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

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..MCN Weekend


Everybody’s Fine

By all outward appearances, Frank Goode (Robert DeNiro) and his recently deceased wife did an exemplary job as parents. His blue-collar job afforded their four now-grown children opportunities unimaginable for people born a generation earlier to working-class or immigrant Americans. When we meet Goode, he’s putting the finishing touches on a gathering planned to reunite the geographically disparate elements of his family. It would be their first reunion since the funeral, but, at the last minute, all four of the children find reasons to send their regrets. Disappointed, but unbowed, Goode decides to take Mohammed to the mountains, instead. 

What begins, then, as a series of friendly visits – during which he hopes to deliver a mysterious envelope to each of the kids – ends as a journey of discovery. Apparently, dear ol’ dad was the last to learn of the tensions and traumas that existed within the family. Mom would filter the bad news from him and put her own positive spin on developments. We’re led to believe that Goode was so consumed with the pressures of his own job and financial obligations that he blindly accepted her versions of the kids’ stories. And, why not? It wasn’t as if she was suggesting that the offspring were achieving things that would be proven untrue in the next day’s newspapers. Everyone simply assumed that Dad couldn’t handle certain everyday truths. 

They included broken marriages, homosexuality, career deflation and trouble with the law. And, maybe, in Goode’s case, ignorance was bliss. It also would be based on lies. This is what Goode would discover on the various legs of his cross-country trip. Writer-director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) asks little more of the audience for Everybody’s Fine than that we wait with bated breath to learn if Goode’s weak heart could handle the truth or whether everyone’s underestimated his ability to adapt to what they considered to be traumatic news. DeNiro’s already demonstrated that he can invest in guys like Goode a sense of dignity the filmmaker might have missed. As the children, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore also are fine. 

Overall, though, Everybody’s Fine left me cold, especially the obvious symbolic linkage between Goode’s work – laying insulation on telephone cables – and his inability to connect with those closest to him, even if he was the one being duped. Nevertheless, on DVD, older adult viewers might recognize some of themselves in the characters, and that’s not a bad thing. – Gary Dretzka

The Informant!

If Jimmy Breslin had written the book upon which The Informant! was based, instead of Kurt Eichenwald, he might have called it, “The Rat Who Couldn't Squeal Straight.” It would have fit the comic tone of Steven Soderbergh's adaptation as well, if not better than the addition of a mere exclamation point, which doesn’t adequately telegraph his zany approach to material that’s not inherently amusing. 

Indeed, in some ways, Mark Whitacre’s story is rather tragic. Matt Damon delivers a terrific performance as the dorky biochemist and top executive at agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland who not only exposed a multibillion-dollar price-fixing scheme, but also revealed his own culpability in it to flabbergasted FBI agents. Without having to threaten Whitacre with jail, the agency gained access to hundreds of taped recordings and other insider information. 

What his handlers didn’t know, however, was that the bi-polar VP wasn’t ready to quit breaking the law or telling outlandish lies. If the recorded evidence he’d already gathered weren’t so compelling, his erratic behavior might have derailed the entire case. As it was, Whitacre ended up spending more time in prison than any of the thieving ADM executives caught in the FBI’s net. (Is America a great company, or what?) Whitacre’s delusions included thinking his whistle-blowing would open the door to the presidency of ADM, despite the seriousness of his own crimes, and that it put him in the same league as James Bond and Tom Cruise’s character in The Firm

Adding a comic spin to The Informant! can be justified, if only because of the far more serious approach to such kindred pictures as Norma RaeSilkwoodNorth CountryThe China SyndromeMichael ClaytonThe Insider and Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich. Who needs more angst? When, however, it became apparent that Whitacre actually was suffering from a severe mental disorder, and the ADM executives likely were going to skate, the rim shots in Marvin Hamlisch’s burlesque-y score lost their punch for me. That said, Informant! tells an amazing story, and Soderbergh’s direction is flawless. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns elaborate on their choices in the commentary, and there also are a few interesting deleted scenes in the bonus package. – Gary Dretzka

The Box
I Am Virgin

As difficult as it is to boil down a 400-500 page novel into a feature-length film, it’s that much more difficult to take a seven-page short story and turn it into a two-hour movie approximating the impact of the original. Richard Kelly attempted just such a feat in The Box, which was adapted from a short story first published 40 years ago, in Playboy. Eighty-four-year-old Richard Matheson, the author of Button, Button, has written dozens of horror, fantasy and sci-fi stories that have found their way into TV, film and radio anthologies, as well as the occasional video game. 

