MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Kink, Maison Close, Dragon 2, Nekromantik 2 and more

Kink
Maison Close: Season 1: Blu-ray
Not having read the book upon which Fifty Shades of Grey was based, I won’t hazard a guess as to whether the movie is any more faithful to the source material than Adrian Lyne’s 9½ Weeks was to Elizabeth McNeill’s slim novel. Most agreed, however, that, while undeniably erotic, it was to BDSM what Diet Coke is to a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. As is the case today with the pre-Valentine’s Day buildup to Fifty Shades, the media behaved like a pack of randy frat boys in anticipation of the release of Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger’s excursion into softcore sex, which mostly made the world safe for Showtime’s “Red Shoes Diaries” and HBO’s “Real Sex.” Now, as then, reporters have begged their editors to be allowed to bring a professional dominatrix with them to a screening of Fifty Shades of Grey, merely to have her point out the differences between R-rated BDSM and the real deal, readily available on niche websites. As a public service to viewers who might be sufficiently titillated by what Christian Grey does to the virgin English-lit-major, Anastasia Steele, I suggest they work their way up the ladder to the revelatory documentary, Kink, by first checking out Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour, Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse, Just Jaeckin’s Histoire d’O and Radley Metzger’s The Image, all of which are more artistic and couples-friendly than the horizon of hardcore and gonzo stuff on the Internet.

Produced by the tireless James Franco and helmed by Christina Doros, who shot Franco’s last two directorial efforts, As I Lay Dying and Child of God, Kink describes one of the major success stories in pornography, accomplished at a time when the industry was undergoing a serious period of adjustment. Kink.com was launched in 1997 by bondage enthusiast, Peter Asworth, a PhD student who foresaw a brighter future in “subjecting beautiful, willing women to strict bondage,” and filming them for Kink.com’s first site, Hogtied. Its success would lead to an expansion into other BDSM, LGBT and fetish material, ranging from rope work to water sports. Ten years later, the company acquired the long-vacant San Francisco National Guard Armory and Arsenal, located at 14th and Mission streets, for the purposes of creating a one-stop, all-purpose production facility. Looking very much like an ancient Moorish fortress, the landmark structure is listed on the national register of historic places and, yes, tours can be arranged. What happens on the sets, stages and communal areas inside the nearly 200,000-square-foot studio is another story, altogether. Voros escorts us through the nooks and crannies of Armory Studios, alongside Asworth, several different staff directors and editors, freelance actors, technicians and administrative personnel. Nothing is left to chance and the sex – simultaneously agonizing and orgasmic — is as consensual, authentic and as safe as hard-core action gets, given the nature of the fetishes and frequent use of power tools and metal chains. If the participants are acting for pay, it’s entirely possible that they might be doing similar things for fun in the privacy of their homes. The folks at Kink.com hope the film will “demystify the BDSM lifestyle, and to serve as an example and an educational resource for the BDSM community.” Much of what’s shown, however, is not for the faint of heart or Anastasia Steele wannabes.

Likewise, Music Box Films, the distributors of  French television mini-series “Maison Close” would love for fans of “Fifty Shades” to insert this sexy primetime soap into their DVD players, sometime before or after they purchase their first matching set of riding crops and ball-gags. The story takes place in a plush government-authorized bordello, following the Franco-Prussian War and in the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune. Inside “le Paradis,” the well-heeled customers range from military officers to opportunists armed with well-rehearsed lies and hidden daggers. The prostitutes are flirtatious, gorgeous and willing to put up with a lot of crap from some pretty hideous men. In return, they’re accorded a meager income, fine clothing, clean sheets and regular meals. Most are thankful that fate led them to the doors of the Paradis, instead of forcing them to work off their debts and opiate addictions in another dead-end brothel. Still, there’s no confusing these birds in a gilded cage with the wives of the aristocrats they service.

