MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Million Dollar Arm, Edge of Tomorrow, Million Ways to Die, Sleeping Beauty, To Be Takei, Zappa, Dusk Till Dawn, Hemlock Grove, Houdini … More

Million Dollar Arm: Blu-ray
With the playoffs in full swing and the World Series right around the corner, there’s probably no better time than October to launch a feel-good movie about America’s pastime. Even more than spring training and Opening Day, autumn is the time when the eyes of the world truly are on baseball. Instead, Disney, which has knocked several sports movies out of the park, decided to send out Million Dollar Arm in mid-May against the reptilian juggernaut, Godzilla, and the still potent Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Neighbors. Although Million Dollar Arm didn’t do all that well in competition with the Babe Ruth of movie monsters, it would show its legs in the next few weeks, posting box-office grosses that finally topped the studio’s production costs. Disney poured a lot of money into marketing the movie to family audiences, so it’s conceivable that director Craig Gillespie and writer Tom McCarthy’s very likable picture could benefit from delayed word-of-mouth. In it, the similarly likable Jon Hamm plays real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who staged a contest to determine if India could produce Major League-caliber athletes, like Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Korea and at least a dozen other countries have done. With a potential market in the hundreds of millions of sports fans, India would be great place for the marketing geniuses at MLB to exploit. The commercial aspect of the creation of the first the Million Dollar Arm competition in India isn’t ignored in the movie, but it does play second fiddle to the discovery of two young men — Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) – who would beat the odds by signing sports contracts with U.S. pro teams. They became the first Indian athletes to do so in any sport.

Because of baseball’s unique learning curve, Million Dollar Arm probably could have been set in any country where cricket, soccer or, even, camel racing are king. The only thing known about baseball by the boys who participated in the contest is that it requires a player to throw an orb covered in horsehide toward an opponent with a bat in his hand, pretty much like cricket. In that game, however, the leather-clad ball is of a similar consistency as the one used in baseball, but the pitcher is referred to as a “bowler.” A batsman’s job is to protect the wickets behind him with his flat-bladed bat and/or strike the ball, run between the wickets and score points. From here, most of the rules and fine points of cricket would be incomprehensible to most Americans. India, once part of the British Commonwealth, has consistently produced some of the best players in the game. While the bowling motion isn’t the same as that of a baseball pitcher – there’s a run-up, bounce and follow-through, but no mound – it is close enough to have convinced Bernstein that a 90-miles-per-hour fastball could be achieved by a champion “spinner” with accuracy. (Speeds of more than 160kmph have been registered among the top bowlers.) As is the case in most sports movies, much dramatic license has been taken in Million Dollar Arm.  For one thing, Bernstein’s firm was in no danger of collapsing if the Indian experiment failed. He’s handled some of the biggest names in the business, from athletes to brands. Still, the factual foundation is solid. The movie also benefits from the exotic Indian locations, including a decidedly different physical view of the Taj Mahal; the excellent support of Alan Arkin, Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi and Bill Paxton; and an upbeat ending that also happens to be factual. The Blu-ray introduces us to the actual Rinku, Dinesh and Bernstein, while adding a humorous piece on training the actors to play baseball; a featurette on the east-meets-west soundtrack by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire); deleted scenes; and an alternate ending.

Edge of Tomorrow: Blu-ray
Dwarfed on the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray by the words “Live/Die/Repeat” is the actual title of Doug Liman’s non-stop sci-fi action flick, Edge of Tomorrow. The words appear on the movie poster, as well, but smaller. It’s as if studio executives gave the green light to the marketing and publicity material without paying much attention to what the title suggested: soap-opera melodrama. “Live/Die/Repeat” far more accurately anticipates the Groundhog Day through-line. Several feature films have exploited the time-loop theme since 1993, when Bill Murray was put through the wringer every morning. If one can get beyond that fondly that recalled rom-com, however, Edge of Tomorrow can easily exist as a stand-alone vehicle for entertainment, especially suited for diehard fans of Tom Cruise. In it, he plays Major William Cage, a public-relations specialist who is bushwhacked into taking part of a D-Day-like invasion of Europe, where robotic alien warriors have replicated Adolph Hitler’s advances in World War II. Cage is sent to the staging area, where he’s treated as if he were a traitor, and put in a helicopter landing craft without even knowing how to release the safety on the gun embedded in his body harness. Not surprisingly, he only is able to survive a few minutes before being “killed.” After a few moments, however, he awakens at the same base from which the helicopter took off, suffering the same treatment from officers and soldiers who pummel him with verbal abuse.

