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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 winner of the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film poses several interesting challenges for its characters and audiences. First, it tests the convictions of modern-day Christians to live up to lessons taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Beyond that, by setting “In a Better World” among mostly well-to-do Scandinavians , director Suzanne Bier and writer Anders Thomas Jensen demands we consider how men, women and children living in idyllic conditions – her description of contemporary Denmark – respond to instances of incivility and violence. In the wake of the inarguably insane attacks perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik last month in Oslo and on the island of Utøya, it’s a question many Norwegians have been dealing with lately. For example, is a maximum penalty of either 21 or 30 years, to be spent in a relatively posh prison, fitting punishment for the slaughter of 78 people, mostly teens? And, if not, would bringing back the death penalty serve any useful purpose? The impetus for such soul searching may not be nearly so dramatic in “In a Better World,” but its characters are nonetheless required to decide between turning the other cheek and seeking eye-for-an-eye justice. A parallel challenge plays out in an African refugee camp, where a Swedish doctor working every day to save lives is commanded, at gunpoint, to heal a warlord who delights in killing and torturing people. His decision not only could impact his career, but it also could determine his continuing relationship with the refugees.
The two families at the heart of “Better World” are connected by the tribulations of sons Elias and Christian (Markus Rygaard, William Jøhnk Nielsen), who, as undersized outsiders, are the easy targets for bullies at a private school. Elias can’t attend class without first having to run a gauntlet of the much larger boys or watching helplessly as the leader of the pack flattens the tires of his bike. On his first day in the new school, Christian instantly diagnoses the situation and decides to come to Elias’ defense. The reward for such a show of courage is a bloodied nose and threats to his future well-being. What the punks don’t know is that the recent death of Christian’s mother, to cancer, has neutralized his capacity to control negative impulses. It is further exacerbated by his hatred for his father, who he blames for his mother’s cancer, and the willingness of Elias’ surgeon father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), to turn his cheek on an assault by an adult bully. The practice may have served him well in Africa, but here it makes him look like a wimp. Having already vanquished the school bully, Christian and Elias decide to exact their own justice on the thuggish adult. Whether victory ultimately will belong to the boys’ angels or demons remains an open question throughout most of “Better World.”
This synopsis may make the movie sound as if it’s merely a lesson in advanced bible studies, but the parallel dilemmas require more thought. Bier and Jensen have confronted confounding moral issues in previous collaborations and know that nothing can be gained if their characters aren’t completely recognizable and something substantial is at stake. Their protagonists must understand that some actions have ramifications beyond the borders of the local community. Indeed, their 2004 screenplay for “Brødre” dealt with issues so universal that it could be translated, as “Brothers,” for Americans audiences, without doing much more than changing the setting and making the UN peacekeeper an American soldier in the same war. “Brothers” and “Better World” are both graced with superior acting and a firm sense of place. Neither does the humanistic approach interfere with the dramatic story-telling. The “Better World” Blu-ray adds interviews and behind-the-scenes material. – Gary Dretzka
The Complete Jean Vigo: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If …: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Orpheus: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Even though Jean Vigo’s output was limited to four films, and his brilliance wasn’t recognized until more than a decade after his untimely death, in 1934, it would be difficult to find a critic who doesn’t consider two of those titles, at least, to be unqualified masterpieces. The best known, “Zero de conduit,” has influenced movies as disparate as “The 400 Blows” and “Animal House.” Among the many directors influenced by “L’atalante” are Francois Truffaut, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, Emir Kusturica, Michel Gondry, Eric Rohmer, Anthony Minghella, David Mackenzie and wannabe filmmaker Madonna. Universally admired today, both films might have ended up in the dustbin of history if it weren’t for some good luck along the way. Censors kept the delightfully anarchic and presumably unpatriotic “Zero de conduit” out of sight until 1946, while distributers uncomfortable with Vigo’s poetic realist style and overt romanticism chopped more nearly 25 minutes from “L’atalante,” changed its title and added a popular song. Feared lost to the ages, it wouldn’t be shown intact until 1990, when a print was discovered in a studio vault in Italy. It has since been voted one of 10 greatest films of all time. Vigo, who died of tuberculosis at 29, went to his grave disillusioned and humiliated,
“Zero de conduit” remains as wildly entertaining and subversive today, as it did nearly 80 years ago, so censors probably were correct in assuming it reflected negatively on the French education system. Teachers refer to the students of the boarding school as “little devils” and use any excuse to discipline them. For their part, the kids seem hell-bent on having fun and creating mischief. When they’ve had enough of the teachers’ repression, a splinter group decides to ruin an outdoor gathering of swells by hurling objects at them from the roof. If the censors thought “Zero” would encourage young people to disrespect and challenge authority – Vigo’s father was a militant anarchist, who was murdered in prison — their fears were realized in the uprising of 1968. Today, it’s mostly hilarious and not a minute out of date.
The other two films included in the Criterion Collection edition are “À propos de Nice,” a surrealistic study of the resort city and the decay eating at it from within. “Taris” is both a portrait of French swimming champion and an opportunity to experiment with underwater cinematography. It would pay off in “L’atalante,” which was set largely on a barge navigating the heavily industrial waterway linking Le Havre and Paris. In one unforgettable scene, the barge’s captain jumps into the murky water to chase a ghostly vision of his wife, who jumped ship after he refused to show her the lights of Paris. He realizes his mistake only after the barge has moved on to its destination. Although separated, they share similar dreams and frequent emotional tugs. Still, the intervention of a crusty old salt is required to bring their broken hearts together, again. The lyric approach to the subject matter, non-static settings and inventive cinematography directly inspired several filmmakers associated with the French New Wave.
In addition to hi-def restorations of all four films, the Criterion edition adds audio commentaries with Michael Temple, author of “Jean Vigo”; alternate shots and Vigo’s cut of “À propos de Nice”; an animated tribute to Vigo by Michel Gondry; a 1964 episode of the French television series “Cinéastes de notre temps”; a conversation from 1968 between filmmakers François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer on “L’atalante” and Bernard Eisenschitz’s 2001 documentary tracking the history of the film; a video interview from 2007 with Georgian director Otar Iosseliani; and a booklet featuring essays by film writers Michael Almereyda, Robert Polito, B. Kite and Luc Sante.
