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Gary Dretzka has covered the entertainment industry and digital technology for such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco and Seattle Times. He also is a weekly columnist for the Internet’s Movie City News, for whom he writes about current movies; advances in DVD, Blu-ray and 3D technology; and other show-business interests. Besides being a survivor of the great Cassette vs. Eight-Track and Beta vs, VHS wars of the early 1970s and ’80s, Dretzka attended the press conference at which DVD technology was first unveiled in the U.S., in 1997. He was raised among the cheeseheads, in Wisconsin, but currently lives in Los Angeles.
The Green Hornet: Blu-ray 3D
If ever a marriage were made in comic-book heaven, it was the one that joined French fantasist Michael Gondry and the venerable “Green Hornet” franchise. The ceremony originally was arranged for 1997, after Gondry had completed a series of music videos for Bjork, but before he and Charlie Kaufman collaborated on the wacky simian romance “Human Nature.” There’s no telling how that adaptation of the fondly recalled radio, movie serial and TV sensation might have turned out. Clearly, though, Gondry would have been allotted far less than the $120 million he was given when the project eventually found its way back to his hands in 2009. Indeed, he might not have been able to afford more than one of the sensational stunts, chases and set pieces that distinguish this “Green Hornet” from a million-other comic-book adaptations.
Here, a svelte Seth Rogan teams with Chinese pop sensation Jay Chou as the vigilante duo: publisher Britt Reid and his Asian valet Kato, a character previously played by Bruce Lee and Keye Luke. Rogan and frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg combined on the final script, in which Reid is a L.A. party animal, who, after his father’s suspicious death, inherits the family’s newspaper-publishing business. He also inherits, after a fashion, his dad’s mechanic and barista, Kato. If Rogan’s interpretation of Reid requires him to act like a rich buffoon, Kato is the opposite: an automotive genius, martial-arts expert and all-around daredevil … in short, the brains of this outfit. It is Gondry’s conceit to reverse the traditional roles of superhero/sidekick and make the supervillains (James Franco, Christoph Waltz) often appear to be smaller-than-life weenies. Black Beauty, which easily could have been re-imagined as a Transformer-like supercar, remains a tricked-out period classic. Even with the changes, the generation of male moviegoers raised on the bromances churned out by Judd Apatow’s comedy factory should feel comfortable watching “Green Hornet.” Critics and geezers old enough to recall the franchise’s earlier incarnations weren’t impressed, however.
For my money, most of the credit for making “Green Hornet” worth the price of a rental belongs to stunt coordinators Andy, Scott and Vic Anderson and the various other Andersons who also were part of the stunt team. It’s their show, really. Gondry’s imaginative ideas would have gone to waste – or to CGI mechanics – if it weren’t for the Armstrongs, who had to make them pop. (It’s all explained in the making-of featurettes, which are better than average.) Also there to make the Green Hornet’s life easier is Cameron Diaz, who, at 38, remains much cuter than a button. She’s made the unsuspecting intelligence gatherer for Reid and Kato. Gondry puts her on the sidelines during most of the action, however.
Owners of 3D home-entertainment technology will want to put their equipment to the test with the super-combo edition, which also includes Blu-ray and DVD versions. The package adds Chou’s audition and music performances; 3D animated storyboard comparisons; commentary, a gag reel and deleted scenes, and backgrounders on the special effects, car crashes and other stunts, the Black Beauty re-creation, writing the screenplay and Gondry’s vision. – Gary Dretzka
Mao’s Last Dancer
Those dance junkies not tuckered out from watching and re-watching “Black Swan” and Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition of “The Red Shoes” might want to give “Mao’s Last Dancer” a shot. Two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Bereford (“Tender Mercies,” “Breaker Morant”) has delivered a sprawling biopic of ballet dancer Li Cunxin, who, as a child, was plucked from a poor Chinese village and sent off to the big city by a delegation from Madame Mao Zedong’s Beijing Dance Academy. After practically being written off as a scrawny kid with no balletic potential, Li elevates himself to the top level of Chinese dance through sheer will. At the same time, Madame Mao was changing the nation’s focus on the arts to reflect a more proletarian stance. Traditional ballet techniques were incorporated into newly written stories, glorifying the communist revolution, Red Army soldiers and workers. It was a period of extreme turmoil in the People’s Republic and the primary beneficiary was the power-hungry onetime actress, whose Red Guard loyalists tried to cleanse China of all western influences. It wasn’t until Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai authorized the talks that led to “table-tennis diplomacy,” with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, that such anti-capitalist fervor was partially extinguished.
