..Gary Dretzka
..Noah Forrest
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Douglas Pratt
..Ray Pride
..Kim Voynar
..Michael Wilmington

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..MCN Weekend


Where the Wild Things Are
Tell Them Anything You Want

After finally catching up with Spike Jonze’s highly ambitious and often quite delightful Where the Wild Things Are, I wondered how much different the experience might have been if I hadn’t already read and narrated the story – and Maurice Sendak’s similarly wonderful In the Night Kitchen -- countless times to our now-grown children.

The beautifully illustrated books, of course, are miracles of brevity. In the course of a few pages and minimal dialogue, Sendak was able to create a world of wonder for kids whose grasp of the world may have been limited to sensory pleasure and pain, gentle hugs, loud admonishments and warnings of impending danger from parents. Watching our children react to Sendak’s stimuli was as instructive an experience as it was joyful.

I suppose that parents of Baby Boomers had a similar response, while reading Dr. Seuss’s books to their spawn. Much later in my life, I was left cold by expensive feature-length adaptations of my Suessian favorites. More acceptable to me were the cartoon-length versions shown on TV.

Jonze’s biggest gamble, I think, was adding a 15-minute preamble to Max’s fantasy. It explained how this singular character – rebellious, misunderstood, damaged and imaginative -- came to the point in his young life where he would want to hop in a boat in pursuit of a better place to live. I found the added material to be cumbersome and somewhat misleading. Perhaps, though, younger parents, viewers without kids or teenagers found the set-up to be helpful. I can’t imagine that many kids enjoyed it, even if the events might have spoken to their own experiences. It isn’t until Max reaches the island and meets the faux-fierce forest creatures that the real fun begins, and everything before it is forgotten. 

Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers’ re-conceptualization not only elongated the “wild rumpus,” but it also provided several good reasons for us care as much about the monsters as Max. Thanks to the superb costumes, animatronics, voice and physical acting, it requires no suspension of disbelief to empathize with the characters and follow them on treks into uncharted territory … by Sendak, anyway. (James Gandolfini’s voice effectively locates the island somewhere east of New Jersey.) If the bonus material is to be believed, Jonze frequently consulted with the author, who approved of the changes. In addition to the bounty of other background and making-of featurettes, the Blu-ray edition adds the offbeat short, Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life. In Sendak’s story, a disaffected Sealyham Terrier decides there must be something more to life than amusing her owners and being lectured to by singing house plants. While wandering through town, Jennie spots a sign offering free sandwiches and work as an actress in the Mother Goose World Theatre. After being told she lacks “experience” for the lead role, Jennie seeks it in the mysterious Big White House outside town. I enjoyed Higglety Pigglety almost as much as Wild Things.

From Oscilloscope Pictures and HBO comes Tell Them Anything You Want, a 40-minute tribute to the 81-year-old Sendak. Contrary to what one might assume, the author’s great success didn’t come easily. The books with which he’s now most closely associated overcame early condemnation by critics and watchdog groups, and publishers were reluctant to give him easy rein. It took the overwhelming approval of kids and parents to change their minds. The biodoc gives a full reading to the author’s fascinating career and often acerbic opinions. – Gary Dretzka

Ponyo: Blu-ray

Hayao Miyazaki has been widely hailed by his peers as the greatest of all living animators, and Disney’s new collection of DVD titles from his Studio Ghibli – led by the splendid 2008 feature, Ponyo – makes an excellent case for such a distinction. Most Americans’ knowledge of Japanese animation is limited to the cheesy anime that passes for children’s entertainment on western television. More sophisticated manga-inspired animation enjoys a loyal following among gamers and genre geeks. Miyazaki’s profile was raised here after Spirited Away claimed an Oscar in 2003 and Howl’s Moving Castle was nominated in 2006. 

His hand-drawn films often combine legend-inspired fantasy with environmental concerns, in the service of fully realized adventures. The inspiration for Ponyo came from Hans Christian Anderson and Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid. Here, a tiny goldfish falls in love with the boy, Sosuke, who’s saved her from a haphazardly discarded bottle in which she’s become trapped. Ponyo is the prized daughter of a sea goddess (voiced by Cate Blanchett) and an alchemist (Liam Neeson). When she goes missing, all of the creatures of the sea are instructed to find her and bring her home to the wizard’s bubble on the ocean’s floor. 