Lindsay Anderson’s “If …” may not be a direct remake of “Zero,” but there’s no mistaking their shared DNA. Thirty years later, Anderson relocated the disgruntled students and pompous pedagogues to a British boarding school, where the sons of the ruling class are taught how to behave and conform. Not all of them are rebellious, but the ones who are have a lot of support among the silent majority. These are boys, after all, whose boisterous natures don’t always fit the hideous uniforms they’re required to wear. The old students understand that they’ll eventually be required to fit into British society, somewhere, and only take to the rooftops when the twits in charge of their class attempt to whip the tar out of them. Malcolm McDowell, in his feature debut, is nothing short of magnetic as the irrepressible Mick Travis, perceived to be the greatest threat to the status quo, and a character Anderson would reprise in “O Lucky Man!” and “Britannia Hospital.” (His performance likely prompted Kubrick to cast him as Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.”) Ironically, perhaps, “If …” feels far more dated than “Zero.” This may be due to our familiarity with the tumultuous events of the late-’60s and ultimate failure of the “revolution.” Still, it remains an important and highly entertaining movie. The Criterion set adds cast and crew interviews; a recollection of Anderson and the production of “If …,” by actor Graham Crowden; “Thursday’s Children,” Anderson’s Oscar-winning short documentary about a school for deaf children; commentary with McDowell and historian David Robinson; and an illustrated booklet with critical essays.
Jean Cocteau, whose 1946 “Beauty and the Beast” depicts one of the most unlikely and magical romances in cinema history, updates another classic myth in “Orpheus.” The primary locations are a Left Bank café frequented by young poets and intellectuals and the rural estate of a more establishedpoet, Orphee (Jean Marais), whose popularity and financial success disturb the Parisian lay-abouts. Orphee’s unexpected appearance at the café prompts a fight among the young patron and the accidental death of drunken, less known writer. The victim’s mysterious goth companion, rumored to be a princess, insists Orphee help her get the dying young man into her limousine, but refuses to answer his questions about where they’re going or why he’s been asked to join her. Her silence is interrupted by short, cryptic messages broadcast through the radio. They make no literal sense, but their atonal poetics fascinate Orphee. When the limo arrives at its destination, the princess (Maria Casarès) leads her retinue through a mirrored portal we assume leads from the world of living to the realm of the dead. With the help of the princess’ newly deceased chauffeur, Orphee is able to escape death and return home, where his wife, Eurydice, has a secret to share with him. His obsession with the radio messages – the vehicle is being hidden the Orphee’s garage — infuriates Eurydice (Marie Déa), causing her to leave home and put herself in the path of the princess’ murderous motorcyclists. Will Orphee be able to pull himself from the radio long enough to rescue Eurydice or are their fates sealed? Stay tuned.
Cocteau puts viewers in the same dreamlike trance as the one being experienced by his characters, and, even if we’re familiar with the myth, it’s impossible not to be engrossed by the mysteries of “Orpheus.” Nearly as fascinating as the movie are the supplementary features, in which we’re invited to Cocteau’s wonderfully decorated home – whose walls serve as a canvas for the artist’s whimsical impulses — and other places where his commissioned work is on display. Also included in the newly restored edition is audio commentary by French film scholar James Williams; the remarkable feature-length documentary, “Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown,” with guest appearances by Picasso, Renoir, Chaplin, Nijinsky, Satie and other legendary artists; a 2008 video interview with assistant director Claude Pinoteau, who explains the special effects in the film; “40 Minutes with Jean Cocteau,” an interview from 1957; “In Search of Jazz,” a fascinating 1956 interview with Cocteau on the use of jazz in the film; “La villa Santo-Sospir,” a 16mm color film from 1951; a gallery of images by French film portrait photographer Roger Corbeau; raw newsreel footage of the Saint-Cyr military academy ruins, a location used in the film; and a booklet featuring an essay by author Mark Polizzotti, selected Cocteau writings on the film, and an essay on La villa Santo-Sospir by Williams. – Gary Dretzka
I don’t care which title tops your list of prison-riot thrillers, Daniel Monzón’s “Cell 211” is better. It’s scarier, more emotionally gripping and far more convincing than any Hollywood prison film I’ve seen in a long time, and can stand alongside the documentary “Ghosts of Attica,” “Hunger,” “Animal Factory,” “Un prophete,” “Papillon,” “Bronson,” “Midnight Express” and, God knows, maybe even Jonathan Demme’s immortal “Caged Heat,” as must-see prison flicks. As riots go, the one in “Cell 211” would be tough to beat, however. At last year’s Goya Awards, it walked away with eight prizes, including Best Film, Director and Actor. The only things not frightening about it are the subtitles, which, as Spanish-speakers will attest, have been slightly sanitized for the tender ears of American audiences.
“Cell 211” begins quietly, with a newly hired guard getting a head-start tour of the facility by other guards. While discussing peculiarities in the system, a heavy object is dropped on the men from a high tier. It causes Juan Oliver to drop heavily to the floor, wounded and unconscious. At the same time, a guard on the same floor is attacked by a psycho con, causing alarms to go off and prompting Juan’s escorts to drag him into a vacant cell and exit, stage right, to safer quarters. Within minutes, prisoners surge out of their cells and into the prison’s common areas, breaking everything that can be broken and making an unholy noise. Because Juan carries nothing that identifies him as a guard or visitor, the rioters buy his story about being a newly arrived prisoner who got caught up in the melee. The cell into which he was shoved is important symbolically because it served as the final home for a distraught prisoner put in isolation for an unconscionably long time. Not all of the cons buy Juan’s story, but quick thinking allows him to form an unlikely, if tentative alliance with the reigning bad boy of the cell block, Malamadre (Luis Tosar). It evolves into a mutually beneficial relationship, because Juan is recognized by prison brass monitoring the situation through security cameras and it’s unlikely they would put him in jeopardy by storming the cellblock. In turn, his uncanny knowledge of prison emergency procedures and negotiating skills make him a valuable ally for Malamadre and the rival Basque and Colombian cliques. The fly in the ointment arrives in the form of a double-dealing snitch and police official who thinks nothing of beating the crap out of anyone who gets in his way. Unfortunately, while breaking up a crowd of concerned civilians and relatives, the jerk slams Juan’s pregnant wife in the head with his baton, sending her to the hospital and putting her life and that of the unborn child in jeopardy.
