Magic Mike: Blu-ray
With the exception of the “Ocean’s” trilogy, Steven Soderbergh doesn’t seem to have made the same movie twice. He refuses to be confined by genre boundaries and never tires of surprising anyone who tries to pigeonhole his work. Neither does he limit his output to potential commercial successes. Box office returns for the entire theatrical runs of “Bubble,” “Che” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” together, didn’t come close to matching the opening weekend total of “Magic Mike,” which reportedly cost $7 million to make and returned nearly $114 million in North America, alone. Throw “Solaris” and “The Good German” into the mix and the numbers would still come up short. This isn’t to imply that the underperforming movies haven’t made back some of the money in ancillary markets or that the good will he’s earned as a producer doesn’t count for something in Hollywood, because it does. Moreover, the three “Ocean’s” romps have grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. In addition to making plenty of money for its investors – always a good thing – “Magic Mike” received excellent reviews in the mainstream media. I wasn’t all that impressed with the story, which reminded me of a more circumspect “Coyote Ugly” and a less daring “Dancing at the Blue Iguana” than something fresh and original, but Soderbergh’s contributions as editor and cinematographer are enchanting. The Blu-ray images are nothing short of spectacular, while his choice of camera angles and locations is inspired. Clearly, the actors were having the time of their lives, as well.
As you probably already know, “Magic Mike” is set in and around the world of male strip clubs that cater to straight women, many of whom are celebrating a birthday or participating in a bachelorette party. Unlike some of the party footage you can find on the Internet, nothing remotely hard core goes on at the Tampa nightclub owned by Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas. The elaborately choreographed dances and expensively costumed hunks are naughty, at worst, and the women in the crowds seem relatively composed … by Las Vegas standards, anyway. Reid Carolin’s script is informed by Channing Tatum’s own experiences as a 19-year-old dancer. He plays the title character, Mike, who, of course, has higher ambitions than stripping, but needs the bread to pursue them. Until that happens, he’s enjoying the fast life that comes with being a freakishly handsome man in a sea of horny women. Mike befriends a guy, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), he meets at one of his other odd jobs and convinces Dallas to give him a shot on the Club Xquisite stage. Although Adam lacks most of the usual social graces, he, too, is abnormally handsome, exceedingly fit and a natural dancer. Adam has a rather stern, if pretty sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), who completely disapproves of her brother’s career track, but gradually comes around to seeing something worthwhile in Mike. The screenplay borrows a subplot from “Boogie Nights,” by having Adam succumb to the temptation of selling drugs and taking advantage of some of the young women he entertains outside the club. Although Mike is arrow-straight, Brooke and Dallas both blame him for not keeping Adam from nearly self-destructing. If the ending ties everything up in too neat a bow, anything more realistic would have spoiled the movie’s natural trajectory.
I found it interesting that the only character who exposes anything more than butt cheeks in “Magic Mike” is his occasional girlfriend, Joanna. She’s played by Olivia Munn, who seems to have a bit of a kinky streak running through her, but more closely resembles the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi than a super-freak. There’s no questioning her physical bona fides, though. Straight guys required to watch “Magic Mike” with their significant others will definitely appreciate her sacrifice. Aspiring filmmakers, too, will find much to enjoy in the movie. Soderbergh is nothing if not inventive and, strictly as eye and ear candy, “Magic Mike” rivals the movie adaptations of “Chicago” and “Chorus Line.” The Blu-ray extras include a sizzle reel of dance scenes, extended routines and an undernorished making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Blade Runner: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At some point, Ridley Scott is going to have to stop monkeying with “Blade Runner” and let it rest on its already impressive laurels. We’ll give a pass to the “30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition,” if for no other reason than it looks and sounds so fantastic. It’s as if Scott made “Blade Runner” in anticipation of every not-yet-practical technological advance from Laserdisc to Blu-ray and was confident that he’d eventually be able to get it right … in his mind, anyway. Despite a shabby reception by audiences upon its release in 1982, “Blade Runner” has since been recognized – thanks in large part to home-video enthusiasts – for what it’s been all along: a masterpiece. If nothing else, it added the word “dystopian” to the vernacular and a portrait of a dying metropolis (Los Angeles, but it could have been Tokyo, Manhattan or Peking just as easily), circa 2019, that with a bit more acid rain could end up being spot-on. The fact is, there was so much bad mojo associated with the project from Day One that it’s nearly a miracle Scott didn’t give up in the development stage. He reportedly told author Philip K. Dick that he wasn’t interested in making an “esoteric” movie, but it boggled minds from the opening credits. Even before shooting was completed, grousing could be heard from participants, ranging from cast and crew to producers and studio heads, if for altogether different reasons. Because test audiences didn’t dig the movie’s deliberate pacing, imprecisely defined characters and non-traditional ending, a voice-over track was added in post-production, along with a happier ending that satisfied no one. Neither did it impress at the box office.
