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

 
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..MCN Weekend

 


The Princess and the Frog:
Blu-ray

It speaks volumes about the state of race relations in Hollywood that so much was made about the presence of an African-American female lead in The Princess and the Frog. True, most of the hype was generated by oxymoronic entertainment journalists, looking for a hook upon which to hang their puff pieces. The folks at Disney didn’t exactly discourage the chatter, however.

After all, they’d already answered the same questions before the launches of PocahontasMulan and Aladdin, and came out of the experience unscathed. (A much better story -- the absence of black Africans in Tarzan -- was mostly ignored by the junket press. And Uncle Remus, Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby remain victims of political correctness.) 

Princess did OK business at the box office, but nothing special. If audiences were turned off by the idea of having a heroine of color, so be it … it was their loss. My guess is that mainstream eyes have become so accustomed to precisely drawn CGI images and 3-D that Princess somehow felt antiquated. There’s a huge difference between antiquated and old-fashioned, however, and it was the hand-painted look that appealed to critics and people born before The Little Mermaid. Like so many other of Disney’s animated classics, John Musker and Ron Clements’ film is equal parts fantasy, comedy, musical and romance. 

In another bow to tradition, the primary source material – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s The Frog Prince -- was in the public domain and, yes, free. This adaptation moved the setting from a castle in Germany to the French Quarter, in New Orleans, before and during the Roaring ‘20s. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) inherits from her late father both a culinary gift and a dream of opening her own Creole restaurant. Her unfortunate transformation into a frog, after kissing an amphibious prince, puts her plans on hold. Together, they set out for the swamps and bayous of southern Louisiana, in search of the mojo they’ll need to break the curse. 

While in the swamp, they encounter jazz-playing alligators, a Cajon firefly and other Disney-esque denizens. The story’s fine and funny, but what sold it for me was the detailed representation of life in New Orleans – OK, a fairy tale version, not discounting the racism of the time -- and all the sly references to the city’s cultural iconography, from Emeril Lagasse and Louis Armstrong, to Tennessee Williams and Evangeline. As such, Princess stands as testament to the city whose spirit couldn’t be crushed by Katrina or any other natural disaster. 

Randy Newman, whose New Orleans’ roots are secure, has added a score that incorporates orchestral music with Dixieland, zydeco, bluegrass and Mardi Gras marching songs. (Besides Rose and Newman, the distinctive sounds of Terence BlanchardNe-YoTerrance Simien and Dr. John fill the soundtrack.) Both editions include deleted scenes; commentary; a music video by Ne-Yo; and a quiz about all the other Disney princesses. The Blu-ray combo adds Magic in the Bayou: The Making of a Princess, art galleries, A Return to the Animated MusicalThe Disney LegacyConjuring the Villain and other making-of pieces. – Gary Dretzka


Wonderful World
Did You Hear About the Morgans?

The Matthew Broderick most of us recognize is almost unreasonably positive, wise beyond his years and able to charm his way out of harm’s way. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the title with which Broderick will always be associated, but, to me, his performance in Andrew Bergman’s mob-comedy The Freshman, playing opposite Marlon Brando, represented his best work on film. He’s also been terrific in Glory, Biloxi BluesFamily BusinessMrs. Parker and the Vicious CircleElection and The Producers. It’s difficult to believe he’ll turn 48 this month. 

In the ironically titled Wonderful World, Broderick plays against type as a former singer of children’s songs, who, somewhere along the line (where, I still don’t know), became the gloomiest of all Gloomy Guses. Divorced, he works a proof-reader, shares a tiny apartment with a Senegalese immigrant and smokes pot on a daily basis. His cynicism has even managed to turn off his daughter, who has started to avoid his bi-weekly visitations. It isn’t until his roommate goes into a diabetes-induced coma, and his sister comes to sit with him in the hospital, that signs of positive change begin to emerge. 

Redemption doesn’t come easy, though. It takes a while to catch hold. Sanaa Lathan does a nice job as the Senegalese woman who ultimately teaches Broderick there are things in life worth experiencing more than once, and in person. The peppy African music helps lift the fog of despair for viewers, too, whenever she’s on screen.