Prison officials have already been caught telling lies, but Juan has made logical excuses for them. When the attack on his wife is shown on television, however, it immediately changes the dynamics of the situation and makes Juan question who his true allies are. It also causes him to re-evaluate any doubts he might have had about prison reform. The rethinking, negotiating and strategizing take place against a backdrop of extreme hostility, blood lust and mistrust on both sides, and the imminent threat of violence. Unlike such dilemmas in American movies, we know that this one won’t end with a settlement that both sides will agree is fair and allow the protagonists to escape largely unscathed or memorialized in some permanent fashion. Knowing that a worst-case scenario is always an option for Monzon only makes “Cell 211” that much more exciting. The movie comes with an excellent making-of featurette and interviews with the filmmakers and cast, many of whom were chosen because they’re ex-cons.
From Romania, where, if recent movies are to be believed, the sun hasn’t shown since the collapse of communism, comes the offbeat procedural, “Police, Adjective.” Corneliu Porumboiu’s film takes its own sweet time getting to its point, but, once there, something wonderful happens. The story revolves around a dedicated twenty-something plain-clothes cop, Cristi (Dragos Bucur), assigned to a town where, apparently, nothing happens. He’s told to investigate a small group of teenagers who spend their lunch hour chatting and sharing a joint or two. Cristi’s boss is of the opinion that something far more sinister is going on and he doesn’t want the department to miss an opportunity to bust a major drug ring. The deeper Cristi immerses himself in the investigation – and he takes voluminous notes — the less convinced he is of the kids’ evil intentions. When summoned to the office of his boss’ boss, he’s asked when the case will be closed and why a sting hasn’t already been scheduled.
Not wanting to send the boy who carries the joints to prison for 10 years, simply because he’s holding a substance that likely will be legalized in the near future, Cristi balks at the order. Moreover, his conscience won’t allow him to arrest someone identified by a snitch, who may, in fact, may be the real culprit. It’s at this point that movie abruptly shifts gears, turning into a clever rhetorical battle between the chief and his detective. The ensuing debate over what constitutes an act of conscience and what doesn’t could have been scripted by David Mamet. The chief is clearly an educated man, but one whose moral compass is a relic of an earlier era. Crisiti may not be old to remember when the Ceausescus were unceremoniously tried, convicted and executed for crimes against the state and its people. The generation gap extends to the language used to consider what it means to act on conscience. The chief opts for a Romanian dictionary, while Cristi is guided by his feelings. It recalls previous discussions between Cristi and his wife, a language teacher, who parses words and sentences with the preciseness of a 19th Century schoolmarm. The chief probably wouldn’t have wasted any time splitting hairs during the Ceausescu regime, when cops had their hands full enlisting informers and punishing reactionaries and enemies of the state. Even more ironically, the chief catches the same misspelling – which wasn’t identified as a misspelling until reforms took hold – Cristi’s wife identified. Anyway, the syntactic arguments help explain the strange title of Porumboiu’s film, which grabbed FIPRESCI and Un Certain Regard honors at the 2009 Cannes festival. Only the most patient of viewers are likely to stick around long enough to appreciate the ending, but, then, they knew to expect such an experience from Porumboiu’s previous feature, the similarly entertaining but more overtly political, “12:08 East of Bucharest.” – Gary Dretzka
The 5th Quarter
Rising international stars Til Schweiger and Jana Pallaske, both of whom played key roles in “Inglourious Basterds,” re-team for the inspirational story of Mark Sumner, a German cyclist who lost a leg in a collision with an automobile. Together, they could be the most cinemagenic couple east or west of wherever Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are saving the world on any given week. Indeed, the actors bear more than passing resemblance to Brangelina. Schweiger’s assignment was to portray Sumner as a passionate cyclist, devoted single father of a teenage girl, chronically blocked writer and a world-class horndog. Instead of keeping his nose on the grindstone at work on the docks, Sumner keeps the crew entertained with outlandish stories. He also is caught selling a mountain bike at a heavily discounted price to Nika, a stunning brunette with Noomi Rapace’s face and Jolie’s lips. After discovering his journals, Nika practically demands he pick up a pen and write. On the day of his accident, Sumner stands up Nika and a literary agent she’s brought along for him to meet.
Armed with only that much information, most buffs could accurately predict how writer/director Matthias Emcke proceeds with the story. That’s because 90 percent of all movies based on the true story of an athlete disabled at his or her prime begin and end the same way. The only blank spaces left to be filled in are those pertaining to personality traits and other background material. Otherwise, the protagonist is required to pass through at least four of the five stages of accepting catastrophic loss — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance – before the closing credits roll. After Sumner survives the surgery, we know before he does that he’ll benefit from the same prosthetic devices that have allowed survivors of IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan to walk, again. All that’s left for him to decide is if his future lies in a bottle of Schnapps or writing his way through recovery, with the lovely Nika at his side. Probably because “Phantom Pain” doesn’t deviate from that formula, it didn’t find any traction outside Europe, where biking is a huge spectator sports. Once seen, though, its inspirational punch is impossible to deny. The actors are that convincing. The bonus material includes interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and photographs of Sumner, before and after the accident.
Collegiate football provides the inspirational setting for “The 5th Quarter,” a Dove Foundation-approved movie in which key characters are required to experience the same stages of accepting loss. Here, though, it’s the family of the athlete taken before his time that must recover emotionally from the loss. What makes Rick Bieber’s fact-based tear-jerker different from dozens of other genre specimens is how deeply the extended family of 16-year-old Luke Abbate was inspired by his story. Most of them were made of aware of his untimely death through his older brother, Jon (Ryan Merriman), who nearly gave up on his dream to play professional football after hearing the news. After learning of his ordeal, fans of the Wake Forest team rallied behind Jon and other members of his devastated family. In turn, Deacons honored Jon and Luke by embarking on what turned out to be a “miracle season.”
Only a few days before his 16th birthday, Luke was severely injured in an accident caused by the reckless driving of a friend and teammate. He wouldn’t have needed the ride home if another friend hadn’t decided she needed to study, instead of car-pool. What began as a simple ride home after practice became a never-ending nightmare for his family and a blessing for the people whose lives were saved by the organs that were donated in his name. Naturally, Jon struggled with his brother’s death, even going so far as to consider leaving the previously hapless team. Not being the kind of large, impersonal institution where students barely recognize each other on campus, the Wake Forest “family” not only inspired Jon to return to football, but they also gave the Abbate family reason to believe Luke hadn’t died in vain. The movie’s title refers to how the Wake Forest team, fans and family dedicated the fourth quarter of 2006 football games to Luke’s memory, holding five fingers in the air to commemorate the number worn by both brothers on their uniforms. Picked to finish at the bottom of the ACC that season, the Deacons captured the league’s flag and played Louisville in the 2007 Orange Bowl.
Jon would go on to the NFL, with mixed results, while the Abbate family created the “Five Foundation” to raise awareness among young people of the responsibilities and dangers of driving.As the boys’ parents, Aidan Quinn and Andie MacDowell are required to maintain a tight grip on an emotional roller-coaster, whose controls are set at “manic-depressive.” They’re naturally ecstatic at the success of Wake Forest’s football team and the fans’ tribute to their sons, but, even months later, seem barely capable of getting out of bed in the morning. While Bieber does a nice job chronicling the team’s success and Jon’s recovery, he raises too many unanswered questions about Steven and Maryanne’s personal ordeal and its effect on their marriage. Off the field, “The 5th Quarter” ends on extremely optimistic note, which, although it’s telegraphed nearly from the movie’s start, comes clumsily out of left field. Also hovering over the production is a distinctly religious aura, inspired as much by the Abbates’ much-tested faith and Wake Forest’s Christian mission. (The university cooperated fully with the production and the executive producer is an alumnus and backer of athletic activities.) While never oppressive, the frequent religious references don’t always feel organic to the story. Neither do a couple of the film’s most heart-grabbing moments. Nevertheless, it’s a riveting story and the football action benefits from what I assume to be actual game footage collected during the 2006 season. The bonus material adds a making-of featurette and family photo gallery in the end credits. – Gary Dretzka
Although the similarities between “Skateland” and “The Last Picture Show” are too obvious to ignore, it would be unfair not to give freshman director Anthony Burns the benefit of a doubt and let his low-budget indie stand on its own two feet. It’s nostalgic, without also being wistful or derivative, and involves teenagers whose futures aren’t quite as bleak as those in Larry McMurtry’s novel and Peter Bogdanovich’s film, both superb entertainments. The movies are set in and around oil patches and a lake – one tiny and the other larger — but the ones in “Skateland” are located several hundred miles east, in a far more verdant corner of Texas. Its title refers to a roller-skating rink, which once provided locals with their primary source of cheap thrills. It has, however, outlived the roller-disco trend and soon will be demolished to make way for a warehouse used to store pipe and other oil-rig equipment. (Add 30 years and it might have provided a prime location for a Wal-Mart.) The kids who once thronged to the rink now prefer to kill time at bars, house parties and lake homes, where they can drink and smoke pot without alarming the local constabulary. Beyond that, it’s the kind of place you’d much prefer to be from than re-located to.
Ashley Greene and Shiloh Fernandez play the exceedingly cute Michelle and Ritchie, who’ve pretty much grown up together and are destined to sleep in the same bed, at least once in their lives. They share affection for Michelle’s older brother, who left town to pursue a career as a dirt-bike rider but has returned home for a few weeks or forever … depending on whose tea leaves you’re reading.
Ritchie enjoys working at Skateland, if only because it’s easy and he’s not very ambitious. Michelle knows that her immediate future will include a few semesters at the University of Texas and maybe a stay in L.A. Her brother’s propensity for hitting on other, tougher guys’ girlfriends practically guarantees he’ll end up in prison or a hospital before the movie is over. Burns imbues in “Skateland” a firm sense of time and place – the early 1980s, before the demise of mullet hairdos and crappy disco music – while forgetting that teenagers don’t exist in a vacuum, with absentee parents and wellsprings of available cash. Neither are the teenagers unnecessarily stereotypical. The girls get a fairer shake here than in most such movies, where their chief responsibility is to get drunk and lose their virginity to a viperous classmate. “Skateboard” exists primarily as a small, but very decent movie. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
Slackers don’t come much more slack than struggling Seattle musician Sam (Mark Duplass), who, at 34, doesn’t feel as if he needs to make an attempt to look for permanent work, because rock stardom is always around the next corner. When we meet him, Sam is about to be evicted from his girlfriend’s apartment, basically so she can sleep with a bandmate and not listen to Sam make promises he can’t fulfill. In return for a spot on his aunt’s couch, Sam reluctantly agrees to take her son and a friend on a weekend excursion to the scenic coast of Washington. To be fair, the boys aren’t all that thrilled to be guided by Sam, either. On the way to their destination, they stay in a motel where the boys are pleasantly surprised to find a pair of girls their age in the Jacuzzi. Jealous that the boys have reneged on a promise to take a poker lesson from him, Sam plunges into the Jacuzzi just as the kids are beginning to feel comfortable with each other. That misguided decision may make everyone in the spa and audience feel queasy, but it makes for a very smart and funny scene.
By the time the trio reaches the beach, things have begun to unravel completely. Sam’s pretty much lost the boys’ respect and one has decided he’s had enough of the other’s homophobic taunts and decides to get lost for a while. His encounter with a pair of space-cadet hippies creates another opportunity for comedy, and director Craig Johnson takes full advantage of it. Conditions improve markedly after Sam proves he’s capable of acting like an adult, after all, and the boys admit to themselves that he might not be completely useless. “True Adolescents” is a smallish entertainment, but the emotions are genuine and scenery is great. Duplass, known primarily for his work in the so-called mumblecore movies, exudes the kind of loosey-goosey attitude required of all movie slackers. Bret Loehr and Carr Thompson perform nicely as the boys, as does Melissa Leo in the brief role of Aunt Sharon. The soundtrack includes such acts as Band of Horses, the Black Keys and Devendra Banhart. The DVD comes with commentary by Johnson, Duplass, producer Thomas Woodrow and editor Jennifer Lee, as well deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Can a thriller set deep in a vast forest in the Pacific Northwest logically be considered claustrophobic? As ridiculous as that might sound, yes. In “Wrecked,” a character played by Adrien Brody awakens from a deep sleep — or a coma, take your pick — trapped inside an automobile with a dead man in the back seat. Looking around, “Man” realizes the wrecked car he’s in is situated in a small grove of ferns, surrounded by giant trees. No road is visible in the general vicinity and there’s no indication as to how the one he’s in got here. Man also has lost his memory of all things that took place in the last 48 hours. The first hint comes when he discovers a pistol under the seat. Then, a news report on the car radio describes a bloody shootout in a bank, causing him to think he and his lifeless partner may be bank robbers. If true, it would make him a fugitive from justice, without an alibi or logical excuse, other than amnesia. Once he attempts to escape the wrecked vehicle, Man also realizes he’s sustained a broken leg.
The claustrophobic feeling comes from director Michael Greenspan’s decision to frequently shoot Man from a distance of about a foot. The camera misses no wince of pain or look of dismay on his face. With the camera placed in the back seat, looking out at the forest, we experience the same mysterious visions that Man does. They include a pretty, mute teenager or young woman, a mountain lion, a German shepherd and an armed man. Even more confusing are the flashbacks, which, at first, add little to his understanding of the situation, but, finally, explain everything. Once he frees himself from the wreck, Man creates a makeshift splint and crutch, which he uses to scrape his way to the top of a hill, where, again, he sees that he’s surrounded by forest. Even if he could reach a Park Ranger, Man doesn’t know if he would be rescued or arrested. Neither do viewers. But, that’s what makes “Wrecked” fun and Brody’s performance special. The making-of features included in the Blu-ray reveal how difficult it was to make “Wrecked,” on location, and off the beaten path.
In “Asylum Seekers,” six very loony characters vie for a single spot in a state-of-the-art facility for seriously delusional mental patients. The decision lies in the hands of a nurse created in the same mold as Nurse Ratchet and who oversees the competition with her arms crossed and lips frozen in a permanent scowl. Among the potential winners are a woman pregnant with imaginary twins; a socially awkward speech therapist, who also sees himself as virgin nymphomaniac; a wildly flamboyant stockbroker who raps, wears a pink boa and thinks he’s half-black; a nutty Evangelical; a shy female exhibitionist; and a teen seductress. Each is completely off his or her rocker, but not altogether devoid of some charming qualities. In Rania Ajami’s hands, “Asylum Seekers” is equal parts “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Marat/Sade,” with a few Fellini-esque touches thrown in for good measure. Ajami works from a bold color palette and isn’t afraid to manipulate the camera to accentuate the bizarre nature of the competition. If “Asylum Seekers” sometimes goes flying way over the top, it would be difficult to fault Ajami for making her first feature as audacious as possible.
Most people, I think, would find the actual religious event that inspired Thai filmmaker Ekachai Uekrongtham’s thriller, “The Coffin,” far more horrifying an experience than the clichéd premises behind 90 percent of all genre flicks today, although that’s not really saying much. In a very real town located about 60 miles northeast of Bangkok, Buddhist monks at the Wat Proman temple perform a ritual funeral for dozens of certifiably living people simultaneously. Known as “non loeng sadorcro” (literally, “lie in a coffin, remove bad luck”), it is practiced by people who fear they’ve been cursed with bad karma and it’s causing them harm. The believers lie in ornately decorated coffins, with their hands tied together and clutching a sprig of flowers. Lids are then nailed onto the coffins and meditation ensues. Without any outside distractions, the participants can focus on what brought them to Wat Proman and pray for relief or guidance. Donations are gladly accepted.
In “The Coffin,” a pretty young nutritionist who’s been diagnosed with lung cancer decides to undergo the rite, donning her best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes for the mental journey. An unrelated man her age risks succumbing to chronic claustrophobia in the hope that his cleansing could benefit his gravely ill girlfriend. Their experiences are mysteriously linked. Relief comes, but at a stiff price. They are confronted in the faux afterlife by demons and premonitions of their real deaths inside a crematorium and in car accidents. Adding to the eerie tone, much of the movie appears to have been shot through a blue filter. It’s a very weird movie, but interesting for where it takes us. For once, the English dubbing doesn’t distract from the story.
“Bereavement” is an extremely gory thriller, in which a psychopathic killer kidnaps a 6-year-old boy not for his personal amusement or sick pleasure, but to pass along his mad theories and butchering skills. Completely traumatized, the boy is in no position to resist when, five years later, a pretty teenage girl moves into the farmhouse next door and threatens to upend all he knows to be true. Orphaned by the death of her parents, she bristles at her uncle’s strict guidelines for life in their home, as well as her aunt’s reluctance to stand up to him. Their rules preclude any social life or contact with a friendly neighbor boy who’s her age and she learns to like. The uncle’s fears aren’t without some foundation, but he transposes the identities of the real heroes and villains. By the time the horrible truth is discovered, it’s too late to prevent the mother of all bloodbaths. I’m told “Bereavement” serves as a prequel to “Malevolence,” which, in 2004, introduced the evil protagonist Martin Bristol. Stevan Mena wrote, directed, edited, produced and composed the music for both pictures. Even more bloody than the sequel, “Bereavement” is not for the squeamish. – Gary Dretzka
In this greener-than-green documentary, Josh and Rebecca Harrell Tickell make a very sound case for the expansion of bio-fuel incentives and promotion of alternative fuels by the President, Congress and agri-business community. “Freedom” (a.k.a., “The Big Fix”) started out as an addendum to “Fuel,” Joshua’s convincing 2008 doc on America’s addiction to fossil fuels, but the sequel took on an added degree of urgency when the massive BP oil spill threatened the Tickell’s neighborhood wetlands and beaches on the Louisiana Gulf Coast. The film could hardly make a more cogent or reasonable case for changes in our country’s energy policy, which, no matter who’s sitting the Oval Office, is going to be dictated by oil-industry swine and their Satanic lobbyists. The Tickells trace this long-running dance with the devil to John D. Rockefeller, who championed Prohibition because it would eliminate the production of bio-fuels, a byproduct of which is alcohol, as an alternative to gasoline. If that sounds paranoid, consider that a public-relations firm recently was hired by oil-company lobbyists to create a position paper stating the case for bio-fuel has been overstated and ethanol is more dangerous than gasoline. It took journalists about five minutes to refute, but, by then, Congress had accepted it as gospel and some lazy environmentalists admitted being blinded by the fake science. The lobbyists were only too happy to keep writing checks to the politicians, who months later would return the favor by fighting to maintain incentives for oil interests in the debt-ceiling negotiations. The lack of enthusiasm by “green” activists led to a similar lack of interest among consumers and a decrease in gas stations offering bio-fuel blends and electrical outlets. The vicious cycle had taken another victim.