The sailor’s 5-year-old son is heart-broken, of course, but accepts that Ponyo rightfully belongs in the waters that border his cliff-side home. The goldfish refuses to accept her fate as an aquatic deity, however, and escapes the bubble once again. Her disobedience in the face of destiny puts the universe in disarray. As the moon moves closer to the Earth, its gravitational pulls causes the ocean to rise to a point where it threatens life in Japan. The only hope for humanity would come if Susuke, even at a tender age, could demonstrate his eternal love for Ponyo, and she could continue to live above and below the surface of the sea. 

Miyazaki’s undersea world isn’t that far removed from the habitat created for Finding Nemo. The primary differences can found in the naturalistic depictions of the oceanic environment – including the volume of litter found near big harbors and threat to all life by commercial netters – and borderline scary tsunami caused by Ponyo’s father’s rage. No CGI replication of such a catastrophic event would do its ferocity the same justice. Ponyo was the top-grossing film in Japan in 2008 ($155 million U.S.), which suggests that it was enjoyed as much by adults as kids. The splendid Blu-ray edition adds much interesting background material, not limited to Ponyo, itself.

Concurrent with the release of Ponyo come upgraded DVD versions of Miyazaki’s similarly wonderful My Neighbor TotoroKiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky, in two-disc “Special Edition” form. All are consistent with the filmmaker’s tradition of blending the real emotional experiences of children, with more fanciful and mystical elements. Castle in the Sky was inspired by Gulliver's Travels. Disney has re-dubbed the dialogue, adding familiar names and voices to the cast. Because so many characters have been drawn with generic facial features, the alterations will hardly be noticed. These editions also include video visits to Japan’s Ghibli animation studios, background material and testimonials, including a pair by Pixar’s John Lasseter– Gary Dretzka

Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey

Not having seen the 2006 Imagine/Universal version of Curious George, which did pretty well both with critics and at the box-office, I couldn’t say what happened to the sequel, Follow That Monkey. The voicing cast isn’t nearly as superlative or familiar, although Matt Lauer, Jerry Lewis, Jamie Kennedy, Tim Curry and Clint Howard aren’t unknown quantities. It doesn’t explain why Follow that Monkey was given a miniscule release last month, ahead of its DVD launch, a practice ostensibly designed to avoid the dreaded straight-to-DVD label and save a bundle in marketing costs. 

It would be difficult to argue with the latter option, in that the post-toddler audience has already been established and its mere presence in any video store would attract their wandering eyes. Moreover, the absence of voices supplied by Will Ferrell, Eugene Levy, Drew Barrymore, Dick Van Dyke and the estimable Joan Plowright might suggest how deeply the sequel’s budget was trimmed. Here, Curious George and the Man With the Yellow Hat assist a homesick elephant in her efforts to be reunited with her family. The package adds two fresh episodes from the TV show and a game. – Gary Dretzka

Cold Souls

Sophie Barthes’ debut feature is one of those existential art-house affairs that constantly risks being too hip for any room in which it’s playing. Although its premise immediately recalls Woody Allen – an actor discovers that his soul has been reduced to the size and consistency of a chickpea – its dark humor mirrors work by Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze or Wes Anderson. In Cold SoulsPaul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, that’s right, an actor so full of angst over his interpretation of “Uncle Vanya” that he can barely function as a human being. Paul’s perplexed agent tips him off to an article in the New Yorker about a scientist (David Strathairn) who has created a machine that can extract as much as 95 percent of a person’s soul and capture it in an inanimate object. 

That object would be stored in a safe place, until the owner sought its return. (Paul refused to have his kept in a New Jersey warehouse.) The five percent of Paul’s soul left behind wasn’t sufficient to interpret Chekhov, so Paul asked for the rest to be restored. Alas, it had already been stolen by Russian couriers, who trafficked in such things, and embedded into an ambitious, if vapid soap-opera star in Moscow. The soul of a Russian artist is transplanted into Paul’s body, instead, but to mixed results. His “Uncle Vanya” is gangbusters, but haunting dreams drain his spirit. 