Wonderful World may only have made a perfunctory appearance in a couple of theaters before heading straight to video, but, at least, it didn’t lay a gigantic egg in the nation’s megaplexes, as did Did You Hear About the Morgans? Broderick’s real-life wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, plays alongside Hugh Grant, in Marc Lawrence’s anemic fish-out-of-water rom-com, set in Manhattan and Wyoming (although it’s easy to recognize it as New Mexico). One night, the estranged couple witnesses a murder, believed to have been committed by a notorious hit man. Within hours, these dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers are shipped off to a witness-protection outpost in cowboy country. 

After a day or two in Wyoming, you half-expect the cast of City Slickers to wander through the movie, driving dogies to market. That, at least, would have been a surprise. Parker and Grant are pretty game, but, too often, Lawrence’s script and direction leave them hanging. Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen are more credible as their handlers in Wyoming. If the witness-protection program truly was this porous, though, only a fool would trust their life to the U.S. Marshals Service. – Gary Dretzka
 

Good Intentions

Someone ought to give Luke Perry something interesting to do. It’s been 10 years since Beverly Hills 90210 ended, so typecasting is no longer a problem. More importantly, he’s done fine work as a lead character In John From Cincinnati and guest-starring roles in Law & OrderLeverage and Criminal Minds. The Southern-lite Good Intentions doesn’t test Perry much, but his presence as a tinkerer and hopeless dreamer adds a great deal to its watch-ability. 

Otherwise, it’s your basic straight-to-DVD comedy, with likable characters unable to compensate for an undernourished plot. Perry’s Chester Milford is at the point in his marriage to Elaine Hendrix’s Etta Milford where their separate obsessions have begun to tear them apart. Etta collects antique furniture, most of which she doesn’t realize is faked. As their money dwindles to near nothing, Etta comes up with a hare-brained scheme to continue her hobby, without alienating her husband. Good Intentions was shot and set in Georgia, but, blessedly, the Southern clichés aren’t milked to the point of being obnoxious. Indeed, it feels more like a PG-13 version of Mayberry R.F.D. Besides playing a supporting role, LeAnn Rimes supplies much of the background music. – Gary Dretzka


Astro Boy

I logged a lot of television time as a kid, but can’t recall watching anything resembling Astro Boy. At the time, almost anything that proclaimed itself to be “Made in Japan” was immediately branded inferior by patriotic Americans. That belief would fall out of favor in the 1970s, when less-expensive Japanese cars and motorcycles began to outperform U.S. brands, but manga and anime weren’t on anyone’s radar screens. Even if they were, they’d be considered synonymous with “crude” and “cheesy.” 

Even so, Boomer kids gobbled up such Japanese sci-fi and horror epics as Rodan and Mothra, which couldn’t have been any cheesier if they tried. The first incarnation of Astro Boy arrived in 1951, in the Osamu Tezuka manga, The Mighty Atom. It would be adapted as both a live-action and cartoon show for Japanese television. When it made its way to the U.S., the cartoon show was re-titled Astro Boy, perhaps to save audiences here from making the connection between the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and the mutant creations that followed in their irradiated wake. 

The character would be revived for TV series in 1980 and 2003. Astro Boy, the animated feature, was a disappointment at the domestic box-office. Why? I’m guessing it had something to do with its highly polished sheen, all-star vocal cast and Astro Boy’s resemblance to the Big Boy restaurant mascot. After all, the original TV series was drawn in rudimentary black & white. Here, the publicity effort, which seemed directed at nostalgic parents, might have back-fired. I imagine Astro Boy will do better in DVD, if only because it’s so much more accessible. 

The “Pinocchio”-like journey taken by the lead character is described quite well, through the energetic voicing of Freddie Hightower. The battles between robot gladiators are reasonably exciting and the art work is well done. The dark palette used by the artists, when Astro Boy is abandoned by his father and chased out of Metro City, may be tough on younger viewers, but the mood brightens once he’s rescued by his new family. The extras add much behind-the-scenes material. I would have liked a bit more emphasis on the historical evolution of the character, but you can’t have everything. The vocal cast also includes Nicolas Cage, Bill Nighy, Nathan Lane, Donald Sutherland, Kristen Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Eugene Levy and Charlize Theron. – Gary Dretzka


Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

It’s the rare low-budget movie that exits a major film festival demanding to be taken seriously as an Oscar contender, without first passing “Go” at the box office. Precious caught fire at Sundance, then moved on to Cannes and other showcases, before opening in limited release on the first weekend of November. By that time, Lee Daniels’ film had won the promotional backing of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and Mo’Nique was made the prohibitive favorite as Best Supporting Actress. Naturally, critics wanted their say before the public and academy voters began the coronation process. Except for a handful of prominent New York critics, the response was overwhelmingly positive. 