Sci-fi buffs would find it in video, but that spark wouldn’t ignite a flame until seven years later when a 70mm print of Scott’s original cut was discovered and shown at a film festival in Hollywood. In 1992, Warner Bros. sent this version out in what was purported to be the “director’s cut” edition, one of the first titles to make such a distinction. In 2001, Scott and producer Charles de Lauzinka committed themselves to an actual director’s-cut version, employing state-of-the-art technology and adding various re-conceptualizations. For legal reasons, the planned 2002 DVD release wasn’t cleared for a theatrical run until 2007, as “Blade Runner: The Final Cut.” Anyone who already owns the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” gift set should know that the equivalent “30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” adds an all-new concept Spinner Car; action Lenticular; a 72-page art-production book with Scott’s sketches, poster art and photos from the set; and an UltraViolet copy. The “Final Cut” Blu-ray remains the same version that was restored and re-mastered from original elements and scanned at 4K resolution, with a the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. In addition to the “Final Cut,” with three separate commentary tracks, the sets contain the original 1982 theatrical and slightly more violent International versions; the 1992 “Director’s Cut”; and a “Workprint” version, with commentary and a making-of featurette. Anyone with the time and inclination will find something worthwhile in all of the versions. – Gary Dretzka
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
If advocates of the Birther movement have been allowed to spread their insane message by exploiting the willingness of the media to repeat partisan nonsense, even if they eventually knock it back down, I reserve the right to believe Abraham Lincoln could have been President by day and a slayer of undead Confederate plotters by night. Both theories are equally stupid, but only one qualifies as entertainment. In addition to Seth Grahame-Smith and Timur Bekmambetov’s highly entertaining “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” we recently saw the release into DVD of the Asylum “mockbuster” “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.” I’ve yet to see the latter, but assume that its basic premise is the same as the movie it mocks: armies of vampires and zombies used the Civil War as an opportunity to take control of the split republic, first by lending their support to rebel forces and, then, invading Washington, D.C. In Birther mythology, of course, if President Obama were to win a second term, hordes of Kenyans of the Muslim persuasion would descend on the capital on Inauguration Day, after which their leaders would be appointed to leadership positions in his Cabinet. I’m guessing that Obama’s detractors would prefer vampires and zombies to more liberals and illegal aliens.
Bekmambetov’s period thriller benefits mightily from his decision to refrain from snarky asides and wink-wink humor and play the material straight down the middle. By assuming that grown-up audiences would be willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to be entertained, he was allowed the luxury of not having to make his protagonist a caricature of his historic image. After a young Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) witnesses the death of his mother to a vampire, he vows to exact justice on the fiends. A few years later, he encounters a mysterious young man, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), willing to teach him the ins and outs of vampire hunting. Because of his rail-splitting expertise, it’s only natural for Lincoln to choose a silver-bladed ax as his weapon of choice. Rufus Sewell and Erin Wasson play Lincoln’s most aggressive foes, going so far as to sneaking into the White House and attacking one of their sons. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the killer app that turns the tables at Gettysburg, except to say that it’s a logical alternative to crosses, garlic and wooden stakes. There’s also a terrific scene aboard a moving train, during which Lincoln and Sturgess battle vampires who are intent on capturing the secret weapon. Who knew Abe could move like that?
Bekmambetov’s team was able to take advantage of the period authenticity still provided by New Orleans’ French Quarter, the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, and outlying areas used to stage combat scenes. The look is further enhanced by the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel and the attention to detail paid by set and costume designers. It’s probably also worth mentioning that Tim Burton is listed among the producers and, as the First Lady, Mary Elizabeth Winstead couldn’t look less like the unflattering photographs we’ve seen of Mary Todd Lincoln. A 3D version of “Vampire Hunter” also was released and is available on Blu-ray. Among the supplementary features are commentary by the author; a graphic novel, “The Great Calamity”; an extensive making-of piece; and music video by Linkin Park. – Gary Dretzka
Sunday Bloody Sunday: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to exaggerate the controversy associated with the release of John Schlesinger’s brilliant 1971 relationship drama, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” both here and the director’s native England. The buzz leading up to its debut was generated by a single scene, early in the story, in which a gay doctor, Daniel (Peter Finch), and his much younger lover, Bob (Murray Head), exchange a brief kiss. In context, it was a perfectly natural and spontaneous gesture. Both men are clothed, vertical and not at all ashamed by the private display of affection. Contrary to the gossip generated in the media, the kiss was significant to the story only as a way to demonstrate the men’s fondness for each other and it wasn’t intended to deliver a message, one way or another. (In the days of the Production Code, one or both of the men would have been required to commit suicide, go insane or marry the girl next-door.) While critics embraced the movie for all the right reasons, reporters from other newspaper departments were assigned to survey audience members to get the impressions, not about the movie in its entirety, but the then-scandalous embrace. Almost all of them came back with a quote to the effect, “It almost made me vomit,” which, of course, was the response their editors desired. Even though “Sunday Bloody Sunday” wasn’t a box-office hit, it was nominated for an Academy Award in the top four categories. Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Writing. It’s certainly possible that some fans of Schlesinger’s previous triumph, “Midnight Cowboy,” had somehow missed that film’s homosexual subtext and were expecting something completely different from “Sunday.” Or, perhaps, lovers of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Darling” and “Billy Liar” anticipated a lecture on gay rights and took a pass on it. The Stonewall riots were fresh in the minds of most arthouse habitués, after all, and the movement was gathering steam. The upshot was that its box-office failure freed Hollywood from treating homosexuality or gay characters with any degree of honesty for years thereafter.