Although all of the actors have moments to shine, the first-season episodes focus on the travails of the three working girls who’ve got the most to lose if their closest male companions decide to burst their bubbles. The owner, Madam Hortense (Valérie Karsenti), is deeply in debt to her duplicitous brother at the same time as she’s being blackmailed by a thug she hired to commit a violent act. She’s also conspiring to prevent her duplicitous lover, Vera, from escaping the nest. In her mid-30s, Vera (Anne Charrier) can see that she’ll soon be heading for her last lineup, unless her benefactor makes good on his promises or she succumbs to Hortense’s desires. Naïve and innocent Rose (Jemima West) comes to Paris in search of her mother, who disappeared into the demi-monde when she was a child and may have served a tour of duty at the brothel. Her hopes are dashed when she’s forced to pay off an expensive meal, to which she was invited, by selling her virginity to the highest bidder or face debtor’s prison. Her fiancée, a farmer, abandons her in Paris when he learns she may already be tarnished. Of all the women, Rose may be the most shrewd and able to con men into seeing things her way. Working in favor of the eight-part series is the fact that not all of the men are jerks and some of the prostitutes, at least, can’t be said to have a heart of gold. There’s nudity, of course, but not as much as you might think there would be from a French export. The musical soundtrack, which sometimes skips 140 years into the future, may seem too jarring to bear for some viewers. Anyone who saw and admired Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance, also set in an elegant Paris brothel, should also find much to enjoy in “Maison Close.”

How to Train Your Dragon 2
101 Dalmatians: Diamond Edition
Given the controversy surrounding the so-called snub of The LEGO Movie by Academy voters in both the Best Animated Feature and Best Picture categories, it’s a good time to offer some perspective by briefly looking back at the history of animation in such beauty contests. All of this year’s nominees are worthy candidates, so it would be a shame if an invisible asterisk was attached to the winner, be it front-runner How to Train Your Dragon 2 or any of the four other nominees. I just caught up with the DVD to Dean DeBlois’ wonderful adventure and wouldn’t be at all surprised – or terribly disappointed, either — if it came out on top at the February 22 ceremony. (The other candidates will have arrived on DVD and Blu-ray within a few weeks’ time.) It wasn’t until 2001 that the Academy created a separate category for Best Animated Feature, previously arguing there generally weren’t enough serious candidates to justify such an honor. Ten years earlier, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast had become the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Historically, animation was acknowledged in the categories of Best Short Subject, Cartoons, and in the music-related races. Disney was, however, accorded honorary awards for Snow White and Fantasia. Newly re-released in a sparkling Diamond Edition, the studio’s 101 Dalmatians won the 1962 BAFTA award for best animated feature, albeit against the six-minute “The Do-It-Yourself Cartoon Kit” and long-forgotten “For Better … for Worse.” BAFTA had created a separate category for animated films in 1955 – Lady and the Tramp was nominated in 1956 – while the Golden Globes only joined the club in 2007. Curiously, perhaps, the first Annie Award for Best Animated Feature was introduced in 1992, to Beauty and the Beast. It came fully 20 years after the organization began to “celebrate lifetime or career contributions to animation” by individuals.

Based on Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel, “The Hundred and One Dalmatians,” the original Disney animated classic has been re-purposed so many times that those familiar only with Glenn Close’s terrifically evil Cruella de Vil in the live-action re-make, or the subsequent ABC series and made-for-video “101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure,” may be surprised by what they find in the Diamond Edition. Adults who can still recall the first time they watched 101 Dalmatians – and begged their parents for a puppy just like them, except for the “hidden Mickey” spot patterns – will find, as well, that movie hasn’t lost any of its appeal over the course of the last 45 years. If the story of the dogs’ emotionally charged rescue is well-known and fondly remembered, what may be even more amazing is its place in Disney history. After Sleeping Beauty failed to recoup its production budget in its first go-round at the box office, in 1959, Uncle Walt was faced with the possibility of laying off his “nine old men,” killing the animation operation and focusing on television, live-action movies and the amusement park. The cost of repeatedly drawing and re-drawing more than hundred spotted dogs would have been prohibitive, if it weren’t for Ub Iwerks’ idea to use a specially modified Xerox copier to transfer artists’ drawings directly to animation cels. And, while the boss wasn’t exactly thrilled with the characters’ “ragged” borders, the savings allowed him to fight another day. The highlight of the Blu-ray feature package is the complete animated short, “The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt,” which extends the version that keeps the puppies transfixed in the movie; “The Best Doggoned Dog in the World,” from “The Wonderful World of Disney,” circa 1961, presented in its entirety and in high definition; fresh interviews with studio veterans; the kid-friendly “Dalmatians 101,” hosted by Cameron Boyce, of “Jessie”; and vintage making-of material from previous editions.