It cleared the way for Li to become one of the first students from the Beijing Dance Academy to go to the United States as an exchange student and performer. Relations between the two countries had yet to thaw to the point where a dancer would be allowed to stay in the U.S. in pursuit of love, dance or freedom. When Li announced his marriage of convenience to his girlfriend and fellow dancer, Elizabeth Mackey, he was forced to choose between romance and ever returning to China. Moreover, it led to a virtual kidnapping by delegates of the Chinese embassy, in Houston, and a daylong standoff with the FBI. Eventually freed, Li would go on to enjoy great success with the Houston Ballet and a reprieve from later PRC governments. He also divorced the ambitious, if decidedly less talented Mackey and, in 1987, married Australian dancer Mary McKendry. Eight years later, they would move to Melbourne, where Li would become a principal artist in the Australian Ballet. Since then, he’s joined the stockbroker racket and wrote his autobiography, “Mao’s Last Dancer.”
That’s all public record, so there’s no need for “spoiler alerts.” Nearly two hours in length, “Mao’s Last Dancer” combines the disparate elements of the dancer’s early life, with a primer on Chinese politics and a melodramatic portrayal of the Americanization of Comrade Li. There’s also a lot of terrific dancing, performed by dancer Chi Cao (as the adult Li), Camilla Vergotis and a fine corps de ballet, who even manage to make the propagandist choreography look entertaining. Chi’s leaps are as impressive as any I’ve seen in movies about ballet. When Li finally realizes his dream of artistic and personal freedom, though, Bereford’s ability to tug at the heartstrings turns “Mao’s Last Dancer” into genuine three-hankie weeper.
Also along for the ride are such familiar faces as Joan Chen, Kyle MacLachlan, Amanda Schull, Jack Thompson and Bruce Greenwood, who, as Houston Ballet head Ben Stevenson, sounds a bit like Andy Warhol. The movie comes with a pretty decent making-of featurette, as well. – Gary Dretzka
A Somewhat Gentle Man
It would be difficult to imagine a male character type that Stellan Skarsgård hasn’t played in his 40-plus-year acting career, both in his native Scandinavia and the English-speaking world. More of an Everyman than a classic leading man, he’s never less than believable in the kind of roles that require quiet strength, vigilance, a thick hide and other manly attributes. In the deadpan Norwegian comedy, “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” Skarsgård plays a character one doesn’t normally associate with actors of his age and stature, although Dustin Hoffman’s turn in “Straight Time” comes to mind. That underappreciated crime drama, though, had a noticeable pulse. “A Somewhat Gentle Man” practically defines the condition, “laconic.” This isn’t to say Hans Petter Moland’s offbeat study of middle-age doldrums isn’t a worthwhile entertainment, only that viewers shouldn’t expect emotional fireworks, scintillating romance or laugh-out-loud gags.
When we meet Ulrik, he’s being released from prison after serving a 12-year bit for an unspecified crime we later learn to be murder. The guard escorting Ulrik to the gate offers him a going-away gift from his compatriots and advices him to keep looking forward and not backwards at the jail. Ulrik is polite, but his mind is fixated on something lurking in the middle distance. We quickly learn that he’s interested in only two things: 1) killing the man who testified against him in his trial, and 2) making contact, at least, with his estranged wife and son. Time has been more kind to Ulrik, who, while balding, has enough hair for a scruffy ponytail, than to the surviving members of his gang. Although they still fancy themselves to be hard-core criminals, the “boys” have deteriorated noticeably over the last dozen years. Ultimately, “A Somewhat Gentle Man” becomes a test of humanity, both for the ex-con and those whose lives he’s affected. In most key ways, the only difference between Ulrik’s prison and the one inhabited by the other characters is the strength of the locks on the doors.
