battlegrounds of outer space, instead of Midgard.  Malekith, who’d previously had collaborated with Thor’s half-brother, unleashes other dark elves on Asgard without knowing exactly what Loki had up his sleeve.

Alan Taylor, who replaced Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, made his bones helming such TV series as “Games of Thrones,” “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos.” If he ever felt uncomfortable working in the realm of comic-book heroes, it doesn’t show. Some of the credit for that probably belongs to writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who specialize in them.  Moreover, the Thor legend is voluminous enough to borrow material from one story and integrate it into something new. An “Avengers” sequel is on the boards – apparently without Loki — and a third installment of the Thor franchise already has been announced. I’d certainly consider giving Thor’s scheming half-brother more time the triquel. As for the Blu-ray, there’s certainly nothing wrong with the hi-def AV presentation. The Blu-ray extras add “Marvel One Shot: All Hail the King,” with Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery returning in a  short film from “Iron Man 3” co-writer Drew Pearce; commentary with Taylor, Hiddleston, cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige; the 32-minute “Brother’s Journey: Thor & Loki,” which puts a tight focus of the Asgardian brothers; deleted and extended scenes; “Scoring Thor: The Dark World,” in which composer Brian Tyler briefly discusses the sequel’s score and creation of new musical themes for Thor, Odin, Loki, the Dark Elves and the Nine Realms; a peek at “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which launches on April 4; and a gag reel. Not all of them will be available in the VOD editions. “The Dark World” also arrives in a 3D version, which better minds than mine evaluate elsewhere on the web. – Gary Dretzka

You Will Be My Son
If there is any more fruitless way to kill two hours of precious than in the company of a pompous old fool, as he berates his son for not being enough like him, it’s allowing the jerk to get under your skin, as well. In “You Will Be My Son,” co-writer/director Gillles Legrand has created just such an odious character. Even worse, Paul de Marseul is unmistakably French and a renowned vintner who can’t go two minutes without bragging about his wine or minimizing someone else’s efforts. Afraid that the egomaniacal character’s toxic personality might limit their career options, few actors would agree to play such a monster. In the capable hands of Niels Arestrup (“A Prophet”), however, the old prick demands that we hate him every bit as much as he despises the presence of his son, Martin (Lorànt Deutsch), in his life. For most of the movie, we don’t even know why De Marseul feels that way about his sole heir. If Freud has a word for such a condition, I couldn’t find it on Google. Despite his father’s behavior. Martin very much wants to follow in his footsteps and those of his grandfather, before him. He pays attention to Daddy Dearest at home and studied the oenophilac arts at college, but, even so, De Marseul won’t cut him an inch of slack. By the time we meet him, Martin is completely intimidated by his father and appears to blame himself for being the runt of the De Marseul litter. The only one who dares stand up to De Marseul is Martin’s spunky wife.

For many years, the agricultural side of the business has been managed by Francois (François Amelot), whose nose and taste buds are impeccable. Francois is dying of cancer, though, and, therein, lies the rub. De Marseul is so committed to handing down the estate to someone other than Martin that he schemes to bring Francois’ son (Nicolas Bridet) back from Napa to comfort his father and talk him into becoming his partner. It takes a while for Martin and Francois to figure out why De Marseul is so interested keeping the young man from returning to California. By the time they do, however, the vintner has been so seduced by the promise of money and fame that he turns his back on his own parents.  There’s only a couple of directions “You Will Be My Son” can go without viewers wanting to kill both men and put a curse on both of their hearts. None of this would work if the actors weren’t so damned convincing, which they are, and we weren’t so anxious to watch Martin find justice, which he may or may not achieve. The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the lovely French scenery, which includes rolling hills, deep-green meadows and many acres of vines loaded with grapes. Be sure to watch the bonus features, which include interviews with Deutsch and Legrand and the rare selection of deleted scenes that amplify what we’ve already seen. – Gary Dretzka

Come Back, Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin: Volume II: Blu-ray
There likely will come a time in the not-so-distant future when the enforcement of apartheid in South Africa will seem as distant a memory as legally enforced segregation in the American South. Indeed, considering the recent rise in Republican-sanctioned actions designed to keep African-Americans from voting in some states, South Africans could teach us a thing or two about tolerance and the encouragement of diversity. When “Come Back, Africa” was shown at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, American-style segregation was finally being challenged by activists, students, the clergy and celebrities. Politicians joined Klansmen in being late to the party. In South Africa, the 11-year-old policy of Apartheid had already become entrenched, with no reforms in sight. To their great shame, American politicians remained just as silent about Apartheid as they did about lynching and Jim Crow laws in the South. Perhaps, they didn’t want to be accused of being hypocrites. The Carter administration imposed some sanctions that his successor, Ronald Reagan, ignored and refused to strengthen. Congress had to override his veto to get any such measures passed. He cited South Africa’s anti-communist stance in an unstable Africa as a key reason for not demanding more affirmative action. Despite winning a major prize at Venice and finding a receptive audience throughout Europe, director Lionel Rogosin was required to open the Bleecker Street Cinema, in New York, for “Come Back, Africa” to be shown here. It  debuted one week before the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black protestors were killed.