The perfectly delightful How to Train Your Dragon 2 extends the DreamWorks 3D trilogy, adapted from the 2003 book by British children’s author Cressida Cowell. It has spawned several animated shorts and a TV series and it one of the few franchise properties keeping the studio afloat. The sequel picks up five years after the events of the first film, with Hiccup and his friends now able to take advantage of the peace between humans and dragons. Not content to fritter away their time racing around Berk, Hiccup and Toothless explore unmapped territories beyond the island. The discovery of a secret ice cave reveals hundreds of wild dragons, previously unidentified by Viking zoologists. Hiccup also encounters his long-lost mother, Valka, who disappeared years earlier and has spent the interim rescuing endangered dragons from hunters. Through Valka, he is able to warn his father, Stoick the Vast, of a demonic plot devised by the evil warlord and dragon hunter, Drago Bludvist, and his ally, the gigantic Alpha dragon called Bewilderbeast. The Blu-ray adds the 25-minute prequel short, “Dawn of the Dragon”; “Fishlegs’ Dragon Stats,” with separately accessible files on the various classes of dragons; “Drago’s War Machines,” which chronicles Drago’s weapons of mass destruction; “Berk’s Dragon World,” in which Hiccup shows Mom around the island; “Hiccup’s Inventions in Flight,” with separately accessible files on such elements as Hiccup’s prosthetic leg; deleted scenes; an informative commentary track; the nearly hour-long “Where No One Goes: The Making of ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’”; and a stills gallery.

Syncopation: Blu-ray
The wonderfully entertaining and totally unexpected 1942 musical, Syncopation, purports to tell the history of syncopated music – a fancy name for jazz – from Congo Square in New Orleans (and, by extension, Africa) to juke joints and swing-era ballrooms around the country and world, with stops in between for ragtime, Dixieland, the blues, boogie-woogie and Chicago jazz. While even Hollywood’s most inventive revisionists wouldn’t dare ignore the role of black musicians in the birth and growth of jazz, the primary emphasis here is on the evolution of white swing from roots that can be directly traced to Storyville, the red-light district that spawned King Oliver, Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong. Once the story strays too far from the Crescent City, the narrative begins to lose its hold on racial authenticity by introducing an on-again/off-again romance between Dixieland trumpet player Jackie Cooper and transplanted socialite Bonita Granville, an amateur “stride” piano player. Granville’s character, Kit, was introduced to New Orleans jazz by the young trumpet-playing son of her “mammy” (an uncredited Jack Thompson), who, we’re happy to believe, would grow up to become the musician known far and wide as Satchmo, Pops, Louie or “This is Louis, Dolly.” The subversive underpinnings of jazz are demonstrated in the shuttering of Storyville’s brothels and ragtime joints – forcing the musicians upriver to Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago – and police raids on integrated swing clubs. It doesn’t take long before some of William Dieterle’s questionable portrayals of African-American characters — especially at early revival meetings — begins to wear thin. Considering Hollywood’s history in such matters, however, it’s a wonder the musicians weren’t played by white actors in blackface. The Swing Era superstars who provide most of the music on and off-screen — Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Gene Krupa, Harry James — are the genuine article, though. Syncopation is one movie guaranteed to have viewers tapping their feet, if not actually cutting a rug to the music. As if to compensate for the movie’s most glaring deficiency, the folks at the Cohen Film Collection have compiled and restored more than 100 minutes’ worth of supplements, featuring historic performances by Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, Artie Shaw, Jack Teagarden, Fredi Washington and Cuban band leader Don Azpiazú. We’ve already seen some, if not all of these amazing performances, but in abridged versions and not in mint condition. Anyone interested in the history of American music should rush out and grab a copy of Syncopation, if only for the musical extras. Also included are a re-release trailer and a liner notes leaflet.