Under the guidance of a very pretty blond thief, he travels to Moscow to convince the actor to return his soul. (Instead, she’s furious with her husband for not acquiring the soul of Al Pacino.) What happens next is too bizarre – and unexpected – to reveal here. It is, however, consistent with the enigmatic tone of everything that’s already happened to Paul. Giamatti was the perfect choice to play the anxiety-ridden Paul, even if the character’s last name hadn’t been Giamatti. He gets terrific support from Emily Watson as his increasingly freaked-out wife, and Russian-born Dina Korzun. The extras add a piece on the creation of the soul extractor and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Bitch Slap: Unrated
The Alcove
Dead Snow

Neither homage nor parody, Bitch Slap represents a conscious attempt on the part of veteran TV director Rick Jacobson (XenaBaywatch) to contemporize the kind of B- and C-movies that filled the screens of outdoor theaters in the 1950-60s. Produced on a budget that might have approximated the catering tab on recent Quentin Tarantino projects, Jacobson doesn’t attempt to do anything more ambitious – or campier – than the exploitation flicks that inspired him to make Bitch Slap

If the interviews included in the extensive making-of featurettes are to be believed, he made the film for the purpose of having fun, employing some friends and seeing if there was any life left in the genre. Absent more than a handful of drive-in theaters and legitimate grind houses, though, such movies fortunes now reside in the DVD marketplace. The story, such as it is, revolves around a missing satchel of diamonds, stolen from some Arab sheiks by an underworld kingpin. The gems are hidden deep in the desert, in the general vicinity of a decrepit trailer. A trio of buxom, ass-kicking babes – Hel, Camaro and Trixie -- has dragged the gangster, Gage, to the site, where they intend to beat the location of the diamonds out of him. 

Before that could happen, though, one of the high-heeled and mini-skirted gals put a bullet in his head. Dumb-duh-dumb-dumb. Soon the hills are alive with the sound of gunfire and smell of cordite. Apart from being beautiful, the women are accomplished in martial arts, which come in handy when they’re ambushed by other criminals, including a hot Asian chick with a razor-edged yo-yo. Jacobson and Eric Gruendemann’s narrative plays out in a descending order of flashbacks. There’s nothing in Bitch Slap that doesn’t meet the eye. The violence is hyper-, the women are impossibly hot, the cars are inarguably cool and the dialogue is ridiculous. The less one expects from the movie, the more they’re likely to enjoy it.

Javanese sex goddess Laura Gemser hasn’t made a movie in 18 years, but no one who’s seen Black Emanuelle or any of its several sequels is likely to forget her. In 1985, she reunited with the multi-faceted and beyond-prolific Italian sleaze-meister, Joe D’Amato (Erotic Nights of the Living DeadEmanuelle and the Last Cannibals) on The Alcove, a period romance in which Gemser played an African princess brought back from the Zulu wars by a military officer. Intended to serve his voluptuous wife as a slave, Gemser’s Zerbal immediately stirs up a hornet’s nest of sexual intrigue in the villa. What the officer didn’t anticipate was Zerbal’s attraction to the other women who live there, including his wife and secretary, who’s also the lady of the house’s mistress. There’s enough girl-girl action in the unrated Alcove to satisfy anyone with a taste for it. It’s as stylishly framed as a vintage Penthouse pictorial and every bit as disposable. If there’s ever a hall of fame built to honor the soft-core industry – like the hard-core walk of fame outside the Hustler store in Hollywood – Gemser, D’Amato and The Alcove all will find a place reserved for them in it. The DVD adds a crude interview, shot from the floor and in broken English, with D’Amato.

All any dedicated fan of splatter films needs to know about Dead Snow is that it involves Nazi zombies and medical students stranded in a mountain cabin out of range of cell-phone signals. Everything else is gravy … or, in the case of this Norwegian gore-fest, blood and entrails. Once upon a time, a Gestapo platoon monitored the mountains separating the Soviet Union and an Allied supply route. After an uprising of local villagers, the Nazis were separated from the treasures they’d collected and peace prevailed. When the students arrive at the cabin, the zombies sense an opportunity to retrieve their ill-gotten gains. Anyone who can’t guess what happens next hasn’t seen a horror flick in the last 40 years, which, I suppose, is the point. Dead Snow overflows with deliberately recognizable genre clichés, played with uniformly straight faces. Indeed, the snowy backdrop for the violence and blood-letting lends the only fresh twist to Tommy Wirkola’s thriller. Even so, the movie is extremely well made and imminently watchable, if one is open to split skulls and stretched intestines. -- Gary Dretzka

2012: Blu-ray

German-born filmmaker Roland Emmerich has made a career out of trying to achieve what the Third Reich couldn’t: total destruction of the planet. By exploiting a glitch in the ancient Mayan calendar, his latest epic, 2012, was able to visually prophesize the effect of a series of natural disasters as cinematic as they were apocalyptic. 