With every new awakening, though, he’s able to put his memory of what’s just transpired to better use, eventually winning over some of his fellow soldiers. One of them is a killer queen played with great relish by Emily Blunt, whose Rita Vrataski quickly realizes that she shares a time-loop pattern with Cage and this familiarity can be used to strategize against the alien hordes. Once this happens, Liman ratchets up the action to a fever pitch. With the beachhead finally taken, Cage and Vrataski are able to live, die and repeat their way toward Paris and a final confrontation with the invaders. Because every penny of the $180-million production budget appears on the screen in one form or the other, the meager domestic return of $100.2 million must have sent Warners Bros. executives into crisis mode. It would add another $269 million at the foreign box office, but that, too, was a disappointment when compared to other action pictures. Monday-morning quarterbacks wanted to blame Cruise’s public-relations woes for Edge of Tomorrow’s poor showing, but several other variables were at play, including its outward resemblance to the actor’s 2013 sci-fi adventure Oblivion; audience fatigue for alien-invasion and superhero flicks; the crowded June lineup of potential blockbusters; and unexpected competition for the hearts of young-adult women from The Fault in our Stars. It should do well in WBHE’s excellent Blu-ray presentation, which adds the comprehensive making-of featurettes “Storming the Beach,” “Weapons of the Future,” “Creatures Not of This World” and “On the Edge With Doug Liman,” as well as seven deleted scenes.

A Million Ways to Die in the West: Unrated: Blu-ray
Any resemblance between A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s self-aggrandizing and largely unfunny parody of Hollywood Westerns, and Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ truly hilarious sendup of genre tropes, begins and ends with the first few fart jokes. In fact, MacFarlane’s second feature is little more than two-hour exercise in scatological humor, which would have been fine if it were animated and starred Beavis, Butt-head or any one of a dozen of MacFarlane’s cartoon characters. How he managed to talk Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris and Wes Studi into going along with the gag can be attributed to a desire to put on costumes and get paid to pretend it is Halloween. (Cameos by Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Jamie Foxx, Bill Maher, Ryan Reynolds and Patrick Stewart’s disembodied voice are easier explained.)  Besides performing almost every other behind-the-camera task in the movie, MacFarlane stars as a sheep rancher whose jokey approach to self-defense only makes local cowboys hate him more. After Albert backs out of a gunfight, his fickle girlfriend (Seyfried) leaves him for another man. It isn’t until an outlaw’s disenchanted moll (Theron) rides into town and takes Albert under his wing that he begins to grow a pair of his own. That newfound courage will be sorely tested when the gunslinger (Neeson) arrives to terrorize the frontier outpost.

MacFarlane fills in the narrative blanks with a series of gags that range from funny – Silverman and Ribisi play a wildly mismatched pair of lovers – to downright unappetizing (Harris shitting in his hat). The movie’s greatest obstacle is MacFarlane, himself. He’s so in love with his character and script that he’s unable to step back and remember that Brooks gave his Blazing Saddles co-stars the funniest lines, while limiting his presence to Governor William J. Lepetomane and a Jewish Indian chief. In his blockbuster debut, Ted, MacFarlane left the heavy lifting to Mark Wahlberg, while supplying the voice for the animated teddy bear. He’s a very talented fellow, but can’t act his way out of a 10-gallon hat. Even worse, most of the sight gags are telegraphed in the dialogue that immediately precedes them. Consequently, perhaps, A Million Ways to Die in the West underperformed Ted by more than $450 million in worldwide box-office returns. Teenage boys may be happy to know that the unrated version contains even more fart and diarrhea jokes. On the plus side, the scenic homages paid to John Ford and Howard Hawks by cinematographer Michael Barrett are nothing short of splendid in the Blu-ray presentation. It adds an alternate opening and ending; deleted, extended and alternate scenes; a gag reel; the making-of featurette, “Once Upon a Time, in a Different West”; and commentary with MacFarlane, Theron and co-writers and executive producers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.

Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart: Blu-ray
As is the case with all of the Blu-ray products accorded “Diamond Edition” status by the folks at Walt Disney Home Entertainment, Sleeping Beauty needs no formal introduction or hyperbolic raves for product’s audio/visual properties. Simply put, these animated gems are as good as Blu-ray gets. Disney’s adaptation can be traced back to Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au Bois Dormant,” one of the tales published in his 1697 book “Les Contes de ma mère l’Oie,” (“The Tales of My Mother Goose”). His fairy tales would pre-date by more than a century Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collected stories, which, of course, would provide the inspiration for the bulk of Disney’s library of animated features (conveniently consigned to the public domain). According to the techno-critics who study these things, “Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition” doesn’t advance by much the Blu-ray presentation already provided by the 2008 upgrade. Both are excellent, of course, but collectors should be aware of the absence of 18 bonus features from the two-disc “50th Anniversary Platinum Edition.” Its timing anticipates the studio’s Blu-ray/DVD release of the live-action Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, by a month.  The carry-over bonus material includes commentary with critic Leonard Maltin, supervising animator Andreas Deja and Pixar/Disney big-shot John Lasseter; the featurettes “The Sound of Beauty: Restoring a Classic,” “Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty” and “Eyvind Earle: A Man and His Art.” The new “Diamond” extras add three storyboarded scenes that were deleted from the original; the sing-along, “Beauty-Oke: Once Upon a Dream”; featurettes “DisneyAnimation: Artists in Motion” and “The Art of Evil: Generations of Disney Villains”; and promotional fairytale “Once Upon a Parade,” with Sarah Hyland of ABC/Disney’s “Modern Family.”