The kiss notwithstanding, Bob is every bit as romantically involved with a thirty-something woman — employment counselor, Alex, played by Glenda Jackson – who knows the physician and is aware of their relationship. She also knows that there isn’t anything – short of murder, and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” isn’t that kind of movie – that would keep Bob from Daniel. In fact, it’s difficult to gauge Bob’s appeal to either of his lovers, except to note that he’s an artist and remarkably handsome. Otherwise, he’s kind of a drip. The central issue here is how Alex and Daniel react to the news that Bob is about to travel to America, where he hopes to sell his kinetic sculptures, and probably stay there for a while, effectively breaking up with both of them. That neither of them freaks out, commits suicide or asks the other to get married is what differentiated “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from the usual portrayal of scorned lovers. Forty years later, it’s difficult to believe any controversy was attached to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” especially considering its intended audience of sophisticated adults. Far more fascinating is the continuing debate, as described in the Blu-ray featurettes, over who’s more responsible for the screenplay, Schlesinger or the Oscar-nominated Penelope Gilliatt. The novelist and critic died in 1993, so no longer is around to defend herself against his assertions that he was more responsible for the screenplay, as shot, than she was. He sounds extremely bitter over the inability of critics to have intuited how his changes made “Sunday Bloody Sunday” a better picture than it would have been. He cites the fact that he experienced just such a relationship and it informed his interpretation of the story, even if she received single credit. Criterion Collection has added new interviews with biographer William J. Mann; photographer Michael Childers, the director’s longtime partner; actor Murray Head, cinematographer Billy William and set designer Luciana Arrighi; illustrated audio excerpts from a seminar given by Schlesinger at the American Film Institute in 1975; and a booklet with essays by critic Terrence Rafferty and cultural historian Ian Buruma, as well as Gilliatt’s 1971 introduction to the film’s screenplay. – Gary Dretzka
The Invisible War
Kirby Dick is a documentarian of uncommon perseverance and an uncanny ability to ferret his way through barriers put up by hypocritical organizations that most Americans trust implicitly and defend against perceived slander. These have included the Roman Catholic Church (“Twist of Faith”), U.S. Congress (“Outrage”) and the Motion Picture Association of America (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”). Already making headlines and raising eyebrows is “The Invisible War,” which in its documentation of widespread rape, discrimination, bullying and cover-ups makes the U.S. military look like a barbarian horde. It is as shocking as any of the documentaries about sexual misconduct among priests and many viewers will take the accusations as personally as coverage of the My Lai massacre, which also was perpetrated by average soldiers and career officers. The Pentagon and politicians traditionally have been given a pass, as well, in cases of rape committed in combat zones and outside our bases around the world. Boys will boys, after all, and drunken rampages are as much a part of the military experience as the deprivations imposed during boot camp. This attitude prevailed as women began playing important roles in the armed services. It wasn’t until the revelation of sexual assaults on 83 women and 7 men, committed by more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps aviators at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention, however, that media coverage forced the Pentagon and Congress to act. Even though several officers were disciplined or lost their jobs, we’re told, the good ol’ boys and girls in command continue not only to overlook rape, but they also punish the victims by denying them benefits and prosecuting them for breaking ranks. The vast majority of American military personnel is innocent of any wrongdoing and, themselves, would be shocked by the information forwarded in this film. The “wall of silence,” however, remains a very real problem, just as it does among cops, crooks, corporate executives and honor-code-bound students caught in cheating scandals.
In “The Invisible War,” possibly for the first time, dozens of victims of sexual assaults come forward to describe their experiences. This includes both women and men, whose attackers likely would be insulted if they were referred to as gay. Indeed, they’re no more homosexual than the imprisoned sexual sadists who prey on weaker convicts. The statistics are horrifying: a female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire; 20 percent of all active-duty servicewomen have been sexually assaulted; in 2010, alone, the Department of Defense processed reports of 3,198 new assaults, but estimated the actual number of assaults to be closer to 19,000; and these reports resulted in convictions against only 244 perpetrators. The charges in many cases were reduced to facilitate judgments that prevented the guilty servicemen from being included on the national sexual-offenders list, where at least some of them belonged. After the Sundance debut of the film and a private screening, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ended the practice of commanders prosecuting sexual assault cases from within their own units. As is pointed out in the movie, working through the chain of command often meant that officers would refuse to punish buddies or, in some cases, reveal their own complicity. If the war in Afghanistan ever ends, perhaps, the military can take a year off from killing and fix itself. The special features include extended interviews, deleted scenes, a post-screening speak-out session and introductions to VetWOW and National Veterans Wellness & Healing Center, organizations and retreats for veterans of both genders experiencing PTSD. – Gary Dretzka
The Ambassador: Blu-ray
At first glance, you’d think that making a film documenting crime and corruption in central Africa, and exposing the underground trade in passports and other official documents, would be as difficult as fishing with hand grenades. It pretty much is, but no one told Mads Brügger that the hard part would be staying alive long enough to see it finished. In “The Ambassador,” Brugger tells one of those stranger-than-fiction stories that are alternately frightening and hilarious. A journalist, TV host and amateur comedian, Brugger’s original target was the easy availability of fraudulent diplomatic credentials, if one knows where to look and can afford them. Once obtained, the documents open the door to powerful and influential people willing to trade their nation’s most valuable commodities for foreign currency and sometimes allow for diplomatic immunity. The Dane’s last “ironic” documentary, “The Red Chapel,” took him to North Korea, so, by comparison, how much worse could things be in the Central Africa Republic? Pretty bad, it turns out.
Looking like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Sascha Baron Cohen and the late comedian, Michael O’Donoghue, Brugger often affected the look of a mid-20th Century “colonial dandy.” Brugger’s triumph in “The Ambassador” is to show, using tiny surveillance cameras, what transpires in the inner chambers of corrupt states and recording the musings of fellow diplomats, local wiseguys and swindlers. To put it mildly, it’s appalling. When one confidante suggests that the diamonds can be smuggled out of the country by secreting them in various orifices of the body, it pushes Brugger’s co-conspirator – production manager Eva Jakobsen – almost over the brink of sanity. The commentary track allows him the opportunity to expand on his experiences in ways that wouldn’t have fit the context of the theatrical version. A booklet with photos and credits also is included. – Gary Dretzka
Secret of the Wings: Blu-ray 3D/2D
DreamWorks Spooky Stories: Blu-ray
If one were ignorant of the importance of Mickey Mouse to the birth and development of the Walt Disney Company and its global empire, it would be easy to mistake Jenny-come-lately Tinker Bell for the corporation’s flag bearer. Tink’s been around for as long as Peter Pan and Wendy, although in a subordinate role for most of those 108 years. Even in Disney’s 1953 animated feature, the pixie was rendered without a voice or wand. Those would come much later. In 1954, when Disney expanded its reach into television and other electronic media, Tinker Bell became the company’s unofficial hostess and a cross-platform star in her own right. Although the character has since been played by such actors as Julia Roberts, Jane Horrocks and Ludivine Sagnier, it wasn’t until Disney’s straight-to-DVD “Tinker Bell” was released in 2008 that the animated Tink was allowed a voice. It belonged to Mae Whitman (“Parenthood”) and has been heard on “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure,” “Tinker Belle and the Great Fairy Rescue,” “Pixie Hollow Games” and, now, “Secret of the Wings,” all of which are set not in Neverland, but Pixie Hollow. She has a teeny-tiny waxwork sculpture in Madam Tussauds, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and her own Disney franchise, “Disney Fairies.” For all the money Tinker Bell’s earned for Disney, she might as well be Oprah Winfrey.
