MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup

The People vs Paul Crump
Back in 1962, when William Friedkin completed his searing indictment of the death penalty, “The People vs. Paul Crump,” few people believed that police routinely used brutality and torture to coerce confessions from possibly innocent men. When the issue was raised in Chicago, anyway, citizens and journalists, alike, chose to believe police spokesmen and the State’s Attorney Office as to the veracity of the claims. To do otherwise would have eroded the citizenry’s faith in the democratic systems, while making all public institutions suspect. In Chicago, where corrupt and power-made politicians have always enjoyed the benefit of a doubt, mainstream voters (a.k.a., white) only began to doubt the invincibility of the mayor and police after the Walker Report declared the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention a “police riot.” Even if they’d witnessed it for itself on television, or knew young people bludgeoned in Lincoln and Grant Park, doubters could be swayed into believing that “outside agitators” were to blame for their city’s black eye. A year after the convention, Chicagoans allowed themselves to accept reports that Illinois Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark Less were killed by police acting in self-defense during an early-morning raid. That claim proved not to be true, as well. It was officially sanctioned murder, pure and simple. It took another 20-plus years for a case to come along that proved inconclusively what community activists, lawyers and victims had been arguing all along. In 1993, police detective Jon Graham Burge would be fired after the Police Department Review Board ruled that he had used torture to force confessions from as many as 200 criminal suspects, between 1972 and 1991. In the past, such charges were ignored by people who argued “they must have been guilty of something.” Here, though, the fallout eventually led to tens of millions of tax dollars in legal fees and settlements; dozens of new trials and reversed decisions; and, finally, concern over the very real possibility that innocent men were sitting on Death Row. By 2003, so many flaws in the system were discovered that outgoing Republican Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 prisoners … just in case. It wasn’t until January, 2011, however, that Burge – now a pensioner, living in Florida – was sentenced to 4½ years in federal prison on two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury. The statute of limitations on the brutality charges had long expired.

In “The People vs. Paul Crump,” future Academy Award-winning director Friedkin (“French Connection”) and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bill Butler (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) made a strong case for the possibility that a man on who already had been sitting on Death Row for the last nine years was convicted based on a confession had come after being beaten and tortured for several days. We learn that Crump unsuccessfully contended that he had been sleeping with a woman not his wife at the same time as a security guard was killed in the armed robbery of a Chicago meatpacking plant. Four men known to have been involved in the crime were given prison sentences, perhaps for implicating Crump in the shooting. Fifteen dates with Old Sparky would come and go by the time Crump’s sentence was commuted to 199 years by Governor Otto Kerner. He would be paroled in 1993 and imprisoned once again in an unrelated case. He died of cancer in 2002. “People vs. Crump” was deemed too controversial to air on Chicago television and has been shown only a handful of times since 1962. It was credited, along with Crump’s autobiographical novel (“Burn, Killer, Burn”) and a Life magazine article, for convincing Kerner that there was at least a reasonable doubt as to his guilt and the confession might have been forcibly obtained. After watching the nicely upgraded DVD from Facets, I think that most viewers would come away with the same conclusion. In his interviews with Friedkin, Crump is most eloquent in his description of what life is like for a doomed prisoner, especially those who have come within minutes of having the switch to the electric charge pulled on them. The robbery, arrests and beatings were dramatized in ways that purists argue aren’t kosher, but no one can dispute the diversity of sources questioned by the Chicago Daily News-columnist John Justin Smith. Based on cinematic values, alone, it isn’t at all difficult to believe that Friedkin and Butler might someday create stylish thrillers and procedurals. It moves with same urgency and purpose of a good crime novel. The film is part of the Reel Chicago series of Chicago-based documentaries restored and released through Facets Video. A booklet expands on the principles’ lives after 1962. – Gary Dretzka

Claire Is Dead
Dan Ast’s first feature combines mystery and melodrama to demonstrate just how wrong things can go when teenagers play with fire before learning that it can burn their fingers and singe their heart. It’s something everyone figures out, at one time or another, usually too late. Being young only makes the lesson that much more painful or confusing, as the case may be. In “Claire Is Dead,” there’s no question that the titular protagonist is dead or, even, how it happened. Indeed, it occurred in the most despicable of all possible ways. Claire, a junior in high school, was killed by a drunk driver minutes before the flower of her womanhood was about to blossom. To make matters worse, the jerk attempts to crash the funeral and continues to drink and drive. But, that’s not what makes “Claire Is Dead” tick. Not long after her death, the school’s Golden Boy begins to sense that Claire’s trying to reach out to them from the grave. Although they had never really met and Jack couldn’t pick her picture out from a yearbook, he noticed that someone named Claire signed his cast after he was seriously injured in a football game. Her name also appears on a get-well card. The more curious Jack becomes about her identity, the more he comes to believe that she was, at the very least, stalking him. These clues lead to others that not only seem to confirm that theory, but also suggest that someone is covering up something that might explain how Claire came to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time. His investigation takes a hard right turn into the existential when Jack’s obsession begins to impact people in his and Claire’s social circle. Writer/director Ast keeps us guessing throughout “Claire Is Dead,” revealing only what we need to know to get sucked deeper into the mystery. Nor has he torn a page from Rian Johnson’s highly entertaining high-school noir, “Brick,” turning Jack into a mini-Sam Spade. The young cast is very good, even if the actors look as if they haven’t stepped into a high school since their 10-year reunion. It stars Aidan Bristow, Cory Driscoll, Avital Ash, Jennifer Baule, Landon Ashworth, Tybee Diskin, Carolina Castro and Corsica Wilson. They should be with us a long while. – Gary Dretzka

Broken Side of Time
24 Exposures
Among the things in porn that haven’t gone south in the last few years – financially, anyway – is fetish-specific modeling. That’s what I’m told, anyway. The more specific the kink, the less likely it is to be available for free and without a password on the many video-sharing sites. Fetish art probably can be traced back to Pompeii, if not Paleolithic cave drawings. The roots of model Jane/Dolce (Lynn Mancinelli), the protagonist in “Broken Side of Time,” need only be traced to Bettie Page, who specialized in soft-core posing and light bondage. Page began her career modeling for amateur photographers, who formed clubs and chipped in to pay the models. She barely profited from her work for professionals, some of whom still make money off of the images she provided. (Bunny Yeager, who first sold her photos to Playboy, passed last week at 85.) The publicity blurb on the DVD box refers to Jane as one of a million women who have modeling portfolios online. The difference is that she’s been able to make a career of it, albeit one without benefits and a pension, for more than a decade. Co-writer/director Gorman Bechard’s conceit here, then, is to turn up the volume on the footsteps Jane is hearing from younger models, some of whom studied her work before committing to the profession. Without slobbering all over the keyboard, I can attest to the fact that Jane doesn’t look old enough to consider retiring from any profession, let alone modeling. It’s the bullshit that comes with the territory — separating the phonies and pervs from the professionals – that’s causing her to feel older and more hopeless than she is. Her concession to growing older is picking up a camera and joining the game from the other side of the lens. On a long-delayed trip home, Jane attempts to shed the bad habits and other crutches used by models – runway and erotic – to get through the day. Like all bad habits, though, they refuse to go easy. Finally, “Broken Side of Time” is more a character study than a story that ends with a resolution. It could also be described as a tonal piece, in which Bechard (“Friends With Benefit”) uses sound, light and color to make us understand what Jane is experiencing. In an interview, he admits to being surprised by how readily his digital camera interpreted his intentions and accentuated his vision. As good a model as Jane/Dolce is, Bechard is every bit as solid a photographer of nudes. I imagine that he spent a good deal of prep time studying the work of Edward Steichen and Imogen Cunningham. The DVD features unedited photo shoots, extended scenes, a blooper reel and a featurette on how they achieved the look and feel on a budget of merely $15,000, raised on Kickstarter.

Joe Swanberg’s “24 Exposures” also focuses on a photographer, but, this time, one with a too cozy relationship with his models, all of whom look as if they’re sorority sisters slumming over summer break from a good school. Billy (Adam Wingard) doesn’t care as much about how the models look alive, as they do dead. That, and their willingness to shed their tops and play along with kinky stuff, whether or not they’re being photographed. The fetish he exploits is the simulation of death scenes, in which the models pose broken, bloody and partially nude. If the critic viewing the photograph is a cop, as two of them are here, it would be difficult for them to tell if it was art or murder. And, I suppose that’s the point. The first thing to know about the hyper-prolific Swanberg is that he’s one of the founding fathers of mumblecore, a movement that rewards naturalism and improvisation. The characters tend to have such an easy rapport with each other that viewers can be excused for confusing acting with living. And, I suppose that, too, is a point being made. Like Lars von Trier and fellow proponents of Dogma 95, Swanberg doesn’t seem wed to mumblecore techniques. They have, however, allowed him to shoot professional-looking films on a super-tight budget, using a repertoire company – Greta Gerwig among them – of actors so accustomed to his style that no time is wasted getting accustomed to it. In “24 Exposures,” a young model appears to have been murdered and left to rot in a pose that looks as if it could have been staged by the photographer or is really a crime scene. It’s only when the film crew breaks up laughing that we realize Swanberg has played his first trick on us, but it was close. We aren’t given much reason to sympathize with Billy, who frequently seems intent on using and abusing models for his own amusement, not just his art. One of the detectives (Michael Bamfeaux) investigating an actual look-alike death, nearby, becomes obsessed with Billy’s setup. He’s being tortured by his estranged wife and develops a nonprofessional curiosity with women who do such work. A couple of other characters are thrown in to the mix, as suspects, but none is as fleshed out as Billy. Where “24 Exposures” works best is as sexploitation … a rough blend of arthouse and grindhouse. It’s too loosey-goosey to qualify as a mystery and the acting is a bit chummy for drama. That said, it can easily stand alongside “Broken Side of Time” as a legitimately erotic time-killer for adults of both genders. The DVD adds commentary and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Run & Jump
Anyone who was pleasantly surprised by “SNL” veteran Will Forte’s performance in “Nebraska” ought to check out the smallish indie drama, “Run & Jump.” He plays Ted Fielding, an American psychologist in Ireland to document on film the complicated recovery of Conor Casey (Edward MacLiam) from a stroke and serious brain trauma. Before the stroke, Conor, Vanetia (Maxine Peake) and their two kids enjoyed a free-wheeling Bohemian lifestyle outside the lovely town of Dingle. When Conor returns home, however, he’s completely self-contained and withdrawn from the outside world. He isn’t completely non-communicative, but nowhere near the same person as before the stroke. Like tens of thousands of other women and men attempting to deal with a spouse’s personality upheaval, Vanetia is finding it difficult to adjust to Conor’s almost complete lack of interest in dancing and other things – excluding woodworking and watching Animal Planet – about which he once cared very much. If Ted weren’t a complete research nerd and his camera as intrusive as it is, we’d expect Venetia to react favorably to having someone in the house with something resembling a sense of humor and normal human emotions. Instead, it simply adds an additional layer of aggravation to her life. That changes when Vanetia discovers a lid of grass among Ted’s belongings and demands he share a joint with her that night. Naturally, it loosens both of them up to the point that most moviegoers would expect the housemates to do something they’ll regret later. Maybe, maybe not. Their newfound closeness does, however, cause Vanetia’s uptight in-laws and temperamental teen son to imagine that Ted might be attempting to insinuate himself into the family as a father figure. When things come to a head in the last reel, we still don’t know where our affections should lie. It would be different if we knew for sure that Conor could someday be capable of making Vanetia happy, again. If there’s a big payoff coming, we can’t see it from here. In her freshman debut as co-writer/director, Steph Green has pulled together a remarkable cast – also including Sharon Horgan, Edward MacLiam, Ciara Gallagher, Brendan Morris – and the result is a movie that deals with an issue only now coming to the fore. The Dingle Peninsula setting may inspire some viewers to purchase tickets to Ireland within minutes of viewing “Run & Jump.” The DVD adds a couple of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

The Color of Lies: Blu-ray
This Blu-ray upgrade of Claude Chabrol’s little-seen 1999 psychodrama, “The Color of Lies,” follows on the heels of Cohen Media Group’s “The Inspector Lavardin Collection,” which brought us four of the master’s made-for-television films from the 1980s. After making the leap from criticism, in the 1950s, the man often cited as the father of France’s of “nouvelle vague” turned to writing, directing and acting in movies, primarily mysteries and thrillers. He continued doing so, right up to his death, at 80, almost four years ago. “The Color of Lies” is set in the kind of small Breton fishing village where everyone knows each other’s business and has an opinion on everything that happens. When something really big happens, the gossip mongers compete to ruin the lives – if inadvertently – of everyone who might be considered a target. That’s certainly the case here, when a 10-year-old girl is raped and murdered on her way home from the ocean-side home of her art teacher. René (Jacques Gamblin) has been laboring to overcome a painter’s block he’s had since he nearly lost a leg to a terrorist bomb in Paris. No sooner do the gossips learn that René is the leading suspect in the girl’s death – even if there’s no other evidence suggesting he might be the killer – than he begins to lose the students he needs to pay bills. His wife, Vivianne, a rural medical practitioner played by Sandrine Bonnaire, assertively rejects the theories of the lead detective, Frederique (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who doesn’t seem to mind that she’s scarred the reputation of a possibly innocent man. Even so, Chabrol has planted the seed of doubt not only in Rene’s neighbors, but also Vivianne and his audience. Tired of dealing with her husband’s despondency, Vivianne falls very easily into an affair with the worldly, self-absorbed Parisian writer who keeps a home nearby and exploits both that doubt and her pain. Conveniently, Chabrol has added a messy subplot involving stolen jewels, pieces of art and the same gossips. When the writer is found dead outside the seawall of his home, it’s even easier for us to buy into the idea that Rene might be guilty of both murders. Chabrol didn’t often do pure “whodunits,” but “The Color of Lies” easily qualifies as one of the better ones in memory. The 1080p transfer adds to the pleasure of looking at the charming Ille-et-Vilaine settings. Commentary is provided by critics Wade Major and Andy Klein. Fans of crime flicks who’ve run out of things to watch in English are encouraged to begin binging on Chabrol. – Gary Dretzka

How to Train Your Dragon: Blu-ray
I find it interesting that the much-anticipated sequel to “How to Train Your Dragon” was shown at the just-completed Cannes Film Festival – who knew, right? — where it received raves from the assembled Academy Award prognosticators. That’s good for two reasons: 1) Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation need hit, and 2) the fans who contributed $500 million to the international box-office, in 2010, deserve another good run for their money. It will be shown at film festivals in L.A., Sydney and Seattle before opening really, really wide in mid-June. In the meantime, DreamWorks has gotten the juices flowing with its Blu-ray re-release of the original. Even if there are only a couple of new features added from previous editions, as well as a more robust 7.1 soundtrack, kids who’ve lately developed a love for dragons should dig it. The hi-def animated short “Frozen” – no relation to Disney’s “Frozen” – is billed as an “exclusive episode” of the TV show “Dragons: Defenders of Berk” and “Book of Dragons,” which adds to what we know about the fire-breathing creatures, and “Ultimate Book of Dragons,” an interactive feature that allows the viewer to investigate the “book” for themselves. The disc retains “Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon,” deleted scenes and commentary. The Blu-ray presentation didn’t require much in the way of visual improvement, so the best reason to pick up the new package is for those few who are desperate to see the sequel, but don’t want to go into it blind. That, and the UltraViolet copy and free ticket to “2.” – Gary Dretzka

Eastern Bandits: Blu-ray
The second Sino-Japanese War has inspired several intriguing movies, told from such diverse perspectives as the martial-arts community (“The Grandmaster”), underground resistance groups (“Lust, Caution”) and a Japanese pacifist (“The Human Condition”) forced to fight. Lu Chuan’s “City Of Life and Death” (2009) and Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War” (2011) depict the horrors of the Nanking Massacre, joining several foreign-made pictures about that atrocity’s German-born hero John Rabe. “Eastern Bandits” (“An Inaccurate Memoir”) addresses the occupation in a way that mixes humor, revenge, action and drama. It’s unusual, but fans of contemporary mainland cinema should have no problem with it. Here, a Chinese soldier seeks to avenge his father’s death by kidnapping the Japanese emperor’s brother, who’s in the country to commemorate the raising of a Buddhist monument at a remote military base. To accomplish this, Gao must prove his courage and loyalty to the resistance to a gang of notorious bandits, known for wearing baby-face masks to bank jobs. He does this by helping the gang’s leader escape from jail and withstanding an extreme torture test. If he passes, Gao will get a crack at the Japanese prince, while the bandits will feast on the spoils. It mostly requires digging a network of tunnels and picking off the Japanese soldiers who fall into them. As unconventional as “Eastern Bandits” is, it rarely lacks for martial-arts action and adventure. Cao Yu’s cinematography nicely captures the wide open spaces of the Chinese frontier. There’s a bit of romance between bandit Lady Dagger and Gao, but it’s pretty tame. – Gary Dretzka

Buttwhistle
Naming a movie “Buttwhistle,” no matter how quirky it may be, is either a curious marketing ploy or a desperate cry for help … or both. Among the many screeners that pass my way every week, it certainly managed to catch my attention, anyway. The title refers to a nickname bestowed upon the male protagonist, Ogden Confer (Trevor Morgan), a Minneapolis community-college student who also answers to the blast of an air horn. There’s no good reason for this to happen, except to establish Ogden as an idiosyncratic character. Filmmakers have been creating such desperately confused young men ever since Benjamin Braddock descended, in full scuba gear, to the bottom of his parents’ swimming pool. Ogden was dealt a rough hand when his best friend, Rose (Analeigh Tipton), died on him. She does visit him occasionally, however, either to prolong his agony or lift his spirits, since she’s become something of a masturbatory fantasy. He’s conversing with Rose when he prevents a young woman, Beth (Elizabeth Rice), from committing suicide by gravity. Beth is neither happy about having her leap interrupted, nor is she pleased that the boy with the funny name won’t accept her offer of sex as a reward. Now, in hindsight, that appears to be an offer any straight male of college age couldn’t refuse. At the time, however, it’s easy to see how somehow sensitive enough to be named Buttwhistle might be intimidated by a cute girl who disrupts his conversation with a ghost by dropping from the sky. As if to punish him for having the temerity to foil her suicide and refuse the gift of her tight, white body, Beth uses her wiles to cause trouble for him around the neighborhood. Actually, almost all of the characters here are tragically hip and gifted with the ability to quip at the drop of a hat. For that reason, alone, writer/director Tenney Fairchild (“The Good Humor Man”) appears to have deliberately targeted his dark rom/com/dram directly at those hipsters and wannabes who prefer podcasts and webisodes over any form of mainstream entertainment. The entertaining parkout sequence that plays behind the opening credits offers more promise than the movie can deliver to anyone else. – Gary Dretzka

Rock & Rule: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
For various reasons, none of them good, this animated rock-’n’-roll fantasy made almost no dent at the box office after it was accorded a hyper-limited release in 1983. The loud and lively take on the Faust legend got caught in an executive shuffle at the producing studio and a crunch in the numbers that might have gone to a targeted marketing campaign. It arrived at a time when Don Bluth (“The Secret of NIMH”) and Ralph Bakshi (“Fritz the Cat”) were still active, after all, and the stoner demographic was still expanding. Instead, “Rock & Rule” was pulled from circulation before it could find traction, even in college towns. It enjoyed a semblance of cult popularity when it found its way to late nights on HBO and Showtime. For some reason, the Blu-ray “25th Anniversary Edition” is being re-released in time for its 31st birthday. Presumably, its reappearance will remind people of the unlikely participation in the project of the late Lou Reed, who’s in fine vocal form. The story is set in a post-apocalypse Nuke York, where punk-rocker Angel (Deborah Harry, singing voice), is kidnapped by an aging heavy-metal legend, Mok (Reed), obsessed with summoning a demon from another dimension. In addition to Harry and Reed, the film also features entries from Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick and Earth, Wind & Fire. As far as the rocku-fantasies usually go, the musical contributions are surprisingly appealing. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director Clive Smith; an alternate version, representing the original Canadian release, with Gregory Salata’s voice, instead of Paul Le Mat; a 25-minute making-of featurette and interviews with the singers; “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” the 22-minute animated short that inspired the feature-length film; a making-of featurette with, “The Devil and Daniel Mouse”; a work-print title sequence;    and work-print “Drats” ending sequence. – Gary Dretzka

American Made Movie
PBS: Craft in America: Industry: Season 5
One of the things that documentaries do is reinforce things we already believe to be true. If, for instance, we already sense that far too many manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas — to the benefit of far too few average Americans – then, the makers of “American Made Movie” have fulfilled at least part of their mission. Even Republicans would find it difficult to argue against that premise, not that they’ve offered any solutions to the problem. To make their case, the filmmakers don’t need to pull out a bunch of Commerce Department charts and numbers that, out of context, would be meaningless. Instead, we’re taken out to the old ball game to see for ourselves just how much baseball owes to products made overseas, sometimes by workers paid slave wages. If it weren’t for the bats, everything in the park would have arrived by boat in a cargo container. The point being made is that, at its peak, manufacturing employed over 19 million American workers. Between 1979 and 2009, 7 million jobs in the sector were lost, matching its lowest numbers since before World War II. Those lost jobs cost the economy far more than just the wages paid those workers, though. Recycled currency is what makes a nation’s economy grow and that’s no longer happening. “American Made Movie” attempts to tell a more positive story than that, however. It goes to places around the country where companies, including suppliers of baseball bats, are fighting the good fight to keep jobs and revenues in the U.S. If the uplifting reports don’t quite compensate for the scenes of Rust Belt decay, at least the movie leaves us with a morsel of optimism. At 82 minutes, it’s a tad long for general consumption, but civic organizations probably find it worth the effort.

In Season 5 of the PBS series “Craft in America,” the producers demonstrate how American craftsmen and small manufacturers have learned to play nice with technology, instead of fearing it. It hasn’t been an easy marriage, but we all need help sometime. The examples include dorry-making in Massachusetts, quilt-stitching in Alabama and weaving in North Carolina. – Gary Dretzka

House in the Alley
Death Spa: Blu-ray
Sleepaway Camp: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dan Curtis’ Dracula: Blu-ray
Some very good films have emerged from Vietnam since the end of the war and stabilization of the economy. Typically, though, their natural home was the arthouse. “House in the Alley” is the first I’ve seen that fits easily within the parameters of the contemporary horror genre. Like similar movies we’ve seen from Thailand, South Korea and Japan, writer/director Le-Van Kiet’s picture is essentially a ghost story. It has nothing to do with the war of liberation and everything to do with how the spirit world informs the national psyche. In it, a young couple has moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where the husband, Thanh, has been assigned an important job at his mother’s firm. Sadly, his wife Thao suffers an extremely painful and messy miscarriage, essentially turning her into a basket case. Rarely has post-partum depression been portrayed with such raw emotion. It takes a few weeks before Thanh’s job performance draws the attention of his shrewish mother, who, contrary to everything Ho Chi Minh espoused, has an insane preoccupation with money. Thanh, on the other hand, is too busy keeping Thao from burning down the house and the ghosts from breaking every bone in his body to worry about the family business. There’s a very good reason why all hell is breaking loose in their home in the alley and genre audiences should be able to figure it out long before the tortured couple picks up on it. Even as a novelty, though, “House in the Alley” should keep horror fans interested for most of its 93-minute length.

Few of the many vintage horror titles being shipped out on Blu-ray these days represent the decade in which they were made quite so well as “Death Spa,” a guilty pleasure if there ever was one. Made in 1989, Michael Fischa’s gore-fest was informed by “Flashdance,” “Perfect,” Jane Fonda’s exercise videos, programmable workout machines, the Memphis design movement, legwarmers and Polyester. Like other memorable genre sensations, “Death Spa” exploited shower scenes and computer Nazis playing God. Here, the health club is possessed by the evil spirit of the owner’s dead wife, or so it seems. Every machine appears to have a mind of its own and the steam-room scenes not only ensure nudity, but the promise of death by locked door. It’s so goofy, it’s fun. Special features include commentary, an extensive making-of featurette and interviews with surviving actors.

I wondered two things about the “Sleepaway Camp: Collector’s Edition” release: 1) why anyone would collect any edition of the 1983 splatter flick, and 2) why the actors look as if they had recently graduated from middle school. Although it’s considered to be a classic in some corners, only the surprise ending seems to differentiate the plot from a dozen others. The answer to the second question can be attributed to Robert Hiltzik’s very sound decision to only cast actors that are the same age as the characters. I’m so used to watching actors approaching 30 play teenagers that it took me completely by surprise. Too much information here wouldn’t be helpful to viewers new to the franchise. Suffice it to say that “Sleepaway Camp” grows on you and, yes, the ending is still capable of shocking viewers. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K scan of the original camera negative and features that include new commentary with actors Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten; new commentary with Hiltzik, moderated by webmaster Jeff Hayes; the original commentary with Hiltzik and Rose; new interviews with Hiltzik, Rose, Tiersten, Paul DeAngelo, Karen Fields, Desiree Gould, Frank Saladino and make-up FX artist Ed French; “Judy,” a short film by Jeff Hayes, starring Fields; “Princess,” a music video by Jonathan Tiersten; and a Camp Arawak Scrapbook.

Among the many things the world probably can do without this week is yet another Blu-ray revival of a movie based on the “Dracula” legend. I say that as someone who last week praised the Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski remake of “Nosferatu” and reviewed several other “classic” vampire pictures in the past six months. Although there’s nothing at all wrong with “Dan Curtis’ Dracula” (a.k.a., “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) especially in Blu-ray, I suspect it will get lost in the deluge of titles. (Curtis created television’s horror soap opera, “Dark Shadows.”) The interpretation, which runs pretty true to form plot-wise, benefits most from the presence of Jack Palance, who, in 1973, had yet to have his career revived by doing push-ups on the Oscar-cast with Billy Crystal. The movie is enhanced by being shot in English and Yugoslavian locations, befitting a Hammer Studio production. It was made for theatrical release overseas, but as a made-for-TV presentation in the U.S. Its first airing was pre-empted by a news conference announcing the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, so it was postponed until February, 1974. It holds up better than Agnew ever did. In fact, as TV movies go, “Dracula” is extremely well made and quite effective in scares department. It has been transferred and restored in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative. Other Blu-ray features add an interviews with Palance and Curtis; outtakes and alternative takes; and editorial cuts to comply with TV censors. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Cimarron Strip: Complete Series
PBS: The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy
PBS: Pioneers of Television: Season 4
PBS: Nature: Touching the Wild: Living With Mule Deer
Syfy: Independence Daysaster
The deeper one digs into the history of Westerns on television, the more interesting it is. In its heyday, the “oaters” could do no wrong, even when pitted against each other on the prime-time grid. Of course, when I say “do no wrong,” I’m not implying that Native Americans were slighted on a weekly basis and the feats of characters based on actual people weren’t embellished beyond recognition. They were. The writers and producers of some shows, however, did attempt to level the playing field by casting Indians to play Indians and accurately depicting their culture and tribal identity. Given only 30 minutes or an hour, including commercials, their ability do so was sorely limited. “Cimarron Strip,” “The Virginian” and “Wagon Train” all briefly toyed with the 90-minute format, which roughly boiled down to a solid 75 minutes of entertainment each week. “Cimarron Strip” was canceled after one year, while “Wagon Train” dropped the idea after the 1963-64 season. “The Virginian” lasted nine years at the extended length. Airing on CBS from September, 1967, to March, 1968, “Cimarron Strip,” starred Stuart Whitman as Marshal Jim Crown. It was produced by the creators of “Gunsmoke,” if not blessed by the brilliant supporting cast backing Marshall Matt Dillon. The title located the show in three counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle, which, in 1888, separated Indian Territory from Kansas Territory. It included the last free homestead land in America and served as a battle ground for ranchers and newly arrived farmers. (The mountains and badlands in the background betray the fact that the show was shot near Lone Pine and Bishop, California; Kanab, Utah; and Tucson, Arizona.) Crown probably could have used some help in policing the nearly lawless region, but he worked without the benefit of a sheriff or support from the Army. The series was well made and, each week, featured a raft of guest stars. Even so, diehard bingers might find a marathon viewing session too exhausting to contemplate.

PBS’ “The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy” is for those of us, who, like Rip Van Winkle, woke up after a long nap on January 1, 2014, with no memory of media overload that accompanied ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Since our modern-day Van Winkle probably remembers the 25th anniversary commemoration, as if it were yesterday, almost nothing new will be new to him here. The mystery surrounding the assassination has yet to be solved and JFK’s legacy as a philanderer was well known. He probably would be surprised to learn that Teddy Kennedy never was elected president and John-John was killed in an unfortunate, if possibly avoidable plane crash. At 310-minutes, “The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy” is comprised of two feature-length DVDs — the two-part “American Experience: The Kennedys” and “Oswald’s Ghost” — and a printed set of rare replica memorabilia, with accompanying booklet.