With the possible exception of Michael Bay, no one destroys stuff on film like Emmerich. He’s done it in Independence DayGodzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, and, barring an actual catastrophe, likely will strike again. That would be OK for fans of carnage, mayhem and devastation, especially if they’re willing to overlook the weaknesses in dialogue that generally accompany such flicks. In hi-def, it’s even easier to ignore the weak dialogue and focus instead on the tsunamis, volcanoes and earthquakes. Among other goodies, the two-disc Blu-ray edition adds a music video by Adam Lambert; BD-Live connectivity; an interactive horoscope; picture-in-picture instructional; commentary; an alternate ending and deleted scenes; and making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Captain Abu Raed

Although several movies have been set or staged in Jordan, Captain Abu Raed was the first feature in 50 years that the country could claim as its own. That’s less an industry than a hobby. Even so, Amin Matalqa’s compelling debut was allowed to represent Jordan in last year’s Academy Awards competition, and it captured trophies at several international festivals. It’s a simple story that carries a powerful message about friendship, family and beating the odds against success in a regimented society. 

Abu Raed is a well read resident of a densely populated neighborhood in Amman. He works as a janitor at the city’s international airport and once harbored a desire to fly to distant cities he’s only known through literature. One day, he finds a discarded captain’s hat, and brings it home from the airport. When one of the kids in the neighborhood sees it, he assumes that Raed must, indeed, be someone of great importance. Reluctant, at first, to build a legend around a lie, he senses that the local kids are in desperate need of a male role model and decides to play along with the ruse. He tells stories about the places he’s been, based solely on images and information gleaned in his reading. 

For the most part, the kids buy into Raed’s tale. One boy, though, doubts very much that the old man has been anywhere farther than the airport and openly challenges him. Of all the children, this is the one who could benefit most from adopting Raed as a father figure. His brutal dad has dictated that, before he’s allowed to attend school, the boy must sell a certain amount of candy to pedestrians. Worse, the man beats his wife and denies her any respect. Such behavior is condoned in much of the Middle East, however, so, when Raed intercedes, there’s hell to pay. In a nifty intersecting story, a beautiful and extremely accomplished woman pilot is reduced by her rich father to sifting through a rouges gallery of acceptable suitors in the marriage ritual. She knows Raed from the airport shuttle and offers to help the boy and his mother. 

Captain Abu Raed contains characters who will be easy recognized by viewers anywhere outside the Middle East, and the humanity of the lead characters is palpable. The bonus package adds commentary and a pair of making-of pieces. – Gary Dretzka

Palermo or Wolfsburg
Segment ’76

The immigrant story of 18-year-old Nicola, who travels from Sicily to Germany in Palermo or Wolfsburg, is similar to the ones told in The Godfather, Part II and Emanuele Crialese’s vastly underseen The Golden Door. It’s reminiscent, as well, of the stories told by countless other immigrants who’ve left their homes and loved ones to find work that pays more than a peasant’s wages. Werner Schroeter’s film was made in 1980, long before anti-immigration hysteria reared its head in Western Europe. Instead of America, whose borders were largely closed to poor people seeking employment, men in Nicola’s town traveled north to Germany, where several were hired by Volkswagen. Nicola, too, finds work there. Outside the factory gates, in Wolfsburg, he also finds trouble. 

Handsome and personable, if incredibly naïve, Nicola falls for the advances of a local girl, who abuses his affections simply to make an older boy jealous of him. During an altercation with the young man and his hoodlum friend, Nicola takes out his switchblade knife (“every male in Sicily carries one”) and stabs them to death. It isn’t clear if Nicola’s actions were prompted by genuine fear for his life or rage over being duped by the girl and taunted by the boys. The question is at the heart of the trial that takes place after he’s arrested and charged with murder. It’s at this point, too, that Schroeter’s drama takes a hard left turn, turning the Sicilian’s ordeal into a nightmarishly operatic culture clash. 

Instead of eavesdropping on a courtroom debate, we’re asked to observe the proceedings from the point of view of a severely depressed, confused and homesick teenager. The line between surreal and nutso becomes so thin as to be invisible. Despite this, there’s more to recommend about Palermo or Wolfsburg than there is to disparage it. The material shot in Sicily is especially compelling.

Also from Facets comes the Polish brain-teaser Salto, which begins a day after the end of World War II. A man named Karol jumps off a train near a rural town and, fearing he’s being followed, heads straight for a house in which he says he once lived. None of the residents remembers the man, but they harbor their suspicions. As Karol re-acquaints himself with the locals, he’s led to believe that a terrible secret lies buried somewhere on the outskirts of town and it’s had an impact on everyone there. 