The AMPAS members who nominate films in Oscar’s animation categories occasionally throw in a surprise candidate, often from France or Japan. Earlier this year, Ernest & Celestine and Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song, The Wind Rises, made the final cut over several excellent American entries. It leads me to believe that Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu’s Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart might be just quirky enough to attract the attention of voters later this year. Animation lovers here can get an early look at it in a sterling Blu-ray edition from Shout!Factory. It might take them a few minutes to adjust to the decidedly French approach to the CGI characterizations and visuals, but patience will be rewarded in the form of a charming story that integrates pathos, tragedy and romance in a rock-opera format. (Anyone familiar with Gallic rock-’n’-roll already knows how weird it can sound to American ears.) The story opens in Edinburgh, in 1874, on the coldest day in the history of the world, when boy named Jack is born with his heart frozen solid. A quick-thinking midwife saves his life by inserting a cuckoo-clock in his chest as a makeshift pacemaker. It requires Jack to diligently observe three iron-clad rules: he must never touch the hands of the clock; he must master his anger; and he must never fall in love. As cautious as he is, Jack will develop feelings for a be-spectacled street performer, Miss Acacia, whose haunting voice causes him to risk a stoppage of the clock and sudden death. Once again, however, his guardians manage to save him from disaster. Not surprisingly, Jack will tempt fate once again by tracking Miss Acacia from Edinburgh and Paris to her home in Andalusia, where love’s ability to conquer all is sorely challenged. As he did in Hugo, a character based on pioneer French filmmaker Georges Méliès plays a supporting role in Jack’s journey, which is further supported by the heavy-metal soundtrack of Malzieu’s band, Dionysos. Malzieu also wrote the book from which the movie was adapted. The Blu-ray presentation is sharp and colorful. The bonus features include “From Book to Screen,” which documents the adaptation process, with glimpses of the 3D rendering process and concert footage with Dionysos; and character studies with the actors who play them.

Cold in July: Blu-ray
Based simply on the previews included on other MPI Media Group releases, I went into Cold in July anticipating to see one of those revenge pictures in which a family is emotionally and physically tormented by a sadist with a chip on his shoulder. It was clear from the trailers that the no-count son of a hardened ex-con is killed trying to rob the house of a typical American family in a typical America suburb. Not caring to take self-defense into account, the old man decides to avenge the young man’s death in ways designed to scare the crap out of viewers. A cast that includes Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Dan Johnson did suggest that Jim Mickle’s thriller would be about something more entertaining than menace, torture and gun porn, but that’s all we get in the tease. And, in fact, that’s exactly what viewers are given in the first third of Cold in July. It is at this point, however, that something unexpected happens. The movie described in the trailer turns into something far more satisfying. Mickle and his frequent writing partner, Nick Damici (Stake Land, We Are What We Are), turn the tables on their audience by veering completely away from psycho-horror to something more closely resembling the work of the wildly prolific Joe R. Lansdale, from whose novel the movie was adapted. Although his books can usually be found in the library among mysteries and thrillers, the native Texan crosses genres as often as some people cross the street to get the nearest Starbuck’s. Readers have grown accustomed to his ability to quickly shift narrative gears, moving smoothly from action, thrills, drama and humor, while introducing characters with whom we want to spend time. That’s certainly the case in Cold in July, whose tone and rhythm literally do an about-face when its protagonist, Richard Dane (Hall), is forced to choose between doing the right thing and eliminating the threat against his family once and for all.

After Dane shoots the intruder, he goes through all of the emotional changes one would expect of a normally peaceful person forced to use violence to solve a problem. He rejects the praise of the good-ol’-boys who’ve previously treated the frame-store owner as if he were a harmless pansy. Shepard plays Russel, an ex-con who lives by the Old West code of revenge for revenge’s sake. He has no trouble accessing the Danes’ well-guarded home, just to demonstrate how easy it would be to strike them at will, and, after hiding in a crawl space, frightening viewers by sneaking into the bedroom of their toddler son. The movie’s central conceit requires Dane not to take things at face value, including the identity of the man he’s shot. It allows the unlikely alliance that develops between the two men and, not long thereafter, a colorful P.I./pig farmer from Houston, Jim Bob (Johnson), who tools around in a red Cadillac convertible with a longhorn rack mounted on the hood. Did I mention that the book and movie are set in the 1980s? Together, they ride into East Texas’ heart of darkness, where the Dixie Mafia controls the underworld and it’s impossible to distinguish the good and bad guys from the color of their hats. Cold in July should remind some viewers of another terrific Texas noir in which Johnson starred, The Hot Spot. The Blu-ray adds commentaries, deleted scenes, pre-visualization tests and a post-screening Q&A with Mickle and Lansdale.