Did I mention that this was comedy? Well, yes. The humor, which is as dry as two-day popcorn, sneaks up on you at unexpected times and in very strange ways. There’s a truly bizarre meeting – perhaps intended as homage to “Taxi Driver” – with a pair of Lap gun dealers, one a tiny body-builder and the other a finicky chef. Humor can also be found in watching how Ulrik inadvertently provides a beacon of light, however dim, to those around him. These include his randy landlady, an old crone who doesn’t look as if she’s smiled in 20 years; the battered woman who works at the same garage as Ulrik; a bitter ex-wife, whose infidelity led directly to his incarceration; a boss, who talks in rapid-fire bursts of dialogue; a fellow ne’er-do-well who could be Harvey Pekar’s terminally dour brother; and his son’s wife, who wasn’t made aware of Ulrik’s existence until he shows up one day at their door. Those who stay with “A Somewhat Gentle Man” are rewarded with as satisfying and strangely amusing an ending as I’ve witnessed in quite a while. If getting to that point is the trick, Skarsgård’s performance, alone, makes the journey worth the effort. – Gary Dretzka
Julian Assange: A Modern Day Hero? Inside the World of WikiLeaks
Anyone unaware of Julian Assange’s existence simply isn’t paying attention to the world outside his or her windows. He is the Australian journalist/publisher responsible for releasing thousands of official memos, relating to U.S. foreign policy, on the Internet website, WikiLeaks. In doing so, he made himself Public Enemy No. 1 in Washington and capitals around the world. The memos include reports on various events and political scenarios playing out in dozens of countries; the observations of American personnel on the ground there; and the kind of gossipy tidbits previously associated with J. Edgar Hoover and his rumor-mongering FBI agents. They also reveal just how frustrated American military and diplomatic sources were on the direction taken by Pentagon strategists in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the press coverage of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, reporters freely quoted from leaked material, whose disclosure had been condemned by government officials and editorial writers. If, however, there is a difference between the classified files leaked to Assange and the Pentagon Papers, I fail to see it.
This timely, if seemingly endless three-hour bio-doc introduces us to Assange, whose reputation has been tarnished by government officials in the U.S. and Europe. It further explains how WikiLeaks works and what it portends, vis-a-vis the future of the Internet journalism and digital-age diplomacy. It’s a somewhat messy picture, to be sure, but, as long as politicians think it’s OK to lie to citizens and break laws, WikiLeaks will be a necessary part of the journalistic process. It also raises such troubling questions as these: Unless confronted with such evidence, would any government entity voluntarily open its files on the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and killings of civilians in our wars? How else would we know how interested our government is in the mistresses, masseuses and personal hygiene of foreign leaders? Why is the U.S. government using torture techniques, previously reserved for terrorists, on Private Bradley Manning, who’s only suspected of leaking intelligence files to WikiLeaks? And, what does it say about the Pentagon infrastructure that a private would have seemingly unlimited access to such sensitive memos? If these are questions you would like to see answered, it behooves you to learn more about WikiLeaks and the people who someday might determine what constitutes news in the U.S. – Gary Dretzka
Brian Eno, 1971-1977: The Man Who Fell to Earth
To the extent that Brian Eno is known at all in this country, it’s as the synth player in Roxy Music who looked as if he’d just stepped off the last shuttle from Mars. People who read the liner notes of rock albums also are aware of Eno as a producer of albums by David Bowie, U2, Coldplay Talking Heads, Devo, James, Sinead O’Connor, Dido and Natalie Imbruglia. His work has appeared on movie soundtracks – real and imaginary – ranging from “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” to “The Green Hornet.” He doesn’t look much like an extraterrestrial anymore, but he continues to extend the boundaries of art rock, ambient music, minimalism, electronic rock and music videos created as singular works of art. In some circles, his contributions as a production wizard are considered to be as singular and influential as those of Phil Spector.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” covers only a very short period in Eno’s career, but it’s the stretch of time during he comes into his own as a musician, writer, producer and collaborator. It begins in his glam-rock period with Roxy Music and concludes, six years later, with Eno widely recognized as a sonic visionary, whose compositions were shaped by textures and structures completely new to the pop scene. They were so far ahead of the time, prominent record labels considered the music to be without any commercial value. Even his experimental collaborations with Bowie freaked out the executives. Instead of bending to their values, Eno found innovators outside the rock establishment and collaborated with them. The MVD Video set is comprised of numerous interviews and contributions from musicians, writers, collaborators and journalists. Because of licensing limitations, whole songs are only heard within the context of music videos, which is OK because the total package is beautiful, as well. – Gary Dretzka
Megan Is Missing
Writer/director/cinematographer Michael Goi’s sophomore feature – following “Voyeur” by more than 10 years – straddles the increasingly thin line separating torture porn and reality-based cautionary tales. Inspired, we’re told, by a true story, “Megan Is Missing” introduces a pair of typically careless teenage girls who treat social media sites as their moms once did the system that linked their Princess phones. Amy and Megan chat via web cams whenever the whim strikes and pray their parents aren’t lurking around the corner, eavesdropping on their most private thoughts. Moreover, tiny cameras allow them to watch each other as they’re passing along the contents of their diaries, making plans, dishing the dirt or comparing their budding breasts. No matter how many times they’re cautioned about revealing too much of themselves on-line, the girls continue to open the window to invisible predators. And, of course, this is exactly what happens in “Megan Is Missing.”