Meanwhile, his dreams are haunted by men in uniforms, pointing guns at him. Writer-director Tadeusz Konwicki scatters ambiguous clues throughout the narrative, which gives off more “Twilight Zone” vibes with every passing incident. (Could this be some sort of Eastern European Brigadoon or figment of Karol paranoia?) Salto was made in 1965, a time when Poland was battling all sorts of demons unknown in the west. It might explain some of the movie’s more enigmatic turns.

Made in 2003, Segment ’76 also harkens back to a darker time in Polish recent history. The tone is decidedly brighter here, though, even if the country’s economic stance was no less precarious. People wait in line for days, simply for the opportunity to shop for crummy furniture. Young people managed to have fun, nonetheless, even if money was tight and things now taken for granted were considered to be luxuries. If a young man wanted to make real money, he had to connect to gangsters in the black market. Russians and East Germans were always in desperate need of commodities available in Poland, and the borders weren’t much of a challenge for dedicated smugglers. Oskar Kaszynski’s film shines a light into a corner of Eastern Europe largely unseen for nearly a half-century, and it’s worth the effort to find it. – Gary Dretzka

Bollywood Hero
Poldark, Series 1

Finding Chris Kattan’s name on the jacket of a DVD hardly raises expectations of a worthwhile entertainment experience. The impish comic somehow managed to log nearly 150 episodes of Saturday Night Live on his resume, even if his characters were among the most unappealing and undernourished as any in the show’s history. A Night at the Roxbury inexplicably extended a tired five-minute bit into a reasonably profitable movie, as did Corky Romano. Nothing else of substance came to my mind before picking up Bollywood Hero

The three-part musical mini-series, from IFC/Starz, finds Kattan at a place in his career where he’s tired of landing dopey comedy roles and wants to find work as an action star, like Harrison Ford. When he’s offered the lead to a big Bollywood production by an Indian acquaintance, he jumps at the opportunity. It isn’t until he gets to Mumbai, however, that Kattan learns his character in Peculiar Dancing Boy is only a short step removed from Mango in SNL. The Bollywood producers aren’t that thrilled, either. They, too, would have preferred Harrison Ford

I was surprised by how much Bollywood Hero grew on me. Caught in a culture clash of immense proportions, he stumbles along like a blind-folded man in furniture store. Finally, when accepts the fact that he needs the work more than Bollywood needs his presence, Kattan elects to submerge his ego and go along with the program. His efforts to save the faltering production help ease his acceptance within the film community, which includes several of the most beautiful female actors on the planet. Kattan’s ability to dance and mimic Bollywood mannerisms was uncanny, and the producers found ways to tone down his usual shtick and integrate it into something larger.

With Tim Burton’s much anticipated version of Alice in Wonderland finally opening this week, several previous versions have been released and re-released on DVD, as well. The Syfy mini-series Alice puts a futuristic spin on the oft-told tale, setting it in environments that are far less whimsical than usual. 

Alice is a karate instructor, who lives in a city diminished by decay and crime. One night, she invites her British-accented boyfriend home to meet her mom (dad abandoned them early on). As a surprise, he offers her an antique ring, which she angrily rejects. Shortly afterward, the man is mugged and kidnapped by thugs looking for the ring. Feeling bad for asking him to leave so abruptly, Alice follows the attackers down an alley, where she is confronted by natty gent, identified only as White Rabbit. She follows him through a looking-glass, which is leaning against the side of a building, and begins her descent into a Dali-esque Wonderland. The characters she meets in her search for her boyfriend – soon to be revealed as the Queen of Heart’s son – may have been inspired by the ones invented by Lewis Carroll, but they look like refugees from a dozen other sci-fi mini-series. Even so, Alice in Wonderland completists probably will find something here to hold their attention, as will fans of futuristic fantasies. 

Originally shown in the mid-1970s on the BBC and PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, the period mini-series Poldark has been dusted off and given a fresh new look for DVD. Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) has returned to his native Cornwall, after fighting in the America’s Revolutionary War. His troubles didn’t end in the former colonies, however. The potential for disaster looms in Cornwall, where he must fight to keep family property intact and recover financial losses. Poldark also is required to pick up the pieces of a failed romance. It’s all good soap-opera fun, related with an adherence to detail typical of such elaborate BBC productions. – Gary Dretzka




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