MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrap: Date Night, The Joneses, Triage, Helen, Multiple Sarcasms and more …

Date Night

In anticipation of Date Night, some longtime fans of Tina Fey and Steve Carell might have wondered if the Second City alums and NBC sitcom stars would be more credible playing siblings, instead of husband and wife.

While no one could confuse them for identical twins, they share a lot of creative DNA. The same could be said, though, about any comic whose artistic roots lead back to Second City (Chicago or Toronto), the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade or Improv Olympics. The split-second timing, assured stage bearing, disciplined approach to the material and self-confidence absorbed there distinguishes them from graduates of Mom & Pop’s Acting Academy anywhere else.

Being primarily a chase-and-escape flick predicated on a single tenuous premise, Date Night simply wasn’t a film that fit comfortably within Fey and Carell’s wheelhouse. It worked best for me when the concise verbal gags were allowed to stand on their own and not telegraph something coming down the road: Fey confusing “whack off” for “whack” when confronted by armed thugs, and Carell’s reaction to the gaffe; her hilariously oblivious response to Carell’s interest in sex after the kids are put to bed; and a largely improvised pole dance, designed to amuse a brutish gangster.

Otherwise, Date Night is The Out-of-Towners with a car chase. (In the hands of Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, Neil Simon’s fish-out-of-water comedy worked marvelously; not so with the more farcical adaptation provided Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn.) Here, New Jersey suburbanites Phil and Claire Foster have ventured into the wilds of Manhattan for a hastily planned celebratory dinner. Ridiculously cocky, Phil believes they can walk into one of the city’s trendiest restaurants and get a table, based solely on their good looks.

After being insulted by the snooty gay maître’d, Phil boldly answers the call for a table reserved for the Tripplehorns, who must have had other plans for the evening. No sooner do the appetizers arrive than the Fosters realize they’re impersonating a couple wanted by the police, mobsters and police on the mobsters’ payroll. From this point on, Date Night is off to the races. Although some of the chases and escapes are extremely well executed, Fey and Carell merely are required to mug their responses to what’s swirling around them … not their strong suit.

That said, however, Shawn Levy’s action-comedy is more entertaining than not and doesn’t lose much in the transfer to DVD. The Blu-ray version benefits from the inclusion of an excellent making-of featurette, in which Levy exuberantly describes how one goes about shooting a movie in New York under strict time and budgetary restraints. It also adds a gag reel, extended and deleted scenes, a longer version of the central car chase, commentary, camera tests, Disaster Dates With the Cast, teaser “PSAs” and a Live Lookup feature. – Gary Dretzka

The Joneses

Nearly a half-century after the events described in AMC’s Mad Men took place, marketing and advertising strategies have evolved to the point where it’s become nearly impossible to distinguish between the medium and the message … or “massage,” to coin a phrase made famous by Marshall McLuhan. In his debut as a writer/director, Derrick Borte anticipates a highly personal form of marketing, which combines subliminal advertising with product placement, direct sales and flat-out deception.

Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth comprise a picture-perfect nuclear family, the Joneses, newly arrived in an affluent suburban neighborhood populated by trend-conscious consumers. What their neighbors don’t know is that this unreasonably handsome family was placed among them for the sole purpose of promoting products they’ll associate with the Jones’ level of success. That none of the Joneses is related to the others only makes the marketing ploy that much more cynical. Even absent a hard-sell approach or strategically placed billboard, the products literally fly off the shelves of the manufacturers the Joneses represent.

Duchovny plays a scratch golfer, whose skill is attributed to a certain brand of equipment; Moore’s specialty is beauty products; Hollingsworth pitches skateboards to his pals at high school; and Heard sells gourmet food to diet-conscious hotties. No sooner does one product take off than another is introduced. Their supervisor, played by Lauren Hutton, keeps a running tally on sales and shamelessly manipulates the Joneses to maintain her exalted position in the pyramid scheme. So far, so good. It isn’t until Borte elects to lighten the darker shades of his comedy that this promising premise is swamped by a sudden wave of moralizing and the inevitable search for a positive message.