In Your Eyes
Someday, someone is going to give Zoe Kazan a role in a movie that delivers on the promise she evidenced in the offbeat rom-coms, Ruby Sparks and What If, and less visible roles in Meek’s Cutoff, The Pretty One, Some Girl(s) and Revolutionary Road. Besides being genetically predisposed to being a fine actor, Kazan has one of those strangely alluring faces that defy easy description. As hard as she and co-star Michael Stahl-David struggle to help audiences make sense of the Joss Whedon-written In Your Eyes, they couldn’t possibly have saved it from its pretentiously supernatural premise. It doesn’t help that director Brin Hill, working off of a 23-year-old script by the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” appears to have thrown up his hands in the middle of production and surrendered to its inconsistencies. Despite the fact that protagonists Rebecca and Dylan have grown into adulthood 2,000 away from each other, they’ve shared a telepathic bond that began in childhood. In the opening scene, Dylan is knocked for a loop in a New Mexico classroom when he internalizes Rebecca’s painful encounter with a tree, while sledding in New England. As they approach their 30s, with most of their early hopes and dreams already exhausted, Rebecca and Dylan not only are able to anticipate such traumatic moments, by also to see through each other’s eyes and telecommunicate verbally. In one amusing sequence, Rebecca helps Dylan through an awkward dinner date with a potential girlfriend. When her overbearing husband (Mark Feuerstein) interrupts the telepathic long-distance call, Dylan makes a fool of himself by practically turning the kitchen in his trailer into an inferno. Later, when Rebecca is discovered talking to Dylan – sans phone — her naturally disconcerted spouse has her institutionalized. Sensing that she’ll be turned into a pill-addicted vegetable causes Dylan to steal a car in New Mexico and, seemingly overnight, make his way to a place in New Hampshire he’s never been. He accomplishes this feat with no money and a small army of cops on his trail. It’s not the worst premise for a movie I’ve ever heard – it might have worked as a story arc on “Buffy” – but too many questions are left unanswered throughout the course of its 106 minutes.

Nekromantik 2: Blu-ray
Cosplay Fetish Battle Drones
John Waters, a filmmaker whose judgment on cinematic depravity can be trusted implicitly, is said to have proclaimed Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik, “the first-ever erotic film for necrophiliacs.” The seizure of its even more appalling 1991 sequel, Nekromantik 2, 12 days after its release in Munich, marked the first time since World War II that a movie had been confiscated and banned from exhibition. Naturally, the notoriety helped turn what would have been limited to genre-specific curiosities into instant cult classics. Indeed, there are several scenes in Nekromantik 2 that make Divine’s infamous dog-poop snack in Pink Flamingos seem as refreshing as a spoonful of palate-cleansing sorbet. In it, Monika (Monika M.) succeeds in digging up the decaying corpse of a suicide victim, Rob, an act that was anticipated at the end of Nekromantik. After dragging Rob home and cleaning him up, Monika attempts to make love to the gelatinous blob, but, as is the case in so many fruitless relationships, his inability to perform gets in the way of true love. Instead, she befriends a young man, Mark (Mark Reeder), who makes a living dubbing the grunts and groans in sex films. Eventually, she gets around to simultaneously consummating her relationship with both men. It’s not a pretty sight, but horror buffs able to stomach such abnormal behavior – if such a thing even exists, anymore – should find the humor in it. The uncut and uncensored Cult Epics presentation on Blu-ray looks and sounds far better than it has any right to be, considering the source material was made for Pfennigs on 16mm stock. On a more positive note, the evocative musical score — performed in concert as one of the bonus features — takes a rather more empathetic approach to the source material. The Blu-ray also includes a new Introduction by Buttgereit; commentary by Buttgereit, co-author Franz Rodenkirchen, and actors Monika M. and Reeder; a making-of short; still gallery; and the shorts, “Half Girl Lemmy, I’m A Feminist” and, unbelievably, “A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein.”