Personally, I think the gas for alternative fuels has already been made, if not so convincingly in America, then in Brazil, a country that’s no longer shackled to OPEC and, in fact, is now in a position to export its ethanol products. Folks, the promotion of bio-fuel is not a commie plot to deny rich Texans their God-given right to swindle consumers and devour their entrails. In fact, farmers and stockholders of agri-business concerns stand to make lots of money from it. A study comparing what taxpayers get back from financial incentives for oil production and discovery to the benefits ascribed to bio-fuel outlays argues that it’s a no-brainer. Despite all available evidence, American farmers are suffering in inordinate measure to the good ol’ boys in Texas and their Saudi Arabian brethren. Why? As long as the oil lobby is more powerful than the corn and sugar-cane lobbies, farmers won’t be allowed to profit accordingly, gas stations won’t convert their pumps to accommodate those anxious to use bio-fuel or more efficient blends, Detroit and Tokyo won’t rush to manufacture green cars, and American soldiers will continue to die in foreign lands rich with oil deposits. Hell, NASCAR has even jumped on the ethanol bandwagon, mandating the use of blends in race cars, and Newt Gingrich testifies convincingly throughout “Freedom.” What’s the holdup, Mr. Obama?
“Freedom” states its case succinctly, but without the same flourishes that made “An Inconvenient Truth” a hit. Josh isn’t the most charismatic of narrators and he spends way too much screen time bragging on his wife, Rebecca. Mostly, the facts are allowed to speak for themselves and the evidence is powerful. – Gary Dretzka
Top Gun: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Blood Simple: Blu-ray
Is it fair to judge a movie based on its budget? Probably not, but we do it all the time. If we know a film cost more than $100 million to make, we expect it to deliver more thrills than movies made on a more frugal budget. Conversely, low-budget indies often are accorded bonus points simply for giving ticket-buyers more bang for their buck than expected. If “The Blair Witch Project” had been made for $100 million, instead of $60,000, would critics and viewers have enjoyed it as much as they did? Maybe, but maybe not. Certainly, in the days before production budgets and weekend grosses weren’t reported as news in USA Today and the New York Times, the vast majority of movies were evaluated for what ended up on the screen. I only mention this because of the arrival of the much-maligned 1990 version of “Captain America,” on DVD, almost simultaneously with the release of Paramount’s mega-budget “Captain America: The First Avenger” in megaplexes around the world.
I’d be surprised to learn that the 1990 iteration, made by legendary B-movie director Albert Pyun just prior to the CGI revolution, cost more than a million dollars to produce. If it did, someone probably lost their job. When weighed against the $160-million “First Avenger,” though, its laughs-to-dollars-spent ratio holds up pretty well. “Captain America” didn’t find distribution here 20 years ago and it would be laughed off the screen today. I’m willing to bet, however, that Pyun’s “director’s cut” DVD – which replaces 30 minutes of previously deleted material – is a far more enjoyable experience than it was in its theatrical release. Certainly, the cheesy special effects add to its cult appeal, as do the sexy female fiends with automatic weapons. Matt Salinger plays the American soldier who’s been given the superpowers – and shield – necessary to defend democracy against a superhuman Nazi, Red Skull (Scott Paulin). After Captain America diverts the German missile to which he’s secured from the White House to the Alaskan wilderness, he spends the next 50 years comatose, buried under an ice pack. Red Skull has exchanged his SS uniform for an Italian-made suit and assumed responsibility for the assassination of the Kennedys and disasters. His current nemesis is the incumbent President of the United States (Ronny Cox), whose worldwide “green” agenda threatens his pollution-driven profits. While in Italy promoting his agenda, a traitorous U.S. general puts the president in a position to be kidnapped and implanted with a remote-control device. What the villains don’t know is that, as a nerdish boy, the president was the sole witness to Captain America’s last-second act of heroism and their bond remains secure. Not looking a day older than 18, Captain America embarks on a mission to rescue the president and eliminate Red Skull permanently. The chases and fights in Pyun’s version of the story may harken back to those in the first generation of James Bond rip-offs, but the Croatian and Slovenian locations help make us forget how low-rent the production really was. It is available on demand, as part of MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, via online retailers.
Even taking inflation into account, it’s difficult to imagine how “Top Gun” was produced in 1986 on a budget estimated to be $15 million. Sounds frugal, doesn’t it. Military cooperation helped mightily in the days before CGI wizardry, but it’s likely that only Kelly McGillis was at the height of her earnings curve. Tom Cruise’s career was on the ascendency, as were those of Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards and director Tony Scott, whose flashy visual, hyper-loud sounds and sharp editing techniques would influence a generation of young filmmakers. But, then, everything seemed to work in the favor of success for “Top Gun,” from Kenny Loggins’ rendition of “Danger Zone,” to the addition of love scenes shot after test-screening audiences demanded them. It also helped that America was enjoying a prolonged period of peace and the ugly reality of combat was 15 years removed from young audiences. I doubt very much that the same movie could be made today, if only because the military would be reluctant to give up any secrets about its training programs and stealth planes, and we haven’t fought a war against a country with formidable fighter-jet fleet in decades. Obliterating tanks, troop carriers and hijacked Mercedes-Benz limousines with laser-guided missiles isn’t nearly as exciting as even the average World War I dogfight.
Be aware that the “25th Anniversary Edition” differs from the 2008 Blu-ray only in the addition of a digital copy. All the other specifications are of the same high quality as that release. Bonus features include commentary by Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, co-screenwriter Jack Epps Jr. and naval experts; a six-part making-of documentary; storyboards; a backgrounder on the Top Gun program; several music videos; interviews with Cruise; and a survival-training featurette.
Originally, the Blu-ray edition of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Blood Simple” was to have been included in MGM/Fox’s “(From the Minds of the) Coen Brothers” collection, alongside “Fargo,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Raising Arizona.” Inexplicably, it wasn’t. It arrives this week in a stand-alone version, with the same bonus features that came with the earlier DVD package. The hi-def presentation makes it easier to enjoy the Coens’ noir texture, without adding a layer of gloss that would have made “Blood Simple” look considerably slicker. The set contains the “less boring” director’s-cut version of the movie, which was inspired by a phrase in Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” in addition to cast and crew bios, production notes, a trailer and a commentary with “Kenneth Loring” of “Forever Young Films,” both fictional entities. – Gary Dretzka
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Radley Metzger’s Erotica Psychedelica: Blu-ray
The vintage soft-core titles included in “Radley Metzger’s Erotic Psychedelia” – “Camille 2000,” “The Lickerish Quartet,” “Score” – have been released individually in Blu-ray editions. They look and sound good, and are every bit as entertaining as travelogues as they are erotic. Few movies, porn or otherwise, have merged their plush European locations into the narrative – and sex scenes — as organically as Metzger is able to do here. Since male viewers are only interested in one thing, it’s likely that Metzger went the extra mile to entice women and couples into theaters. This was before “Deep Throat” and the introduction of VHS cassettes, leaving men and curiosity seekers alone to brave the sticky floors and foul cushions of porn theaters. Mixed arthouse audiences could share in the fantasies of the exceedingly attractive actors, and act as if they, too, were soldiers in the sexual revolution. The box set features restored hi-def transfers made from the original 35mm negatives of the theatrical versions, along with some informative and entertaining behind-the-scenes featurettes. A soundtrack CD and booklet are included in the limited edition of 3,500 numbered copies, with lenticular artwork. – Gary Dretzka
If the events described in Disney’s “Prom” are to be believed, the annual rite of passage known as prom hasn’t changed much over the last half-century, at least. The same anxieties, tragic fashion statements, sexual tension and humiliations experienced when teenagers began taking over the country in the 1950s, affect high-school seniors today. Boys and girls still make good and bad decisions when it comes to choosing their escorts and the crowning of kings and queens rarely is an occasion to celebrate. Girls suddenly look like women and boys, well, they remain prisoners of zits and hormonal overload. I can’t remember the girls in my graduating class revealing any boobage, let alone the acres of cleavage on display in “Prom.” The tuxedos haven’t changed much, though. That pretty much sums up what I got from “Prom.” Neither is it is a particularly fresh idea to pair the class’ prettiest girl and baddest boy, or make her dad look like the biggest dick in the world.
“Prom” looks good and is reasonably well-acted. I’m guessing that the dramedy will appeal far more to tweens than their older siblings. That’s because no PG-rated movie from Disney is going to address the primary concerns of parents as their children approach prom night: sex, booze and getting home safely. The kids here don’t concern themselves with such distractions and I wouldn’t expect Disney to break the mold for the sake of tawdry verisimilitude. That stuff is better left to the producers of such entertainments as “American Pie” and “Gossip Girl.” Most parents probably would be thrilled if their kids’ prom more closely resembles the Disney version than ones showcased on MTV or in “Carrie.” In real life, rites of passage rarely turn out as spectacularly as they do in movies.
One thing I found to be a bit duplicitous, however, is the drastic change in cover art for the DVD and Blu-ray editions of “Prom.” The kids on the DVD cover look as if they’ve never done anything wilder than ride the tallest roller-coaster at the local amusement park. The poster art for the theatrical release shows a teenage girl in a mini-dress, carrying her spike heels and applying body language that suggests she either just had sex or is getting ready to give up her most prized possession. It might be a more realistic depiction of prom nights, past and present, but it has nothing to do with “Prom.” The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and bloopers; a making-of featurette; seven music videos; a short, “Last Chance Lloyd”; and a DVD copy. – Gary Dretzka
An American Family: Anniversary Edition
Wonders of the Universe: Blu-ray
Sons of Anarchy: Season 3
The Twilight Zone: Season 5: Blu-ray
Anyone who enjoyed watching James Gandolfini, Diane Lane and Tim Robbins in “Cinema Verite” would do well to check out PBS’ “An American Family: Anniversary Edition,” which offers highlights from the 12-part series that inspired the HBO movie. The DVD also includes a panel discussion, during which academics and social critics debate the relevance of such programming. Among those testifying is famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, who took very seriously this notion of having camera follow people around the house, at play and at work, simply recording what happens. If Mead weren’t already 30 years in the grave, she’d probably commit suicide rather than be forced to analyze “Jersey Shore” or “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” What began as a social experiment in 1973 has degenerated into something no self-respecting circus clown would agree to do. Today, of course, the Loud family of Santa Barbara probably couldn’t pass the audition for a new reality-based show, either. Beyond Lance’s gay adventures in New York and Paris, and a few tawdry details from Bill and Pat’s divorce, there wasn’t much that separated the Louds from every other upper-middle-class family living in hills above Santa Barbara. The kids are spoiled, Mom and Dad are self-absorbed, and their living conditions are in all ways above average. Compared to the bean brains that populate most of the reality shows now, the Louds were downright Shakesperian. None of it feels scripted or staged, even when the participants clearly are playing to the camera.