It arrives in the form of status-conscious neighbors (Gary Cole, Glenne Headly), who covet the products they associate with the Jones’ posh lifestyle. Unfortunately, the husband is sadly unaware of the fact that each new luxury sports car driven by his golf buddy is a product placed specifically for his perusal by the marketing company, and trying to keep up with the Joneses is economic suicide. When the inevitable tragedy finally spoils the fun, the script demands a sentimental conclusion. Still, it isn’t difficult to recommend The Joneses, based primarily on the ability of Duchovny and Moore to extend the central conceit as far as it goes. The Blu-ray edition only adds a couple of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Triage

American distributers have become so afraid of movies pertaining to the increasingly futile conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that small gems like Triage are being overlooked. Set in Kurdistan, practically on the eve of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 gassing of the city of Halabja, Danis Tanovic’s drama describes just how quickly a journalist can go from witness to victim in the heat of war, and have little or no recollection of how he got there. Here, a pair of freelance photographers has traveled from Ireland to a remote corner of the embattled province, specifically to record the activity in a rebel medical unit.

Sensing impending doom, one decides to split ahead of a rebel offensive, choosing to hike his way out of Iraq, instead of waiting for a relief vehicle. Several days later, that photographer has disappeared and the other, Mark (Colin Farrell), has been rescued from a nearby river bed, unconscious and seriously wounded, and returned to the triage unit. Even barely conscious, Mark understands that the same doctor he’d met earlier in the makeshift cave infirmary soon will be required to decide whether his injuries can be healed or he’ll be put out of his great misery with a bullet to the heart, as was the fate of other doomed fighters he’d photographed.

I’m not giving anything away by advancing the story to Dublin, where Mark tries desperately to recollect the specifics of the attack for his wife and the widow of his comrade. That he can’t remember anything but bits and snatches of the ordeal paralyzes him with fear, remorse and guilt. It isn’t until Mark gives in to the counsel of his wife’s (Paz Vega) elderly grandfather – a psychotherapist who once treated officers responsible for atrocities in the Spanish Civil War – that he begins to make sense of what happened. In the very capable hands of 88-year-old Christopher Lee, the dignified and dapper doctor uses his experiences in that even more gruesome conflagration to shape the treatment of Mark, a product of the gonzo school of photojournalism. Their exchanges are worth the price of a rental, alone.

Tanovic’s interpretation of Scott Anderson’s novel is informed by his experiences in the Bosnian war, which also resulted in his amazing first feature, No Man’s Land, winner of a 2002 Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. The DVD arrives with some very decent making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

Helen

It’s been a while since a movie about a woman suffering from advanced clinical depression has tickled the fancy of American audiences. Used to be, a high-profile actress could almost guarantee herself an Oscar nomination by playing someone whose grasp on reality was tenuous, at best. Now that the nation’s megaplexes have been surrendered to teenagers and fanboys, however, razors blades have been reserved mostly for cutting lines of cocaine, not wrists.

Even with a cast that included Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg, Brittany Murphy and Vanessa Redgrave, Girl, Interrupted failed to live up to the hype generated by Susanna Kaysen’s book. Ten years later, in Helen, Ashley Judd would deliver a performance that might have been considered for an Oscar nomination, if this were 1989 and the movie had opened in more than one theater in New York. In it, Judd plays a seemingly happy wife, mother and educator, who, without warning, displays signs of suicidal depression.

At first, her illness is confined to crying jags and withdrawal from family, friends and students. Before long, however, Helen refuses to acknowledge anyone’s kindness, except a student who suffers from a bi-polar condition. Her depression, which also precipitated a previous suicide attempt, has been in remission for many years. Her second husband, David (Goran Visnjic), pledges to support Helen throughout the coming ordeal, but, eventually, her seeming disregard wears him out, as well. Because Judd pulls out all the stops in her performance, none of this is pleasant to watch.