In “Secret of the Wings,” Tinker Bell can’t understand why summer fairies are prohibited from visiting the Winter Woods or why messages from the winter fairies must be delivered by magnificent snowy owls. Although she isn’t dressed for cold-weather conditions Tink decides to hitch a ride to the forbidden land. Once there, she meets her long-lost sister, Periwinkel (Lucy Hale), who introduces her to the joys of ice skating, tobogganing and throwing snowballs. Lord Milori of the Winter Woods (Timothy Dalton) and Queen Clarion of the Summer Woods (Anjelica Huston) have their reasons for maintaining a distance between their kingdoms, some of which involve topical environmental issues, but Tinker Bell’s a formidable opponent. Anyway, the computer-generated animation is wonderful – it also is available in Blu-ray 3D – and the story should be of interest to boy kiddies as well as girl kiddies. The supplementary material includes music videos by the McClain Sisters and Zendaya; a preview of “Fright Light”; and “Pixie Hollow Games,” an animated short in which the fairies stage their own Olympics-style competition.
If, however, your boy kiddies balk at feigning interest in fairies and pixies – however foxy – I’m certain they’ll find something in “Shrek’s Spooky Stories” to enjoy, especially in the lead-up to Halloween. Very little has been lost in the transition between the big and small screens. The characters retain their individual personalities and characteristics, while the animation is typically first-rate. Much of the humor derives from the homages paid to classic Hollywood horror movies, with familiar DreamWorks characters standing in the immortal monsters. (A reformed ogre playing a monster, indeed!) The titles include “Thriller,” “The Ghost of Lord Farquaad,” “Scarred Shrekless,” “The Pig Who Cried Werewolf,” “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins From Outer Space” and “Night of the Living Carrots.” Besides Shrek and his family, the characters have been enlisted from “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Puss in Boots” and various fairytales represented in the kingdom. The extras include a pop-up trivia track for “Night of the Living Carrots,” music videos and previews. – Gary Dretzka
The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2
Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils … Thpeaks
One of the most highly anticipated and glowingly reviewed DVD sets of 2011 was Shout!Factory’s “The Ernie Kovacs Collection.” The 6-disc, 780-minute package introduced countless viewers to the genius who pioneered the talk- and variety-show genre, while also creating illusions and special effects still copied by hosts of late-night chat shows and comedians. For those old enough to remember watching Kovacs live or via kinescope, the collections brought back indelible images of a medium in its infancy. Kovacs often worked without a net, testing limits and borders that had yet to be established. “The Ernie Kovacs Collection, Volume 2” extends the legacy of an entertainer who died too young, but left the bar set at an extremely high level. It weighs in at a slightly more compact 3 discs, 540 minutes, if only because it literally takes us to the point of his fatal car crash in January, 1962. The material here benefits from being less primitively recorded and surprisingly diverse. The compilation includes 8 more episodes From Kovacs’ national morning show; 18 bonus sketches, featuring many of his beloved characters; 3 complete episodes of “Take a Good Look,” his anarchic answer to “What’s My Line?”; the pilot for the sitcom, “A Pony for Chris,” co-starring Buster Keaton; the only existing filmed solo interview; and a 2011 post-screening panel at the American Cinematheque, with entertainers who worked alongside Kovacs or were heavily influenced by him. There would been plenty more material available if it weren’t for the fact that short-sighted executives at ABC and Dumont hadn’t taped over the stored shows or dumped them in the ocean. A similarly fate awaited kinescopes of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” while it was still shot in New York.