The BBC series “Wonders of the Universe” picks up where the 2010 “Wonders of the Solar System” left off. Hosted by the personable British physicist Brian Cox, it attempts to create a framework for a basic understanding of some of the most perplexing questions about the origins and sustainability of life. The first season is divided into four chapters, each characterized as a wonder. In the first, “Destiny,” the nature of time is examined, alongside discussions on the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Heat Death theory of the end of the universe. “Stardust” reveals the fundamental elements of human life and life cycles of stars; “Falling” looks at the manifestations of gravity and its implications for research scientists; and “Messengers” considers the properties of light and how the speed of light is a measure of both time and distance. It sounds better coming from Cox.
In the third eventful season of “Sons of Anarchy,” everybody’s favorite motorcycle gang takes its act to Belfast, where Jax’s infant son has been hauled by gun-runners hoping to stay one or two steps of Clay, Tig, Chibs and Gemma. By the time the crew gets to Ireland, however, the baby has been passed along to another family by an evil priest/assassin. Once again, promises are made and broken; lies are told and truths are revealed; children are born and thugs die. It’s difficult to imagine how the new season of “Sons of Anarchy” could possibly top last year’s action – maybe by volunteering for duty in Afghanistan – but it should be fun. The bonus features include commentary and extended scenes on select episodes; scenes intended to bridge Season 3 and Season 4; a writers’ roundtable; a gag reel and deleted scenes; and piece on customizing the bikes used on the show.
Season Five of the original “Twilight Zone” has found its way into the hi-def arena, bringing with it all 36 episodes of final stanza of Rod Serling’s classic creation. As usual, the discs are loaded with bonus features, including 20 new audio commentaries; conversations with Serling; a vintage audio interview with director of photography George T. Clemens; 22 radio dramas, read by Louis Gossett, Jr., Adam Baldwin, Peter Mark Richman, Beverly Garland, Adam West, Bill Erwin, Luke Perry, Mariette Hartley, Ed Begley, Jr., Kate Jackson, Mike Starr, Stan Freberg, Jason Alexander, Jane Seymour, James Keach and Karen Black; video interviews with Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, Earl Hamner, Bill Mumy, June Foray, Carolyn Kearney, Michael Forest, Nancy Malone and Terry Becker; isolated music scores, featuring the Bernard Herrmann, Van Cleave and Rene Garriguencl; a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace; an excerpt from Serling’s Sherwood Oaks Experimental College lecture; an “Alfred Hitchcock” promo; George Clayton Johnson’s home movies; teasers for the upcoming episodes; and Season Five billboards.
The good news for fans of “iCarly” is that Nickelodeon and Paramount Home Entertainment have agreed to release a full-season package of 13 episodes, instead of dribs and drabs. If only the rest of the DVD world would get on board, too. In addition to the regular episodes, the set includes additional scenes from “Carly’s Hot New Room Tour,” “Meet Sam’s Mom” and “Archenemies.” A special episode bridges “iCarly” and “Victorious.” – Gary Dretzka
Blues and the Alligator: The First Twenty Years of Alligator Records
Live From Tokyo
The Jesus Leopard Club
The latest delivery of screeners from MVD Video arrived with a variety of concert material from well known and unknown artists. “Candy” presents the great Chet Baker at his most laid-back. The 1985 video recording was shot in what looks to be someone’s living room, with the trumpeter taking advantage of the comfortable furniture. Baker sings the title song, but most of the cuts are instrumental. He’s joined by Michel Graillier and Red Mitchell on piano, and Jean-Louis Rassinfosse on bass. There’s an informative interview with Baker, as well as conversations at the piano between Baker and Mitchell.
Red Mitchell performs with another jazz giant, Zoot Sims, in a performance film shot just months before the saxophonist died, in 1985. Besides “In a Sentimental Mood,” the collection includes such songs as “Gone with the Wind,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Castle Blues.” Mitchell’s on bass this time and Rune Gustafsson plays guitar.
“Blues and the Alligator” profiles the independent Chicago blues label and its founder, Bruce Iglauer. Since its birth in 1971, the company has played a key role in promoting Chicago-based blues artists, first, and later musicians from across the spectrum. Among the acts shown here are Hound Dog Taylor & the House Rockers, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, Kenny Neal and Lucky Peterson. Besides the box- and paper-strewn Alligator offices, the settings include a North Side blues club and a Chicago school where the kids are taught the blues as an art form and participatory activity.
“The Jesus Lizard: Club” follows the “noise-rock” pioneers on their 2009 reunion tour. Original band members David Yow, Duane Denison, David Wm. Sims and Mac McNeilly came together for the 22-song, 80-minute concert captured here.
“Live From Tokyo” takes a series of impressionistic snapshots of modern Tokyo, a country that explodes with color, noise and branded images. The music performed by an eclectic collection of rock, synth and dance artists conforms to the freneticism that characterizes life on the streets. The documentary looks at Tokyo’s music culture as a reflection of Japanese society and in relation to international trends. The cacophony can be overwhelming, but it’s never dull.
H.H. Dalai Lama: Contentment, Joy and Living Well
H. H. Dalai Lama: A Practical Way of Directing Love and Compassion
Anyone curious as to what the living manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, might have to say about such things as love, contentment, joy, living well and, yes, compassion, would do well to start with this series of lectures by the current Dalai Lama. I’m not sure if I came away enlightened by the experience, but it was interesting to hear a message detached from the political hullabaloo surrounding Tibet and China. He sounded very gentle and earnest, but, otherwise, no miracle cures were dispensed. It boiled down treating others as you would want them to treat you in return, and get into the whole meditation thing. My only complaint is the stage was miked so poorly that it often was difficult to hear what H.H. said in English to the audience of devotees. He was aided by a monk who helped with translations and interpretations. The series continues for the next several months. – Gary Dretzka
Managing Menopause Naturally
I’m not sure how “Managing Menopause Naturally” found its way to my mailbox, but since it’s already here. … The documentary explores and details the physical and psychological changes women experience as they approach the transition in life, which varies from person to person. It promotes holistic alternatives without ignoring the current established medical treatments. – Gary Dretzka
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