If you’re the kind of film geek who can’t wait to watch movies derided by mainstream critics for being an insult to their or their readers’ intelligence, I suggest making a beeline for Cosplay Fetish Battle Drones (a.k.a., “Struggled Reagans”). Not only does it appear to have been made by a motley crew of film-school students wasted on medical-grade marijuana or vintage Owsley LSD, but it also demands that viewers be every bit as stoned to make sense of it. This doesn’t automatically make it a bad movie, just one that requires more work on the part of the viewer than one usually invests in anything short of a tax return. After suffering some seriously traumatic events – being raped by a Persian cucumber, an obsession with the BTK Killer – a half-dozen college age students develop a “tumor in the collective unconscious.” To combat the tumor and various psycho-sexual demons, these “struggled Reagans” morph into tokusatsu characters that suspiciously resemble the Mighty Morphine Power Rangers.  All of this is explained in the interviews included in the bonus features, but it’s possible that first-time writer/director Gregg Golding is simply making it up as he goes along.

On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter
With the possible exception of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, who died earlier this week at 98, no one has had a greater impact on the way sports documentaries are made and exhibited than Bruce Brown.  After spending 10 years churning out movies for consumption by over-stoked surfers, Brown was able to simultaneously exalt and transcend the subgenre in The Endless Summer. It captured the imagination of a generation of young Americans, just beginning to exert their independence, wanderlust and love of natural beauty already threatened by industrial rot and wasteful consumers. Not only was he able to document what made surfers a breed apart from other Americans — athletes, hot-rodders, Beach Boy wannabes — but he also walked the walk by traveling to places few people had seen, let alone surfed, and interviewing who enjoyed the sport without ever seeing a “Gidget” movie. His search for the perfect wouldn’t end there, however. In 1971, Brown applied the same “Why do they do it?” formula to On Any Sunday, a documentary about motorcycle racers and off-track enthusiasts who bore no resemblance to the Hell’s Angels and largely did their thing out of the media spotlight. Both films captured the imagination of viewers, whether they lived in such year-round playgrounds as Malibu, Baja, Hawaii and Tahiti or meteorologically temperamental spots like Quebec, Terre Haute, Salt Lake City and the Austrian Alps. In 1994, Brown collaborated with his son, Dana, on The Endless Summer II, which revisited many of the same people and places introduced in the 1966 original. Dana would go on to direct the surf epic, Step Into Liquid, and documentary on the grueling Baja 1000 off-road competition, Dust to Glory. His On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter is harder to nail down thematically, except that it, likewise, is dedicated to two-wheeled racing and the people who risk life and limb doing it. If anything, motorcycling racing has expanded to an even greater degree than surfing. Brown doesn’t limit himself to any single event or tour, but keeps an eye on several recurring competitors. His emphasis is on how much racing has grown as a family-oriented obsession, with toddlers following in the tire tracks of their parents and grandparents, and handicapped racers competing alongside men and women of all ages without physical limitations. Again, there’s no mention of outlaw bikers, Sturgis, Dykes on Bikes or other non-competitive sectors of the motorcycle universe. The exceptions are represented by the unbelievably chaotic motorbike traffic in Vietnam and a doctor in the African bush who visits villages only accessible by off-road bikes. Like Steve McQueen in the original “Sunday,” Mickey Rourke, Scott Caan and Bo Derek make unobtrusive cameos here. It’s almost needless to mention that On Any Sunday works as well as a travelogue –as a sports documentary.