In June, Omnivore Recordings did all fans of Kovacs a great favor by releasing – for the first time – the album upon which the comedian was working at the time of his death, “Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils … Thpeaks.” His shows’ outrageous “poet laureate” would register very low on the Meter of Political Correctness today, I’m afraid. He was to poetry what Liberace was to the piano, an unabashed and unapologetic caricature of his own outrageous persona. Sadly, Percy possessed none of Liberace’s estimable talent. Routinely introduced with a flourish of harp music, Dovetonsils was distinguished by heavily slicked hair, with two spit-curls plastered to his forehead; extraordinarily thick glasses, whose lenses are dominated by large eyeballs; a zebra-patterned smoking jacket; an ever-present martini glass and cigarette holder; and a decided lisp. He delivered his poems in a self-satisfied style that emphasized how goofy they were. Among the titles are “Thoughts While Falling Off the Empire State Building,” “Ode to a Housefly (Philosophical Ruminations on a Beastie in the Booze),” “Ode to Sam, the Taller of the Two Monkeys” and “The Night Before Christmas on New York’s Fashionable East Side.” You might want to hit pause on the DVD, so you can see Percy while listening to him read. It’s easily half the fun. – Gary Dretzka
Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines: Blu-ray
Like most every other states in the union, West Virginia has a state motto, slogan, color, bird, animal, fish, flower, tree and song. For some reason, legislators also saw fit to choose an official state insect, reptile, rock, butterfly, fossil, gemstone, soil, fruit and tartan. What it doesn’t have is an official state movie franchise. May I suggest the five installments of the “Wrong Turn” series? What, besides a John Denver song, says West Virginia quite as well as mountains, forests, rivers, automatic weapons in the hands of crazed mass murderers and in-bred cannibal hillbillies, all of which figure prominently in all five episodes? “Wrong Turn 5: Bloodlines” differs from the other four episodes very little. Once again, a group of clueless tourists (this time, college kids) encounters a family of grotesquely disfigured hillbillies while on their way to the annual Halloween Mountain Man Festival. The town is so small it has one only cellphone tower and no replacement generators, both of which are put out of commission by the killers. The twist here is that the hillbillies’ self-proclaimed father – a relatively normal looking fugitive serial killer – has been arrested and he’s thrown in the hoosegow with one of the students. His “sons” will do anything in their considerable powers to spring the old man from jail. In fact, it’s only matter of time. Before that can happen, though, the pinheads find it necessary to slaughter more than a dozen people who get in their way. The result is a bloodbath that, while gory, isn’t at all frightening. What’s scary are threats hurled at the town’s only surviving sheriff, a woman, by the “father,” who’s played with great menace by Doug Bradley, a.k.a., Pinhead in the “Hellraiser” series. The Blu-ray comes with the behind-the-scenes pieces, “A Day in the Death,” “Hillbilly Kills” and “Director’s Die-aries”; and commentary by director Declan O’Brien
By all appearances, the micro-budget “Dropping Evil” was intended as a franchise product. Three years and very little demand later, director Adam Protexter and writer Louis Doerge are fortunate to see “Dropping Evil” being released on video, with three mini-sequels included in the bonus package, along with deleted scenes and other material. This is one very strange movie, by anyone’s standards. It begins with an aborted camping trip, during which a religious fanatic is slipped a dose of LSD by his three companions, if only to shut him up. Instead, he demands to be let out of the moving vehicle, so that he can pick up a stick and beat the crap out of his “friends.” Meanwhile, somehow, the evil ValYouCorp is monitoring the incident via a camera embedded in one of the young people’s eye. The company believes that God’s “disappearance” can be solved by teenagers, but only if they’re involved in the procedure. It’s goofy, if not to the point where it could reach cult status. Any movie in which Tiffany Shepis is the brightest star and best actor – no offence, intended — is one with which no one needs to reckon.
Sometimes, it’s easy to give micro-budget indies of the DIY persuasion the benefit of a doubt. There’s usually a grain of something interesting lurking therein or worth staying awake for 90 minutes to find. Unless an aspiring filmmaker has robbed a convenience store to get the money to pay the actors, it’s better to encourage talent than condemn ineptitude. Michael Shershenovich’s “Bloody Christmas” uses horror to deliver a message about rampant consumerism and the people who have “taken Christ out of Christmas.” His avengers include a sad-sack Santa and killer priest, while the victims come in various shapes, sizes and colors. Unlike Chanukah, Kwanza and Ramadan, Christmas has provided a solid launching pad for slasher specialists ever since the 1974 release of “Silent Night, Evil Night” and “Black Christmas.” Shershenovich’s only previous experience in feature films was as production coordinator and set designer on “Bad Biology.” Here, he’s cited as director, writer, cinematographer, producer, editor and actor. That’s five too many responsibilities for any first-time filmmaker to take on and it shows. – Gary Dretzka
Tokyo Playboy Club
Climb It, Tarzan!
Of all the loaded words in the English language, “slut” carries one of the most explosive charges. Sexual semantics allow for as many different interpretations as there are people who use such four-letter words – longer ones, too – as nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, expletives, slurs and terms of endearment. The elasticity of the English language can be a wonderful thing. In a review I read of the recent Israeli export, “The Slut,” the author argues that the title has been mistranslated or purposefully changed to something more provocative than “The Giver.” Not being adept at the Google translator app, I’ll take his word for it. Having watched “The Slut,” I would suggest that the latter title is the more accurate one. Freshman writer/director/star Hagar Ben-Asher plays the single mother of two young daughters, living in a cooperative agricultural settlement that seemingly is bereft of any women, let alone attractive ones in their mid-thirties. Some people might consider Tamar to be a woman who defines the term, slut, because she willingly has four men on her sexual string and demands nothing from them in turn. I think that Tamara more closely resembles a “giver,” for the simple reason that she doesn’t appear to derive any sensual pleasure from her encounters and appears merely to be servicing several of the men in the settlement. They come to her when they need to get off and she willingly complies. If anything, it’s charity. The movie’s drama, such as it is, derives from the position in which she finds herself when an old acquaintance returns to the area and they enter into a romantic relationship. This would be swell, except for the fact that Tamar eventually comes to the conclusion that she’s more interested in personal freedom than monogamy and she truly does enjoy making men happy. I wish I could report there was something more to “The Slut” than that, but I couldn’t find it. The only truly disturbing thing about it is watching her pre-teen daughters watching mom in flagrante delicto and aping some of her gestures. The rural setting was interesting, at least, if only because it’s so different from the usual views we get of Israel.
