..Gary Dretzka
..Noah Forrest
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Douglas Pratt
..Ray Pride
..Kim Voynar
..Michael Wilmington

 
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..MCN Weekend

 

Amelia

Few Americans have led lives more exciting or noteworthy than Amelia Earhart, an aviator whose accomplishments continue to inspire women and men who live to fly. Her willingness to tempt fate was equaled only by her self-confidence. How, then, was it possible for Mira Nair – a director of undeniable talent -- to make a film as dull and lifeless as Amelia

Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of Anna Hamilton Phelan (Gorillas in the Mist) and Ron Bass (Rain Man), screenwriters who should have known better than to assemble jottings from reference books in chronological order and add dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lifetime movie. Maybe the trouble lies in the fact that the only real mystery in Earhart’s life was how she met her untimely demise. 

Just as publisher-turned-husband George Putnam labored mightily to exploit his wife’s headline-making heroics, Earhart demanded he not embellish the historic record. Their marriage might have been unorthodox by the standards of the day, but they were loyal to each other in their own way, not Hollywood’s.  If ’60s-era feminists embraced Earhart’s independence, self-determination and promotion of women’s rights, so, too, could any group that valued  her endorsement of consumer goods – cigarettes and chewing gum, included – that had nothing to do with flying. 

Ultimately, though, it was the questions surrounding Earhart’s final mission that kept Amelia from reaching cruising speed. Rather than invent a conspiracy theory worthy of an Oliver Stone movie, Nair and her team elected to play it straight. Instead of suggesting that she was shot down by Japanese planes or abducted by aliens, Amelia stuck with the most likely scenario. The final leg of the around-the-world journey was plagued by missed radio transmissions, faulty equipment and an overoptimistic flight plan. There was nothing wrong with Hilary Swank’s portrayal, though, or the designers who gave Amelia a pitch-perfect period feel. Judging from actual newsreel footage from the 1920-30s, Swank’s cocky take was almost eerily spot-on. 

Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor, as Putnam and her presumed lover, Gene Vidal, weren’t required to do much more than be debonair. Only the slightest insinuation is made that Earhart might have been bi-sexual. This leads me to believe Nair was required to turn in a “PG” movie, which could find the broadest possible audience. Anyone whose interest in Earhart was piqued by Amelia will want to inspect the Blu-ray and DVD extras. They include deleted scenes, Movietone News footage and the featurettes, Making Amelia,The Power of Amelia EarhartThe Plane Behind the Legend and Reconstructing the Planes of Amelia. – Gary Dretzka



Import/Export

Completed in 2007, but released in the U.S. two years later, Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export may qualify as the best movie that no one saw in 2009, art-house division. Don’t take my word for it, though, here’s what John Waters said when he put it on top of his top-10 list. “The most sorrowful movie of the year is also the best,” he observed. ”The miserable lives of Ukrainian immigrants in Vienna make this agonizing but brilliantly directed opus the cinematic equivalent of slitting your wrists. A new genre? Depression porn? Hey, I got off.” Like several other recent European films, Import/Export is an unblinking study of the conditions that drive young men and women to seek greener grass on the other side of the fences dividing nations. 

In a performance that rivals any given by an Oscar nominee, Olga (Ekateryna Rak) is a single Ukrainian mother and nurse, who lives in a crowded apartment in a non-descript concrete tenement in the dirty shadow of a nuclear power plant. Nursing is an honorable profession, anywhere, but she’s tired of being shortchanged on her paycheck. Apparently, the only other jobs that pay attractive young blonds the same kind of money are found in Internet brothels, where naked women take requests from disembodied voices via a computer phone. By a stroke of luck, a friend invites Olga to Vienna, where immigrants can find work doing the menial jobs locals won’t touch. 

They’re treated like criminals and dismissed as ignorant space-wasters. (Sound familiar?) After failing to find work as a nurse, she takes an unsatisfactory gig, babysitting a brat for a bitch. After she’s unjustly fired, Olga lands a cleaning job in a nursing facility, where the residents are either teetering on the brink of death or suffering from dementia. Even there, nurses treat the cleaners as slaves, with Olga bearing the brunt of hostility for her good looks and natural blond hair. Across town, a young Austrian man is faring little better in his efforts to stay employed. He lifts weights and boxes, but is fired from a job as a mall security guard after a gang of punks steal his clothes and tie him to a post. 

In an effort to pay off his debt to his slime-ball stepfather, Paul agrees to join him on a trip through Eastern Europe, where they’ll deliver arcade games and candy machines to unseen customers. The older man invests his wages in booze and teenage prostitutes who pretend not to mind being degraded if the price is right. Paul’s moment of humiliation comes after he’s driven from a frozen building inhabited by Gypsy pimps and drug dealers, and they’re prevented from making a quick escape by kids demanding candy.  Ultimately, he despairs of finding meaningful work, as well. 

The parts of the Ukraine and Slovakia to which we’re exposed in Import/Export don’t look as if they’ve been upgraded since the beginning of the Cold War, and Seidl’s Vienna is no more appealing than Cleveland in January.  Olga and Paul are simply two ships passing in the night, steaming toward harbors on opposite shores of hell. If Seidl’s unflinching view of life below the surface of Eastern Europe doesn’t correspond with the tourist brochures, it’s because the director had no reason to sugarcoat what he saw as the truth. – Gary Dretzka


More Than a Game

Documentaries about sports icons tend to focus on the individual at the expense of the team, even if the athletes themselves wouldn’t object to sharing the spotlight. Michael Jordan played basketball with consummate grace, skill and an eye for a dramatic. The camera loved him, whether he was breaking the heart of the Cavs at the buzzer or playing golf with Bugs Bunny. In Kobe Doin’ WorkSpike Lee documented how the Lakers’ star was able to dominate a single key game, whether he was on the floor, the bench or in the locker-room. At first glance, More Than a Game would appear to be a similarly reverential portrait of a NBA icon in his prime. 