As was the case with Rogosin’s first film, “On the Bowery,” “Come Back, Africa” is a neo-realist documentary, directly influenced by the work of Robert Flaherty and Vittorio De Sica. The amateur cast follow a screenplay, but it represented the facts on the ground as the South African writers saw them. The guerrilla production would have been forbidden by government authorities, if Rogosin hadn’t lied to them about his intent. Because censors believed the movie would be about music and the happiness it brings to the people, he was allowed to shoot more or less freely. The time spend in pre-production brought him in contact with black and white actors, musicians and activists, including several from the banned ANC. It give him a feel for the pace and rhythms of everyday life in Johannesburg, as well as the clandestine meetings and fears of reprisal. The amateur actors participated in the belief that people around the world weren’t being told the truth about Apartheid. (Television wasn’t allowed in South Africa until 1976. Programming was dominated by American shows, because the Brits and Aussies refused to supply the country with entertainment.) The film’s point of view is provided by a poor Zulu farmer forced to move to the big city to find work in the gold mines. It isn’t a job Zacharia Mgabi is particularly suited to perform, but, then, neither are the alternatives. Mining is brutal work and the wages, of course, are lousy. When Zacharia is hired for other work, we’re introduced to the indignities attendant to working in close proximity to Afrikaners. Through him, we also are allowed to eavesdrop on debates among black political activists. At one, we meet a young Mariam Makeba, whose participation in the movie would make her persona non grata in South Africa for decades to come.

Rogosin stops well short of turning “Come Back, Africa” into a polemic or diatribe. Except for one extremely nasty housewife, the whites are accorded some dignity, as well. Neither are we led to believe that Zacharia is a saint or any more of a victim than any other black man in such a hostile environment. Much of the movie is set in Sophiatown, a black district within Johannesburg that in the 1940-50s was a center for politics, arts, entertainment and intellectuals. At the same time as Rogosin was shooting the picture, Sophiatown was being torn down for no good reason on the orders of the government, with the residents re-located to dumpy new accommodations away from the city. The new Milestone Blu-ray reflects the significant restoration work invested in the movie for its 2012 theatrical release. It’s the second installment in the company’s Rogosin retrospective and also includes several fresh interviews with actors and others who still recall the shoot; vintage interviews with the director; the documentary, “Have You Seen the Drum Recently?,” about the influential magazine, Drum; “An American in Sophiatown,” by son Michael Rogosin; and the remarkable musical documentary “Dark Root,” in which Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Wende Smith and Larry Johnson are joined by Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick and attorney Florynce Kennedy, in sharing reflections on oppression and struggle in America. – Gary Dretzka

Mother of George: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that one encounters an independent film as brilliantly shot as “Mother of George,” a film that continually contrasts the gritty urban environment of working-class Brooklyn, with the vibrantly colored attire favored by Nigerian immigrants. The African textiles, worn for ritual celebrations and at work, remind us of the culture gap that separates immigrants from the conformity that informs most American lives. Last year, director of photography Bradford Young took home the top cinematography prize at Sundance for his work in “Mother of George” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” “Mother of George” looks especially dynamic on Blu-ray because all of the steps along the way were digitally rendered. Especially impressive is Young’s ability to capture the shades of brown and black in the faces of the African-American and native African actors, outdoors and indoors. This is no small trick when lighting conditions aren’t optimum.

Director Andrew Dosumnu’s intense drama describes the ordeal faced by Nigerian immigrants Adenike (Danai Gurira) and Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), when, after a joyous traditional wedding, hope turns to despair for everyone involved. No sooner have the vows been exchanged than the family begins to exert pressure on Adenike to bear children. One pushy grandmother insists that her not-yet-conceived grandchild – a boy, of course — will bear the name, George. It isn’t until 18 months later that it becomes obvious that something is wrong and, because males hold the high ground in old-country marriages, it must be his wife’s fault. Ayodele’s mother comes up with an idea that will sound odious to most Americans, but isn’t particularly unusual in non-western cultures (see, the recently reviewed “Wadjda”). Once that door is opened, however, the heart-wrenching story becomes one of trust, conscience and honor. Sadly, “Mother of George” never played on more than seven screens simultaneously here. I assume that distributors, even those of arthouse pictures, considered it to be too African to play to African-American audiences, yet too difficult to market to buffs outside New York, Los Angeles and a few college towns. It shouldn’t be missed in Blu-ray, where there the bonus material includes commentary with Dosunmu, editor Oriana Soddu and costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu; the making-of featurette, “A Human Story,” with Gurira and screenwriter/producer Darci Picoult; and several deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Twice Born
If the carnage that engulfed Sarajevo didn’t make any sense to you 20 years ago, it won’t seem any more logical after watching “Twice Born.” Adapted from a novel by Margaret Mazzantini, Sergio Castellitto’s epic melodrama wrings as many tears as it possibly can from parallel love stories that span pre-war Yugoslavia and present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina. Penelope Cruz is very good as an Italian professor whose bad sense of timing puts her in the Bosnian capital on the eve of war. At the time, Sarajevo was a city noted for tolerance and diversity. It was full of writers, musicians and artists who believed they couldn’t be touched by the conflagration already raging between Serbia and Croatia. They’d convinced themselves that art somehow would triumph over nationalism and the ancient religious differences that separated Yugoslavia’s Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims. Boy, were they mistaken. Before the shelling began, Cruz’ Gemma broke the heart of a Bosnian poet, Gojko (Adnan Haskovic) by falling in love with his friend, an exuberant American photographer, Diego (Emile Hirsch). By the time it was determined that Gemma couldn’t bear children, the war was at its most fierce and Diego had conceived of a plan that would keep a part of him, at least, alive within her.