Besides The BoxButton, Button has inspired episodes of The Twilight Zone and CBS Radio Mystery Theater (as “The Chinaman Button”). In an interview included in the bonus features of The Box DVD and Blu-ray, Kelly admits to being obsessed with Matheson’s story ever since reading the Playboy version, which he relied upon for most of his film’s first hour. The rest of the movie is pure Kelly, which is to say that it incorporates some of the same elements of highly speculative fiction and psychodrama that characterized Donnie Darko and Southland Tales.
For the uninitiated, The Box involves a mysterious device sent to a couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) struggling to make ends meet as a NASA scientist and a teacher. (It’s not the film’s most logical plot point.) As is explained to the couple by a greatly disfigured visitor, the button on top of the square box could mean the difference between a tax-free, million-dollar payday and continuing financial woes. The catch: if the big, red button is punched, someone they don’t know will die. 

It requires a monumental suspension of disbelief to buy into the material that’s been added to bulk up the picture after the decision to push the button – or not – is made. It includes references to a Mars probe, John-Paul Sartre and Santa Claus, as well as graphic devices requiring bloody noses, lightning bolts and CGI “water coffins.” It’s goofy, but not at all unwatchable. The Blu-ray adds Kelly’s commentary; an interview, in which he describes how he combined aspects of his parents’ lives into the original scenario; a second interview, with Matheson; a behind-the-scenes look at the video effects; and a series of related music videos.

Matheson’s name doesn’t appear on the credits of I Am Virgin, even though it is a parody of his oft-adapted I Am Legend. No surprise there, really. Made in Portland, with a cast largely comprised of local strippers and other sex-industry specialists (Ron Jeremy, natch), I Am Virgin chronicles the aftermath of a viral plague that wiped out the population of the Pacific Northwest, if not the entire universe. Like Will Smith’s Robert Neville in I Am LegendAdam Elliott Davis’ Robby not only is the lone human survivor of the epidemic, but also the only sheriff left in Dodge. (Instead of a German shepherd named Samantha, Robby’s best friend and sole non-vampire companion is a lazy basset hound.) The mutants are represented by sex-crazed vampires, all of whom would love to pop Robby’s cherry. The soft-core I Am Virgin is every bit as stupid as it sounds, but, considering the miniscule budget, I’ve seen worse. – Gary Dretzka

Alexander the Last
Shall We Kiss?

Romance in so-called Mumblecore movies looks a lot like romance in real life: messy, exhilarating, frustrating, comforting, illogical and risky. Young men and women pair off in ways that -- on the surface, at least – appear to be random, but might very well have been orchestrated and choreographed by a determinedly capricious Cupid. Fans of the sub-genre, which reminds me of a decidedly American interpretation of Dogme 95, have come to expect much nudity and sex. Most of the shagging takes place on damaged couches and floor-bound mattresses. 

Neither do the lovers look as if they’d made a pit stop at Victoria’s Secret on their way home from a fern bar, where cocktails cost $20. In Alexander the Last, an off-off-Broadway actor (Barlow Jacobs) inadvertently becomes the object of desire for his married co-star (Jess Weixler) and her sister (Amy Seimetz). Things begin to go sideways when the co-star’s musician husband returns home from a few months on the road and his changes don’t mesh with those of the other three. Josh Hamilton and the estimable Jane Adam portray the writer and director, respectively, and their instructions require of the actors much rehearsal of the key romantic encounter. At 72 minutes, critics considered Alexander the Last to be Mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg’s most accessible film, as well as his most technically proficient. The DVD adds commentary and deleted scenes. 

The French do it differently, of course. In his sneaky-sexy romantic comedy, Shall We Kiss?Emmanuel Mouret forwards a scenario in which a local craftsman and a traveling saleswoman meet innocently in the smallish French city of Nantes, and, after a pleasant dinner, are tempted to end the evening with a kiss … nothing more. The pretty blond woman,Émilie (Julie Gayet), who’s nearing middle age, stops her handsome new friend, Gabriel (Michaël Cohen), before their lips meet, however. Instead, she invites him to listen to a story she’d heard, in which a simple kiss led to a series of events no one could have anticipated in the heat of the moment. In it, a nerdy math teacher becomes distressed with his inability to find true intimacy in a relationship with a woman. Nicolas (Mouret) tells his troubles to a married female friend, Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), who recommends he seek the therapeutic care of a prostitute. 

Nicolas admits to having already gone that route, which went badly after the pro refused to kiss him (nothing personal, strictly business). Turns out, without a kiss, Nicolas couldn’t feel anything close to affection for any woman. This being a Gallic tale, Judith agrees to check out her longtime pal’s plumbing, to make sure everything’s in working order. Amazingly, their first kiss leads to many others, and the sensation deadens her passion for her husband. They take things slowly, but the dice have already been thrown. Judith doesn’t want to hurt her husband, who’s a decent chap, and Nicolas fears the truth will crush his newly found girlfriend. Knowing they’re destined to remain together, though, they invent a scheme to make everyone happy … which it doesn’t. 

Meanwhile, as the story unfolds,Émilie and Gabriel absorb several more alcoholic drinks. They enjoy each other’s company so much that she invites him to her bedroom to conclude the story. Just when it looks as if they’re going to fall into each other’s arms –a development no viewer would hold against them – they realize that neither story has actually come to an end. There’s nothing heavy going down in Shall We Kiss?, but it’s well made, easy on the eyes and provocative, in a Rohmer-lite sort of way. – Gary Dretzka

The People Speak
Rage Against the Machine: Revolution in the Head and the Art of Protest
The End of the Line

Historian, activist and educator Howard Zinn died last month, while swimming in the pool of a Santa Monica hotel, at the ripe old age of 87. The release of “The People Speak” stands as an inadvertent monument to the man and his work, which has inspired countless believers in progressive social change. At a time when this country is as close to a re-birth of McCarthyism as it’s been in the last 60 year, this celebrity-studded documentary – inspired by Zinn's A People's History of the United States” and Voices of a People's History of the United States” – ought to be considered must-viewing by easily cowed liberals. Dozens of actors and musicians lent their voices and instruments to a recital of letters, songs, poems, speeches and manifestoes, written by such outspoken opinion-shapers as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Bob Dylan, Langston Hughes, Chief Joseph, Muhammad Ali, as well as ordinary Americans who’ve lacked the bully pulpit of a radio talk show. Among the co-producers were Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Zinn, while the performers included Allison Moorer, Bruce Springsteen, Chris Robinson, Danny Glover, Don Cheadle, Eddie Vedder, Jasmine Guy, Kerry Washington, Marisa Tomei, Morgan Freeman, Sandra Oh and Sean Penn.

Rage Against the Machine documents both the history of the anti-establishment Orange County ensemble and of political protest music in the U.S. In the late 1990s, RATM became the house band for the incipient American anarchist movement, which organized loud protests against the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting, in Seattle. The group’s music, which combined hip-hop, rock and reggae elements, was thunderously loud and exceedingly angry. It filled a vacuum left behind after the dissolution of the Clash, by demanding of fans that they rage against fascism, imperialism, racism, rampant consumerism and the warehousing of political prisoners. 

Alas, too many of those same fans seemed more attracted to Zack De La Rocha’s flailing dreadlocks than his ’60s-era message, which demanded that they put down the bong long enough to read a book. Archival photos and footage of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Public Enemy, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan help put the group’s mission into context, as well. Naturally, RATM broke up over financial and creative issues, long before Barack Obama staged his own takeover of Washington.

The End of the Line looks into the nets of the global fishing industry and sees the imminent extinction of some of our most delectable entrée items, including the mighty blue-fin tuna. While the eyes of the world’s environmental activists were on dolphins and whales, several prominent nations were developing the technological wherewithal to search the world’s oceans and destroy anything larger than a guppy. One needn’t be a dolphin-hugger to see the immediacy of the problem, either, because the proof is in the numbers … many of which have been doctored by Chinese, Japanese and Italian concerns, who couldn’t care less about the fisheries of the future. 

The DVD package includes the wallet-sized Ocean-Friendly Seafood Guide, which can used to make environmentally friendly choices at restaurants and seafood counters; additional documentary material; webisodes; a filmmaker biography. Ted Danson narrates. – Gary Dretzka

Richard Hell & the Voidoids: Blank Generation

The most interesting part of this wildly eccentric punk-rock movie from 1980 arrives in the form of a retrospective interview with its star, Richard Hell. Typically, such interviews are devoid of insight and fresh recollections. Here, though, the former lead singer of Television and the Voidoids cuts through the baloney, revealing the pretentious behavior and misguided perceptions of the German director Ulli Lommel and his French co-star, Carole Bouquet. It’s really quite entertaining. In Blank Generation, Bouquet plays a beautiful, if robotic journalist who’s fallen in love with the subject of her report, a punk rocker about to break big. Hell’s character is in the midst of an “existential crisis,” however, and can’t decide whether he should go left or right, let alone straight ahead. 