The Song
Although The Song fits comfortably within the borders of the faith-based genre, it benefits from a significantly harder narrative edge the previous Dove-approved fare and an ecumenical soundtrack not necessarily intended exclusively for airplay on Christian-rock stations. The story itself is practically as old as the hills of Kentucky, where much of the drama purportedly takes place. Wickedly handsome, if hideously bearded Nashville musician Alan Powell plays Jed King, the son of a deceased country-music legend who appears to have modeled his off-stage behavior on Hank Williams Sr. Time passes, as it is wont to do, and Jed seems determined not to live the kind of debauched life that inspired tens of thousands of country songs, before the Grand Ol’ Opry morphed into Opryland and country stations began catering to the SUV and Miller Lite crowd. It isn’t until he meets Rose (Ali Faulkner), the virginal daughter of an overprotective vineyard owner near the town of Sharon – yes, a living and breathing Rose of Sharon — that he’s inspired to write songs with something resembling a radio-ready bite. Almost as soon as Jed convinces Rose to marry him, he’s required to go on the road to support his songs. He’d love for her to join him on tour, but she’s not inclined to leave her elderly father alone on the farm, where Jed has built the foundation for a chapel.

Still, it appears as if their marriage was sanctioned in heaven. Times passes and Rose is given another good excuse not to join her husband on tour, in the presence of a son. Just as hard-core bible stories tend to resemble old-school country songs, Rose’s continued absence opens the door for the story’s femme fatale, Shelby (Caitlin Nicol-Thomas), to enter the picture, both on and off stage. The more Jed battles temptation, the less he feels the magnetic pull of Rose’s love. Not only is Shelby incredibly hot, but she’s on the verge of rock stardom, herself. Considering how much of the screenplay relies on the Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes, anyone with a passing knowledge of the Old Testament should be able to predict what happens in the final third of The Song.  At 116 minutes, any movie this predictable is likely to overstay its welcome by 15 minutes, at least, and that’s exactly what happens here. Then, there are the endless, forced biblical references … what’s the deal with a vineyard in Kentucky, anyway? As a movie capable of crossing-over from the faith-based ghetto, though, it comes as close as any non-historical story I’ve seen. The DVD adds director’s commentary, meet-the-cast interviews and featurettes “King Solomon on Screen,” “Author Kyle Idleman on Love, Sex & Marriage” and “Metaphors & Poetry: Themes of ‘The Song’.” Someday, someone’s going to nail this whole faith-based thing and it won’t come a moment too soon.

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Dretzka

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“Dude, I don’t like the way you talk, bro. How can you tell me that it’s going to be hard? Do you see a lot of people like you writing stories? Give me a break, bro. That’s your strength, that you’re not like us. Go out there and tell your stories. Don’t go out there and try to be like Quentin or me or anybody else. We need you. Tell me what makes you angry, why you’re arrogant, or fearful, whatever it is. Don’t hide anything. Be honest. What is that thing that bothers you and makes you distinct? Everyone’s looking for you. A Mexican point-of-view to tell a story right now? I’m telling you, everybody wants that right now. I desperately need you to tell your story in your way. You are essential.”
~ M. Night Shyamalan

“My films are always brought to life from an idea, a coincidence, or a dreamlike magic. An ephemeral moment that settles in my mind and starts to bloom. The plot slowly appears before my eyes, and there’s nothing left but to write it. I actually do use a mood board. And location scouting is essential to the realization of the film. I’m inspired by architecture — the beauty of certain neighborhoods, the mystery in odd buildings, or streets that suggest psychoanalytic theories. I only choose my actors after I write the script.”
~ Dario Argento