The List
For many years, the Village Voice routinely published the names of New York’s 10 Worst Landlords, along with detailed reports on the housing atrocities they were committing against largely defenseless tenants. Besides being a popular annual feature, the articles served to alert city officials to the worst offenders and push them toward attacking the problem. They also served to shame those rich bastards still capable of being embarrassment by the public tarring. I wonder if writer/director Klaus Hüttmann was inspired by the Village Voice in the creation of The List. In it, a small-time businessman is soundly defeated when he dares take on an advertising conglomerate, which he had little chance of beating, in court. Hugely disappointed by the injustices perpetrated against him, Christopher Corwin (Anthony Flanagan) turns to the World Wide Web, where, theoretically, everyone can get a fair hearing on a grievance. This wouldn’t be the same thing as having a guilty judgment rendered against a crooked company or corrupt politician, of course, but a whiff of justice is all most people get for their troubles. Corwin decides to create a whistle-blower website, the List, where citizens can add the names and crimes of evil business executives and other public figures to those of his nemesis. Then, participants vote on which of the perpetrators deserve to climb in the rankings or fall. Corwin hoped that the exposure would inspire a change of heart in the bastards … fat chance of that happening. Just as the List is getting noticed outside the parameters of the Internet, someone kidnaps the No. 1 offender and offs him in a live video stream. Being a solid citizen and family man, Corwin is stunned by this distortion of his goals. The killer’s identity isn’t immediately known, of course, so his motives could be strictly extralegal or designed to turn public opinion against the List. And, in fact, it doesn’t take long for Corwin to be considered a prime suspect by police and a fraud by visitors to the website. The frame-up works so well that his name is added to the List, where it inevitably rises to the top position and his assassination is virtually assured. At the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Huttmann’s “Der Schwimmer” was nominated for a Palme d’Or as Best Short Film. It’s taken most of the last 10 years for The List to find enough money to be produced, probably with the assistance of a crowd-funding service. While sufficiently dark and moody to qualify as a paranoid thriller, the movie occasionally feels undernourished and forced to take shortcuts. Still, not a bad idea.

See You Next Tuesday
When a filmmaker doesn’t give his audience someone with whom it can identify, viewers will seek out a character to pity. In his debut feature, See You Next Tuesday, Drew Tobia doesn’t even give us that much comfort. The small collection of Brooklyn misfits to whom we’re introduced is so aggressively abrasive that the only person left to pity is the protagonist’s as-yet-unborn child, who, baring a tragedy, would be required to live amongst these penniless freaks. As portrayed by fellow newcomer Eleanore Pienta, Mona is fully nine months pregnant and almost certainly suffering from bi-polar disorder. For all we know, her problems began while she was still waiting to pop out of her alcoholic mother’s womb. Mona is the kind of person who, while seeming normal, will go off at a moment’s notice and begin verbally abusing everyone within the sound of her voice. Or, she may begin spouting off opinions that sound eloquent in her head, but tend to frighten those few people who care about her. When she almost simultaneously loses her job and tenement apartment, Mona decides to move in with her “artistic” sister, Jordan (Molly Plunk), who’s already mooching off of her lesbian lover, Sylve (Keisha Zollar). Jordan attempts to get their self-absorbed mother to come to her rescue, but May (Dana Eskelson) is too busy courting men on an Internet dating site to be of much help. Indeed, when push comes to shove in this extended family of troubled women, their collective response is, “Suck my dick.” Out of context, none of this sounds very appetizing, but Tobia is able to mine a surprising amount of inky black humor from the scenario before Mona’s water breaks and all we’re left with is the thin hope the baby will be put up for adoption. After watching the movie a second time with the borderline-frivolous commentary turned on, I got the distinct impression that the filmmaker and actors were familiar with people exactly like the ones we meet in See You Next Tuesday and aren’t at all out of place in some parts of New York City.

