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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.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Blu-ray
The third installment in the “Transformers” franchise, “Dark of the Moon,” locates the decisive battle for the preservation of mankind in downtown Chicago. The Windy City residents have experienced seen more than their fair share of disasters since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern that triggered the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but nothing like the showdown between the Autobots and Decepticons. For sheer entertainment value, it might even have topped the Great Subterranean flood of 1992, an event that could only have been scripted by surrealist Salvador Dali. Imagine coming to work one morning and finding fish swimming in the flooded basement of your place of employment, or surveying the Loop from above and not seeing a single pedestrian or non-emergency vehicle. By contrast, the near-apocalyptic battle conceived of by director Michael Bay and writer Ehren Kruger in “Transformers” displays the subtlety of a goal-line stand by the Chicago Bears and mystery of a mayoral election in Daley eras. Even so, fans of make-believe mayhem perpetrated by branded action figures likely will enjoy “Dark of the Moon” as much as they did the first two chapters.
The best thing about the movie – to my untrained eye, anyway — is the story’s central conceit. Apparently, well before American astronauts landed on the moon, in 1969, a Cybertronian spacecraft crash-landed on its dark side with such force, it registered on seismographs on Earth. Fearing the worst, the President Kennedy demanded that NASA get cracking on a lunar mission. To avoid panic, he convinced the public such a journey was a natural extension of the Mercury program and, of course, one giant step for mankind etc. etc. They Soviet Union endeavored to do the same thing, without telling its citizenry anything. Our astronauts found something up there, but I’ll be damned if the “Transformers” makes it clear what it was, besides a giant robotic head buried beneath a few feet of space dust. Anyway, skip forward 42 years and the Decipticons once again are in a position to test the alliance between the hated Autobots and the Pentagon. If victorious in war, the Decepticons could build a space bridge between Earth and the newly re-located planet of Cybertron, turning us into slaves. Or, something like that … I lost track after the first few cars and planes turned into toy gladiators. Once again, baby-faced Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) comes to the rescue of his country.
Bay’s second great conceit in “Dark of the Moon” involves the firing of foxy Megan Fox and replacing her character with Rosie Huntington-Whitely’s Carly Spencer. Bay had worked previously with the model on a Victoria’s Secret shoot and saw something in her — I’m guessing, her pronounced posterior and bee-stung lips – that has nothing to do with any acting prowess (unless running away from danger in high heels qualifies as acting). Veterans John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Kevin Dunn and Julie White were allowed to return, however, and the very talented Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Patrick Dempsey and Ken were added to lend some comic-book sparkle to the mix. Caveat emptor: the “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” Blu-ray contains no supplements, besides the bonus DVD and redemption code for a downloadable digital copy. The package does include a promotional $10 coupon towards the purchase of the upcoming Blu-ray 3D release, which, we’re led to believe, will include the bonus content. Tough bananas, if you haven’t found the spare $2,500 it takes to purchase a home-3D starter kit. Instead, Best Buy costumers are being offered exclusive packaging, in the form of a limited-edition “o-sleeve” with embossed art showcasing Bumblebee on the front and Shockwave on the back.
Dum Maaro Dum
Angel of Evil
The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman
What with the recent releases of “Public Enemies,” the back-to-back “Mesrine” films and now “Angel of Evil” (“Vallanzasca: Gli angeli del male”), it’s been a busy couple of years for movie bank robbers. Just as Jacques Mesrine was memorialized as the French John Dillinger in “Killer Instinct” and “Public Enemy No. 1,” Milanese outlaw Renato Vallanzasca is made a dead ringer for Dillinger in Michele Placido’s “Angel of Evil.” Each man has been accorded living-legend status in their respective homelands, based on his ability to extract money from banks, escape from jails, manipulate the media and capture the fancy of the public. Only Vallanzasca is still alive to schmooze with filmmakers, however. Blue-eyed Italian leading man Kim Rossi Stuart plays the notorious thief and confessed murderer, now 61, who’s currently serving four consecutive life sentences, with an additional 290 years, in an Italian prison. I was stunned to learn Vallanzasca is allowed to leave jail everyday to work in a factory that makes bags out of recycled material. If he hadn’t been such a naughty boy the last time he escaped, Vallanzasca might have been allowed to campaign for public office from his cell, too. Stuart was awarded Italy’s highest acting prize for his hypnotic portrayal here.
From what I can tell, “Angel of Evil” is a mostly accurate account of the criminal’s life in and out of prison. Vallanzasca’s first arrest came when he was 8, after he freed a tiger belonging to a traveling circus from its cage. By the time he was 22, “Il bel Renè” had organized a gang that competed effectively with Milan’s criminal establishment. The movie insinuates that a cop planted evidence in his apartment and it caused him to be sent away for a while. His life-long game of Cat and Mouse with police had only just begun, however. Even at 125 minutes, Placido’s biopic zips right along. Vallanzasca’s gangland allies and rivals form a colorful lot, even while incarcerated in prison, where they’re allowed to wear expensive street clothes, instead of orange jump suits. While in the joint, he devised several unpleasant ways to be transferred to less-than-secure medical facilities. Vallanzasca also received hundreds of fan letters and photos from admiring women, and requests for interviews with the media. Placido and his team of nearly a dozen writers and advisers make it clear, however, that Vallanzaca’s no Robin Hood clone and that he clearly deserves to be locked up. Despite his unbridled charisma, the criminal has truly been a menace to society, law-enforcement agencies and innocent bystanders, alike. Neither are we supposed to think of the police and prison guards as buffoons. Their incompetence is a byproduct of Italy’s notoriously chaotic and antiquated bureaucracy, which has created legal loopholes through which crooks have driven trucks. Anyone who enjoyed “Mesrine,” despite its unadorned linear style, should have a ball with “Angel of Evil.”