The only discernible drama derives from the reporter’s inability to decide if she should stay with the musician or go back to Europe with a German TV producer. Blank Generation is as stupid as it sounds, but not without several other redeeming factors. They include a short interview with a surprisingly lucid Andy Warhol, performances at CBGB’s, scenes from a no-longer-gritty Lower East Side, Ed Lachman's cinematography and Elliot Goldenthal's soundtrack. (Both would go on to garner Oscar nominations.) – Gary Dretzka

The Damned United

The Brits take their football so seriously that nearly every player transaction, coaching change and league adjustment is greeted with the kind of scrutiny Americans reserve for, well, the sexual proclivities of its greatest athletes. If The Damned United carries the same dramatic weight as The QueenThe Deal and Frost/Nixon, it’s because several of the same names appear in the credits of all four of the films. 

Here Michael Sheen (a.k.a., Tony Blair and David Frost) is reunited with screenwriter Peter Morgan and producer Andy Harries. Sheen portrays the talented young coach of a team in lower-rung division. Identified as a winner, he’s hired to replace the living-legend leader of Leeds United (Colm Meaney), a team notorious for its dirty play. 

Brian Clough was the polar opposite of Don Revie, a rough-and-ready type who was beloved by his players. (Imagine, if possible, John Madden being replaced as coach of the Oakland Raiders by a young Tom Landry.) Almost immediately, the strategy begins to unravel, as his players rebel and Clough refuses to bend to anyone involved with the team, including the fans. He enjoys a modicum of success, before being unceremoniously dumped after a now-famous 44-day tenure. Americans don’t have to love soccer to enjoy The Damned United. The on-field action is minimal, but the personalities of the coaches and off-pitch tensions are universally recognizable. 

The DVD package adds commentary with director Tom Hooper, Sheen and Harries; deleted Scenes; and the featurettes CloughismsPerfect Pitch: The Making of the Damned UnitedCreating Clough: Michael Sheen Takes on 'Old Big 'Ead'Remembering Brian and The Changing Game: Football in the Seventies. – Gary Dretzka

VIII: The Conspiracy
FlashForward: Season One Pt.1
Sinbad: Where U Been?
The Universe: The Complete Season 4

There are other very good reasons for Americans to want to pick up G.B.H., besides the presence of Michael Palin in a non-Python role. First shown on British TV in 1991, the Channel 4 mini-series combines political intrigue, power politics and offbeat humor in a story about the struggle for control of northern city, not unlike Liverpool. Robert Lindsay played the gruff and corrupt Labour Party leader who bumps heads with Palin’s principled, mild-mannered educator. The 11-hour mini-series puts all of the characters into deep focus, raising the stakes with every new chapter. The cast also includes Lindsay Duncan, Julie Walters and Anna Friel, along with a soundtrack by Elvis Costello and Richard Harvey. The package adds commentary, interviews and cast filmographies.

In the 2008 NBC mini-series, XIII, the first woman to be elected President of the United States is assassinated by a sniper, who manages to evade arrest. Three months later, in a conceit ripped from the pages of the Jason Bourne novels, a wounded amnesiac (Stephen Dorff) is found in a tree, wearing a parachute, by an elderly couple that nurses back to health. The only clue to his identity is the "XIII" tattooed on his neck. When government operatives begin to appear on the scene, XIII discovers the power within himself to be a killing machine. The whos and whys of the story are kept mysterious for as long as possible. Along for the ride are Val Kilmer, Jessalyn Gilsig and Mimi Kuzyk, as the Really First Lady. The series was inspired by a Belgian graphic novel and video game.

The jury’s still out on the future of ABC’s spec-fiction series FlashForward, which came out of the gate fast, but stumbled before going on hiatus in December. (It is expected to return in March, with a new show-runner.) Handsome Joseph Fiennes stars as the lead FBI agent investigating the circumstances surrounding a widespread blackout, during those affected could see six months into the future. The obvious question is, were the individual visions accurate or a collective hallucination? The bonus features include a sneak peek at the next chapter of the story.

In his Comedy Channel special, Where U Been?Sinbad explains how difficult it is to stay on top of your game when you’re in deep-doodoo with the IRS and things aren’t so swell with the missus, either. The amiable comic says he’s been working in the clubs, but one could excuse him for being pre-occupied. Fortunately for everyone involved, Sinbad’s still a funny dude. Look for him next month, as well, in Celebrity Apprentice.

Season 4 of The Universe isn’t for the faint of heart. The emphasis in the early episodes, at least, is on mass destruction, as caused by gamma blasts, meteors, colliding galaxies and anti-matter explosions. None of this is likely to occur in the foreseeable future, but it’s never too early to start worrying about things mere mortals can’t control. The upside is that the Blu-ray edition makes the unthinkable look downright cool. The set adds unseen segments and the featurettes, Meteors: Fire in the Sky and Comets: Prophets of Doom– Gary Dretzka


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