Documentaries
To Be Takei
Rude Dude
Kehinde Wiley: Economy of Space
Roger & Me: Blu-ray
PBS: Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall & the NAACP
PBS: Frontline: Losing Iraq
PBS: Operation Maneater
I don’t know if anyone’s had an unkind word to say about Japanese/American actor George Takei, but you won’t hear any in To Be Takei. Jennifer M. Kroot’s adoring bio-doc draws a complete portrait of a man who’s never stopped growing or pursuing his passions. Besides playing Hikaru Sulu in the elongated “Star Trek” series, he’s stayed busy teaching children about the internment of his family during World War II and the reaping the rewards of his human-rights activism, by finally being allowed to legally marry his longtime lover, Brad Takei (née, Altman). Kroot didn’t have to put much pressure on her subject to expound on the highlights his own life story or share his disappointments, even if we’re given the impression that he’s done it hundreds, maybe thousands of times in the past. At 77, he retains his broad trademark smile and deep bass voice. What sets To Be Takei apart from other celebrity bio-docs is the access Kroot was allowed in recording the personal time shared by George and Brad. If the actor carries the Energizer Bunny gene, Brad spends most of his time making sure that George doesn’t overextend or overcommit himself at home and on the road. We’re allowed to eavesdrop on their minor bickering, as well as share their expressions of love and devotion. While George plays to the crowds and fans who line up for autographs, Brad counts the cash and hovers in the background as he speaks. Outside the marriage, we meet cast members of the USS Enterprise, including a prickly William Shatner; young Asian/American actors whose careers he influenced; legislators who shared desire to pay reparations to people who lost everything when they were unjustly sent to internment camps; and various friends and relatives. The DVD includes extended interviews and footage.

It’s the rare comic-book artist who can use himself as a model for a new superhero. Most of them more closely resemble Popeye’s straightman, J. Wellington Wimpy, than Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. At an athletic 6-foot-6, Steve “The Dude” Rude already knew how the world looks from a position of strength and power. Ian Fischer’s compelling bio-doc, Rude Dude, chronicles the Wisconsin native’s lifelong passion for comics and storytelling. With a great deal of luck, perseverance and chutzpah working in his favor, Rude quickly put himself on the fast track to fame in the competitive world of comics and superheroes. After reaching a professional pinnacle at Marvel, Rude’s inability/refusal to meet deadlines led him to the self-publishing segment of the marketplace with his longtime pet project, Nexus, which didn’t work out, either. In a chapter of his own story that could have been titled, “Even Superheroes Get the Blues,” Rude ran into a brick wall of clinical depression and melancholy. It was an obstacle that he couldn’t get past until he conquered or, at least, learned to cope with his inner demons. He’s attempting to get over by accepting commissions on comic-book arts and attempting to break into the fine-art game, which is even tougher if your vision isn’t in vogue. Meanwhile, as is always the case in such situations, friends and loved ones are left to wait patiently for a light bulb to go off over the depression sufferer’s head or even take his meds as directed. The film’s post script leaves room for optimism and sometimes that’s all we can hope in cases of bi-polar disease.

Economy of Space introduces us to an artist on the opposite end of the spectrum from Steve Rude. Kehinde Wiley has become a sensation inside and outside the African-American community, employing a technique that, if it weren’t so appealing, might raise the hackles of critics and purists. Working directly off of photographs taken of young men and women he encounters in the streets of Harlem and other cities, Wiley uses them to replicate paintings hanging in the world’s great museums. They stand in stark contrast to the brilliantly colored and intricately patterned backgrounds that have become the artist’s trademark. The immediate impression is that the large-format canvases are backlit and his subjects are synthetically reproduced. We’re disabused of that notion while watching Wiley work his photo-realistic magic on canvases so large that the subjects can be perceived as gods and goddesses. When told of the prices big-name celebrities will pay for the paintings, the subjects could be forgiven for feeling a bit god-like, themselves. In the world of galleries and museums, where blacks and other minorities are rarely represented, this is an uncommonly big deal. While the men in his paintings tend to be reproduced in street garb, the women featured in his current project were fitted by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci for couture gowns befitting the paintings that inspired Wiley and wigs created by one of Manhattan’s foremost stylists.

Even from a distance of a quarter-century, Michael Moore’s freshman documentary Roger & Me holds up pretty well. In fact, in describing the economic devastation that crippled his hometown of Flint, Michigan, after GM began laying off tens of thousands of autoworkers, the film is downright prophetic. Thanks to the shortsightedness of Ronald Reagan and subsequent inhabitants of the White House, hundreds of Rust Belt cities have suffered the same cruel fate and millions of Americans have seen their hope of joining the country’s once-vast middle class crushed. At the time Roger & Me was made, Moore had no training as a documentarian and this allowed him to break almost every rule that traditional filmmakers observed. His approach has been criticized by critics and old-school types who aren’t impressed by tendency to interject so much of himself into the flow of his docs, but the amazing popular and financial success they’ve enjoyed has inspired an entire generation of do-it-yourself documentary makers. The Blu-ray has been given a nice hi-def facelift and fresh commentary by Moore, who points out that almost everything he shot ended up in the film, thus precluding the possibility a sequence of deleted scenes.