Still, unlike the reviews that greet 90 percent of all American movies, the critiques asked important questions and raised interesting points. The usual glib critic-speak was largely absent, if only because this was not a film or subject matter to be taken lightly. Audiences responded by dropping almost $50 million at the domestic box office … a fortune for a picture that cost $10 million to make. More to the point, it succeeded despite depictions of physical, verbal and emotional abuse rarely witnessed in American movies. Clareese “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sibide) may have been an unusually sympathetic character, but filmmakers were in no hurry for us to see the beauty in her heart and determination to make something of herself, despite the odds against it. 

Her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), was a monster almost beyond description. She stood back and watched as her boyfriend repeatedly raped their daughter, then allowed her jealousy to turn her into a punching bag. Once Precious escapes Mary’s gravitational pull and opens up to girls her age and older authority figures, there’s hope she’ll be able to live a normal life (as much as a life lived in abject poverty could be normal). And, even though we know that the welfare and education systems in large cities barely function, the blame for Precious’ predicament isn’t laid at their bureaucratic doors. 

Teachers, social workers and medical professionals played by Paula Patton, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz go the extra mile for this seemingly hopeless young woman, convincing her that she learn to read, write and collect her thoughts as poems and diary items. The DVD features include audio commentary; behind-the-scenes and making-of material; Sibide’s audition footage; a look at the Perry-Winfrey connection; a conversation with the author, Sapphire, and the director; and a deleted scene. – Gary Dretzka

Broken Embraces

Pedro Almodóvar’s movies are fun to watch for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the filmmaker’s ability to recycle Hollywood conventions and make them something entirely fresh. While it would be difficult to mistake his quirky sexual notions and fanciful color palette for those of anyone else, Broken Embraces harkens back to the Hollywood of Douglas Sirk, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and James L. Cain

Their influence not only is felt in the narrative and sets, but also in the face of Penélope Cruz as she mugs her way through a screen test of wigs. One minute, she’s Audrey Hepburn; the next, she’s Marilyn Monroe; or Gloria Grahame; or Simone Signoret. Cruz plays a former prostitute, Lena, who, in desperate need of cash, becomes the live-in mistress of a powerful industrialist. Bored, Lena demands that she be allowed to test for a role in a movie, “Girls and Suitcases.” 

She passes the screen test, but, knowing what can happen on a movie set, her lover signs on as the film’s producer. He also enlists his “fairy” son to eavesdrop on Lena, using a hand-held camera. Private conversations between Lena and her handsome director, Mateo, are translated for the industrialist by a lip reader. Their treachery leads to disaster. We learn all of this when the director – blinded 14 years earlier in a car accident that also left Lena dead -- is forced to confront his past by the now-grown eavesdropper and explain it to another young man, who serves as his guide. Among the secrets revealed is the reason for Mateo assuming the persona of the macho Harry Caine, and the depth of his relationship with the guide’s mother. 

Broken Embraces is not a high-concept movie. As in any good novel, mystery or onion, one uncovered layer reveals another, hidden behind it. The Blu-ray extras include a pair of intriguing deleted scenes, a look at Pedro directing Penelope, a Q&A with Cruz, a red-carpet segment and short film, The Cannibalistic Councillor, which extends one of the movies more clever bits. – Gary Dretzka



The Sonny Chiba Collection: 4 Films
Vengeance Trilogy
Ninja Assassin
Unrivaled

Back, at the dawn of the martial-arts genre, only Bruce Lee’s name carried as much weight as Sonny Chiba. A take-no-prisoners brawler, the mercenary Chiba was to superhero Lee what George Frazier was to Muhammad Ali. In the mid- to late-1960s, when Lee was making a name for himself as Kato on The Green Lantern, the one-time world-class gymnast was creating a niche in Yakuza and other genre fare. He broke free of the pack in the Streetfighter and Executioner series. 