In time, Gemma would return to Rome with an infant and Diego would become a psychological victim of the hatred that enveloped Sarajevo. Flash forward nearly 20 years and Gemma is lured back to Sarajevo with her son, on the pretext of a retrospective of Diego’s photographs from the period. In her mind, the possibility that she could be reunited with the long-believed-dead Diego is tantalizing. It’s less enticing for the teenager, who, despite his genetic ties to Diego, has no recollection of the period and isn’t thrilled to be missing summer vacation with his friends in Sardinia. Naturally, the story ends differently for both of them.  I might have enjoyed “Twice Born” more if it were 15-20 minutes shorter and Castellitto hadn’t interpreted Diego and Gojko as if they were characters in a Hemingway novel. In one post-coital scene, Diego even is posed to resemble Che Guevara on his death cot. To his credit, though, there’s nothing about the siege that is romanticized and there are few, if any heroes. It’s an emotionally draining love story, set against one of the most insane backdrops possible. If that sort of thing turns you on – or if you’re a fan of the novel — “Twice Born” will be worth the effort of finding it. The DVD includes several press-kit interviews with the stars and director. – Gary Dretzka

Lost in Thailand: Blu-ray
When I learned that the extremely broad road comedy “Lost in Thailand” is the highest-grossing film in Chinese history, I tried to envision billions of communists rolling in the aisles of thousands of multiplexes from Shanghai to the Mongolian border. Failing that, however, I was left pondering what made director/co-star Xu Zheng’s debut at the helm so popular. “Lost in Thailand” is quite different from other movies made in Mainland China and even Hong Kong, which is more tolerant of crime, action and romantic content. Technically, it’s as polished as any western import and actors Zheng, Huang Bo and Wang Baoqiang (with an assist from superstar Fan Bingbing) are known quantities in China. A loosely connected sequel to “Lost on Journey,” it also bears comparison to such old-school favorites as Martin & Lewis, Hope & Crosby and, if you will, DeNIro & Grodin in “Midnight Run.” With wealth comes tourism and Thailand has become a popular destination with newly affluent Chinese tourists, who must have missed the dreadful, “Hangover: Part II.” So, the climate was ripe for a blockbuster.

In “Lost in Thailand,” the scientist Xu Lang (Zheng) is working for a Chinese energy conglomerate hoping to secure a patent for a revolutionary fuel additive, but needs the boss to sign off on it. Inconveniently, the boss is chilling at a remote Buddhist temple in Thailand, whose name and location escape Lang. He’s followed to Thailand by a rival within the same company who’s put a tracer in his phone. The fun begins when a wildly flamboyant passenger latches onto the scientist and refuses to let go until they reach the temple or fulfill his wish list, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, the business rival is treated to the same kinds of punishment usually reserved for Wile E. Coyote in the “Roadrunner” cartoons. As the three men stumble their way through the Thai countryside, we’re introduced to many locations, ceremonies and activities with which we’re unfamiliar. “Lost in Thailand” isn’t a comedy that will drive all American viewers to fits of laughter, but there’s nothing in it that parents couldn’t watch with their pre-teen and early-teen kids – except, perhaps, the “lady-boy” gags — and share a few unexpected chuckles. The scenery looks pretty swell in Blu-ray, as well. It includes a silly making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Ice Soldiers: Blu-ray
If you dug the 1951 sci-fi/horror thriller, “The Thing From Another Planet,” and its 1982 sequel, “The Thing,” there’s a very good chance you’ll get a kick out of “Ice Soldiers.” The Canadian import borrows from all sorts of other sources to tell a story of (very) Cold War intrigue, reheated for modern audiences. Born in Iceland and raised in British Columbia, director Sturla Gunnarsson knows a thing or two about life in the Great White North. “Ice Soldiers” opens at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when all American eyes were directed 90 miles south of Key West. Apparently, Nikita Khrushchev decided that this would be the perfect time to test his theory that three genetically engineered Russians could destroy New York ahead of all-out war with the U.S. If they look like pin-up boys for Hitler’s Aryan wet dreams, the soldiers are good communists, unaware that communism is no longer cool in a U.S.S.R. that no longer exists.