Too often, the men and women who shaped America through their deeds and words are recalled on film as museum pieces, best observed through a plate-glass scrim. As the decades pass since their deaths, the dust that gathers on their memories covers the path they took to greatness. Like Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall is hardly an unknown quantity in the history of the struggle for civil rights. Both are known best, however, by headline-making events in the second-half of their personal journeys. It took Idris Elba’s unforgettable portrayal of Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom to flesh out the great man’s story. Judging from the PBS bio-doc, Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall & the NAACP, any dramatization of the longtime Supreme Court justice’s biography could be every bit as compelling. In his tireless campaign to eradicate Jim Crow practices, he logged hundreds of thousands of miles of travel through hostile territory, fighting segregation case by case, building the foundation that would lead to monumental courtroom decisions of the 1950-60s. In doing so, he avoided being shot by a Dallas sheriff, was pursued by the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island, hid in bushes from a violent mob in Detroit, and even survived his own lynching. Before joining the boy’s club in 1967, Marshall won more Supreme Court cases than any lawyer in American history. The DVD adds conversations with Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and John Paul Stevens.

In PBS’ Losing Iraq, “Frontline” producers explain what went wrong in the early stages of America’s occupation of Iraq and how those mistakes inevitably created the on-going quagmire playing out today with Isis. Much of the territory here already has been covered in theatrical documentaries, but this one puts the bow on the box. PBS’ Operation Maneater describes how naturalists are using modern technology to maintain a balance between sharks, polar bears and crocodiles and the humans with whom they’re required to share traditional habitats. The easy answer is, of course, to eliminate the predators before they strike. The sensible answer, we learn, is create a balance – as well as an early-warning system – to restore the balance between man and nature.

Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video
Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Freak Mothers: Frank Zappa 1969-1973
Contrary to popular perception, music videos didn’t begin with the launch of MTV on August 1, 1981, and they didn’t stop being made when the network decided to focus on revenue-producing reality-based shows. Short performance films had been a staple of the record-promotion business for decades, sometimes excised from longer movies and occasionally inserted into them. In the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester was able to capture the group’s personality and music in equal, complementary measure. The visual set pieces that accompanied the Beatles’ songs could be extracted as if they were mini-movies. When Bob Dylan discarded cue cards with phrases from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the opening scene of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, it built a foundation upon which all future music videos would be constructed. By the late 1960s, some of Frank Zappa’s music was conceived as a soundtrack to movies in his head. Michael Nesmith, formerly of the Monkees, picked up the video gauntlet, as well. MTV didn’t burst out of the gate in a big hurry, if only because less visual oriented artists weren’t convinced that money could be made from the new network. Adapted from a book written and updated by Saul Austerlitz, Music for Nothing: A History of the Music Video takes an almost academic approach to the subject, with Michael Charles Roman’s bone-dry narration over snippets from dozens of familiar music video. First-time director Jamin Bricker takes time to focus on the network’s early reluctance to feature black artists and women. That would change when hip-hop crossed over to white middle-class audiences and the number of women viewers reached the point where sponsors took notice. Today, MTV no longer serves the exclusive interests of artists and very few bands are spending lots of money on music videos, anymore, and YouTube has become a more economical and efficient way of promoting bands. But, you already know that.

Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Freak Mothers: Frank Zappa 1969-1973 provides a far more comprehensive, informative and entertaining examination of a time when the first Mothers of Invention was disbanded and Zappa was free to focus on his own brand of rock, fusion, funk and free jazz, as well as ventures into film and video. The move split early fans drawn to the Mothers’ ability to blend rock with social commentary, while finding fresh ears in Europe and places where listeners didn’t know that Flo & Eddie had a hugely successful career with the Turtles before lending their harmonies to Zappa. The musicians assembled for the Hot Rats albums and tours impressed critics and paying customers, but were unrecognizable from the Mothers of yore. The Sexy Intellectual presentation truly is a warts-and-all documentary, with the ratio between them almost 50/50. At 157 minutes, it’s as much a portrait of an unpredictable and uncompromising genius at work as it is a celebration of music produced by a group of musicians assembled for their virtuosity. Although unauthorized by the Zappa estate, there’s more than enough vintage concert footage, archival photos and clips, and interviews to fill the entire package. Among the assembled witnesses are band members George Duke, Aynsley Dunbar, Don Preston, Jeff Simmons, Mark Volman, Max Bennett, Sal Marquez and Ian Underwood; 200 Motels director Tony Palmer; biographers Ben Watson and Billy James; and Mojo Magazine’s Mark Paytress.