Anyone looking for Bunnies at the Tokyo Playboy Club will be sorely disappointed. The closest this movie comes to Playmate of the Year material are three giggly hookers who dress up in costumes and don’t seem to have many customers. Anyone looking for a terrific yakuza flick from out of left field, though, will find one in writer/director Yosuke Okuda’s “Tokyo Playboy Club.” Any resemblance between the cheesy brothel of the title and the nightclub atop the Palms resort in Las Vegas wouldn’t merely be coincidental, it would be impossible. Action star Nao Omori (“Ichi the Killer,” “The Vulture”) plays an out-of-work businessman, Katsutoshi, who kills a wiseass student with a monkey wrench, because he was making too much noise and the tool was handy. The assailant decides to make a quick trip to Tokyo, where his cousin, Sekichi (Ken Mitsuishi), runs the aforementioned nightclub for the yakuza. It doesn’t take long for Katsutoshi to take advantage of his cousin’s generosity by beating a mob associate to a pulp in the men’s room of a restaurant. The ante is raised when the two men find themselves in possession of the body of a yakuza boss who died of electro-shock while attempting to rape a young woman whose boyfriend betrayed him. When the boss’ evil brother comes around demanding answers, Katsutoshi freely admits his role in making the body disappear and he doesn’t care who knows it. With its extreme displays of violence and twisted sense of humor, “Tokyo Playboy Club” should remind genre buffs of the early work of Takashi Miike. That’s high praise for the newcomer, Okuda.
And, speaking of titles, it would be difficult to beat the one writer/director Jared Masters gave his most recent sleaze epic, “8 Reels of Sewage.” Talk about tempting fate, this one takes the cake. New to DVD is Masters’ 2011 homage to the pre-“Deep Throat” sexploitation era, “Climb It, Tarzan!,” and, even after watching it, no, I can’t recall seeing anyone who looks even remotely like the King of the Apes. Fact is, there aren’t any men in the cast of several dozen largely unknown actors. Neither is there a semblance of a plot. There is, however, a lesbian pinup photographer who holds one of the many aspiring actresses who come to her for work hostage and uses her as a sexual plaything. Otherwise, the women spend an inordinate amount of time gabbing on vintage dial telephones and walking around half-dressed. This one’s strictly for fanciers of do-it-yourself cinema and other oddities.
I don’t know why “Cherry.” has a period tacked to the end of it, except to distinguish it from the many other unpunctuated movies titled, in part or whole, “Cherry.” It refers specifically to Brian Cherry, an overly sensitive young man whose discomfort around women is palpable. Naturally, his best guy pal, Sam (Rey Valentin), is the complete opposite of Brian (co-writer David Crane). One night, at a Los Angeles tavern, Sam spots a brunette, Jules (Lili Bordan) who looks as if she had been hired by Satan to tempt men into selling their souls for a hand job. Sam talks Brian into buying a drink for Jules and following it up with a bit of conversation. He even goes so far as to approach Jules and offering her cash merely to be nice to his timid friend. Even though she pretends to be offended by the offer, Jules surprises everyone – viewers included – by entering into a relationship with Brian. Sam senses trouble in the offing and warns Brian about what happens when opposites stop attracting. As much as Sam tries to keep his prophecy from coming true, by resisting Jules’ unexpected advance, he succumbs to her wiles. It leads to a broken heart for Brian, but not because he knows what happened that night. She merely decides that the affair has run out of gas and splits. What doesn’t make any sense at all is Jules’ insistence on revealing the truth about his best friend’s betrayal when they run into each other six months later and she and Sam have entered into a relationship of their own. What happens next is so clumsily handled by director Quinn Saunders that it makes everything that happened earlier in the movie suspect. The only thing I retained from “Cherry.” is a lingering image of Bordan, who’s real deal, in a Linda Fiorentino sort of way. – Gary Dretzka
Circle Jerks: My Career as a Jerk
The production of films documenting the rise and fall of rock bands has grown into something of a cottage industry. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a group with the impact of the Rolling Stones and Beatles or, in the case of “SpokAnarchy,” a nearly forgotten punk scene in an isolated corner of the American Northwest. The value of each of these rock-docs is determined largely by the passion of the groups’ fans. “Circle Jerks: My Career as a Jerk” is interesting because it not only describes what made a popular band important, but also how it fit into musical milieu. Here, it’s the SoCal hard rock and punk scene, which, in the late-1970s, had blossomed into a viable force everywhere except mainstream radio. Formed in late 1979, the Circle Jerks was comprised of former members of Black Flag and Redd Kross, but would see a revolving door of personnel representing several other Los Angeles bands. It was a hyper-dynamic unit then and has continued that way through its many incarnations and reunions. Filmmaker David Markey (“1991: The Year Punk Broke”) has created a blend of in-depth interviews, live footage and historical perspective to illustrate the band’s story. It isn’t radically different from dozens of other rock-docs, but fans of hardcore punk should enjoy it. – Gary Dretzka
Peter Gunn: The Complete Series
Fantasy Island: The Complete Third Season
Ghost Hunters: Season 7: Part 2
The release on DVD of all 114 episodes of the classic TV series, “Peter Gunn,” is good news for all sorts of reasons, the least of which may be the shows themselves. From 1958-61, Craig Stevens played the hipster private detective, who dug cool jazz, “dated” a sultry cabaret singer (Lola Albright), got referrals from a friendly police detective (Herschel Bernardi) and used a wharf-side gin mill for his office. The show was created, written and occasionally directed by Blake Edwards, who had previously written for “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” and would go on to make such movies as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” the “Pink Panthers” series and “10,” among other comedies. Even more memorable is the show’s theme song and background music contributed by Henry Mancini. The “Peter Gunn Theme” and two soundtrack albums became huge hits and guitar wizards, ranging from Duane Eddy to Jeff Beck, have covered the trademark song. From a distance of 50 years, the crime-detecting aspect of the show’s borders on the ridiculous. Packaged to fit 30 minutes of interrupted air time, the teleplays gave Gunn just enough time to solve complex crimes, hang out with his girlfriend and share wisecracks over corpses with Lieutenant Jacoby. Edwards seems to have enjoyed taking Gunn out of his natural habitat – an unnamed coastal city – and sticking him into situations where he might be required to wear a Howdy Doody cowboy outfit and traipse around in fins and scuba gear. If it lacked all credibility, “Peter Gunn” succeeded at being undeniably entertaining. The Timeless Media Group set also includes a disc of Mancini’s soundtrack music.