Among the youngsters drawn to Chiba’s balls-out style was Quentin Tarantino, who would reference the fighter in his True Romance and Pulp Fiction, and cast him in Kill Bill. The movies included in the new Mill Creek set are G.I. Samurai (a.k.a., Time Slip), Ninja Wars (Black Magic WarsLegend of Eight Samurai and Resurrection of Golden Wolf, all of which were released between 1979-83. The movies are presented uncut, unedited and with their original Japanese soundtracks.

Chiba wouldn’t have found himself out of place in the films that comprise Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. VegeanceOldboy and Lady Vengeance. Each of these movies introduced characters who have had to cope with false imprisonment, various raw deals, extreme desires for revenge and the unforeseen consequences of violence. Rather than parrot genre themes and crime-fiction conventions, Park demands of his audiences that they put themselves into the minds of the characters and experience how violence can transform a person. 

Unlike commercial cop flicks from Hong Kong and Tokyo, Park’s movies are free of slapstick comedy, chases and contrived resolutions. The DVD package adds commentary with Park and actor Ryoo Seong-wan; cast and character interviews; essays; storyboards and photos; deleted scenes; several making-of and background featurettes; and My Boksu Story.

The heavily hyped Ninja Assassin caught the attention of action junkies, primarily for the presence on the credits of the Wachowski Brothers and Joel Silver as producers, and V for Vendetta director James McTeigue at the helm. With that much firepower, fans probably could expect to find a kitchen sink thrown into various fight scenes, for good measure. And, that’s pretty much what happened. A surplus of gore and guts almost compensated for a muddy story and some lackluster cinematography. 

Korean boy-band idol Rain portrays Raizo an orphan raised to be a master assassin by the much-feared Ozunu clan. Somewhere along the way, he develops a conscience. Reviled by the clan’s bloody acts, Raizo exacts his own punishment on his former brothers and mentors.Stories about mixed-martial-arts fighters have pretty much supplanted movies about ninjas and kung-fu fighters in the action genre. Unrivaled borrows the time-honored plot, in which an expertly trained fighter is reluctant to test his skills against the big boys of the sport. Friends enter him into a major competition, anyway, wagering his health against the opportunity for personal glory. Authenticity is provided by current and former UFC champs Keith "The Dean of Mean" JardineRashad "Sugar" EvansForrest Griffin and Nate "The Great" Marquardt. – Gary Dretzka

The Baby Formula

Megan Fahlenbock and Angela Vint portray a married lesbian couple, simultaneously pregnant and increasingly anxious to become mommies. The length of their gestation periods, however, allows plenty of time for a faux-documentarian to record their highs and lows. These include filming the contributions of other gay and lesbian friends of a certain age, also looking to start families, and the reactions of their own wacky kinfolk. 

The film’s central conceit allowed for the women to conceive, using sperm created from one another’s stem cells. When one of the ladies’ mom and grandmother hear this, they consider it blasphemy. Apparently, there’s been only one “immaculate conception” throughout history, and that’s the way they prefer it. Other crises arise, but none so severe that a happy ending can’t be arranged in the course of 82 minutes. Given what I assume to have been a miniscule budget, The Baby Formula is a fresh, imaginative and well crafted cinematic sitcom. The lead actors, indeed, were well along in their own pregnancies during the production, adding physical verisimilitude to the relationship. – Gary Dretzka

Armored

With a cast that includes such pros as Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno, Skeet Ulrich, Amaury Nolasco and Columbus Short, it would be difficult to screw up a heist film. Director Nimrod Antal may not have beaten the odds in this regard, but neither was he able to rise above the clichés inherent in armored-car schemes. While mostly entertaining overall, how is any viewer over 12 supposed to react when the lead crook promises that his plan is “fool-proof” and “no one is going to get hurt.” Yeah, right. Knowing ahead of time that their trucks would be carrying $42 million in cash, this blueprint for catastrophe was too much for the six guards to ignore. If nothing else, the cast brought more to the production than the screenwriter. – Gary Dretzka

Bandslam

Here’s a music-filled teen-oriented movie that had the overwhelming support of critics, high audience grades and a cast familiar to the target demographic. And, yet, it laid an egg at the box office. According to rumor, the filmmakers were furious at the distributor for marketing it as if it were yet another spin-off of High School Musical or Glee. I couldn’t say. The trailer looked pretty enticing to me, and I would have expected the stars – the Disney Channel’s Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka, Lisa Kudrow – to bring in their own legion of fans. 