TV-to-DVD
Netflix: Hemlock Grove: Season 1
Syfy: The Almighty Johnsons: Unedited Version: Season 1
From Dusk Till Dawn: Season One: Blu-ray
History Channel: Houdini: Blu-Ray
The Best of the Danny Kaye Show
The Wonder Years: Season One
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: The Complete Fourth Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete 1st Season: The Beginning
In one of those unlikely coincidences that occur every so often in the entertainment dodge, the release of Scream Factory’s compilation of episodes from the first season of Netflix’s “Hemlock Grove” coincides with David Lynch’s Twitter confirmation that he will collaborate on a nine-episode return to “Twin Peaks” with Mark Frost, this time for Showtime. For those of us who lived through the “Twin Peaks” craze, it would be impossible not to recall that groundbreaking series while watching Eli Roth’s adaptation of Brian McGreevy’s novel. That’s not a knock against the show, just a way to describe it in TV shorthand for those non-subscribers to Netflix. Once again, the body of a brutally slain teenage girl is discovered on the fringes of rural community. When local law-enforcement proves inadequate in the pursuit of the killer, an expert is brought in to add her expertise, whether it’s wanted or not. As other victims are found, the possibility that a supernatural beast is involved increases with each new clue. The fine cast includes Famke Janssen (X-Men) Bill Skarsgård (Anna Karenina), Landon Liboiron (Altitude), Penelope Mitchell (The Vampire Diaries), Lily Taylor (“Six Feet Under”), Madeleine Martin (“Californication”) and Dougray Scott (“Desperate Housewives”). The bonus features include new vignettes and Roth’s commentary. Despite the show’s relatively short reach, it was nominated for two Emmys. Netflix has already renewed “Hemlock Grove” for a third and final season.

I haven’t seen the version of “The Almighty Johnsons” mini-series that was picked up by Syfy from New Zealand’s South Pacific Pictures. The unedited edition of Season One episodes contains nudity and language that likely is blurred and bleeped to meet the basic-cable standards, but shouldn’t bother teens and young-adult viewers already accustomed to such mild censorship. Billed as a dramedy, “The Almighty Johnsons” plays like a supernatural soap opera. The titular family is comprised of four seemingly mortal brothers, who, on their 21st birthday, are ushered into the Pantheon of Norse immortals by their eternally youthful grandfather, the oracle Olaf. The youngest, Axl, is the reincarnation of Odin and, as such, is required to ensure the family’s survival by hooking up with the reincarnation of Odin’s wife, Frigg. Conspiring to prevent such a wedding is a cabal of Norse goddesses, who would see their power diminished if it would come to pass. Now, as silly as all of this sounds, “The Almighty Johnsons” works. Because the mortals who mingle among the gods and goddess are obsessed with role-playing fantasies, there’s virtually no disconnect between the disparate constituencies. Everyone looks as if they just stepped out of a prime-time soap on the WB. The show’s meager budget is reflected in a decided scarcity of action sequences and special effects. It relies, instead, on clever writing and appealing actors. The new season begins on Syfy in November.

Not being a subscriber to DirecTV, Comcast or Time Warner, I had no idea that Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey Network even exists, let alone carries a mini-series adaptation of his 1996 cult favorite, From Dusk Till Dawn. I’d be very surprised if many other fans of grindhouse horror and action are aware of its existence, either, but that’s the genre to which the network is committed. So, for those who missed it, Entertainment One has released a collection of first-season episodes. Rodriguez doesn’t deviate all that much from the basic storyline established in the theatrical version of From Dusk Till Dawn, preferring to flesh out the characters drawn by Quentin Tarantino in the movie and fill in the gaps in their storylines. After an aborted bank heist and bloody convenience-store robbery, Seth and Richie Gecko (D.J. Cotrona, Zane Holtz) need to split for Mexico, pronto. After wandering around South Texas for several episodes, looking for an escape route, the desperados steal an RV from a defrocked pastor and his family. After a wild standoff on the border, the brothers make a beeline for the world’s coolest strip club. Filled to overflowing with bikers, Mayan vampires and spectacularly beautiful dancers — Eiza González’s lithe and toxic Santanico Pandemonium rivals Salma Hayek’s interpretation — are forced to fight until sunrise for survival. The Mayan temple set has also been expanded, so as to take advantage of its maze of tunnels and secret rooms. Because of the attention paid to detail, macabre humor and precisely choreographed ultra-violence, “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” could easily have found a home on other premium-cable network and lured a substantial weekly audience. It remains to be seen if the El Rey Network will survive, but it’s off to a good start.The Blu-ray adds commentaries on several episodes, a “best kills” clip and several short background pieces. Longer and better are a Q&A recorded after its Alamo Drafthouse premiere in Austin, with Robert Rodriguez and cast, and “On Set: The Making of ‘From Dusk Till Dawn.’”