First, Megan is lured to a rendezvous with a teenage boy – presumably — she met on the Internet, although it may not be the one she thinks it is. A security camera captures Megan turning a corner on a convenience store, where a young male, whose face is at a bad angle for clarity, grabs her arm and whisks her away. That is the last we see of Megan until a horrifying video of her screaming, while in restraints, is sent out to the local media. Three weeks later, Amy goes missing in a similarly mysterious way. This time, however, the audience is allowed to visit the torture chamber. Their fates need not be discussed any further.
That scenario could fit a dozen other horror flicks released each year by the purveyors of genre titles. The reality format isn’t particularly novel, either. The difference in “Megan Is Missing” is the inclusion of a short film, in the bonus package, in which the father of murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas lauds the movie and encourages parents to watch it and recommend it to their friends. He acknowledges the harshness of some of the images, but argues the truth can be ugly and a little knowledge could go a long way to preventing a large tragedy. So can fiction, of course. Stars Amber Perkins and Rachel Quinn look and act exactly as you might imagine girls in their same environment would, given the technology. By the time their characters go missing, we know them pretty well and think of them as real people. My problem, I think, is that the collision between hope and despair arrives too abruptly and it made me wonder if anyone, besides fans of torture porn, might stick around long enough to get the message. Neither do we learn anything much about the predator, as we did, too late, in the Klaas case. – Gary Dretzka
Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies
Given the condition of the print used to transfer “Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies” to DVD, it’s difficult to imagine anyone besides completists enjoying the movie as anything but a novelty. Indeed, the lighting and cinematography may be the most horrifying things about the Cheezy release, which has been sent out previously as “The Oasis of the Living Dead” and “The Walking Nazi Dead.” It’s as if they kept the day-for-night filter on throughout the shoot, forgetting it was still attached to the lens. The acting isn’t all that much better. For some viewers, that will be reason enough to watch Jesus Franco’s movie, I suspect.
For the record, the story begins in World War II, when a squadron of Hitler’s North Africa Corps is assigned the task of carrying a load of Nazi gold across the desert. The caravan is attacked by British soldiers, unaware of the treasure trove inside the tank. Years later, the son of a survivor of the attack travels to the desert oasis to check out the scene. Instead, the modern team – which, of course, includes some hot babes — is attacked by Nazi zombies, still committed to protecting the prize. Sounds like a reasonably good idea for a story, too bad no one’s made that movie, yet. – Gary Dretzka
It’s telling that the trailers included in the bonus features are divided into “festival” and “gospel” versions, one masking the decidedly Christian message and the other extolling it. For once, it’s a fair distinction. Unlike other post-Tyler Perry efforts, Christopher C. Odom’s “23rd Psalm” follows a discernible dramatic narrative, instead of merely pointing a stationary camera at a stage, where a play is being performed. Neither does it add slapstick comedy and musical numbers to distract the rubes. Here, a Los Angeles police detective takes over the investigation of a prostitute, who apparently experienced some kind of spiritual revelation before her cruel death. The cop, who is battling demons of his own, is himself transformed by what he discovers and who he meets in his investigation. The addition of occasional subtitles pointing to scripture seems needlessly obvious, but the film’s overall grittiness is a welcome change from backlot streets and sterile stages. The cast includes newcomers Leslie Jones, Arnita Champion and Markhum Stansbury Jr. – Gary Dretzka
As long as there’s a world full of bad guys to assassinate from long distances, there’s no reason why the “Sniper” franchise shouldn’t continue for the foreseeable future, at least. The scenery changes from episode to episode, as the riflemen move from continent to continent and the color and languages of our enemies change with each new affront to democracy. Even if that’s a ridiculous presumption, the boogie men are drawn so broadly that there’s very little to recommend them to the Maker they’re soon to meet. In the fourth installment, “Reloaded,” despotic rebel leaders in the Congo are on the receiving end of the sniper’s bullets. It’s the only way to prevent them from slaughtering innocents and kidnapping children for use as soldiers in their armies. That’s as cut-and-dry as it gets. Complicating Our Hero’s mission is the presence of a sniper, possibly European or American, in league with the rebels, and he’s as deadly accurate as anyone on the side of the U.S. and UN. Could even darker forces be at work here? Count on it.