By now, no introduction should be needed to Henning Mankell’s brooding Swedish police detective, Kurt Wallander, whether he’s being played by Krister Henriksson or, in the English-language “Wallander3,” by Kenneth Branagh. Both editions of the series are readily available on DVD, if not all PBS outlets, and both qualify as a must-see television. It does, however, still feel a bit odd to listen to Branagh’s unaccented English coming out of the mouth of the same crime-obsessed Swedish cop in the same location, Ystad, where the novels and series are set. Frankly, though, after a half-hour it barely matters and subtitle-phobic Americans can rest assured their brains won’t be overly taxed by the experience. The three 90-minute episodes included in this boxed set are “An Event in Autumn,” based on “The Grave,” a short story published only in the Netherlands; “The Dogs of Riga,” which takes Our Hero to the capital of Latvia to assist in a drug case; and “Before the Frost,” in which Wallander’s semi-estranged daughter plays a key role. Most mystery buffs already appreciate the quality of the works from which these stories have been adapted. These mini-series are just as compelling.
Not much has changed on “Fantasy Island” in Season Three. Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and Tatoo (Herve Villechaize), are still greeting the planes and resolving problems – romantic and otherwise — that can’t be fixed anywhere else in the world. Among the guest stars this time around are Peter Graves, Abe Vigoda, Doris Roberts, Roddy McDowall, Don Adams, Sonny Bono, Dick Sargent, Fred Williamson, John Larroquette, David Cassidy, Leslie Nielsen, Bob Denver, Annette Funicello and Robert Goulet. I wonder what “Fantasy Island” would look like with an A-list cast.
You’d think all of the ghosts worth finding have already been cornered by the TAPS team, by now. Apparently, there are still a few of the boogers left. Hauntings are getting a bit harder to detect, though. The second half of Season Seven found “Ghost Hunters” in such places as the Carnegie Library, in Homestead, Pa.; Hawaii’s Plantation Village; the Friars’ Club, in New York; Missouri State Penitentiary; Buffalo Trace Distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky; and Hartford’s Elk Lodge No. 19. Wouldn’t you love to see TAPS take on the ghosts of the White House and Disneyland? – Gary Dretzka
Kartemquin: The Last Pullman Car
History: Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters
Nova: Secrets of the Viking Sword
Long before anyone had heard of Bain Capital, outsourcing, NAFTA and the auto-industry bailout, the closing of a century-old interest in Chicago and Indiana presaged the collapse of America’s Rust Belt economy. Kartemquin Films (“Hoop Dreams”), which then focused almost exclusively on labor and other progressive causes, committed its cameras to documenting the impending closure of the plants where Pullman Company’s railroad sleeping cars were built. In 1981, Pullman workers dedicated themselves to the effort to convince state and national legislators to stall the closure and/or enact laws protecting the 8,000 Pullman workers from the immediate loss of their jobs and benefits. As is demonstrated in “The Last Pullman Car,” the unions were greeted with false promises, outright disdain and legislative inaction. Today, such treatment is commonplace. That their union was duped by the company, as well, added insult to injury. The documentary also chronicles the history of labor unrest and occasional progress at Pullman and the boom-bust cycle of American industry. One of the things in “Last Pullman Car” that struck me was the solidarity of the union members and their awareness of the issues directly impacting their future. Everything foretold in the film, including the fate of Pullman Company, now is history. Sadly, blue-collar workers now are more likely to accept the lies told them on talk radio than entrust their futures to progressive political candidates. The new Facets release adds an update on the people we met in the film, a look at protests against anti-labor laws in Wisconsin, filmmaker interviews, archival Pullman photos and a study guide.
American’s falling apart. That’s part of the message delivered loudly and clearly in History’s “Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters.” The other thing the producers want us to know is that the next great manmade disaster likely will be deemed preventable, but only if politicians and taxpayers agree to pay the freight it will take to repair this country’s aging infrastructure. In hindsight, too, it’s possible to see how the Titanic and Hindenburg disasters might have been averted. The multidisc package is broken into three sections: “Inspector America,” in which a structural engineer visits several cities to demonstrate how the infrastructure is being ravaged and what’s being done about it; “Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters,” which uses on-the-scene footage, re-enactments, re-constructions and detailed analysis to examine some of the greatest disasters of the past 40 years; and in-depth post-mortems on the Titanic and Hindenburg.