Here, the focus is on LeBron James, who, like Bryant, had bypassed college and fit into the league from Day One. Looks can be deceiving, however. Kristopher Belman’s freshman film describes how five boyhood friends and teammates – including James -- dominated prep basketball in northern Ohio for almost six years, and vied for national honors for most of the same period. James’ name on the cover should draw fans to this fascinating film, but the emphasis is on the Fab Five, in total. And, that’s exactly the way James wanted it. An Akron native, Belman was able to follow the Irish of St. Mary’s High School for two years with his own camera, while piecing together home-movie and local-news footage from the team’s past four years, in high school and as an AAU squad. 

Lest anyone think the team rolled over its opponents, simply because it had a key big man, More Than a Game has a dramatic arc as compelling as any work of fiction … or Hoop Dreams, which it clearly resembles. Besides the old “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” angle, Belman captured pivotal changes in leadership, humbling losses, ego trips and the effects of poverty. Naturally, James takes center stage throughout the film, but he was then and remains today a team player. With tournament season right around the corner, More Than a Game couldn’t be a more timely reminder of what sports can mean to a community. – Gary Dretzka



The House of the Devil


So many crummy splatter/horror movies have been released in the last few years, it’s a cause for celebration when a small gem manages to poke its head above the crowd and find an audience. “The House of the Devil” may not be a movie that, in critical parlance, “transcends the genre,” but even casual horror fans will find something in it that jangles their nerves. Rising star Ti West set out to make an ’80s style thriller that pays homage to the classics of the slasher age, but isn’t a parody. 

In it, Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a college sophomore who accepts a baby-sitting job on the fringes of town. Once she reaches the Victorian-style home, the creep who placed the ad on the campus bulletin board tells her that she’ll be sitting for his ancient mother, instead of a baby, and she shouldn’t fret about the change in plans. Meanwhile, Mr. Ulman and the missus have an eclipse waiting for them to watch, outside. In their absence, the girl scouts the dwelling, plays with knives and shoots some pool in the basement. Although not a heck of a lot happens in the Ulmans’ absence, West keeps our nerves on edge through misdirection and other chicanery.  It isn’t until the couple arrives home that the real fun begins. 

Can you spell, S-A-T-A-N? Enough said. Donahue does a nice job as the endangered Samantha, as does Greta Gerwig as her ill-fated friend and chauffeur. It’s Mary Woronov and Tom Noonan as the Ulmans, though,who give “The House of the Devil” its cult credibility. In his commentary, West cites the references he makes to other genre films and things he borrowed from other directors. He also explains how Jeff Grace’s soundtrack adds to the tension, without telegraphing the Ulmans’ every scary move. – Gary Dretzka


Death in Love

Somewhere, hidden deeply within the murky recesses of Boaz Yoakim’s soul-scorching drama, Death in Love, is an unstated reference to the William Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” Here, the Snopes are Jewish, reside in high-rise apartments in New York and carry a gene common to sadists. At the center of Yoakim’s toxic concoction is Jacqueline Bisset, as Mother, a woman whose parents simply left her behind in Paris, when they were given an opportunity to escape Nazi persecution. 

While a prisoner in a concentration camp, Mother became the willing sex slave of a doctor conducting experiments on inmates. Like her parents, the evil doctor skipped out on her when it became clear Germany’s party was over. Flash forward nearly 50 years and Mother is living in a posh Manhattan apartment with her docile husband and the least sane of her two grown children. 

Younger Son (Lukas Haas) is a paranoid schizophrenic and brilliant composer of classical music, while Eldest Son (Josh Lucas) is a conman and masochist who preys on women insecure about their looks. As a wife and mom, Mother makes Joan Crawford look like June Cleaver. At approximately the same time as Younger Son is beginning to assert himself, Mother is contacted by the Nazi doctor. Even after a half-century apart, she succumbs to his twisted charms. Psychiatrists probably have words for such aberrant behavior, but, in cinematic terms, Mother suffers from the same disease as Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. If such soft-core Nazi porn is to your taste, Death in Love has it, in spades. Certainly, Yoakim (Remember the Titans) makes his film look better than it needed to be, considering the niche audience it would attract. Neither is it devoid of ideas. One simply has to wade through a ton of muck to get to them. Even so, Bisset and Haas deliver performances that are impressively scary to watch. – Gary Dretzka


B-Girl

As we’re reminded in B-Girl, breaking isn’t as much about dancing as it is a lifestyle. At a time when dance shows are, once again, proliferating on cable and broadcast television, “B-Girl” breathes old air into the sub-genre of films in which nubile young things dance, act or sing their way out of poverty and despair. Here, the estimable Julie "Lady Jules" Urich portrays a dancer from Brooklyn, who, after getting knifed in an alley, moves with her mother to L.A. to recuperate. At first, she bristles at the forced exile from her beloved mean streets. 

After a while, though, Angel finds kindred souls at a local church and joins a team of dancers. Urich has performed in several other movies and TV shows, usually as a dancer, and she’s joined here by other competitive hoofers, with names like Flearock, Legacy, Flipz, Incredible, Wonder, Remedy, Steelo and Shooz. Folks who enjoy So You Think You Can Dance might find something here to like, as well. Just don’t expect the B-version of Fred & Ginger. The features include behind-the-scenes pieces, dancer profiles, a bloopers reel and auditions. – Gary Dretzka



Righteous Ties
Wushu
Fireball
Gamer

Ca$h
Lost City Raiders


The South Korean gangster opus Righteous Ties is described as a comedy and, while there are plenty of laughs, genre director Jin Jang also has some relatively serious things to say about honor among crooks. In it, gang enforcer Chi Sung (Jung Jae Young) takes the fall for a knife attack on a deadbeat businessman that was ordered by his boss. In prison, he re-connects with an old pal and fellow gangster, who his boss feared and believed to be dead. 