Fox International Productions also is partially responsible for the “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman,” a wildly inventive martial-arts fantasy from freshman Chinese filmmaker Wuershan (with a marketing assist by exec-producer Doug Liman). Although this mercilessly frenetic study in gonzo filmmaking defies easy synopsis, at its center is a mystical kitchen cleaver that passes through the hands of a gluttonous butcher, a vengeful chef and a master swordsman … hence, the title. The cleaver was forged from the steel of five swords previously wielded by China’s greatest warriors. In relating this tale from the country’s feudal era, Wuershan blends familiar architectural motifs and traditional costumes with black-and-white sequences, animation, split-screen images, video-game graphics and a music video. Everything comes together, finally, at a high-end brothel, where the human-hairball butcher has purchased the rights to marry a deceptively petite and painfully beautiful prostitute. Before the closing credits roll, the cleaver will have worked two of its greatest miracles. Martial-arts purists probably won’t like the movie much. Fans of the Shaolin movies, “Kill Bill,” “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” and “Kung Fu Hustle” should flock to it.
Given the coincidence of the the same “Scarface” T-shirt being worn by the filmmakers interviewed for the making-of featurette, it’s safe to assume they want us to believe “Dum Maaro Dum” is one bad-ass movie. It’s a smart marketing ploy, as the Bollywood movies we see in the United States tend to be ridiculously chaste and prudish, and “DMD” isn’t. (Indian producers are acutely aware of the fact that their audience includes many Muslims and people whose faith even frowns on public kisses.) “Dum Maaro Dum” doesn’t hold back on the kissing, even if it only approximates nudity, and the plentiful violence falls well short of being gory. The story chronicles a war between honest, if occasionally brutal cops and ruthless drug dealers for control of the “island paradise” of Goa. For what I can discern, Goa is to Asia and the subcontinent what Ibiza is to the Europe: a place for foreigners to imbibe copious amounts of ecstasy and dance their tanned asses off. To lubricate the libidos of Goa’s tourists, crooks representing several different ethnic groups make drugs readily available to them, in exchange for what must seem to be an unlimited supply of cash. Here, the native Goan “mafia” supplies the dealers with the harder drugs. This arrangement truly pisses off a reformed police detective, played by Bollywood mainstay Abhishek Bachchan, who shows no mercy to his prey.
Viewers are introduced to the drug trade through a couple of teenagers, who, desperate to realize their dreams, agree to become mules. The boy (Prateik Babbar), who needs the money to study in America, is busted almost by accident, while the girl (Bipasha Basu, an aspiring flight attendant, is held as an accomplice. Inexplicably, a local singer and deejay (Rana Daggubati) becomes fixated with their case. He can’t do much for the boy, but arranges for a local power broker (and clandestine gangster) to take in the beautiful young woman in exchange a commutation of her 14-year sentence. It was a bargain for him and something resembling prostitution for her.) The person the cop is really interested in arresting is a mysterious, almost spectral mastermind named Michael Barbosa. (Anything beyond that would constitute a spoiler.) In addition to the gunplay and gangster posturing, “Dum Maaro Dum” is takes full advantage of the island’s rave and nightclub scenes. An elaborately choreographed Bollywood-style “item number,” featuring Deepika Padukone, also is squeezed into the narrative for no good reason. Director Rohan Sippy’s film isn’t specifically made to attract western audiences, but curious action junkies could do a lot worse than picking up the DVD. At 135 minutes, “DMD” will feel long by American standards, but, it’s worth remembering that most Bollywood features clock in between three and four hours. On the plus side, the actors are extremely on the eyes and there are plenty of musical breaks. Once the action kicks in, it’s reasonably exciting, as well. “Dum Maaro Dum” was produced by Fox STAR Studios, a joint venture between major U.S. and Indian media conglomerates.
Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Special Edition: Blu-ray
Besides being one of the most purely entertaining movies in the Disney catalogue, “Dumbo” has been credited with saving the animation studio from financial disaster in the early 1940s. As unlikely as it might sound 70 years later, “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” had failed to light up the box office in their initial runs and the war in Europe had drained foreign revenue streams. An animators’ strike also was looming, so Walt Disney was in desperate need of a movie that could be produced quickly and economically. He had already purchased the rights to Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl’s storyline for a flying elephant toy product, but still had to be convinced by members of his writing team that it could be stretched into a feature. Its 64-minute length accommodated a relatively miniscule budget, even then, of $813,000. “Dumbo” not only turned a nifty profit the first time out, but it also won an Academy Award for its music and was lauded by critics. It has since gone on to make a fortune in numerous re-releases, video, DVD and such ancillary markets as Disney’s amusement parks, records and comics.
The Blu-ray edition reveals some of the movie’s humble roots, but not many. To my tired eyes, it looks and sounds terrific. Parents may wonder how something so short could be so good, but their kids won’t mind the conciseness of the story at all. What else would there be to say, anyway? Walt Disney resisted requests by distributors to add a scene or song, or two, to the movie’s length. As we learn in the supplemental interviews, some options had already passed the drawing-board stage. The material isn’t bad, but, again, nothing that would prove the boss’ instincts wrong. “Dumbo” is just right the way it is. Among the other bonus materials are the picture-in-picture Cine-Explore experience, hosted by Pixar director Pete Docter, Disney historian Paula Sigman and Disney animator Andreas Deja; DisneyView, which allows viewers to fill in the black bars on either side of the original 4.3-aspect presentation with custom paintings by Disney background artist James Coleman; “Taking Flight: The Making of ‘Dumbo’,” which covers the material Cine-Explore doesn’t; a pair of deleted scenes, including one in which Timothy the Mouse explains why elephants traditionally have been afraid of mice; a hi-def history of the Dumbo ride at Disneyland; a sound-design excerpt from “The Reluctant Dragon”; a pair of Silly Symphony shorts, “Elmer Elephant” and “The Flying Mouse”; interactive games for kids; an art gallery; and a bunch of trailers.