Helen doesn’t end badly, thank God, but it very easily could have. German writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck, whose Mostly Martha could hardly be more different in tone than Helen, reportedly was inspired by the suicide of a childhood friend. Moreover, in 2006, Judd entered a program for depression and co-dependency, in Texas. In an interview included in the bonus material, Judd is effusive in her praise of Nettelbeck’s interpretation of her character and how she came off in the finished product. Although Judd seems more interested in her husband’s racing career and University of Kentucky athletics, it would be nice to see her in movie roles that measure up to her talent and have some commercial potential. – Gary Dretzka

Multiple Sarcasms

Linda Morris and Brooks Branch’s hyper-neurotic dramedy, Multiple Sarcasms, harkens back to 1979, when otherwise successful middle-age professionals – men, predominantly — could afford midlife crises or bouts of middle-age craziness. The malaise invariably revealed itself as these pre-Boomers were about to turn 40 and all of the life choices they’d made, professionally and personally, began to sour. In the movies, this meant impromptu purchases of expensive sports cars and exotically skinned cowboy boots, affairs with women half their age and ill-advised divorces.

Today, of course, anyone that age with a job would be insane to risk being laid off, merely to satisfy an itch in their crotch. Here, Timothy Hutton plays a thusly stricken architect, who’s blessed with a wonderful wife (Dana Delany), a terrific daughter (India Ennenga), a yummy BFF (Mira Sorvino) and loyal pals (Mario Van Peebles, Laila Robins), yet is willing to sacrifice everything to fulfill a dream of writing a play (the Manhattan equivalent of buying Tony Lama boots and a Porsche).

Hutton portrays angst-ridden Boomers as well as any actor his age, but, here, his miseries could hardly be less compelling. These sorts of movies would be far more believable if the ditched spouses weren’t nearly so attractive and nurturing, and the kids were a smidge more unbearable. How difficult could that be? Multiple Sarcasms capably captures the look and feel of 1979, but swings and misses when it comes to capturing realistic human behavior. The Blu-ray package adds a making-off featurette and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

The Thorn in the Heart

In countless music videos, commercials and such films as The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind and Human Nature, French director/writer Michel Gondry has demonstrated an unmatched talent for combining child-like whimsy, off-beat characters and visual invention in the service of brain-tickling narratives. By comparison, Gondry’s new family-based documentary,The Thorn in the Heart, is conventional, bordering on sentimental. (Don’t worry, fans, his big-budget adaptation of the Green Hornet comic-book saga is scheduled to arrive in January.)

Thorn in the Heart pays homage to revered Gondry-family matriarch, Aunt Suzette, who taught in various rural outposts from 1952-86, mostly in one-room school houses and for the benefit of immigrants and the children of farmers and shopkeepers. By all accounts, Aunt Suzette was an excellent educator and remarkable human being, although she sometimes lost patience with her own kids. While her influence on Gondry isn’t immediately obvious, his family clearly valued scholarship, storytelling and imagination.

The bonus features include a post-screening Q&A and conversation with Gondry, from SXSW; a music video of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Little Monsters; stop-animation by collaborator Valerie Pirson; kids’ calendar sketches; and the featurette, Techno Suzette. – Gary Dretzka

Under the Mountain

Before watching this horror-fantasy for tweeners, I was unaware of the best-selling novels by New Zealand’s Maurice Gee. Under the Mountain was a departure for the Auckland-born author, who had been known for stories that cut against the grain of the country’s dull, conservative self-image. While lauded in most literary circles, Gee’s mysteries, thrillers and stories about dysfunctional families, crime and racism struck some critics as being overly sordid and violent.

Like his other stories, Gee set Under the Mountain in Auckland, a major city ringed by dormant volcanoes, some of whose craters had formed lakes and lagoons. Two houses on opposite sides of Lake Pupuke are central to the fantasy. Recently orphaned twins live with relatives in the modern home on one shore, while shape-shifting monsters inhabit the disheveled mess that also serves as a gateway to the underworld. Naturally, the red-headed twins are filled with more curiosity about the old house than the ones in their own neighborhood.

It’s further piqued by a mysterious stranger (Sam Neill) who is practiced in the art of fire-raising and sees in the kids an opportunity to save mankind from an apocalyptical mass eruption of volcanoes. Under the Mountain effectively mixes adventure with chilling supernatural events, suitable for tweeners and their parents, alike. Today, that’s a pretty good to trick. – Gary Dretzka

Loose Screws: Screwballs II
Say Goodnight

In 1982, Porky’s defied almost universal critical rebuke by making a bloody fortune and, in so doing, raised the bar on future depictions of teen depravity. Little more than a white-trash hybrid of American Graffiti and Animal House, Bob Clark’s remembrance of things past overflowed with the kind of gross-out humor sought by teenagers whose coming of age included sneaking into strip clubs, peeping on girls in the shower room and puking their guts out after too many beers.

The Porky’s trilogy begat the Screwballs series of lower-budget T&A ticklers, which advanced the setting from the rural 1950s South to suburbia in the 1960s. The primary goal of the male characters – not all of whom were dweebs — of course, was to lose their virginity. In Loose Screws: Screwballs II, four of the boys reprise their roles as incorrigible misfits, this time looking to romance the new French teacher, Miss Mona Lott, or any of a dozen horny coeds at Cockswell Academy. If unsuccessful, they’ll settle for photographing them in various stages of undress with a camcorder. Severin Films, which specializes in re-releases of cult titles, has given Loose Screws the Criterion Collection treatment, with interviews, making-of featurettes, commentary and added material.

The quartet of yuppie horndogs in David Van Allmen’s Say Goodnight isn’t all that far removed from the characters in Screwballs and Porky’s, except in that they’re contemporary and inhabit bars where cocktails tend to cost more than the hourly minimum wage. Otherwise, it’s the same old game of young men bragging about imaginary sexual conquests and commiserating over failed opportunities. The direct-to-DVD rom-com stars Aaron Paul, Carly Pope, Shannon Lucio, Smith Cho, Rob Benedict, David Monahan and Christopher Gessner. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Man Running
Just Another Day

Is it just my imagination, or have rap and hip-hop artists enjoyed an easier transition from the top-40 charts to the big screen than other musicians, athletes and non-professionals? Even when they’re not reduced to play gang-bangers and aspiring singer, such artists as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Method Man, DMX, Mos Def, LL Cool J, Tyrese, Ludacris, Common and, of course, Will Smith and Queen Latifah, have made names for themselves on TV and the movies.

In Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Righteous Kill, Home of the Brave and, now, Dead Man Running, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson has proven himself to be a more than capable actor. The latter is a British crime thriller that takes place in the heart of Guy Ritchie territory. Hard guy Tamer Hassan owes Jackson’s American-based gangster, Mr. Thigo, a small fortune and has been given exactly 24 hours in which to pay him back. Because he’s starting at zero, Hassan’s Nick isn’t expected to come up with the cash, so Thigo protects his investment by placing a gunman in the company of his invalid mum, well played by Brenda Blethyn. The race is a lot of fun to watch, even if it’s a overly familiar conceit, and there were are enough surprises to hold my interest until the end. The package adds interviews and making-of features.

The Wire veterans Jamie Hector and Wood Harris play opposite ends of the hip-hop game, one struggling to stay on top and the other struggling to get a leg up in it. Just Another Day records what can happen over the course of 24, not much of it good. In addition to the veteran actors, the cast includes rappers Trick Daddy, Lil Scrappy, Ja Rule and Petey Pablo. The package adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and piece on the music. – Gary Dretzka

The Lottery

At a time when it’s become virtually impossible to pass any bond issue designed to improve public education, and middle-class families of all colors have embraced private schools, politicians and voters apparently have left the problem for the next generation to fix. Among the possible solutions debated by those who still care about such things is the introduction of charter schools in public systems.

Without being doctrinaire or dictatorial, these schools take a no-nonsense approach to education, practically guaranteeing a college education to the students and parents who agree to stick with the program. That they are mostly successful in meeting their goals is indisputable. The larger problem is finding enough money to fund the programs – without leaving the less-endowed institutions with mere table scraps – and coming up with a fair way to select the fortunate few applicants.

The Lottery examines the process through the experiences of four Harlem families hoping to hear the names of their children called when the winners are announced. Director Madeleine Sackler’s documentary doesn’t pretend to be objective on the issue, coming down very much on the side of charter schools. It does offer a fair look into the labyrinth of conflicting opinions and competing forces fighting to protect their interests in the debate. The DVD includes a Q&A with Sackler and New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, from the Tribeca Film Festival screening, deleted scenes, media attention and interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Bull Durham: Blu-ray
James and the Giant Peach: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Written and directed by Ron Shelton, himself a veteran of the minor-league baseball circuit, Bull Durham comes as close to describing the passion for the game felt by its participants as any other sports movie. By and large, ballplayers are a million times less interested in the poetics, artistry and metaphysics of their pastime, which has been romanticized beyond all recognition by literary types in cities whose teams compete at the highest level. Losers rarely get the same respect.

The minor leagues are where star players from the ranks of high school, college and foreign teams learn humility, patience, camaraderie and the basic skills taken for granted by those who’ve graduated to the Major Leagues. It’s the last place on their professional journey where they’re expected to make mistakes and allowed to learn from them, without being humiliated on national television or potentially costing teammates tens of thousands of dollars in bonus and post-season money.

Shelton also introduces a parallel romance that proves as educational to one player as any team meeting or coaching seminar. A triangle is formed using an older and wiser veteran, played by Kevin Costner; a raw talent with all of the skills of a future star, but none of the brains, played by Tim Robbins; and a sexy muse, who nurtures talent and comforts the weary, while waiting for an opportunity to star in her own “show.” If Susan Sarandon’s brainy baseball groupie – one player in a season, please – is the least credible character in Bull Durham, she’s also the kind of woman men dream of meeting and women see themselves as being.

Everything else rings true, right down to the boys-will-be-boys pranks and grueling bus rides. The Blu-ray package includes a DVD disc, which, for some reason, includes almost all of the commentaries, interviews, making-of features, a Costner profile and inside-baseball stuff.

It’s only been 14 years since Disney released James and the Giant Peach, adapted from a popular Roald Dahl children’s book by director Henry Selick and producers Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi. That may seem like a mere blip in the history of cinema, but it’s practically a lifetime in digital dog years. Consider, for example, how much more spectacular the most recent efforts by Burton (Alice in Wonderland) and Selick (Coraline) look than what’s revealed in the Blu-ray edition of Giant Peach. Not that it looks inferior, just that the integration of narrative elements, music and visual presentation are so much more fluid. No matter, the movie’s still wonderfully entertaining. The only Blu-ray exclusive in the package is an interactive “Spike the Aunts” game. – Gary Dretzka

Days That Shook the World: The Complete Series
Trauma: Season 1
Mercy: The Complete Series
Lytton’s Diary: Complete Collection

It’s fascinating how the entire story of Earth and man’s impact on it can be so easily encapsulated by producers of documentary series on cable television. In the same amount of time it took Ken Burns to chronicle the history of the Civil War, Major League Baseball or the national park system, other documentary makers have summed up the events that have shaped nations, civilizations, tribes and religions.

If one were able to splice together every documentary made about World War II, or Adolph Hitler, for that matter, the tape would be longer than the actual conflagration. The BBC and History Channel series, Days That Shook the World, provides a quick study of landmark events whose impact couldn’t be summed up in headlines, alone. Each episode paired re-creations of major developments in history, some of which were only loosely related. Among the titles are, First in Flight: The Wright Brothers and the Moon Landing; The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the Death of Diana; The Assassination of Archibald Ferdinand and the Death of Hitler; The Assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Release of Nelson Mandela; The Murder of the Romanovs and the Fall of the Berlin Wall; and Tutankhamen’s Tomb and the Rosetta Stone.