When word gets out, Sung becomes a target for execution, as well. His survival depends on the rapport he develops with fellow prisoners, as motley a crew as has ever existed in a prison movie. The inmates are involved in a pair of wild escape attempts, including one that requires using karate kicks against the facility’s concrete wall. I won’t reveal what happens next, except to say that the breakout succeeds, thanks to a highly improbable coincidence. Finally, Sung and his cohorts are given an opportunity to even the score with his old boss. 

What sets Righteous Ties apart from most other gangster flicks – Asian and otherwise – is the portrayal of the bosses as being as petty, unorganized and disloyal as any aspiring stickup artist. Their’s is a family in name only. I guess, the same could be said about the crime families represented in the Godfather saga, where loyalty was more a matter of convenience than blood. 

Jackie Chan’s name appears prominently on the jacket of the American edition of Wushu, but as executive producer. That can mean imply everything from hands-on supervision to lending your hard-earned credability to a friend’s movie. Escorting the film to Cannes certainly didn’t hurt its chances of being sold. The venerable Sammo Hung Kam-Bo plays an instructor at a celebrated martial-arts academy and father of a pair of the sport’s rising stars, the Li brothers. The boys help organize a club comprised of students destined to become the next generation of wushu idols. First, however, they must thwart a kidnapping plot planned by a bitter ex-classmate. Wushu is full of fast-paced fighting, while the family theme separates it from the action-only competition.

Only from Thailand could we expect a movie that combines basketball with full-contact karate. Need I say more? “Fireball” also involves illegal gambling and brotherly love, but, really, full-contact hoops? We haven’t seen that since the glory days of the Detroit Pistons.
 
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the lads behind the wonderfully frenetic Crank franchise, weren’t nearly as successful with Gamer, at least in critical terms. Gerard Butler plays the familiar role of a convict required to fight his way to freedom, in the cruel game of survival, Slayers.  The deadly contest’s virtual world is the creation of a rich sadist, portrayed by Michael C. Hall (Dexter). Prisoners, including Butler’s Kable, are controlled by an outside gamer, who helps him avoid the weaponry of dozens of other characters, also manipulated by Internet players.  Any contestant who completes 30 missions is eligible for parole. Kable is in a greater hurry than most of his fellow inmates, though.

As near as I can tell, three movies titled Ca$h have been released in the last four years. The one released on DVD last month by MTI Home Video carried the moniker, Bullets, Blood & a Fistful of Ca$h, in its first fitful incarnation. Knowing that its original production budget was $25,000 warrants Ca$h a lot of critical slack. Writer/director Sam Akina deserves more credit for finding a distributor than anything, though. As it is, Ca$h is your basic cable-ready revenge thriller, in which a scary ex-con‘s only wish upon leaving prison is that he can kill the hoodlum who murdered his wife more than a dozen years earlier.
 
Made originally for the then-Sci-Fi Channel, Lost City Raiders suggests that one of the few businesses that will thrive after global warming does its worst will be underwater salvage. In the not-so-distant future, water covers 90 percent of the world’s surface. The New Vatican hires a pair of treasure hunters to retrieve a staff once carried by Moses … or, maybe, Al Gore. The artifact allegedly could be used to reverse global warming.

The people responsible for most of today’s straight-to-DVD thrillers can only dream of working with budgets similar to those accorded producers of Cliffhanger and Last Action Hero, both newly released in shiny Blu-ray editions. Cliffhanger paired Sylvester Stallone and director Renny Harlin in the service of a movie that combined exciting mountain climbing with the heist of a plane carrying a pile of loot from the U.S. Treasury. The Blu-ray set includes deleted scenes,

BD-Live connectivity, Harlin and Stallone’s commentary; and other behind-the-scenes material. The current governor of California starred in Last Action Hero, a very good movie that was required to overcome a negative review in the Los Angeles Times, even before the production was completed. Arnold is typecast as a celluloid action character who inherits a sidekick from the real world. The favor is returned when a movie fight busts through the screen. Here, BDLive is the only added feature. – Gary Dretzka


No Impact Man


Environmental activists come in different shades of green. Some are willing to go to jail for their aggressive opposition to gas-guzzling SUVs, subdivisions built on once-fertile land and the clear-cutting of forests. Some limit their activism to recycling consumer goods and buying the occasional Prius. Only a handful of urban environmentalists have gone to the extreme of reducing their so-called carbon footprint to the point of near-invisibility. 

No Impact Man documents Manhattanite Colin Beavan’s year-long mission to completely erase his footprints on the Earth. These days, no good deed goes unpublished and one of the goals of the self-designated “guilty liberal” was to write a book about the experience, while also offering himself as chum for a media feeding frenzy. Achieving sustainability is a noble pursuit, whether or not the person doing it is a publicity hound. Achieving sustainability in a city that’s dependent on carbon-based energy, plastic products and containers that can’t be recycled is a near impossibility … as was Beavan’s ability to keep his family happy and together for a full year. 

Indeed, that’s most interesting thing about No Impact Man. Eliminating food imported from farms more than 50 miles from home is one thing. Asking one’s wife and young child to do without toilet paper, electric lights and heat in winter is quite another. So is composting "worm boxes" in the dining room of an apartment. Beavan’s dedication had a commercial component not available to his family and dog, and finally the strain became too much for them.– Gary Dretzka


Outrage
Streamers
The Butch Factor

Kirby Dick’s Outrage caused a storm in political and media circles last year after it became known that several prominent politicians were outed in it as being gay. Liberals debated the ethics of opening the closet door on men whose careers could have been ruined by such revelations. Conservative pundits played down the accusations by attempting to discredit the filmmaker. 

Kirby’s mission wasn’t to humiliate the politicians or make it seem as if being gay was a bad thing. Instead, Outrage stuck to outing politicians who continually back anti-gay legislation and courted the favor of the religious right. Revealing their hypocrisy was more important to Dick than protecting their privacy. The documentary avoids sensationalism, in favor of investigative reporting. It would have been difficult, though, for such allegations not to be given media attention, especially in reviews of the movie, itself. Until politicians begin voting with their hearts and minds, instead of their wallets, movies like Outrage will find an audience. The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and a pair of Q&As with Dick.

Coincidental to President Obama’s recent call for the elimination of the military’s don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy comes the DVD release of Robert Altman’s adaptation of StreamersDavid Rabe’s play was produced on Broadway in the mid-1970s, while the movie version was released in 1983. It involves a group of draftees on their way to Vietnam and their feelings toward a fellow soldier, who is revealed to be a homosexual (a fact he doesn’t try to hide). The men treat the admission as if the soldier had admitted being a typhoid host. (In 1976, AIDS wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.) Three decades later, Streamers feels claustrophobic and shrill. It would also seem hopelessly out of date, if it weren’t for the fact that it remains a hot-button issue in the White House, Capitol and Pentagon. Altman gets fine performances by Matthew Modine, Mitchell Lichtenstein, Michael Wright, George Dzundza, Guy Boyd and David Alan Grier. The DVD adds the recollections of cast members.

The Butch Factor, likewise, feels a bit dated, even though it was released in 2009. While attempting to fracture stereotypes of gay men, it celebrates the diversity of the culture. It does this by introducing viewers to men working in a spectrum of jobs and pastimes that mostly recalls the Village People. It isn’t likely that anyone who would purchase or rent The Butch Factor also would be guilty of judging a book by its cover, whether it’s made of pink cardboard or rawhide. The people who should see it are the ones most likely to vote for the politicians outed in Outrage. – Gary Dretzka
 


Dorf: Super Fan Collection: All Eight Classic Features

Tim Conway struck video gold in 1987 with Dorf’s Golf Bible and Dorf on Golf, anti-instructional tapes that felt very much like extended sketches on the old Carol Burnett Show, where he was a key member of the repertory company. As such, it not only attracted fans of the wildly popular CBS variety show, but also those poor saps willing to buy anything with the word “golf” in its title. (You’d be surprised.) It would emerge as one of the major video-only franchises of its time.  

If the half-pint duffer’s methodology was of dubious value, the series of six short films made up for it with Conway’s trademark zaniness.  In Dorf on Golf, droopy-eyed Vincent Schiavelli did a nice job as Dorf’s caddy. Among the other titles included in this box are Dorf Goes FishingDorf and the First Games of Mt. Olympus (also with Schiavelli), Dorf on the Diamond and Dorf Goes Auto Racing, in which Duessel Dorf is pitted against NASCAR stars Richard Petty, Darrel Waltrip and Kenny Schrader. The DVDs suffer from the passage of time and original video presentation, but there’s enough goofy humor to satisfy kids and folks old enough to remember Conway in his heyday. – Gary Dretzka


Doctor Who: The Complete Specials: Blu-ray
Cranford: The Collection

The Mob: From Hollywood to Vegas
Nazi Hunters: The Real Story
Wolverine & X-Men/Super Robot Red Baron
Head Case: Season 2


There’s no more enduring character on television than Doctor Who, a humanoid alien who travels through time and space in his spacecraft, the TARDIS. His physical characteristics have been sufficiently elastic to allow nearly a dozen different actors to play the Doctor. His antics have made Doctor Who an intermittent staple of the BBC for more than 45 years. It also has found a devoted following in the United States and Canada.  (Like too many of Johnny Carson’s early Tonight shows, dozens of original Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s simply were erased by the pound-foolish BBC.) The Specials enclosed in the latest boxed collection of shows represent the David Tennant era and transition to current tenure. The titles include The Next DoctorPlanet of the DeadThe Waters of Mars and The End of Time, Parts One & Two. Among the many bonus Blu-ray features are Doctor Who Confidential, Doctor Who at the Proms, deleted scenes introduced by Russell T. Davies, Tennant’s video diaries, audio commentaries and Doctor Who at Comic-Con. It hardly needs mentioning that the films look terrific in hi-def.

 

The new Cranford box is comprised of the five-episode BBC mini-series from 2007 and Return to Cranford, which debuted in December. Adapted from Mary Gaskell's gossipy novels of small-town life, as the Industrial Revolution slowly made its way to the British hinterlands, the series was enhanced by the presence of Judi DenchEileen AtkinsImelda StauntonMichael Gambon and Jonathan Pryce, among other fine actors. On its surface, Cranford is a typically serene market town, with a strict social order enforced by stern biddies and their lapdogs. Scratch that surface, though, and you’ll find a hotbed of gossip, intrigue and clandestine liaisons. In Return to Cranford, the railroad has come within five miles of Cranford’s borders, but its progress has been stalled by debate over the town’s future. The set also includes a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes.
 
New Tricks could be described as an AARP version of Cold Case, in that a team of retired London coppers are recruited to investigate unsolved crimes. They employ old-school detective work to felonies of the most violent variety, while younger members of the force rely on modern technology and textbook psychology. The show is enhanced by its mix of humor and drama.
Other recent compilations of British exports include the third and final season of Robin Hood, in which the stakes have been raised in the battle for the future of England and Friar Tuck finally makes an appearance. The extras include a piece on the creation of the trebuchet, a medieval catapult; profiles of the season's new characters; and a feature of cast members Lara Pulver (Isabelle) and Clive Standen (Archer). In the fourth season of Jonathan Creek, which launched three years after the end of the third stanza, the magician (Alan Davies) must do without his partner in crime, Maddie.  Among the high-powered toys featured in Top Gear: The Complete Seasons 11/12 are a Nissan GT-R, Alfa Romeo 8C Competzione, Ferrari Scuderia and Mercedes AMG Black. The lads also engage in races between their swell rides and a bullet train, ferry and a cable car. (Too bad Americans no longer can afford most of the vehicles on parade.)  The director's cut of the Botswana special from Season 10 also are part of the two-season package.
 
The Mob: From Hollywood to Vegas combines Hollywood vs. the Mob and Vegas: The City the Mob Built into a 19-part documentary series. Together, they capably fill in the blanks left behind by The Godfather: Part II and Bugsy. Los Angeles provided a haven in the sun for East Coast thugs who saw opportunity in the rackets, unions and vice. At first, Las Vegas was seen as a convenient place to run a nation-wide wire operation, but the legalization of gambling in 1931 added frosting to the cake.

 

Nazi Hunters: The Real Story chronicles the successes, failures and near-misses of the greatest manhunt in human history. It began in the closing days of World War II and continues today. The two-hour doc follows Nazi hunters as they scoured Europe, the U.S., the Middle East and South America.

 

The never-ending parade of animated superheroes and villains continues apace with the arrival of complete Super Robot Red Baron series and the Fate of the Future arc of Wolverine & X-Men. The former is from the Tokusatsu creative team responsible for Ultraman and Iron King, while the former describes the mutant heroes’ attempt to re-write the past, while the future is still an option.

In the highly entertaining Starz series Head CaseAlexandra Wentworth plays Dr. Elizabeth Goode PhD, who, for a mere $450 an hour, proffers flakey advice to a variety of Hollywood A-listers. It’s a toss-up as to who’s less stable, the stars or the shrink, as Goode spends more time planning her wedding than listening to her patients. She shares office space with David Landesberg, a shrink whose practice is absent paying customers. – Gary Dretzka


Amreeka

Considering the amount of abuse heaped on the United States by its detractors around the world, it's worth remembering that people still line up outside our embassies for visas and work permits. At the same time, a fortune is being spent to keep less-desirable immigrants from crossing the border separating the U.S. and Mexico. By now, most of these wannabe Americans have learned not to expect streets of gold and unlimited employment options.

Even so, in Cherin Dabis' irresistible feature debut, Amreeka, the gap between perception and reality could hardly be wider. Muna is a Palestinian woman who's been given an opportunity to emigrate to America with her teenage son, Fadi. Muna’s sister already lives in central Illinois, with her physician husband and their thoroughly westernized kids. By the time Muna receives this good news, viewers already have been made aware of the difficulties faced by Palestinians in their everyday lives.

To get to work and school, Muna and Fadi are required to pass through checkpoints, where they’re brow-beaten by sullen Israeli guards. When the checkpoints are shut down as punishment for someone else’s crime, an hour-long trip to work and school is made even more difficult. While Muna is reluctant to leave her family and job for an unknown future in America, she knows Fadi will be accorded the kind of an education unavailable to him, otherwise, in Palestine. Even before Muna and Fadi passed through customs in Chicago, though, they managed to dig a huge hole for themselves. Conditioned to fear border guards, Fadi inadvertently relinquished a package in which his mother had hidden their nest egg among some pastries.

Also impeding their transition was the wave of anti-Arab sentiment that spread across American post-9/11. Fadi feels the pressure at his new high school, where the local bullies heap abuse on him. Meanwhile, the medical practice of Mura's brother-in-law is practically destroyed by the loss of patients. Still, she’s determined to find work and contribute her share to the household. Although she worked as bookkeeper in a bank back home, Mura could only find work at a local White Castle, a fact she's too embarrassed to share with her increasingly bitter sister. Mura takes the job seriously, however, because it allows her to contribute to the household and serves as an entry point to diverse American lifestyles.

Tonally, Amreeka moves quickly from funny to sad, poignant to brutal. It isn’t easy to watch these new arrivals being treated like unwanted guests, but what immigrant group hasn’t experienced such un-American behavior? Sadly, it comes with the territory. Dabis coaxed wonderful performances from Nisreen Faour (Muna), Melkar Muallen (Fadi), Hiam AbbassAlia ShawkatYussef Abu-Warda and Joseph Ziegler. It’s exactly the kind of movie that should be shown in high school civics classes and discussed by the descendants of immigrants, old and recent. -- Gary Dretzka


The Hurt Locker (Blu-ray)
In the Loop
The Good Soldier

There's nothing I could add here to any discussion of The Hurt Locker that would be any more relevant than, "See it ... now." By critical acclamation, if not box office tallies, it was the best movie of 2009, here or anywhere else. So, there you go. Kathryn Bigelow's remarkable portrait of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team is set in post-invasion Iraq, where the enemy is everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously. A bomb hidden in a pile of rubbish or on the body of a human being can be detonated in a dozen different ways, from a dozen different directions and vantage points, and by any one of a dozen seemingly innocent bystanders.

Bigelow certainly didn’t waste any time investing the audience's emotions in her almost unbearably tense drama. She accomplished this by killing off one the film's few marquee attractions within minutes of the opening credits. This put the weight of the narrative directly on the shoulders of relative unknowns, Jeremy RennerAnthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. Like any involuntary band of step-brothers, the soldiers were expected to bond under extreme circumstances, sublimating their diverse personalities for a common desire to survive the war and help their buddies do the same. Even if it's impossible to separate the Shi'ites from Sunnis, Baathists from the Madhi Army, there's no question here as to nature of the threat to the American and British occupation forces.

Still, it was the mission of Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal -- a journalist embedded with a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq -- to tell a way story, unadorned by CGI hyper-violence and finger-pointing. The Blu-ray version of The Hurt Locker lacks the kind of bonus features one might expect from such a prestige production, although a more extensive package almost surely will be released before year’s end. This one includes commentary with Bigelow and Boal, as well as a very decent behind-the-scenes featurette and Q&A session recorded at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.
 
Unlike The Hurt LockerArmando Iannucci's deliciously dark comedy, In the Loop, wears its politics directly on its sleeves ... or, more specifically, those of the various American and British politicians, bureaucrats, analysts, generals, journalists and opportunists who plot a war very much like the one currently being waged in Iraq. The inexorable march to violence begins with an inelegantly phrased response to a reporter's question by a British politician, but quickly evolves into a trans-Atlantic battle of rhetorical wits, calibrated to save faces and manipulate opinions. 

In the Loop
 may not have been built on as cracked a foundation as Wag the Dog, in which a war is invented to deflect media attention from a president's sexual peccadilloes, but the rhetorical skirmishes are every bit as savage. And, while Wag the Dog enlisted a legendary Hollywood producer and country-western singer to create the kind of smokescreen around which a fake war could be hidden, the characters that populate In the Loop dwell only in the capitals of self-important democracies. For them, politics is war itself, and its only victims are those who can't survive the steady stream of venom spewed by their superiors.

Writer-director Ianucci's credits include such sharp-witted and politically observant satires as The Thick of It, the Alan Partridge shows and The Day Today. Here, he gives his characters free reign to be as rude, crude and obscene as they need to be to succeed in the diplomatic arena. Among the actors who will be familiar to fans of BBC America are Peter CapaldiGina McKeeTom Hollander and Steve Coogan. Their American counter-parts include James GandolfiniAnna ChlumskyDavid Rasche and Mimi Kennedy
 
Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys' heart-wrenching documentary, The Good Soldier, is film all politicians and media pundits should be forced to watch before advocating war. Its argument against letting raw emotions, rash decision-making and political expediency is delivered in a far more sober way than the one forwarded in In the Loop and Wag the Dog, which could be written off as mere comedies. The five combat veterans interviewed here served America on the front lines -- from Europe, to Vietnam and Iraq -- and know exactly what it means to pay the ultimate price for freedom and, yes, folly.

Their credibility, courage and patriotism are beyond reproach. This is important to note because, even after the veterans’ war stories fade from our memories, their pleas for peaceful alternatives to violence will continue to reverberate in our memories. And, no bloviating talk-show host could dare tar them as traitors and liars, as was done to John Kerry when he opposed George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential campaign. Their conversions didn't come after repeated viewings of Hair or dropping acid on R&R. They came after being blown ass over tits by a Nazi artillery shell, or by witnessing or participating in My Lai-like atrocities, or being encouraged to "chalk off" the slaughter of unarmed civilians in Baghdad.

Although each man dealt with the horrors in his own way, what united them was an abhorrence of a process designed to turn 18-year-olds into killers without conscience. The Good Soldier wasn't made to dissuade any young man or woman from following their conscience onto the battlefields of a just war. It does demand of our leaders that they exhaust all alternatives before sending soldiers – volunteers, though they be – to foreign shores to defend the questionable policies of devious men and women. -- Gary Dretzka  


Che: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Chevolution

It’s never been all that difficult to find A-list directors and actors who’ve willingly put their independence and prestige on the line, in exchange for the financial freedom to make a pet project down the road.  If nothing else, such trade-offs have afforded artists of substance the ability to feed, clothe and educate their families in ways commensurate with their professional standing. If continuing to churn out new installments in the Ocean’s franchise has subsequently allowed Steven Soderbergh to make gems like CheThe Girlfriend ExperienceThe Informant!The Good German and Solaris – and, yes, even such questionable entertainments as Bubble and Full Frontal - audiences will have benefitted as much as the director.

At 257 minutes, it’s inconceivable that anyone thought Che could flourish in any marketplace outside Havana, Moscow, Beijing or Paris. Soderbergh’s romantic take on class struggle and agrarian reform, and such brand-name Marxists as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, might have been greeted with enthusiasm in 1970, especially on campuses, but times have changed. Shown in separate two-hour-plus segments, Che not only dramatizes the guerrilla struggle that successfully toppled a corrupt and brutal Cuban regime, but it also compared the lead-up to that stunning victory with the inevitable failure of a far less popular uprising in Bolivia. (Guevara’s role in the Congo insurgency could have inspired another two-hour segment, as would his fallouts with the USSR and China.)

Guevara may have been a true believer in Marxist ideals, but it was his movie-star charisma and willingness to back up his words with action that set him apart from Communist Party functionaries around the globe and appealed directly to the New Left of the 1960s. Throughout Part 1, Soderbergh employs flash-forwards to his 1994 visit to New York -- where he delivered a scathing address to the UN and courted American opinion makers – to demonstrate just how much of a media star Guevara might have become if he weren’t so committed to armed struggle.

In Part 2, Soderbergh goes on to describe how Guevara not only misjudged the power of his own charisma, but also the dedication of Communist leaders -- those in Bolivia, specifically – to improve the lot of peasants and the working poor. Neither did he take into account the ability of American counter-insurgency forces to find his Achilles heel. Benicio del Toro’s nuanced portrayal of Guevara expertly captures several different aspects of his multi-faceted personality. Here was a man who was far more comfortable in the bush than behind a desk, and whose confidence in his beliefs bordered on arrogance. Through Del Toro, Soderbergh was just as determined to convince us of the man’s integrity and continued relevance. It’s true that director and writers gave only passing notice to Guevara’s role in the tribunals and executions that shocked the world in the wake of the Cuban revolution. Neither is the rift that grew between Guevara and Castro fully explored.

Even so, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Che, which is as intellectually challenging as it is thrilling to watch. The Criterion Collection adds commentary by Jon Lee Anderson, chief consultant and author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, who sets the historical context and, when necessary, straightens out the record;  Making Che, with Soderbergh, Del Toro, producer Laura Bickford and writers Peter Buchman and Ben van der Veen; deleted scenes; End of a Revolution, a journalistic recollection of the events surrounding the October, 1967, capture and assassination; interviews with participants in and historians of the Cuban revolution; Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution, in which Soderbergh describes unique technology used in the film; a poster; and 24-page booklet, containing Amy Taubin's essay Why Che?

Luis Lopez and Trisha Ziff’s complementary documentary Chevolution describes how an incidental photograph shot in 1960, by Alberto Korda Díaz, would go on to have a life of its own after Guevara’s martyrdom, in 1967. The portrait has since been deployed as a rallying point for radical Baby Boomers and their disaffected kids, as well as a fashion statement. As pop-cultural iconography goes, the image is right up there with Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola, the Playboy bunny and Campbell’s Soup cans. If Che had been captured, tried and died a natural death in a Bolivian prison – instead of being executed for sport, and his bullet-riddled corpse posed like the dead Jesus Christ for photographers – Diaz’ photo might have been accorded all the rhetorical power of a S&H Green Stamp. – Gary Dretzka

Moon

It's ironic that writer-director Duncan Jones' first feature film would fit so neatly within the increasingly elastic confines of the science-fiction genre. Jones first came to attention of the world 38 years ago as Zowie Bowie, the son of singer David Bowie, whose breakthrough single, Space Oddity, was used by the BBC in its coverage of the 1969 moon landing. His pops also would lead a group called the Spiders From Mars and play an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. So … to the manner born. Jones' old-school sci-fi drama, Moon, is set in and around a residence module on the dark side of the lunar surface.

It's here that a maintenance supervisor for Lunar Industries makes sure the extraction of the valuable energy source, Helium-3, continues apace. Sam Rockwell was a good choice to play the lonely employee, Sam Bell, whose only companionship is provided by a computerized jack-of-all-trades, GERTY-3000, voiced by Kevin Spacey. As Sam nears the end of his three-year shift, an off-site mishap requires that he hop in an all-terrain vehicle and make the trek to a mining site.

It's at this point that Moon spins off into territory once reserved for Twilight Zone loyalists. There's no need to spoil the surprise, except to say that it's highly satisfying. Moon will appeal to the same folks who couldn’t get enough of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the laid-back Silent Running. In addition to the informative commentary tracks, the Blu-ray includes a pair of making-of featurettes, and post-screening Q&As with Jones at the Houston Space Center and Sundance. -- Gary Dretzka


The Invention of Lying 

As he proved so deftly in his snarky hosting gig at the Golden Globes, British comic Ricky Gervais is too hip for almost any room he occupies for more than 10 minutes. Moreover, whenever he senses that he’s lost his audience, Gervais is perfectly willing to go into attack mode. It may not be pretty, but fans dig this side of him almost as much as the more cheeky one on display in The Office and Extras. Unlike Jim Carrey’s kindred 1997 comedy, Liar, LiarThe Invention of Lying extends the Pinocchio conceit to its most illogical conclusion, by arguing that humanity can’t advance until it abandons certain myths (and lies), including those pertaining to God and death.

Here, Gervais plays a modestly talented, if unemployed screenwriter, who exists in a world in which no one is capable of deception or telling untruths. On his mother’s deathbed, however, fate allows Mark Bellison to concoct a story about the afterlife so comforting that it allows her to pass away without fear. An eavesdropper is so impressed, the screenwriter is asked to repeat the myth to a larger group of people, who, of course, believe his every word. Soon, this modern-day prophet is swamped with requests to read the tea leaves of hundreds and, then, tens of thousands of people facing death. So far, so good.

This being a movie targeted at similarly gullible fans of studio rom-coms, however, it was required of Gervais and co-writer/director Matthew Robinso that they add a sappy subplot involving a shallow beauty (Jessica Alba), who fears his gene pool is hopelessly polluted and their kids would resemble the Michelin Man. Adding greatly to the appeal of The Invention of Lying are appearances by Philip Seymour HoffmanEdward NortonJason BatemanChristopher GuestTina FeyJeffrey TamborLouis C.K., Rob Lowe, and Jonah Hill.

Putting the frequent cameos aside, however, viewers likely will most appreciate Gervais’ arch commentary of life and hope, based on facts not in evidence. The extras include the amusing short, Prequel: The Dawn of Lying, in which one of Bellison’s prehistoric forebears learns how to use fibbing as a survival tool; a fawning making-of featurettes; the offbeat, Meet Karl Pilkington, with Gervais’ friend and TV co-host; several of Gervais and Robinson’s video podcasts: deleted scenes; and outtakes.  – Gary Dretzka
 

Fame: Extended Dance Edition

In the 30 years that have followed the release of Alan Parker's original Fame, there's hardly an artistic discipline that hasn't been recognized in similar I'm-gonna-learn-how-to-fly fashion, including ballroom and break dancing, hip-hop and rock music. In 1980, it must have come as a great shock to audiences outside New York just how talented, ambitious and professional high school kids could be. It might have also come as a surprise that not all teenagers are heterosexual or interested in sports and cheerleading.

Today, of course, high schools dedicated to the arts have become essential parts of any big-city school system, as well as incubators for Hollywood and Broadway. It partially explains why the 2009 re-make of Fame was greeted with a yawn. Glee and High School Musical are huge hits on television. And Miley Cyrus, who just turned 17, already is overexposed (Does she even bother with school?). In addition to putting the talents of a new generation of gifted young singers, dancers and musicians on display, the producers thought it necessary to include Kelsey GrammerDebbie AllenCharles S. DuttonMegan Mullally and Bebe Neuwirth to the mix.

There was no need for recognizable stars to play teachers in the original, but, blessedly, these fine actors never allow their presence to overshadow the performance numbers or set pieces. Not surprisingly, it’s the music and dance routines that render useless story lines about personal traumas that haven't evolved since they were introduced in 1980. The Extended Dance Edition inserts 15 minutes of additional dance footage into the film. Other features include 15 deleted scenes, a music video, character profiles, footage from the national talent search and a behind-the-scenes look at the casting call, dancer boot camp and some of the dance numbers. -- Gary Dretzka


I Can Do Bad All by Myself

Any attempt by a white film critic to make sense of Tyler Perry’s significant, if bewildering commercial appeal -- and the success of any movie in which his signature character, Madea, appears -- ultimately is growing to prove fruitless. It’s possible that black critics face the same problem, but, at least, no one is going to accuse them of racism for penning one- and two-star reviews. Like several other of the Atlanta-based filmmaker’s projects, this one combines extremely broad comedy, with easy sentimentality, street-savvy drama, gospel fervor and terrific R&B. The formula, which worked extremely well for him on the urban theatrical circuit, also has served Perry well in film and television.