In the “Nova” presentation, “Secrets of the Viking Sword,” one of the most intriguing mysteries in the evolution of combat armaments is investigated and partially solved. The Vikings, of course, have gone down in history as one of the most potent fighting forces in history. What, however, gave them an edge over the warriors of the tribes they confronted on their home turf? It’s argued here that some of Vikings, at least, carried swords that were comparatively light, razor sharp and virtually indestructible. A few of these weapons, recovered hundreds of years later in archeological digs and from river beds, carried the maker’s name, ULFBERHT, inlaid along the blade. Otherwise, there remains no trace of who or what Ulfberht was, where the sword was made and what made the steel so strong. While attempting to answer those basic questions, the producers asked a metallurgist and a master blacksmith to attempt to “reverse engineer” an exact replica. This footnote in history makes for a fascinating hour-long documentary. – Gary Dretzka
PBS: Great Museums
PBS: The Art:21 Collection: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Seasons 1-6
Edward Hopper is one of the most referenced artists in the world of cinema, as well as one of the most popular among museum browsers. “Nighthawks,” alone, has influenced countless cinematographers and directors seeking just the right combination of shadows and light to represent a big-city diner and the people who inhabit them in the wee hours. Their faces and decors give almost nothing away, but the loneliness of the subjects and impersonal nature of urban life is palpable. The noir shadings of his many urban canvases hide mysteries, yet suggest countless possibilities. As much as Hopper has influenced several generations of filmmakers, he, too, was inspired by the German Expressionists and creators of pulpy crime dramas in the 1930s and ’40s. His voyeuristic eye captured, as well, the lonely and, perhaps, troubled souls who smoked their cigarettes while gazing out the windows at everything and nothing. Hopper’s vision and influence wasn’t limited to cityscapes, however. Any filmmaker attempting to re-create life away from the urban centers would necessarily have borrowed – and, in some cases, reverently copy – from such paintings as “Gas,” “Road in Maine” and “The Lighthouse at Two Lights.” His houses could seem as isolated as the people in his city paintings. “Mansard Roof” and “House by the Railside,” for example, directly inspired Alfred Hitchcock (“Psycho”), George Stevens (“Giant”) and Terence Malick (“Days of Heaven”). Brian O’Doherty’s 1981 documentary, “Hopper’s Silence,” which was funded by the National Foundation for the Arts, may be on the short side, but it allows us to sense the austerity and integrity Hopper invested in his work. The film includes previously recorded interviews with Edward and Jo Hopper, curators of a major exhibit at the Whitney Museum, friends and other acquaintances.
PBS’ “Great Museums” is a documentary series celebrating the myriad world of museums, off and on the beaten path. In addition to the great institutions in major cities, there are another 15,000 museums in the United States serving general, corporate and niche interests. Many of them provide hands-on experiences, while others showcase the benefits of cutting-edge digital technology. Among the museums visited are the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, National D-Day Museum, George Eastman House, Institute of Texan Cultures, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Ellis Island Immigration Museum, DuSable Museum, California Surf Museum, Hollywood Entertainment Museum, Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Delta Blues Museum, Morris Museum of Art and Molly Brown House Museum. Each is worth a visit, if only vicariously.
Art museums tend not to make news unless they’re about to open a blockbuster exhibit of Impressionist art or showcase anything by Pablo Picasso (signed napkins, anyone?). The Los Angeles County Museum of Art received more media coverage by importing a giant rock from a San Bernardino quarry than for any exhibit since the last King Tut show, if then. The gallery scene outside of a handful of cities has been impacted negatively as much as any small business in the U.S. And, yet, art continues to be made and art schools continue to flourish. The producers of the essential PBS series “Art:21” seemingly haven’t had much trouble finding visual artists to profile, as the new six-season compilation, “Art:21 Collection: Art in the Twenty-First Century,” so richly demonstrates. They were accorded unparalleled access to today’s most important artists, as well as their studios, homes and communities. In doing so, viewers can get a better understanding of how their lives outside the studio impact creative processes and serve as sources of inspiration. The 24 hour-long episodes reveal the art world beyond the walls of museums and galleries, where only the end products are revealed. – Gary Dretzka
I’ve attended comedy shows in which the performers intentionally limited their humor to jokes that wouldn’t make anyone older than a freshman at a Christian college blush. Afterward, one of the performers told me that the hardest part of his gig is convincing hardcore born-again types it’s OK to laugh about the same things that make people in the secular world chuckle and that Jesus probably enjoyed a good knock-knock joke when he heard one. Before George Carlin opened the floodgates on words you can’t say on the radio, the vast majority of all comedians worked “clean” and, if they’d didn’t, they knew that material that killed ’em in Vegas might not be appropriate at Grossinger’s or the Sullivan show. When comedy clubs began to blossom in the 1980s, though, too many standups substituted profanity for gags, knowing it would get an immediate reaction. Not all comedians are able to spin obscenity-laden material as if it were wool from a blue-ribbon sheep. Generally speaking, though, trying to find a genuinely funny DVD on the shelves reserved for family-friendly Christian movies is a fool’s errant.
I give “Rogue Saints” credit for attempting something different. In addition to pushing the usual touchy-feely, Jesus-is-awesome shtick, Adam Lubanski and David C. Brunk have made a credible hybrid of the buddy and heist subgenre. Neither do they seem reluctant to poke a little fun at overly pious proselytizers; people who praise God before doing anything, including working on a car engine; shiny-happy blond bliss missiles who wear their virginity like a target; and other hug-it-out archetypes of the New Age Evangelical movement. (Blessedly absent are old-school, fire-and-brimstone bible bangers.) Here, two old friends re-connect via the Internet after a long separation. They agree to join forces on a mission to solve a mystery that’s intrigued them since childhood. It involves the location of a possibly mythical mega-diamond that once belonged to a prosperous businesswoman and has been missing for decades. Their theory is that it’s buried somewhere in the crawlspace beneath the altar of a church, but most likely underneath the immersion tank used for baptisms. Their plan calls for them pretend to be nighttime janitors, so they can dig without being noticed and snatch the gem before the font is filled for the annual baptismal ritual. Well, as they say in church, “poop happens,” and it takes a miracle to get things back on the right track after things go sideways and the church members who have embraced them are hurt. “Rogue Saints” lays it on pretty thick as things get hairy and the baptismal orgy that follows the inevitable, if tricky recovery is way over the top. For the first half of the movie, at least, it was going in an interesting new direction.
I wonder if somewhere among the new breed of Evangelical filmmakers there might be someone who wants to advance the genre to the point where it’s OK to make the occasional movie that doesn’t restrict itself to family-friendly norms and flirts with issues common to adults of all faiths and outright comedies. These don’t have to include anything of an overtly sexual nature or require coarse language and displays of skin. As it is, too many of the films I’ve watched seek the broadest common denominator and pander to the Stepford Christian crowd. Indeed, if you watch the deleted scenes, you can find a more representative movie. – Gary Dretzka