For various reasons, mostly relating to budgets and licensing fees, the stories are told through dramatic reconstructions, eye-witness accounts and archival footage.

Medical series have been a staple of television for as long as the medium has fielded prime-time schedules. By now, it’s almost impossible to predict which ones will succeed and which ones will stumble after their introduction. Mostly, it boils down to the attractiveness of the cast and soapiness of the scripts. NBC’s Trauma was populated by first-responder paramedics, who often were required to make life-and-death decisions in the field, using only the equipment that could be carried on a helicopter, boats or ambulances. It lasted 18 episodes. The DVD set adds commentary on the pilot and deleted scenes.

Another time-tested twist in the genre comes in series where the focus on the nurses. The NBC series Mercy focused on Veronica Callahan, a nurse who recently returned to the U.S. from Iraq, where she experienced every kind of serious injury and emotional meltdown. The DVD includes a director’s cut of the final episode, a gag reel, interviews with the cast and commentary.

The Thames Television series Lytton’s Diary followed the exploits of a Fleet Street gossip columnist (Peter Bowles), whose Rolodex contained the names and numbers of such disparate newsmakers as business moguls, deposed dictators, skinheads and criminals. Compared to today’s breed of gossip-mongers, Neville Lytton is a model of professionalism and sophistication. – Gary Dretzka

Clone Hunter

It’s impossible to say how much a movie costs to make, stripped of actors’ salaries and catering costs. I can’t imagine Clone Hunter costing more than $100,000 and it very easily could have been made for a tenth of that. Set in the distant future, on a planet owned by a single oligarch (in sultan’s drag), Andrew Bellware’s tale might best be described as a sci-fi/noir/western.

A pair of bounty hunters has been hired to track down a clone invested with the knowledge, memories and vanity of the owner of the planet. In this way, a truly self-absorbed individual could ensure a semblance of eternal life, at least. The escaped clone is threatening to destroy the planet, unless certain conditions are met. What distinguishes Clone Hunter from nearly every other direct-to-DVD sci-fi flick is its willingness to push the limits on conventional filmmaking.

When it isn’t downright blinding, the sepia-tinged lighting adds a dusty glow to the proceedings. The soundtrack seems to merge the hipster lean of Devo with the industrial noise of Stomp. It’s crazy, but not out of place in the context of the special visual effects, which range from cheesy to less cheesy. The bounty hunters, clones and residents of the polluted planet look as if they were recruited, hours earlier, from the local Starbucks. Indeed, the most charismatic character might be the virtual kitty cat, Naomi, who wanders around the space capsule and corresponds with the bounty hunters through telepathy … or something.

As such, Clone Hunter is the kind of movie that could appeal more to stoned hipsters and Star Trek splinter groups than true sci-fi aficionados. Indeed, after watching the director’s interview, it struck me that I may have completed misinterpreted the things I most enjoyed in Clone Hunter. – Gary Dretzka

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“I remember very much the iconography and the images and the statues in church were very emotional for me. Just the power of that, and even still — just seeing prayer card, what that image can evoke. I have a lot of friends that are involved in the esoteric, and I know some girls in New York that are also into the supernatural. I don’t feel that I have that gift. But I am leaning towards mysticism… Maybe men are more practical, maybe they don’t give into that as much… And then also, they don’t convene in the same way that women do. But I don’t know, I am not a man, I don’t want to speak for men. For me, I tend to gravitate towards people who are open to those kinds of things. And the idea for my film, White Echo, I guess stemmed from that — I find that the girls in New York are more credible. What is it about the way that they communicate their ideas with the supernatural that I find more credible? And that is where it began. All the characters are also based on friends of mine. I worked with Refinery29 on that film, and found that they really invest in you which is so rare in this industry.”
Chloë Sevigny

“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
~ Dallas Sonnier