Instead of putting them on a jetliner or submarine and dropping them off at Idlewild Airport or the coast of New Jersey, Khrushchev decided they should take the scenic route over the North Pole through Canada. Their crappy little prop plane crashed on the tundra, burying them in any icy grave, not unlike the one inhabited by Captain America and Gamera. When a research mission locates the plane and one shows a sign of life, a group of naïve scientists decides to bring the fighting freaks back to the station to poke and probe. Once thawed, of course, they wreak havoc. Th0eir stroll south to Toronto is interrupted by a ferocious cold snap, leaving them frozen, once again. Flash forward 50 years and another team of scientists – this one from an oil conglomerate – history repeats itself. This time, however, the Dolph Lundgren clones have the advantage of snowmobiles and ATVs to speed them towards 21st Century New York. They’re also able to get their juices flowing at a sub-Arctic strip club. Only two men stand between them and victory: a super-soldier played by Dominic Purcell and Saulteaux Indian Adam Beach, who plays a trapper. Though preposterous, the action is pretty satisfying. – Gary Dretzka

The 300 Spartans: Blu-ray
With only a week left to wait for the arrival of “300: Rise of an Empire” – Zach Snyder’s sequel to the surprise blockbuster “300” – it might be fun for fans to revisit the live-action sword-and-sandal epic that inspired comic artist Frank Miller to create the graphic novel from which “300” was adapted. He saw “The 300 Spartans” as a boy and was impressed by its depiction of what it means to be a hero. Unlike many historical epics upgraded years later through the use of modern technology, Rudolph Maté’s 1962 original holds up very well. The historical background remains credible, as do the fighting scenes. While it’s still difficult to believe that Leonidas’ force was able to hold off the far larger Persian army for as long as it did, both movies capably describe how it might have been accomplished. (Snyder and Miller admit to toying with many known facts about the Battle of Thermopylae, so as to amplify the excitement of their film.) “The 300 Spartans” benefits, as well, from being shot in Greece, a country that can’t be accurately replicated in Monument Valley, Durango or British Columbia. Fifty years later, the dialogue may sound a bit rusty, but not egregiously so. Among the still recognizable cast members are Richard Egan, as Leonidas; Ralph Richardson, as Themistocles of Athens; Diane Baker, as Ellas; and David Farrar, as Xerxes. Much off the rest of the cast is comprised of Greek actors. The Blu-ray upgrade retains much of the CinemaScope flavor and texture, while adding vintage marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

Bad Dreams/Visiting Hours: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Psychophony: An Experiment in Evil
The brutal murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Foster notwithstanding, Charles Manson represented something of a godsend for filmmakers. Jim Jones and the massacre at Jonestown gave genre specialists an opportunity to add ritual murder/suicides to their list of topics for exploitation. By the time the slasher subgenre came of age in the early 1980s, the messianic hippie and post-hippie sociopath had already become a familiar villain. Movies and made-for-cable documentaries continue to be made about Jones’ and Manson’s crimes, even four-plus decades later. Released in 1988, “Bad Dreams” combines elements of both atrocities in the service of a story that adds an evil shrink, tortuous hallucinations and garden-variety gore. First-time co-writer/director Andrew Fleming opens his picture in a crumbling house that might have been conceived of by the same people who designed Anthony Perkins’ home in “Psycho.” A charismatic cult leader (Richard Lynch) is pouring gasoline on the heads of his followers ahead of a mass suicide. Only one girl, Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin) survives the inferno and she’s left in a 13-year-long coma.  When she awakens, Cynthia is put in the care of a psychiatrist (Harris Yulin) who treats his patients with psycho-tropic drugs that return them to scene of their worst trauma. Not surprisingly, then, the hospital has an unusually high rate of suicides. If Cynthia is to avoid the same fate, she’ll need the help of the observant Dr. Alex Karman (Bruce Abbott). “Bad Dreams” benefits from an enthusiastic cast of veteran supporting actors and others on their way to roles in better movies and TV series: Rubin (“Screamers”), Abbott (“Re-Animator”), Dean Cameron (“Spencer,” “Fast Times”), Susan Ruttan (“LA Law”), voice actor Elizabeth Daily (“Duckman”) and nutty Charles Fleischer (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”). What Fox and producer Gale Anne Hurd (“The Terminator”) were able to save on salaries and sets seemingly went into a soundtrack that includes psycho-delic music by the Chambers Brothers (“Time Has Come Today”), Electric Prunes (“Too Much to Dream Last Night”), Guns N’ Roses (“Sweet Child o’ Mine”) and something called Mamby Pamby & the Smooth Putters (“My Way”). The Blu-ray adds Fleming’s commentary, fresh interviews, making-of featurettes and an interesting alternate ending.

Seven years before appearing in the Canuxploitation “Visiting Hours,” Lee Grant had accepted the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her smashing performance as Warren Beatty’s MILF lover in “Shampoo.” You’ll have to listen to writer Brian Taggart’s interview in the bonus package to learn how such a classy lady ended up in a slasher film, but, in short, Grant liked the idea of playing the staunch feminist TV commentator, who defends her positions by not letting her foes get a word in edgewise. Ever since she was un-blacklisted in the early 1960s, Grant’s career has been something of a roller-coaster ride, bouncing between prestige pictures and made-for-TV movies. So, maybe she needed the bread. Here, the four-time Oscar nominee plays journalist Deborah Ballin, whose crusade against domestic violence enrages a twisted, switchblade-toting creep. Michael Ironside delivers a frightening performance as psycho-bully Colt Hawker, who, when he isn’t stalking women, drives a Zamboni at the local hockey rink. Even though Ballin survives the attack, she’s confined to swank suite in the hospital. The rest of the movie resembles a game of cat-and-mouse, in which Hawker is required to use costumes to get past security cops and locate his prey among the many closed brown doors in the hospital. While there’s no question he’s a big and dangerous fellow, Hawker isn’t impervious to pain… thank goodness. “Visiting Hours” is distinguished by an imaginative script by horror/sci-fi special Taggart and the no-frills direction of Jean-Claude Lord. Even stranger than Grant playing the victim in a genre flick is William Shatner’s appearance as her boss. His toupee has more charisma than anything Shatner is required to display in “Visiting Hours.” Apart from that, the movie is as good a slasher flick as any in the early 1980s. It even made the list of “video nasties” assembled by Britain’s Broadcasting Standards Council. Taggart and co-star Lenore Zann recall how the movie was condemned by then-prominent critics as being misogynistic. Back then, critics kicked that adjective around like a hacky-sack, especially in the context of exploitation films. In this case, anyway, they were wrong. The DVD also adds interviews with Zann and producer Pierre David.

From Spain, one of the leading exporters of horror, “Psychophony: An Experiment in Evil” is a found-footage flick that focuses on Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP).  The footage was recovered from unauthorized psychological experiments conducted by Dr. Helen Jara (Merce Montala), who hoped to prove that hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics could be traced to paranormal phenomenon. To do so, Jara gathered a small group of patients and boarded them in the vicinity of a terrible crime years earlier. Although Jara wouldn’t live to see her findings published, investigators recover videotapes and recordings containing EVPs not listed in the research documents. To re-enact the events leading to her death, investigators turned to original subjects of the tests, as well as re-creations of séances and other hocus-pocus. Xavier Berraondo’s film won’t come as a revelation to genre fans or re-spark much interest in the found-footage sector. It is, however, well-made and non-generic. If Berraondo’s name is familiar, it’s probably because his name was listed among the collaborators on “Beyond Re-Animator” (2003), which was filmed in Barcelona. – Gary Dretzka

The Wait
Among the things that mainstream audiences find most off-putting about arthouse films is a tendency to tell a story in a way so personal that the only people who can fairly interpret it are the director and his analyst. Viewers are encouraged to buy tickets to see it, but, really, the filmmakers don’t care if it makes any sense to anyone outside a small circle of friends and one or two critics. This isn’t to say there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the picture, just that very few people are likely to have the patience to decipher the hieroglyphics. You either get it or you don’t. Either way, the filmmaker already is on course for his or her next project. Or, so it seems. M. Blash’s thoroughly enigmatic “The Wait” sets his family drama against the backdrop of a forest fire within eyeshot of a posh Oregon hideaway for the nouveau riche. The blaze is as tangible as the characters are remote. As the movie opens, two sisters have begun the mourning process for their newly deceased mother. Out of the blue, Emma (Chloë Sevigny) receives a call from someone purporting to be a psychic, advising her to hold off on burying the deceased woman, which she does. She convinces Angela (Jena Malone) to go along with the summons from beyond, leaving grannie on the floor of her bedroom wrapped in a sheet, all the while denying that she’s kicked the bucket.

It isn’t nearly that easy to explain to Emma’s children why keeping such a thing secret is worth the cost of lying about it to close friends and other people in town. That’s only the start of the weirdness, however. Soon enough, Emma begins doing such crazy things as asking her pre-teen daughter to watch a tape of her – the mother’s — birth; her sexually ambiguous teenage son discovers a horrifying video on the Internet and can’t wait to share it repeatedly with other people; and Angela gets her freak on with a guy who may not be able to handle it. Meanwhile, the forest continues to burn and Forest Service planes continue to drop orange retardant on it. Blash seems to know a lot more about composing interesting shots than writing dialogue that invites viewers to buy into his story. Fans of Sevigny and Malone, who appeared together previously in Blash’s “Lying,” probably already know not to expect anything resembling conventional behavior from the characters they play, so I have no qualms about recommending a rental of “The Wait” to them. Others, though, might consider it to be a massive waste time. – Gary Dretzka

Down and Dangerous
If it’s true that “Down and Dangerous” was financed by the nearly $40,000 raised in a Kickstarter campaign, writer/director Zak Forsman and producer Kevin Shaw deserve kudos for making a movie that looks several times better than that meager amount usually allows. If “Down and Dangerous” had been made in 1980s, the synth score, muted cinematography and pistol-packing druggies might have struck a chord among the readers of “Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade.” In it, journalist Robert Sabbag told the story of Zachary Swan, a guy who made a lot money smuggling blow from Colombia to New York, before the cartels figured out that they could make a greater fortune handling all aspects of the business. Forsman admits to being Swan’s son and that he based “Down and Dangerous” on things he learned from him. The rights to his father’s story have been  locked up for a long time, so the good stuff was unavailable to him. It explains, as well, why the movie’s “Miami Vice” vibe fails to resonate in a thriller involving a Mexican cartel and smuggling schemes that haven’t worked in 30 years.