Remember the jolt of excitement you felt watching “The Harder They Come,” “City of God” and “Amores Perros” for the first time? How raw depictions of violence, sex, corruption and poverty flowed organically from the directors’ choices of actors, locations and music, whose singularity couldn’t have been faked or synthesized? I got the same vibe from Djo Munga’s thrilling “Viva Riva!” Set in the Congo’s teeming capital city of Kinshasa, the movie chronicles the efforts of a former resident – poor and without much hope for future prosperity — who returns after a 10-year sojourn in Angola with a small fortune in gasoline stolen from a dapper black-marketeer. Riva is the kind of devil-may-care rogue who, after making enough money to coast for a couple of years, would risk it all to turn the head of the mistress of Kinshasa’s most vicious crime lord. In doing so, he becomes a very visible target. The Angolan, Cesar, assumes he will be allowed to make Riva pay for his disrespect, simply by throwing some money at local officials. What he doesn’t take into account, however, is how thoroughly corrupt everyone in Kinshasa is, from the police and military, to prostitutes and priests. Life may be cheap in Congo, but staying out of jail can be expensive, and that’s exactly where Cesar finds himself. The final confrontation between a half-dozen different warring parties is as exciting as it is intricately choreographed. The locally produced music is pretty swell, too.
Another fine British film that failed to find distribution in the United States is “The Hide,” Marek Losey’s adaptation of Tim Whitnall’s essentially two-man play, “The Sociable Plover.” Set on the Suffolk mudflats, we’re first introduced to middle-age birder (a.k.a., twitcher), Roy Tunt, who spends days at a time peering from a private “hide,” into the windswept distance at the birds and water fowl that gather there. He’s one twitch away from completing the British List of native birds, and, yes, it’s the sociable plover. In the hands of the gifted comic actor, Alex McQueen, Roy personifies every American’s stereotype of the classic British twit. Even when a dangerous-looking stranger enters the reasonably well-appointed shack, the anal-retentive Tunt treats him less as a threat to his life than someone whose knowledge of the noble pursuit of watchable birds is appallingly limited. Dave (Phil Campbell), who clearly is a fugitive from the law, can’t understand why anyone would waste his time staring at birds through binoculars. As is often the case in two-character plays, the men will develop a tentative rapport – inconceivable, outside the confines of the shed – and ultimately experience a shocking reversal of roles. “The Hide” could have benefitted from subtitles, as the very British dialects often are difficult to decipher.
The Phantom Carriage: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Any movie personally endorsed by Ingmar Bergman as being “the film of all films” and a primary influence on his work is one not only to be reckoned with, but also studied and enjoyed. Such is the case with “The Phantom Carriage,” a splendidly made 1921 ghost story and melodrama directed by Victor Sjostrom, acknowledged to be the “father of Swedish film.” Bergman admits to watching it dozens of times and learning new things with every screening.
Watching “The Phantom Carriage” 90 years after it debuted and with a century’s worth of cinema history stored in one’s memory bank, it’s easy to see how it might have inspired the young Bergman to begin making movies himself. Besides telling a compelling story, Sjostrom was re-inventing the medium as he went along. I couldn’t say with any certainty how much he owed D.W. Griffith and the German Expressionists, or how much newly minted directors owed him. Four years after “Phantom Carriage,” he was invited to ply his craft in Hollywood and work with the biggest stars of the silent era. He would return to Sweden after the introduction of synchronized sound and focus on acting for the most of the rest of his career. His final credit was Bergman’s 1957 “Wild Strawberries,” in which he played an elderly doctor forced by the circumstances of a car ride through his childhood haunts to reflect on his family background and choices that caused him to become a cold and isolated adult. Watch it again, alongside “The Phantom Carriage,” and Sjostrom’s influence on Bergman is unmistakable.
Adapted from a novel by Nobel Prize-winner Selma Lagerlöf, “The Phantom Carriage” dramatizes a legend that recalls both Charles Dickens and Orpheus. Each year, on New Year’s Eve, a new driver is commissioned by Death to retrieve the souls of the newly deceased. The last sinner to die that night becomes the next driver of the phantom carriage, a chore, we’re told, feels interminable to the victim. As the movie opens, we are introduced to a Salvation Army sister, Edit, who soon will lose her yearlong battle with consumption. Before she passes, however, Edit calls out for the belligerent alcoholic, David Holm (Sjostrom), she comforted on the previous New Year’s Eve at the Salvation Army hospital. On that frigid night, she prayed for the man’s tortured soul – no doubt, catching the TB bug from him – and needs to see what has become of him. If anyone in town would be the perfect candidate to replace the hooded, scythe-carrying chauffeur, it would be Holm, and her closest friends don’t want him to bring Death with him. When the carriage does arrive, its driver forces Holm to revisit the major turning points in his life.
As Holt, Sjostrom demonstrates a wonderful understanding of how the camera works. His acting here is far more naturalistic than what we’re used to seeing in silent movies. He uses his entire body as his instrument, not just his eyes and face, as was so often the case in run-of-the-mill American products. It also seems as if fewer inter-title quotes are needed to convey dialogue. As befits any Criterion Collection restoration, especially of the Blu-ray persuasion, this one makes the movie look as if it had only been in theaters a couple of weeks before being hermetically sealed for the next 90 years. There are scratches and other artifacts, but remarkably few. The digital transfer and restoration were performed in collaboration with the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute. Viewers can choose between two scores, one by Swedish composer Matti Bye and the other by the experimental duo KTL. The audio commentary features film historian Casper Tybjerg; an interview with Bergman has been excerpted from the 1981 documentary, “Victor Sjöström: A Portrait,” by Gösta Werner; film historian Peter Cowie’s visual essay, “The Bergman Connection,” describes the movie’s influence on the Swedish maestro; a short film recounts the building of Rasunda Studios, where the movie was shot; and there’s a booklet, featuring an essay by screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Mayersberg.