Currently wrapping up its fourth season, PBS’ informative and highly entertaining limited series, “Pioneers of Television,” probably could have been several hours longer and contained dozens more interviews and it would still be a quick trip down Memory Lane. It also would be every bit as nitpick-able. That’s the way it is with a medium that has influenced everything that’s happened in the last 60 years, everywhere. The emphasis this season is entertainment. Two of the episodes focus on comedy, one on race and the other on medical shows. The recollections of more than 200 influential stars complement footage from hit shows, old and new. The episodes: “Standup to Sitcom,” in which top comedians describe how they made the transition from stage to such shows as “Seinfeld,” “Home Improvement,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Roseanne”; “Acting Funny” feels like an extension of “Standup to Sitcom,” in its descriptions of the sitcom stars’ methodology; the self-explanatory “Doctors and Nurses,” featuring such vintage stars as Richard Chamberlain (“Dr. Kildare”) and Chad Everett (“Medical Center”), and actors in the breakthrough entertainments “St. Elsewhere” and “ER”; and “Breaking Barriers,” about race and the industry’s pitiful record on diversity, with Diahann Carroll (“Julia”), Bill Cosby (“I Spy”), Edward James Olmos (“Miami Vice”), George Takei (“Star Trek”) and Margaret Cho (“All American Girl”).

The “Nature” presentation, “Touching the Wild: Living With Mule Deer,” extends a well-worn theme of animal-centric series on PBS. It involves documenting the interaction between humans and the animals that, in effect, adopt them into their families. Naturalist Joe Hutto, who previously chronicled his life among wild turkeys, took his act to the mountains near his home in Wyoming, where the mule deer and antelope play. Hutto points to genetic studies that suggest that mule deer may have developed relatively recently through the interbreeding of white-tailed and black-tailed deer and, therefore, might be less skittish around humans. By loitering in areas that deer are known to frequent, Hutto wore down their resistance to newcomers. The seven-year study included spending time with the herd every day, for over two years. Frankly, I found Hutto’s mannerisms and techniques to be border-line creepy, in ways that differed from his approach in “My Life as a Turkey.” Still, there’s no denying how such ambition benefits us all.

As notoriously cheesy as most made-for-Syfy movies tend to be, their ability to survive the slings and arrows of outraged criticism is admirable. Fans continue to overlook the bargain-basement effects, anemic storylines and nearly amateur-level acting, if only for their value as freakish curiosities.  I doubt that younger teenagers aren’t nearly as picky as older kids and genre buffs. How’s this for a cheap shot?: “Independence Daysaster” was shot in 15 days … and looks like it. The cover image apes marketing material for “Independence Day,” without actually taking place anywhere near the White House. All of the elements of a Syfy sci-fi thriller – as opposed to the Syfy creature feature — are evident here. The opening credits have barely stopped rolling before things start falling from the sky and explode as they hit the ground. The aliens’ warships resemble Battlebots crossed with the drill bits employed by Roto Rooter repairmen. While adults are at a loss to explain the phenomenon, geeky teens and conspiracy theorists come to mankind’s defense, using computers found in bedrooms and barns. The Apocalypse is averted at the 88-minute mark of the movie’s 90-minute length. Here, the president’s helicopter is blasted out of the sky, while on his way to a hometown picnic, and his son is on some kind of rural expedition. Both miraculously manage to find each and other survive the attacks. You can guess the rest. Syfy obsessives should love it. – Gary Dretzka

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“Why put it in a box? This is the number one problem I have—by the way it’s a fair question, I’m not saying that—with this kind of festival situation is that there’s always this temptation to classify the movie immediately and if you look at it—and I’ve tried to warn my fellow jurors of this—directors and movie critics are the worst people to judge movies! Directors are always thinking, “I could do that.” Critics are always saying, “This part of the movie is like the 1947 version and this part…” And it’s like, “Fuck! Just watch the movie and try and absorb it and not compare it to some other fucking movie and put it in a box!” So I think the answer’s both and maybe neither, I don’t know. That’s for you to see and criticize me for or not.”
~ James Gray

“I have long defined filmmaking and directing in particular as just a sort of long-term act of letting go,” she said. “It’s honestly just gratifying that people are sort of reapproaching or reassessing the film. I like to just remind everyone that the movie is still the same — it’s the same movie, it’s the movie we always made, and it was the movie we always wanted to make. And maybe it just came several years too early.”
~ Karyn Kusama