In any case, Bandslam now is in DVD and there’s no reason for teens and their parents not to enjoy it together. Director Todd Graff, who did a nice job with similar material in Camp, allows many of the usual teen traumas to play out, while setting up the exciting state-wide Battle of the Bands, with which the teen characters are obsessed. – Gary Dretzka




Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVII
Undead: The Vampire Collection 20 Movie Pack
The Real Wolfman

The 17th transmission of cult classics – and I use that term advisedly –from the MST’s Satellite of Love include The Crawling Eye (a.k.a., The Trollenberg Terror), a sci-fi/horror flick that inspired both John Carpenter and Stephen KingThe Beatniks, in which the alleged hipsters more closely resemble garden-variety hoodlums; The Final Sacrifice, about an evil cabal of Canadian wrestlers bent on world domination; and Blood Waters Of Dr. Z (a.k.a., Zaat), in which a mad scientist transforms himself into a walking catfish. The goodies include interviews, special introductions, photo galleries, original trailers and promo items, and The Main Event: Crow Vs. Crow at Dragon Con 09.

For those folks who think you can never see enough vampire movies, there’s Mill Creek’s voluminous Undead, with 20 obscure and offbeat variations of the theme. Among the titles are Atom Age VampireThe Bat, with Agnes Moorehead, Vincent Price and Darla from The Little RascalsThe Devil Bat, with Bela LugosiHorrible Sexy VampireHorror Express, with Telly Savalas, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee; and The Werewolf vs. Vampire Women,” with the great Spanish actor Paul Naschy.

The Real Wolfman takes a documentary look at the werewolf phenomenon and events in the mid-1700s that inspired the Hollywood horror standby. As the story goes, a mysterious beast viciously attacked and killed 102 villagers in the French village of Gevaudan. Cryptozoologist Ken Gerhardt and veteran criminal profiler George Deuchar discuss the legends and point to medical and paranormal data that might explain the transformations. – Gary Dretzka


Clash of the Gods: The Complete Season One
Silk Stalkings: The Complete First Season
Commish: Season One
Chronicles of War
Rampage: Killing Without Reason
Wanted: Dead or Alive: Season Two
South Park: The Complete Thirteenth Season 

This week’s TV-to-DVD titles offer a little something for everyone. History’s 10-part Clash of the Gods offers a fascinating analysis of our lasting fascination with ancient myths and how different societies interpreted the stories to frame their own beliefs. Each episode connects ancient myths to actual historical events, as well as to events in the Bible and other cultures’ mythologies. Among the subjects: Zeus, Hercules, Hades, the Minotaur, Medusa, Odysseus, Beowulf, Tolkien’s characters and Thor.

Stephen J. Cannell’s fingerprints were all over Silk Stalkings, crime series that was fast, sexy and set among the swells in Palm Beach, Florida. Mitzi Kapture and Rob Estes were teamed to investigate the occasionally bizarre and kinky murders, many of which could be traced to one form of lust or another. It’s success as a made-for-cable series helped stem the tide of off-network reruns.

Cannell also helped create The Commish, in which Michael Chiklis starred as Tony Scali, an unorthodox police commissioner who tailored big-city techniques for solving small-city crimes. The series, which combined comedy and drama, attracted an audience seeking something different from the usual network fare.

Chronicles of War brought the stories and recollections of everyday soldiers to forefront, as well as archival newsreel footage and photos. The material shown in the 13-hour series complements that in HBO’s The Pacific and Band of Brothers.

The 10-part documentary series, “Rampage,” examines the sorts of hideous crimes not motivated by love or passion, but by rage, hate, cults, revenge and a desire to see things destroyed. It features rare footage and discussions with experts in psychology.

Sandwiched between The Blob and The Great Escape on Steve McQueen’s resume was the dandy western series Wanted: Dead or Alive. In it, he played a bounty hunter who favored a short-barrel shotgun.

There are so many highlights to the 13th season of South Park, it’s impossible to choose just one. In addition to making “queef” a household world, the boys exposed the Jonas Brothers’ chastity-ring scam, saved whales, sicced Kanye West on Jimmy, were possessed by Michael Jackson’s ghost and led a group of school mates to Somalia to become pirates. The episodes in the set arrive uncensored. – Gary Dretzka



 

 


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