Dead Cert: Blu-ray
The Echo Game
Today, it takes more than an interesting premise to sell a movie about vampires to hard-core horror fans. Steven Lawson’s undead-Cockney thriller, “Dead Cert,” was declared DOA, even before it could be grilled by mainstream critics. That task was left to genre nerds on the Internet, who compared the movie unfavorably to “From Dust Till Dawn,” while ignoring the time and trouble it must have taken to assemble an excellent cast of Brit bad boys. “Dead Cert” imagines a scenario in which a group of East End gangsters – not unlike those we met in Guy Richie and Matthew Vaughn’s early movies – decide to go semi-legit by building a gentleman’s club on a site deemed sacred by an ancient clan of Romanian vampires. The ageless Dante “The Wolf” Livienko (Billy Murray) once slept in that dirt and his followers refuse to relinquish their claim without an illegal bare-knuckle fistfight. (“Fight Club” for vampires … what a concept!) “Dead Cert” meanders around for about 45 before a massive Romanian grappler is allowed to wipe the floor with the brother-in-law of the club-owner, Freddie (Craig Fairbrass). To the winner would go the spoils, which include several skanky lap dancers and a place for Wolf to lay his weary head. When the former owners attempt to take back their property, even the strippers are forced to take a stand. The climactic battle is bloody, but laughably choreographed. Other cast members include Dexter Fletcher (“Kick-Ass”), Steven Berkoff, Lisa McAllister and Janet Montgomery (“Entourage”). The Blu-ray adds a worthwhile making-of featurette.
Bears Fante’s debut feature, “iCrime,” begins promisingly enough, with an exceedingly cute Internet maven kicking the crap out of a guy who lures local lovelies to his lair, slips them a “roofie” and videotapes them in compromising positions. Hoping to find and destroy a tape made of her cousin, Carrie (Sara Fletcher) turns the table on the creep by slipping him a roofie and, while defenseless, beating him with his own camera. Not bad, for starters. That accomplished, however, “iCrime” wimps out by trying to solve an Internet mystery a child could spot as a fraud. Carrie takes it upon herself to investigate what is purported to be the staged abduction of another pretty young woman – aren’t they all? — by hooded thugs, who tie her up and threaten to do nasty things to her. Incensed by the effrontery of using the web to fool people, Carrie treats the faux abduction as if it were the 21st Century equivalent of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Using her many Internet connections and various tech tricks to reveal the truth, she follows a trail thatl winds its way through several Hollywood nightclubs and the apartments of wanna-be actors and semi-pro scenesters. Finally, Carrie is captured by the same hooded geeks. All of this is filmed, live, and transmitted over the web to people who have nothing better to do with their lifes. “iCrime” might have worked if the mystery weren’t so blatantly flimsy and the kidnappings looked real. Casting a bevy of hot twenty-somethings can only make up for so much lack of substance. The actors are game, but ultimately wasted. That said, with the exception of a few f-bombs, I think a cautionary tale such as “iCrime” could fit neatly on a cable network targeted at young women. Teens, especially, could identify with the Internet gimmicks and there’s no sex or graphic violence for parents to fear.
Another freshman filmmaker, Brian Feeney, fares better, if only because the intentions of his “The Echo Game” are far more clear and the audience better defined. Neither does it tiptoe around such essential genre conventions as partial nudity and graphic violence. Here, a lesbian couple becomes concerned about the weird behavior of their adopted daughter. She appears to have made an imaginary friend and is protecting the apparition from perceived harm. As will soon become apparent, the girl has inherited psychic powers from her birth mother and they’re only now manifesting themselves. Ten years earlier, her mother had escaped from an experimental ESP project and was declared dead. Her adoptive mother was a close friend, but unaware of her psychic powers. It’s taken the surviving members of the project team nearly a decade to determine that woman might not be dead, after all, and the daughter holds the key to finding her. They’ll use every piece of cutlery at their disposal to kidnap the girl and re-launch the experiment.
A seasoned editor, Feeney knows how to orchestrate cheap thrills and slasher effects. He also probably sensed that the movie couldn’t sustain any more action than would fit into a 71-minute framework. (If only other filmmakers were that smart.) The movie is good by most straight-to-DVD standards, but would need quite a bit more plotting to make it worthy of a theatrical release. I wonder what presidential candidates Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry would have to say about married lesbians, who are allowed to adopt children, in movies. I don’t think you can pray the gay out of movie characters.
The Ledge: Blu-ray
Breaking the Press
How many movies have we seen that open with a man or woman standing on the edge of a roof, contemplating suicide or waiting for someone to talk them out of it? Typically, the situation is resolved without damage to body or sidewalk. In “The Ledge,” the drama plays out over 95 of the movie’s 101-minute length and the conclusion is always in doubt. The young man on the ledge is a hotel manager and atheist who lost his daughter a year earlier in a terrible automobile accident and subsequently watched his marriage dissolve. That’s not, however, why Gavin (Charlie Hunnam, of “Lords of Anarchy”) is standing on the brink of oblivion. If he doesn’t jump, he tells the police negotiator (Terrence Howard), someone he loves will die, instead.
The negotiator, Hollis, employs all the usual psychological techniques he learned in cop school to ease Gavin’s distress, but he isn’t buying any of it. What he is willing to share is the story of what led to his current dilemma. Hollis is, of course, willing to anything that might avert an ugly incident. He, too, is caught in the middle of a thorny problem, though. Earlier that morning, a doctor laid on him the unexpected news that he’s sterile and, therefore, couldn’t have fathered the two children had every reason to believe were his. Not having had time to get back home to confront his wife, Hollis alternates between negotiations with Gavin and interrogating her by phone. She tries to offer an explanation, but is continually being out-shouted by Hollis. Sensing that something’s distracting his potential rescuer, Gavin opens up to him about the disturbing ramifications of his decision to woo the wife of a fundamentalist Christian acquaintance (Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson), who lives in an apartment down the hall from the one he shares with his gay friend. At first, Gavin mistakes Shanna and Joe’s friendliness and dinner invitation as an opportunity to bond with like-minded neighbors. Indeed, Shanna has recently taken a low-paying job in the hotel and a free meal could increase her chances of promotion down the road. Instead, the gathering provides Joe with the opportunity to inflict his hard-core beliefs and revulsion for for homosexuality on the two men. Shanna doesn’t say much, one way or the other, but we later learn that she’s indebted to Joe, who saved her from a life of depravity.
Because Joe isn’t blind, as well as tactless, it doesn’t take him long to figure out that Shanna has become attracted to Gavin’s good looks and willingness to defend his philosophies in debates with her husband. To nip their fondness for each other in the bud, Joes decides he and Shanna will move to Africa and commit the next few years to missionary work. That absurd demand prompts Shanna to make the decision that will cause Joe to snap and lead to Gavin’s visit to the ledge. The biggest problem with “The Ledge” is that it relies too much on the stalemate on the roof to drive the action away from it. The only time “The Ledge” doesn’t feel stagebound is when Shanna and Gavin are strolling along Baton Rouge’s riverwalk and talking about something other than hellfire and damnation.
Despite the large amount of time devoted to debates over the existence of God, power of prayer and other moral and ethical issues, “The Ledge” doesn’t really fit the confines of the emerging faith-based genre. Both sides are given equal opportunity to make their points and no one gets converted or finds redemption in the end. There’s simply too much room left for conjecture, and that’s OK.
Andrew Stevens’ “Breaking the Press” does fit the mold. Inspired by the parable of the prodigal son, it describes the journey taken by a star high school athlete who betrays his teammates and coach/father by transferring to a more celebrated program, away from the confines of a small Texas town. The decision tests the boy’s ability to cope with the complications and distractions of big-city life, while also demanding of his father that he question his own faith. In faith-based movies, the answers to such questions are pre-ordained. The only mystery comes in determining where, when and how the fallen sheep will return to the flock.
The son of actor Stella Stevens and, briefly, husband to Kate Jackson, has worn every hat sold in the Hollywood haberdashery, from actor to CEO of his own production companies. His name has mostly been attached to low-budget hit-and-run exploitation flicks, as well as dozens of made-for-TV and straight-to-video flicks in several different genres. As far as I can tell, “Breaking the Press” is his first unabashedly Christian production.
The Stool Pigeon
Unlike the confidential informants used to make police cases in the United States, cops and snitches in Hong Kong are tied to each other by certain contractual obligations and other pre-arranged codes of conduct. They may not trust each other completely, but benefits accrue to the CI’s who help bring a case to fruition. That, at least, is what we’re led to believe in Dante Lam’s frenetic thriller, “The Stool Pigeon.” As the movie opens, a decision made by police detective Don Lee (Nick Leung) causes his informant to be injured. A year later, he finds a new informer in the ex-con and ace getaway driver, Ghost Jr. (Nicholas Tse), whose sister has been pimped out to fulfill their late father’s debt to the mob. His task is to use his driving skills to infiltrate a smash-and-grab jewel-theft ring. If Ghost Jr. is able to help Lee break up the gang, the cop will be obligated to help him rescue his sister and repay the money. Obviously, the opportunity for betrayal exists on both sides of the detective’s shield. Filmed largely in the streets, alleys and maze-like underground cellars of Hong Kong, “The Stool Pigeon” doesn’t look at all like a studio job. The foot chases are as entertaining as the car chases. Lam is a hot commodity in the Hong Kong market and he enjoys casting familiar faces in his movies, including Leung, Tse, Pu Miao and Sherman Chung, who previously worked together in “The Beast Stalker.”
The Sex Merchants
The best thing that can be said about the current crop of do-it-yourself movies – genre flicks that look home-made and feature Z-list talent — is that they tend to be blessedly short. No amount of bargain-basement gore, sex or special effects can turn a movie that wants to be 50 minutes long into a better picture that’s 20 or 30 minutes longer. The best amateurs know their limits and abide by them. Even at 68 minutes, “The Sex Merchants” attempts to make up for a lack of good ideas with a lot soft-core sex and interminable nude modeling sessions. The movie’s punchline arrives, appropriately enough, as the closing credits begin to roll, but, by then, “The Sex Merchants” has runs its course. I only mention this because some of DIY titles I receive from niche distributors are surprisingly watchable and the chances taken by unknown filmmakers pay off in interesting ways.
In “The Sex Merchants,” Peter (Tyrone L. Roosevelt) is a photographer who appears to make a decent living photographing models for the fetish magazine, Esoteric. He’s addicted to cocaine and post-session sex with his models — Jackie Stevens (“The Insatiable Ironbabe”) and Mia Copia (“Feeding Frenzy”) — who couldn’t possibly be more gullible. In addition to his cocaine “jones,” Peter is unable to shake his dependency on his dominating mother, wherein lies the punchline. The problem is that the photographs he takes aren’t even as hot as the ones used to tease amateur porn sites on the Internet and his publisher wants to cut costs. As a photographer who never leaves his loft apartment, Peter likely will find it impossible to repay his debt to his coke dealer. Unfortunately, there isn’t much more to “The Sex Merchants” than that.
I’m just spit-balling here, but writer/director John Niflheim might enjoyed more success if he had modeled Peter after the real-life fetish photographer, Richard Kern, who possesses the uncanny ability to coax young woman to strip down to their britches. After getting to know them a bit, he convinces them to pose in all sorts of uncomfortable positions or, maybe, allow him to photograph them brushing their teeth, gargling or arm wrestling. He also is known for lying between the legs of his subjects, who are wearing panties, and taking up-skirt shots of them. Admittedly, this makes him sound like a dirty old man, and maybe he is. Kern also is one of the best known artists in his field, well represented in the world of coffee-table books and niche websites. The women he shoots don’t look as if they need to be coaxed into revealing themselves physically and personally, and the photographs are about as unpretentious as they can be and still cost money to publish. What makes Peter a perv and Kern an artist? The answer to that question possibly could provide the foundation for a movie a thousand times better than “The Sex Merchants.”
Call Me Fitz: The Complete First Season
Hung: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
How to Make It in America: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Kojack: Season Two
Kendra: Seasons 2 & 3
Holly’s World: Seasons 1 & 2
Cleveland Show: The Complete Season Two
How I Met Your Mother: Season Six
Jason Priestly plays an ethically challenged used-car salesman, Richard “Dick Fitz” Fitzpatrick, in the raunchy Canadian HBO and DirecTV sitcom, “Call Me Fitz.” (You know it’s from Canada because some of the sight gags involve hockey sticks.) Fitz is the kind of salesman who would gladly sacrifice a deal if he could have sex with the customer, instead. This character flaw results, early on, in a fiery accident around which the rest of the season revolves. That the customer, who made the mistake of going out on a test ride with Fitz behind the wheel, is knocked unconscious doesn’t prevent the salesman from moving her into the driver’s seat and using her limp hand to sign a sales document. Unfortunately for Fitz, the final stages of his scam are witnessed by a troop of Girl Scouts and photographed by a 15-year-old hoping to earn a merit badge in extortion. Fitz’s many desperate attempts to avoid arrest and ditch his newfound conscience, in the person of a bunny-eared brother he didn’t know existed (Ernie Grunwald), range from hilarious to yawn-enducing. There are other storylines, but none especially outrageous by cable standards … cursing and sexual innuendo, mostly. After a tepid start, however, “Fitz” finds its footing, providing Priestly the opportunity to showcase his comedy chops. The Season 1 collection includes “The Genesis of Fitz,” “Casting of Fitz,” a blooper reel and preview of Season 2.
HBO’s “Hung,” entering its third stanza next month, deals with sexuality and suburban dysfunction in a unique and hugely entertaining way. For the uninitiated, the wildly offbeat series stars Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a recent divorcee and high-school coach who moonlights as a gigolo (a.k.a., “happiness consultant”). Apart from being well-groomed, athletic and handsome, Drecker is blessed in the same way as “Johnny Wadd” Holmes was blessed. The merging of careers is difficult enough for Drecker to handle, without also having to deal with his romantically befuddled ex-wife, two insecure children, horny neighbors, competing female pimps, a financial crisis in his suburban Detroit school district and living outside his burned-out lakeside home in a tent. That’s a lot for any sitcom character to endure. Given an hour to work out its weekly kinks, however, “Hung” succeeds wonderfully. Much credit belongs to an excellent supporting cast, including Jane Adams, Rebecca Creskoff, Anne Heche, Eddie Jemison, Clark Gregg, and Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Charlie Saxton as the Goth twins. Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”) directed one of the Season 2 episodes. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and five commentary tracks.
HBO’s “How to Make It in America” is a 30-minute dramedy that will either grow on you or quickly grow very old. It involves a couple of Manhattan slackers who see an opportunity to make money in producing designer jeans or message T-shirts, depending on what Japanese buyers are most interested in buying on any given week. There are parallel storylines involving an entrepreneurial Puerto Rican ex-con (Luis Guzman), New York skateboarders and screwed-up yuppie love lives. The characters are more neurotic and self-involved than they are kooky and adorable, as is usually the case with New York-based series. Besides scene-stealer Guzman, “HTMIIA” stars Bryan Greenberg (“One Tree Hill”), Victor Rasuk (“Stop-Loss”), Lake Bell (“No Strings Attached”) and Shannyn Sossamon (“Moonlight”). The Blu-ray set includes the making-of “The Get By”; “The Legend of Wilfredo Gomez,” about a legendary NYC skateboarder; “Hustle Stories”; deleted scenes; and eight commentaries.
In Theo Kojak, Telly Savalas created one of the most enduring and endearing characters in television history. Nearly 40 years after “Kojak” began its five-season run on CBS, the series remains genuinely entertaining and surprisingly fresh. Certainly, the show revolved around Kojak’s larger-than-life personality and irreverent approach to crime-fighting. In hindsight, though, New York played as important a role in each week’s show as detectives Stavros, Crocker, Saperstein and Rizzo. It’s also great fun to watch Kojak interact with New York’s average Joes and Janes, as they go about their daily chores, dispensing his trademark, “Who loves you, baby?” and Greek bromides. In the mid-1970s, Times Square still hadn’t undergone its Disneyfication; the RICO Act had yet to endanger the native Mafioso population; and crack was a decade away from becoming the drug of choice. The opportunities for drama and comedy were many, everywhere and included Kojak’s pimp-nouveau wardrobe. The second-season box contains 25 hourlong episodes.
In the waning days of their occasionally grotesque relationship with Hugh Hefner, who could imagine that two-thirds of the women who made “The Girls Next Door” such an unlikely hit would find an afterlife in shows of their own? E! Entertainment, a network that pushes the envelope on celebrity worship and bad taste, exists to make such dreams come true. In the interim, however, the antics of the Kardashians make Kendra Wilkinson and Holly Madison look normal. Kendra’s become a wife and mother, while Holly has a steady gig singing and showing off her boobs at a Las Vegas resort. Neither show is as naughty as “Girls Next Door,” but we all have to grow up, sometime. In the second and third seasons of “Go, Kendra!,” we follow Our Heroine from the birth of Baby Hank to the snooty trappings of New York Fashion Week. Besides adjusting to life as an NFL wife, Kendra is trying to get back into playing shape herself. She’s also writing a book about herself. Holly, who, at 32, could do with a serious makeover, has become a standard-bearer for all things Vegas and something of a mother hen for her oddball posse. Again, compared to “Girls Next Door,” “Holly’s World” is remarkably tame and too much time is wasted on the antics of her buxom buddies and male assistants. Still, she seems like a nice lady and the show wouldn’t have been extended if people didn’t watch it.
In the second season of Fox’s animated comedy series, “The Cleveland Show,” the brood packs its collective bags and heads west, to Las Vegas, San Diego and Hawaii, where plans for a trip to Africa are derailed by the lure of mai tais and other tropical temptations. Back home in Stoolbend, Cleveland gets involved with local sports teams, a hip-hop fantasy, parental issues and a disastrous charity Beer Walk. Also contributing to this season’s fun are the cast of “Glee,” “Kanye West” and Justin Timberlake, as a singing booger. The new “uncensored” DVD collection adds “Cleveland Jr.’s Worry Journal,” “Cleveland at Comic-Con 2010,” deleted scenes and guest commentaries.
The hit CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother” just keeps rolling along, thanks to its fine ensemble cast and characters whose anxieties and neuroses nicely complement each other. Nothing truly unusual — by sitcom standards, anyway — happens in the sixth stanza. Ted is still hoping the perfect woman will fall into his lap from the sky; Barney remains on the prowl for several perfect women and, incidentally, his disturbingly dull father; Marshall and Lily continue to haggle over parenthood; and Robin remains at odds with her own best interests. Meanwhile, blond Jennifer Morrison enters Ted’s life as love interest Zoey and Katy Perry and Jorge Garcia make appearances. The DVD supplements include deleted and extended scenes, a gag reel, commentaries and making-of featurettes.
Basket Case: Blu-ray
The Last House on the Left: Unrated Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Vampires, Mummies and Monsters Collection: Roger Corman Cult ClassicsManhunter/Hannibal: Blu-ray
RoboCop 2: Blu-ray
Poltergeist II: The Other Side: Blu-ray
Some cult classics simply don’t hold up under the close scrutiny accorded by the Blu-ray format, which adds high-gloss sheen where none was intended. Knowing that a movie was shot on 16mm and blown up to accommodate 35mm projectors explains why some movies look so damn cool. “Basket Case” is one of those films. Blu-ray only slightly distracts from the story, which is every bit as vomit-inducing as it ever was. The midtown-Manhattan locations look just as sleazy as they did in 1982 and the actors still can’t act. It’s the special effects and materials used to create the monster that look as if they’ve been freshly laundered. To refresh your memory, the title, “Basket Case,” refers to the contents of a large basket carried by a young man as he checks into a flophouse off New York’s Times Square. Inside, of course, is the deformed lesser-half of conjoined brothers, involuntarily separated, but still quite alive and jealous of his sibling’s mobility. When the “normal” brother leaves the hotel, boredom drives the telepathic twin to lure unsuspecting strangers into their room for a bloody snack. Together, though, they hope to exact revenge on the doctors and other so-called experts, who, years earlier, decided to play God. That much, at least, hasn’t been affected by the digital scrub. The Blu-ray presentation retains the original 1:37:1 aspect, while adding commentary and a new introduction by director Frank Henenlotter; additional commentary by producer Edgar Ievins and actor Beverly Bonner; the 2001 video short, “In Search of the Hotel Broslin”; outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage from Henenlotter’s personal collection; publicity material; and a gallery of “exploitation art” and photos. I’m surprised no one thought of including the two sequels from 1990 and 1992.
The same complaint about how Blu-ray and 16mm tend to work at cross-purposes to each other applies to “Last House on the Left,” which, despite its micro-budget, still resonates with genre buffs 40 years later. Released in 1972, near the end of America’s Vietnamese nightmare and amidst the controversy over “gratuitous” violence in mainstream movies, Wes Craven’s debut presented a huge test for audiences and critics, alike. Influenced specifically by Ingmar Bergman’s similarly testing “Virgin Spring,” “Last House” required its audience to weigh the legitimacy of eye-for-an-eye justice, even in the most hideous of crimes. In this case, two teenage girls venture into the city to attend a concert by the band, Bloodlust. On the way, they attempt to buy drugs from the lowlife pal of a group of escaped convicts. These fine fellows abduct the girls, then rape, torture and kill them when they become a burden. When the men’s car breaks down on the way to Canada, they unwittingly seek lodging in the home of one of the girls’ parents. An overheard conversation alerts the parents to the tragedy and, horrified, they exact their own justice on the criminals. Even today, much of the violence borders on the unwatchable. And, yet, even with the 2009 remake and recent Americanization of “Straw Dogs,” the same questions remain unanswered. The Blu-ray arrives with a host of supplemental features, but all appear to have been lifted from previous video incarnations. If “Last House” inspired its viewers to watch “Virgin Spring,” Craven will have done a service to humanity.
Even by the standards set by Roger Corman’s most frugal projects, the movies collectedin “Vampires, Mummies and Monsters” look cheap and undernourished. If this doesn’t necessarily render them unwatchable, “Lady Frankenstein,”
“Time Walker,” “The Velvet Vampire” and “Grotesque” clearly aren’t in same league as other entries in the “Cult Classics” series. In Mel Welles’ and Aureliano Luppi’s “Lady Frankenstein,” Joseph Cotton plays the Baron Frankenstein, whose surgeon daughter hopes one day to stand in his footsteps. Cotton is the same actor, of course, who co-starred alongside Orson Welles in at least three of the most celebrated movies ever made, as well as several other fine entertainments. Here, he’s asked primarily to create the monster that is destined to destroy him. His departure makes room for the introduction of the baroness, Tania Frankenstein (Rosalba Neri), who is determined to clear her father’s name in the scientific community. This she does, with the help of her late father’s partner and her unlikely lover, Dr. Charles Marshall (Paul Muller). Together, they breathe life into a humanoid with the doctor’s transplanted intellect and good looks and buff physique of the estate’s dimwitted gardener. The new creation is as close as the baroness is likely to get to the perfect man, in all the ways a lusty woman could want. Everything seems to work OK, until the gardener’s sister begins to worry about his unexplained absence. Among the cast members is body-builder Mickey Hargitay, former husband of Jayne Mansfield and father of Marissa Hargitay, star of “Law & Order: SVU.” I have no idea why he’s there. “Lady Frankenstein” is strictly for fans of low camp.