John T. Mora (“Misdirected”) stars as the smuggler with a heart of gold and a penchant for getting other people to do the hard lifting for him. When John Boxer finds himself caught in a squeeze play between the DEA, LAPD and a Mexican drug kingpin who’s sleeping with his former girlfriend, Olivia (Paulie Rojas, with a neck a swan would envy), he can’t decide who to betray first. Boxer’s ethical decision not to carry a gun is severely tested when people around him become the target of a mysterious gunman. It’s at this point in the story that Boxer is summoned by the kingpin and ordered to come up with a plan to smuggle a suitcase full of cocaine out of Mexico. If I were guessing, I’d say that this was the precise point that the Kickstarter money began to run out. Almost nothing that follows makes sense, logically or otherwise, and it’s impossible to tell which of the cops are dirty or clean. The dialogue turns almost comically clichéd and no amount of Giorgio Moroder-inspired score can disguise the holes in the plot. It’s perfectly fitting that former Brat Packer Judd Nelson be allotted a pair of cameos, not unlike Willy Nelson’s turns in Michael Mann’s “Thief.” The primary audience for “Down and Dangerous,” I suggest, ought to be young filmmakers hoping to use Kickstarter to launch their career. If they can’t match Forsman’s accomplishment, another $20,000 or so in contributions probably won’t get them over the creative hump, either. “D&D” currently is playing the VOD circuit. – Gary Dretzka

Lesson Before Love
The differences between rom/dram/coms made for and marketed to Yuppies and Buppies have begun to narrow to the point where they’re only separated by budgets and clichés. Both subgenres feature characters who are college educated, attractive, fashionable, on the brink of financial success and frustrated in the pursuit of meaningful relationships. African-American characters tend to be better dressed and one of them, at least, is an athlete, musician or both. These movies deliver the kinds of messages about faith, persistence and pride that fly over the heads of Yuppie audiences more interested in T&A. They’re surprisingly chaste, even if the actors dress as if they’re going dancing after work. In “Lesson Before Love,” the hottest female character doesn’t consent to lose her virginity until well after half of the movie has passed. There isn’t a Madea, gangsta’ or preacher in sight, as is the norm for films targeted at other “urban” demographics. It isn’t unusual for those movies to make money, just like the occasional “About Last Night” and “The Best Man Holiday,” with high-profile casts. Emerging directors hoping to climb the ladder after the launch of their first direct-to-video movies are at a distinct disadvantage, in that there are significantly fewer screens available to them and there’s no way to afford marquee talent. Here, Eric, Alexis, Cullen and Janae are on-line chat buddies, whose lives begin to intertwine romantically, socially and professionally. They’re frustrated by the lack of forward momentum in their lives, but confident they possess the right stuff. That’s about it. The DVD arrives with commentary by director Dui Jarrod and producer/DP Tyler Dixon and a “Meet Dui Jarrod” featurette. – Gary Dretzka

TV-on-DVD
FX: Legit: The Complete First Season
LA Law: Season One
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Mama’s Family: Complete Third Season
It isn’t often that a comic offends an audience member to the point where that person will climb on stage and plant a punch on his mug. It happened to “Legit” star Jim Jefferies during a gig in Manchester, England. Apparently, the guy was reacting to a jab Jefferies had aimed at a heckler, not in his own party. He stalked out of the showroom, paced the bar for a while, punched a wall or two, and then took off for the stage. You simply can’t buy publicity like that, especially if the club owner had the foresight to capture the incident for a YouTube audience. Something similar happened to the equally offensive Andrew “Dice” Clay, when a member of the “SNL” cast and guest Sinead O’Connor refused to participate in the show, if the Diceman was allowed to host. Today, Jefferies doesn’t mind ruffling the feathers of religious people, modern women, the handicapped and other folks with whom he disagrees. In fact, like Clay before him, he’s been given a sitcom, “Legit,” of his own. Unlike Clay, who last year played a blue-collar husband in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” Jefferies remains in character when he’s acting in “Legit.” Jefferies plays a struggling professional comedian who moves from Australia to Los Angeles, where he stays busy auditioning for roles in TV shows, commercials and movies. His best friends are goofball brothers, Steve and Billy Nugent, the latter being restricted to a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy. Mom and Pop Nugent (Mindy Sterling, John Ratzenberger) are plenty goofy themselves and figure into the plots of most episodes. Jim is nearly as uncouth off stage as he is in performance. Like Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” whenever Jim opens his heart and attempts to do the right thing, he only manages to screw things up worse. “Legit” is legitimately funny, but definitely not to everyone’s taste. In the first episode, when Jim arrives in L.A., Billy (D.J. Qualls) is seemingly on death’s doorstep in a rehabilitation hospital. When Billy mentions that his bucket list is topped by a desire to get laid, Jim and Steve whisk him off to a legal brothel in Nevada. Billy may have appeared to need constant supervision and care, but, left to his own devices, he charms the ladies and is reborn as a proud, physically challenged stud. Jim and Steve, of course, have none of their wishes answered. It goes on like that throughout Season One. Billy’s fellow patients at therapy sessions are allowed great personal dignity and traits not unlike those accorded characters in any other sitcom. (No other show has regularly hired as many disabled actors as “Legit.”) And, while it isn’t unusual for a blustery protagonist to be knocked down a few pegs by other sitcom characters, “Legit” has more than the usual number of characters who are given an opportunity to do so. The DVD extras include deleted scenes, the pilot and background material.

Throughout the history of television, one of the constants in the battle between good and evil has been the presence of lawyers capable of exonerating the innocent and convicting the rightly guilty, all within the framework of an hour-long drama, commercials included. Little screen time is wasted poring through law books or pleading for continuances. Neither is much time allocated for discerning shades of gray. For most of the last 60 years, Perry Mason has topped the list of great TV lawyers while Hamilton Burger has been relegated to the bottom rung. (In a MSN Entertainment poll, Mason’s arch-rival is mentioned in the same breath with Algonquin J. Calhoun, of “Amos ‘n Andy.”) Truth be told, though, Burger was only as good as the cases presented him by his boss and the police. Jack McCoy, of “Law & Order,” would be laughed out of court if he was required to prosecute the same cases as Burger. By 1986, when “LA Law” debuted, few viewers bought into the idea that TV lawyers could be any more infallible than the ones we knew existed in real life. Juries, who’ve grown up watching law shows, have been conditioned to look for things, other than the facts, to determine the fates of defendants. Besides trying cases, the lawyers on “LA Law” had complicated personal lives, worried as much about bonuses as the outcomes of their cases and occasionally accepted clients who were clearly guilty of terrible crimes. Moreover, trials weren’t necessarily decided over the course of a single episode. Funny one week, “LA Law” could lead viewers to despair the next. Just as “Hill Street Blues” forever changed cop shows, Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher’s creation altered the way Americans looked at lawyers. Shout Factory’s long-awaited first-season collection has finally arrived on these shores and shouldn’t disappoint fans and newcomers, alike. It includes new Interviews with Bochco, Corbin Bernsen, Jill Eikenberry, Jimmy Smits, Michael Tucker, Larry Drake, Harry Hamlin and Susan Ruttan.

As the fifth season of Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” comes to a close, it’s time for the third-season compilation to appear on DVD/Blu-ray. This pace is far too slow for rabid fans, who’ve seen other series roll out within weeks of their season finale. Perhaps, the inclusion of commentaries and a Season Three featurette will make them feel better. The series follows the adventures of Finn, a human boy, and his best friend and adoptive brother, Jake, a dog with magical powers to change shape and grow and shrink at will. Series creator Pendleton Ward describes Finn as a “fiery little kid with strong morals,” while Jake is based on Bill Murray’s character Tripper Harrison, from “Meatballs.” Finn and Jake live in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo, which is recovering from the explosion of a “mushroom bomb” a millennium early. Other prominent characters include Princess Bubblegum, the Ice King, Marceline the Vampire Queen. The new collection contains “What Was Missing,” which caused a furor over the appearance of lesbianism in the gender-swapped realm of “Adventure Time.”

For those fans of “Mama’s Family” who couldn’t afford or find the “Complete Series” package released last fall, it’s nice to know that individual seasons are now being made available from Time-Life. Season Three marks the leaps from NBC to syndication and introduction of several old and new characters, including grandson Bubba and neighbor Iola. Betty White also makes a guest appearance in “Best Medicine.” Other guest stars include Dorothy Van (Aunt Effie), Earl Boen (Reverend Meechum), Anne Haney (Alberta Meechum), Yeardley Smith, Lewis Arquette, Brent Spiner, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Kathleen Freeman. Among the extras are the “Family History,” episode from “The Carol Burnett Show,” featuring Maggie Smith; “Mama’s Family Tree: The Sprouts”; “Mama Knows Best: A Mama’s Family Cast Reunion”; and interview with Allan Kayser. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Nature: Meet the Coywolf
PBS: Nova: At the Edge of Space
PBS: Nova: Asteroid: Doomsday or Payday
As if the nation’s backyard pets don’t have enough to worry them, along comes a hybrid of wolf and coyote that combines the natural predatory tendencies of both animals with the unique survival skills with which they were born. Coywolves, a.k.a., eastern coyotes, hunt in packs, like wolves, but, like coyotes, are unafraid of foraging solo in cities and towns. On rare occasions, they’ve also been known to attack humans. “Meet the Coywolf” takes a more sober, scientific approach to the phenomenon than Syfy channel might have in introducing the hybrid species. Instead of creating a new super-monster, “Nature” describes how the coywolf came into being, roughly 90 years ago, and how we can expect it to evolve. “Meet the Coywolf” takes us to the vast forests of Ontario, where the hybrid appears to be prospering, while also tracking a few of the bolder critters to the suburban fringes. The show reminded me of the “Nature” presentation, “Raccoon Nation,” which describes how the animal’s habitat has spread from South and Central American to Everywhere U.S.A., easily adapting to every new environment along the way. Indeed, in some urban areas, they easily qualify as nuisances. It is possible, of course, that coywolves will discover what hunters throughout the South already know and make the furry scavengers a part of their steady diet. That’s when the real fun begins.

The “Nova” presentation “At the Edge of Space” reminds us of how little we know about the layer of space that separates Earth’s atmosphere and the void, where the shuttles and satellites play. For most of the last 60 years, the superpowers have been so anxious to stake their claims to the heavens that the exploration of space between Earth’s cloud cover and the Karman line – approximately 60 miles above sea level – was left to researchers whose work wasn’t likely to be honored with ticker-tape parades and visits to the White House. Like tornado trackers at ground level and hurricane hunters in the air, specially designed planes carry scientists dedicated to the study of the aurora borealis, encroaching meteors, thunder storms and other stratospheric events to where the action is. Among the more interesting discussions here concern the search for photographic evidence of “sprites, elves and jets,” which flash above thick storm clouds as lightning shoots towards Earth. “Transient luminous events” are caused by gaseous discharges in the thin-air layers, sometimes reaching up to 90 kilometers above the clouds. Unlike lightning, the brilliant optical flashes resemble jellyfish, carrots, streamers and halos and have been photographed as being red, white and blue. Most of what we know about sprites has been gathered in only the last 25 years.

The subjects of “Asteroid: Doomsday or Payday” are far more familiar, if only because we can track them and see them when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Before a 65-foot-wide asteroid detonated in the skies over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk last February, most people could only look to Hollywood for depictions of what happens when a space rock threatens the planet. It was brilliantly captured by hand-held cameras, as was the extent of the damage caused. The explosion prior to touchdown was what differentiated fact from fiction in Chelyabinsk. Otherwise, much of what’s been depicted in movies – using nuclear bombs to divert, destroy or capture the asteroids – is a surprisingly viable option. And, while we can follow the larger asteroids through space, it’s the smaller objects that seem to appear out of nowhere that pose the greater immediate threat. The “payday” alluded to in the title represents conjecture on how asteroids could be mined for minerals before they destroy themselves. I’ll defer to Hollywood on that stuff, though. – Gary Dretzka

Transformers Prime: Ultimate Bumblebee
The latest collection of episodes from “Transformers Prime” and “Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters” features Optimus Prime’s stout-hearted, if undersized scout and messenger Bumblebee. From the 2011 season, “Masters & Students” describes what happens when Skyquake is released from his tomb and makes a bee-line for O.P. and Bumblebee, instead of immediately joining Decepticon leader Starscream.  The two-part “Operation Bumblebee” serves both as an action adventure and a primer for a new generation of fans. In it, Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Arcee, Ratchet and Bulkhead marshal their forces against Megatron’s latest scheme to conquer Earth. Viewers also will learn why and how BumbleBee lost his ability to talk like the other robots do. “Deadlock,” from Season Three (2013) of “Transformers Prime Beast Hunters,” our yellow-and-black-striped hero plays it straight, for once, and is given the opportunity to tip the scales in the ultimate battle. “Ultimate Bumblebee” is enhanced by the returning voices of Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, alongside Ernie Hudson (“Ghostbusters”), Jeffrey Combs (“Re-Animator”) and Will Friedle (“Boy Meets World”). – Gary Dretzka

One Response to “The DVD Wrapup”

  1. J. T. says:

    Mr. Dretzka:

    Your review of “The 300 Spartans” was spot-on. Great to see the movie receiving a positive reaction, despite its age. I enjoyed the film as a child and relish it even more today.

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“I am just grateful I am still around. I would love to be Steven Soderbergh, but I am lucky to be Joe Swanberg. Actors want to work with me, people want to give me money, and my nightmare scenario remains: Getting in bed with a studio, spending years on a movie, and it turns out horrible, but now I’m rich.”

Actually, by Hollywood standards, you’re right, I said. That is unambitious.

“It is, and yet, if you can go to bed happy at night, doing what you want, isn’t that ambition for a lifetime?”
~ Swanberg On Swanberg By Borelli

“In retrospect, nothing of that kind surprised me about Philip, because his intuition was luminous from the instant you met him. So was his intelligence. A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you from the moment he grabbed your hand, put a huge arm round your neck and shoved a cheek against yours; or if the mood took him, hugged you to him like a big, pudgy schoolboy, then stood and beamed at you while he took stock of the effect.”
John le Carré on Philip Seymour Hoffman