Before Perry came along, Hollywood studios had no idea what appealed to those older, more conservative African-American audiences, sick of watching gangsta’ thrillers and comedies about pimps and ho’s. The market for rom-coms and dramas in which black women were treated like dirt by black men -- until they got their grooves back, anyway – also proved to be fickle.

One of the things Perry did was to borrow themes and archetypes from black vaudeville and stage presentations.  Instead of trying to create wise, all-knowing characters from the secular world, he built the resolution for crises on bedrock of faith. For relief, he modeled characters on such great comedians of the Chitlin’ Circuit as Moms MableyRedd Foxx and Pigmeat Markham. In I Can Do Bad All by Myself, Perry’s Mabley knock-off, Madea, provides most of the humor – her fractured bible lessons are hilarious – while the music is supplied by Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson and Marvin L. Winans.

Henson’s April, a nightclub singer with a penchant for booze and married men, lives in a world of hurt. When the local preacher asks her to assume responsibility for the three children of her recently deceased crack-head sister, April knows it will severely test her relationship with the bad-ass brute currently paying her bills. Madea and her husband, Joe (also Perry), caught the kids breaking into their home and found their sassing back none too amusing. They’re good kids, though, and have nowhere else to turn but April.

Coincidentally, the pastor (Winans) has also asked April to shelter a kindly immigrant handyman (Adam Rodriguez), who’s the polar opposite of her boyfriend. With the help and grace of God, everything wrong in April’s life eventually will straighten itself out, but it takes most of the movie’s 113 minutes. Unlike some of Perry’s earlier titles, I Can Do Bad can stand on its own merits as an entertainment accessible to audiences other than those considered “urban.” – Gary Dretzka


Downloading Nancy

I have no idea what might have possessed Johan Renck to launch his features career with such a nasty piece of business as Downloading Nancy. The much-lauded director of commercials and music videos probably saw some deep, dark meaning in this story of a disgruntled housewife who abandons her longtime husband to take up with a stranger she met on an S&M website.

The estimable Maria Bello delivers a powerhouse performance as Nancy, a woman who wants nothing more than to be tortured for enduring a bad marriage for 15 years, and then snuffed out before the blush of one last orgasm fades from her cheeks. Nancy has no interest in trading one husband for another, so she’s drawn to "Deep Pain" (Jason Patric), the nom de plume of a chat-room predator who pledges to do any dirty deed she desires. Nancy’s husband, Albert (Rufus Sewell), is a handsome chap and financially successful.

On the negative side of the ledger, though, Albert’s insensitive to his wife’s basics needs and oblivious to her emotional pain, even though she’s a “cutter,” whose wounds cry out for attention. “Deep Pain” recognizes Nancy’s symptoms immediately and uses this knowledge to worm his way into her heart. What he can’t fully appreciate is just how committed Nancy is to making her death wish come true. Few punches are pulled in Bello’s depiction of Nancy’s suicidal drive.

Neither does she rely on any of the usual S&M contrivances to demonstrate just how far her character would go to convince her suitor that she’s not kidding around. Unfortunately, Renck overplays his hand, by compounding Nancy’s hurt -- and the audience’s ordeal – with an overdose of nerve-wracking music and in-your-face editing tricks. That said, however, the performances in Downloading Nancy deserve to be seen, if only by masochists. – Gary Dretzka
 


The Drummer
You the Living

Imagine, if you can, a coming-of-age movie that is equal parts Drumline and Hong Kong gangster flick. Kenneth Bi’s “The Drummer” is just that…and a box of Zen popcorn. Here, the rhythm section is provided by the Taiwanese taiko-drum troupe, U Theatre, while the street cred derives from the presence of such genre stars as Tony Leung Ka Fai, Roy CheungKenneth Tsang and Jackie Chan’s 27-year-old son, Jaycee. In a story that’s both completely familiar and refreshingly exotic, Chan plays the rebellious son of a Hong Kong triad boss.

After a rock gig, in which he played drums, Sid tempts fate by bedding the girlfriend of one of his father’s powerful rivals, and insulting the hoodlum when they’re caught. Instead of killing Sid on the spot, the gangster demands compensation from his father in the form of the boy’s severed hands. Dad hopes to buy time for his son by shipping him off to Taiwan with an uncle, and delivering the hand of some other poor sot to the aggrieved party. Bored and restless, Sid and his uncle kill time by hiking through the island’s sumptuous hills and forests.

On one of these treks, Sid becomes enchanted with the sounds emanating from the mountaintop retreat of a taiko performance troupe. After demonstrating his prowess with the sticks, Sid is allowed to intern with the group. Among the first things he’s forced to accept is the musicians’ Zen approach to their discipline, which also incorporates dance, mime and martial arts into their routine.  Coincident to Sid’s mastering of the art is the arrival of an invitation for the troupe to embark on a world tour, with the first stop being Hong Kong and a date with destiny.

In the fateful final act of The Drummer, Bi eschewed all the usual emotional shortcuts, including any long, artistically choreographed shootouts and other chop-socky conventions. There’s violence, to be sure, but Sid’s maturation requires that he not return to Hong Kong with revenge foremost in his mind.  This splendid Film Movement release also includes a neat behind-the-scenes featurette and the award-winning musical short from Sweden, Love and War.

Music also plays a key role in You the Living, an off-kilter comedy from Sweden that all too precisely describes the banality of life in an Earthly suburb of Limbo. Roy Andersson’s film plays out in 50 loosely connected vignettes, sketches and tableaux, all populated by characters with only the most tentative grasp on reality and virtually no reason to get out of bed each morning. Among the things that help them make it through the night are their musical instruments, which can be heard at funerals, weddings, on trains and from bathrooms.  

Neither is Stockholm allowed the dignity of a postcard-ready image or two. Not recognizing the language, I assumed You the Living was shot somewhere in Eastern Europe, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Given the current state of affairs in big cities around the world, however, the desperate souls we meet here could be found anywhere, and we ought not forget they exist.  – Gary Dretzka  
 

 


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