The same can be said about “The Velvet Vampire,” which sometimes looks as if it were stitched together using large swatches of two different movies. Like “Lady Frankenstein,” Stephanie Rothman’s occasionally erotic psycho-thriller was released in 1971. Instead of a gothic mansion, though, much of “VV” takes place in the sun-baked desert around Palm Springs, not normally a destination for the undead. Celeste Yarnall plays Diane LeFanu, a pale and slinky doll who enjoys inviting young couples to her desert estate to fulfill their and her naughty dreams. The home is located a short distance from her husband’s grave, which doubles as a mattress for her on lonely nights. Given the time frame, Rothman took the liberty of adding some psychedelic dream sequences, including one that Salvador Dali might have been proud to claim as his own. The DVD includes a photo gallery and lively commentary with Yarnell and Mondo Digital critic Nathaniel Thompson.
Another movie that appears to have been directed by a vivisectionist is “Grotesque,” a 1988 gore-fest that appears to be a hybrid of “Straw Dogs” and “F/X,” if either of those films had been made by morons. Linda Blair plays the daughter of a Hollywood makeup-effects wizard, whose senior years are being spent with his wife in a Big Bear cabin. He still enjoys making scary masks and costumes, but they’re used to pull practical jokes on guests and family members. For some reason, a group of stereotypically hideous punk-rockers has been commissioned to break into the cabin and steal the money someone thinks is hidden there. It isn’t. Instead, the punks use the occasion to terrorize the family. What they couldn’t possibly have predicted was the efficiency of Dad’s special-effects booby-traps and belated presence of a deformed humanoid forest-dweller and a vengeful cop, played by Tab Hunter.
The fourth movie in the collection is “Time Walker,” which merges reawakened-mummy horror and familiar sci-fi conceits. Released in 1982, Tom Kennedy’s limp slice of mystery meat describes what happens when a sarcophagus from King Tut’s tomb is delivered to a college campus and left in an unguarded lab. As if such a thing could ever happen. Overnight, one of the students sneaks into the lab and steals what appear to be large gem stones, which he hands out to friends and girls he wants to impress. It’s a bad mistake, because the mummy needs the stones to connect with a spaceship that’s been waiting for his signal for more than 3,000 years. (The ancient chamber also is oozing a green fungus that threatens to kill anyone who touches it.) The mummy is pissed and doesn’t care who knows it. The resulting carnage ranges from the science building to a frat party. The DVD adds an interview with star Kevin Brophy and producer Dimitri Villard.
In addition to “Last House on the Left,” several other popular MGM/Fox thrillers have been re-released in Blu-ray. Among them are two of films in the Hannibal Lecter series: “Manhunter,” Michael Mann’s underappreciated 1986 adaptation of “Red Dragon”; and Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal,” which picks up 10 years after “Silence of the Lambs” left off. In “Manhunter,” William Petersen plays ex-FBI profiler Will Graham, who reluctantly turns to the imprisoned Lecter (Brian Cox) to decipher clues in a series of grisly murders that appear to have been committed as homage to the master fiend. It’s scary as hell. In “Hannibal,” Julianne Moore replaced Jodie Foster as agent Clarice Starling. After laying low for 10 years in Italy, Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is lured back to the U.S. by the only man to have survived his torture. Starling, whose fortunes at the bureau have been deflated, is being used as bait. The Blu-rays arrive sans bonus material.
Likewise, “Poltergeist II” and “RoboCop 2” arrive in Blu-ray in no-frills editions. Neither matches the excitement and invention of the originals, but fans already know that. They didn’t do particularly well at the box office, either. In the former, Peter Weller’s supercop is required to battle a drug conspiracy and a more lethal android villain. Most of the original cast of “Poltergeist” returned in the sequel and many of the same ghosts are on their trail.
The Naked Gun/Planes, Trains & Automobiles/Airplane!: Blu-ray
For the time being, anyway, fans of the evergreen 1980s comedies, “Airplane!,” “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” will have to pay a visit to the local Best Buy to purchase Blu-ray copies. Paramount must enjoy some kind of marketing advantage, in exchange for exclusive placement in the stores, but I’m not quite sure what it might be. Certainly, these classic titles are more likely to be purchased than rented and, with 1,150 Best Buy outlets around the world, the consumer-electronics giant probably is as good a place as any to display them. Since these movies don’t need an introduction, I won’t bother to oversell them. They’re funny, period. All three boast 1080p high definition and English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. “Naked Gun” adds commentary by director David Zucker, producer Robert Weiss and Peter Tilden. “Airplane!” features commentary by producer Jon Davison and writers/directors Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker; the extended “Long Haul Version,” with deleted scenes and interviews; and a trivia track. “PT&A” add the multi-part documentary, “John Hughes: Life Moves Pretty Fast”; the featurettes, “Getting There Is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” “A Tribute to John Candy” and “John Hughes for Adults”; and a deleted scene.
H.H. Dalai Lama: Facing Death and Dying Well/
Interdependence, Interconnectedness and the Nature of Reality
The most recent releases in Gonzo/MVD series of lectures by the Dalai Lama deal with some of the most perplexing questions facing all human beings: existence, dying, death, decomposition and nothingness. As a demonstrably, if arguably reincarnated soul, the Dalai Lama is in a unique position to offer advice and guidance on such weighty topics. In the eyes of believers, he represents the latest reincarnation of a series of spiritual leaders who have chosen to be reborn in order to enlighten others. In these 165-minute-long seminars, H.H. encourages his followers to meditate on impermanence and the momentary changing nature of existence, in order to understand why we’re here and where we’re going. “Facing Death and Dying Well” is intended to “help us appreciate the basic unsatisfactory nature of existence, and strive towards liberation.” The lecture, “Interdependence, Interconnectedness and the Nature of Reality” focuses on “dependent origination and emptiness and the nature of time.” The journey to Buddhahood is long and loaded with distractions. These lectures, which are presented in a mixture of Tibetan and English, require a quite deal of concentration and patience. Don’t be reluctant to use the rewind function when the lessons get murky.
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