“Reloaded” introduces Chad Michael Collins as Sgt. Brandon Beckett, son of the original protagonist, Thomas Beckett, played by Tom Berenger. Unlike dad, Brandon is a marine who considers anything less personal than instant death in hand-to-hand combat to be cowardly. It isn’t until he’s wounded in a deadly ambush and introduced to his father’s brother-in-arms, Richard Miller (Billy Zane, in a repeat performance), that he comes to appreciate the benefits of distance. He is, of course, a natural marksman. In their pursuit of the rebels, Beckett and Miller are joined by a prototypical “white hunter” – as professional big-game hunters once were known – who helped raise the kidnapped kids. Together, they make a formidable team. When a sexy blond UN officer, Lt. Ellen Abramowitz (Annabel Wright), is thrown into the mix, it gets even better. – Gary Dretzka
Drop Dead Diva: The Complete Second Season
Being Human: Season 3
It’s a slow week in the TV-to-DVD category, with only a couple of returnees vying for viewers’ attention. The surprise Lifetime hit, “Drop Dead Diva” enters its second stanza with lawyer Jane Bingham struggling to keep her job with the law firm she represents. The problem arose after she did something nice for a courtroom opponent and the good deed was deemed unethical by her partners and the presiding judge. Lawyers, of course, are expected to overlook the moral turpitude of their clients and defend them as if they weren’t the swine we know them to be. Jane isn’t that kind of a lawyer. For those new to “Drop Dead Diva,” the series is a direct lift of “Heaven Can Wait,” except for the gender-reversal. In her former life, Jane was a bubble-headed blond playgirl. Now, she’s a brunette professional on the plump side of the scale. Among the second-season guest stars are Paula Abdul, Chad Lowe, Vivica A. Fox, David Denman, Devon Gummersal, Robin Givens, Cybill Shepherd and Natasha Henstridge. The DVD set adds interviews with cast and crew.
The original British edition of the supernatural dramedy series, “Being Human,”
enters its third season with the undead quartet – two werewolves, a ghost and a vampire – residing in an abandoned, Hawaiian-themed B&B in Wales. They got in a spot of bother in Bristol and now are required to contend with a new group of enemies, most of whom also lead double lives … or double deaths, to be more precise. As odd as the concept may sound, it works. The series combines comedy suited to young-adult viewers and enough violence to satisfy the genre freaks. The DVD adds deleted scenes, extended interviews and Sinead’s set tour. – Gary Dretzka
Dora the Explorer: It’s Haircut Day
Tikki Tikki Tembo
If Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” had been around when I was a wee lad, I might have been spared my lifelong nightmare with haircuts and barbers. Instead of being coached as to what to expect, as is Boots in, “Dora’s Hair Raising Adventure.” I was turned over to a barber who did so poor a job it left my mother in tears. He also managed to draw blood. To this day, I go to great lengths to avoid professional cuts. Here, Dora helps Boots prepare for his first day in the barber’s chair by directing him to El Peluquero, who provides interactive diversions to the traumatic event. Also included are “Happy Birthday, Super Babies,” “Baby Winky Goes Home!” and “Dora’s Pegaso Adventure,” all designed to prepare the youngest viewers for the next transitional steps in their lives.
Did you know that May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month? No, I didn’t either. The new “Tikki Tikki Tembo” DVD set is comprised of a half-dozen award-winning stories, all picked specifically to “celebrate Asian heritage.” The title tale is based on the classic picture book by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent, which has sold millions of copies. It tells the tale of a first son saddled with the name, Tikki Tikki Tembo, a choice that causes problems down the line.
Additional stories include “The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks,” “Grandfather’s Journey” and “Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story From China,” narrated by B. D. Wong; Gerald McDermott’s “The Stonecutter”; “Sam and the Lucky Money,” narrated by Ming-Na Wen. The Scholastic Storybook Treasures edition adds read- along captions. – Gary Dretzka
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