In telling the life story of Harry Houdini for the broadest possible cable audience, director Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex) and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) attempt to juggle two nearly contradictory conceits simultaneously. The History Channel mini-series Houdini is first a chapter-and-verse recounting of the great illusionist’s biography, absent the flourishes that might have been added to a theatrical film with a larger budget. Instead, the movie uses Freudian theory to shrink Houdini’s head, while diminishing the seemingly magical allure of his art. Even when Houdini’s devotion to his mother is fully demonstrated and acknowledged by viewers, her physical and spectral presence haunts him (and his wife, Bess) throughout the narrative. Meanwhile, the filmmakers reveal the secrets behind all but one of his amazing escapes and illusions. I suppose that solutions to all of the tricks, including the disappearing-elephant gag, can be found in any library or magic shop. Still, it borders on the sacrilegious to so coldly dilute the mystery. Adrien Brody, himself an amateur magician, does a nice job as the enigmatic Houdini. The divertingly cute showgirl, Bess, who was disowned by her family for marrying a Jew, is played by the divertingly cute Kristen Connolly. Houdini benefits, as well, from being shot in and around Budapest, where the illusionist came into the world as Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874. Meyer based the more clinical aspects of his script on “Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait,” written by his father, Dr. Bernard C. Meyer. The Blu-ray arrives in the original 107-minute version and a theatrical cut at 127 minutes. Four short featurettes don’t add much to the package.

Danny Kaye’s reputation as a consummate showman and tireless entertainer is backed up in MVD Visual’s wonderfully entertaining, “The Best of the Danny Kaye Show.” The variety series aired on CBS for 1963 to 1967, as the transition from black-and-white to color was accelerating and the old-fashioned formula of combing song, dance and comedic skits was about to give way to more topical stuff, including “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Johnny Cash Show.” In hindsight, the show may have been square, but the same could be said about almost everything else on TV in 1964. In the shows collected here, Kaye mugs, clowns, sings and dances with such legendary stars as Ella Fitzgerald, Nana Mouskouri, Harry Belafonte, Liza Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Art Carney, Rod Serling, Jackie Cooper, Michelle Lee, Buddy Greco, John Gary, Joe & Eddie, Lovelady Powell and Alan Young. Series regulars Harvey Korman, Jamie Farr, Joyce Van Patten and orchestra leader Paul Weston also participate in the fun. Neither did Kaye hesitate when it came time for a dramatic reading or schmaltzy solo ballad.

For all of the progressive work turned in by such producers as Norman Lear, Steven Bochco, Stephen J. Cannell, James L. Brooks and other forward-thinking show-runners, television remained a wasteland for teenagers and their younger siblings until the late 1980s, when ABC’s “The Wonder Years” began its six-year run. Originally intended for Boomer audiences nostalgic for their suburban upbringing in the 1960s, the dramedy struck a chord with Boomer babies, as well. It would open the door for “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “My So-Called Life” and other shows in which the younger characters don’t talk as if they were expecting a response from a laugh track. Along with joy and elation, the kids were allowed to experience pain in grief. The second episode of Season One opens at a cemetery, where Winnie Cooper’s brother is being buried after his death in Vietnam. As Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) offers his shoulder for his pretty neighbor (Danica McKellar) to cry on, they experience the first symptoms of something stronger than puppy love. Moments later, the tension is broken by a study session Kevin shares with his brother, Wayne (Jason Hervey), and friend, Paul (Josh Saviano), for a sex-education class. The Season One package is being offered separately from the super-duper complete-series edition, packaged in a miniature school locker and containing a treasure trove of memorabilia. It also includes most of the original songs missing from episodes streamed over the Internet. The Season One set adds highlights from the cast reunion, May 28, 2014; the featurette, “With a Little Help from My Friends: The Early Days of The Wonder Years”; and interviews with creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, Savage, McKellar and Saviano.

Season Four of the Comedy Network’s “Adventure Time” picks up where the third stanza left off, with the introduction of Flame Princess. Refusing to believe that she is evil, Finn tries to win over his new crush. The rest of the series plays out according to form with plotlines almost too crazy to encapsulate. For fans keeping score at home, “AT” has just completed its sixth season and is prepping for a seventh. The Blu-ray package adds commentaries on all 26 episodes and the featurette, “Distant Bands: The Music of Adventure Time.”

Although the entire freshman season of the 2012 Nickelodeon show is already on DVD in separate volumes, fans pushed Nickelodeon to skip the a la carte and give them something more comprehensive and cost-efficient. The result is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete 1st Season: The Beginning, which contains all 26 episodes and bonus content from” Rise of the Turtles,” “Enter Shredder” and “Ultimate Showdown”; six making-of animatics, “Theme Song: Karaoke Music Video” and Baxter’s Gambit Gift Set with a sample of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History” coffee table book and 10 min of additional bonus content accessed online.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon