MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

DVD Wrap: Robin Hood, (Untitled), Good, Experiment, Stripped Naked … and more

Just Wright

Queen Latifah
wants us to think of Just Wright as a modern version of Cinderella, this time staged against a backdrop of the National Basketball Association. It’s not a bad comparison, really, even if director Sanaa Hamri and writer Michael Elliot don’t seem particularly interested in repeating any of that classic fairytale’s basic conceits.

For one thing, Latifah’s physical therapist, Leslie Wright, isn’t being held against her will in a broom closet, while her ugly sisters compete for the hand of the Grand Duke, represented here by the wounded NBA superstar, Scott McKnight (Common). Indeed, Leslie mostly approves of the growing relationship between the player and her svelte and gorgeous best friend, Morgan (Paula Patton).

It’s only when Morgan turns her back on Scott, whose NBA is endangered by a torn ACL, that Leslie acts on her heart’s initial stirrings. Even then, the not-so-ugly duckling isn’t safe from the tyranny of great beauty and its impact on a man’s libido. With nary a glass slipper or a pumpkin coach in sight, however, Just Wright manages to arrive at the same destination as every other fairytale that ends with a “happily ever after.” It’s getting to this inevitable point that makes “Just Wright” enjoyable. The romantic aspects of the story evolve naturally, over a logical period of time, as does the revelation of Morgan’s less-attractive qualities.

The story also benefits from the cooperation afforded it by the NBA. McKnight plays for a real NBA team, the Nets, and is surrounded by teammates and opponents that include Dwight Howard, Dwayne Wade, Rashard Lewis, Bobby Simmons Jr., Jalen Rose, Rajon Rondo and Elton Brand, as well as analysts Marv Albert, Mike Fratello, Stuart Scott and Kenny Smith. Before entering the hip-hop arena, Common was a ball boy for the Chicago Bulls, and his dad played in the ABA, so he looks the part, too. That’s a long way of saying that guys won’t hate watching “Just Wright” as much as they do other romances and rom-coms. And, women won’t mind it at all. The extras add the featurettes, The One You Can’t Live Without and Common on the Fast Break, and a gag reel.


Robin Hood: Two-Disc Unrated Director’s Cut

Over the course of the last 102 years, or, roughly, the entire history of the cinema, Robin Hood has appeared as a character in movies, television and other visual media more than 102 times. This year’s version, with one more incarnation still on the drawing board, was portrayed by Russell Crowe. He plays Robin Longstride, an ace archer who’s just returned to England after 10 years in the Holylands, picking off Muslims who simply had the audacity to live in the same zipcode Jesus Christ once did.

The killing doesn’t stop there, however. On the way home, King Richard the Lionheart is struck down while laying siege to a French castle and another group of his men is ambushed on a forest road leading to the English Channel. Longstride is entrusted with returning the Richard’s crown to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who quickly bestows it on her evil and greedy son, Prince John. If director Ridley Scott and principal screenwriter Brian Helgeland had presented this alternative version of history to their college professors, they likely would have flunked the course. Hollywood studios grade on a very different curve, however.

That task accomplished, Longstride is further required to return a sword owned by Sir Robert Loxley, a victim of the ambush, to his father (Max von Sydow) and wife, Marion (Cate Blanchett). In desperate financial straits, they ask Longstride to stick around and assume the identity of Sir Robert. Confused, yet?

Still not the Robin Hood of legend and the movie’s title, Longstride/Loxley declares war on King John (Oscar Isaac), the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) and the double-dealing, Godfrey (Mark Strong), who’s secretly working for France’s King Philip. From here on in, “Robin Hood” is all action, all the time. Arrows rain from the sky like hailstones and crimson goo gushes from the severed arteries of hundreds of extras in chain mail. A French invasion is repelled and, despite his heroism in the clash, King John declares Robin Public Enemy No. 1 and the proposed Magna Carta null and void.

Joining Robin in his guerrilla pursuit of fair treatment for all Brits are Merry Men-to-be Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), Little John (Kevin Durand) and Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle). The movie pretty much ends there, making it a prequel to the future adventures of Robin Longstride/Loxley/Hood. That was the idea, anyway. Inconveniently, Robin Hood struggled to break the $100 million barrier – half its reported production budget – effectively putting plans for similarly expensive follow-ups on hold.

What happened? Robin Hood offered more than its fair share of popcorn value, after all. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Crowe, at 46, already was the oldest actor to play Hood, eclipsing even Sean Connery. Younger audiences might have preferred someone – Justin Bieber or one of the Jonases — closer to their age to play the hero. Older folks might have already gotten the fill of medieval Britain in excellent BBC/BBC America series of the same title, as well as the historical mini-series, The Tudors and The Pillars of the Earth, which, in addition to blood, archery and royal intrigue, also benefitted from nudity.

Even so, Robin Hood is sufficiently entertaining to recommend it to homebound audiences, especially in Blu-ray. The bonus package adds a digital copy of the director’s cut, deleted scenes and commentary, the excellent featurettes Rise and Rise Again: Making Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and The Art of Nottingham,” and a “marketing archive.”

After his screenplay for L.A. Confidential was honored with an Academy Award, Helgeland was pretty much able to write his own ticket in Hollywood, whether it came to having his scripts green-lit or being a go-to guy when other people’s work needed a re-write. He also was allowed to direct his own screenplays, as he did with A Knight’s Tale, set in roughly the same period as Robin Hood. Like Knight’s,” The Order starred Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon and Mark Addy.

Unlike A Knight’s Tale, the 2003 horror-genre dud couldn’t even convince Ledger’s growing legion of female fans to buy a ticket.  The sight of the Aussie hunk in a cleric’s collar couldn’t have helped at the box office. The Order (a.k.a., “The Sin Eater”) describes the behavior of an obscure collection of priests fixated on ancient texts. Ledger’s Father Alex gets involved after he learns of the death – purportedly of suicide – of his mentor.

In Rome, Alex determines that the older priest had come into contact with a “sin eater.” Such people are able to absorb the sins of their clients/victims, allowing them to be ushered directly into heaven. This one appears to be close to 2,000 years old and in need of a replacement not only retire, but also absorb the sins flowing through his blood stream. While not a bad concept, the special visual effects created to mimic the exchange of sins looked ridiculous. It reminded no one of the The Exorcist or The Omen, and died a quick death.


Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue: Blu-ray

The third installment of Disney’s popular animated prequel franchise, Tinker Bell, finds the headstrong fairy in yet another world of trouble, this time among humanoids encroaching on the enchanted summertime meadows of Victorian England. While poking her cute little nose into places it clearly doesn’t belong, Tinker Bell (voiced by Mae Whitman) is captured by the daughter of a scientist who collects butterflies and puts their framed carcasses on display on the walls of his laboratory.

The horror … The lepidopterist and his daughter (Michael Sheen and Lauren Mote) represent the time-honored clash of ideals in family-oriented cinema: the rational adult mind vs. the irrational imagination of a child. To prove that fairies exist, Lizzy sets a trap Tink finds irresistible. After spying the pinned butterflies on the wall, Tinker Bell fears the worst. Instead, the sympathetic teen is every bit as curious as the fairy, who, even as a fairy militia is embarking on a rescue mission, reveals the secret of flight to her new friend.

Convincing Dr. Griffiths not only of the existence of fairies, but also the necessity of keeping their world sheltered from purveyors of freak-show curiosities requires the combined efforts of Lizzy and Tink.

Naturally, the computer-generated Great Fairy Rescue looks vastly different than the original, hand-drawn Peter Pan and, as a less expensive non-theatrical feature, is a notch or two below Pixar’s usual standards for animation (yet, better than the first two episodes). None of this will matter much to younger viewers, for whom the highly entertaining story will be sufficient cause for celebration.

The special features include 15 minutes of d

eleted scenes; an interactive “Fairy Field Guide” trivia game; a short “Design a Fairy House” piece; and a music video of Bridgit Mendler‘s How to Believe.


(Untitled): Blu-ray

Adam Goldberg, who plays neurotic characters as well as anyone half the age of Woody Allen, plays a real doozey in Jonathan Parker’s satire of New York’s contemporary art scene, (Untitled).” When he isn’t entertaining diners in swank dining rooms with piano standards, Goldberg’s Adrian Jacobs is composing symphonies that sound suspiciously like toasters being tossed in domestic disputes and plumbers sloshing their way through a backed-up basement. More often than not, his compositions are performed in the kind of Chelsea galleries where the art is as disturbing as Adrian’s music.

Eoin Bailey plays Adrian’s brother, Josh, whose paintings are infinitely more accessible, but is reluctant to put them on display. Both covet Madeleine (Marley Shelton), an archetypically pretentious, if undeniably attractive “gallerist” with an open mind and luxurious apartment. Among the characters who keep the pace lively here are a taxidermy artist (Vinnie Jones) and a collector with more money than taste (Eion Bailey). Adrian’s tantrums get tiresome after a short while, but his ability to absorb lessons about his craft ultimately saves the day. Coincidentally, (Untitled) arrives during the same week as Boogie Woogie, a film that similarly eviscerates the London art scene.


Experiment: Blu-ray

Viggo Mortensen plays against type as a mild-mannered literature professor coerced into becoming a Nazi Party member after his book about euthanasia is embraced by key members of Hitler’s inner circle. A veteran of World War I with close friends who are Jewish, John Halder is flattered, if slightly confused by his book’s newfound popularity. Even on the eve of Kristallnacht, he doesn’t recognize the Nazis as the threat to humanity they soon would become.

He enjoys the privileges that come with rank in the SS, especially the adoration of a home-wrecking student who could be the poster girl for Aryan pulchritude. When it becomes clear that his closest friend, a Jew who fought beside him in the war, is in danger of being imprisoned, Halder also is able to his clout getting exit papers, which go unused. His psychoanalyst friend (Jason Isaacs) is as appalled as we are by Halder’s inability to see beyond the perks and openly denounce the Nazis. It won’t take long for the truth to sink in, however.

Good, a title that refers to the dilemma faced by “good” Germans under the Nazi regime was adapted from a stage play by C.P. Taylor. The story that played out on a nearly bare stage in London and New York — with its pointed, stream-of-consciousness dialogue — doesn’t benefit at all from being opened up and given a melodramatic facelift to accommodate a college campus, ballrooms and trashed streets. Still, fans of Mortensen’s work won’t be disappointed by his performance here.

I wonder why it’s taken almost 10 years for an American version of the taut German drama, Das Experiment, to emerge. Both movies are based on the same Stanford Prison Experiment, which, in 1971, tested the ability of 20 otherwise-ordinary males to last two weeks in a mock-prison environment. They were divided into groups of guards and prisoners, given the appropriate uniforms and fatigues, and told how to behave.

The experiment lasted all of six days, before outside observers became appalled by the guards’ abuses of power and demanded it be shut down. In Das Experiment, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between how the study played out and what actually happened in Germany when SS officers were assigned different uniforms and responsibilities than those of German army officers and conscripted soldiers.

Oscar-winners Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker lead the predominantly male cast of Paul Schuering’s American adaptation of Mario Giordano’s novel, Black Box, based on the same Stanford study. Having created Fox’s Prison Break, there’s no question Schuering knows the territory. What’s missing is a sense that anything’s at stake in The Experiment, beyond the chunk of money allotted the participants. Unless one is a member of a minority group, poor or has been wrongfully accused of a serious crime, most Americans audiences wouldn’t make the connection between the bullying tactics adopted by the “guards” and the police they encounter in their daily lives or see on Cops.

It explains why so many of us refuse to believe that American soldiers are capable of committing atrocities or crimes against civilians in the fog and fire of war. Had Schuering been willing to change the prison environment to something closer to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, his movie might have benefitted from a more palpable sense of urgency. Fans of of Brody and Whitaker will find something of value here, but I would also recommend they sample Das Experiment.


Stripped Naked

On late-night cable shows and in straight-to-DVD movies, serious crimes occur in and around strip clubs all the time. It hardly matters if the club is one of those swank “gentlemen” joints in Las Vegas or a biker bar in Texas. Partially clad women not only are the victims of and witnesses to murders, drug deals and rip-offs, they sometimes even solve them.

Is this a great country, or what? Judging from the cover art, Stripped Naked wants to be taken seriously as any Tarantino-approved grindhouse picture. Ultimately, though, a curious lack of nudity and gratuitous violence is the downfall of Stripped Naked. Sarah Allen plays an exotic dancer, who, after being tossed out of a car by her boyfriend, stumbles upon a deadly shootout between a meth wholesaler and a potential customer.

She escapes the scene in one of the corpses’ vehicles, which she wisely hides in the garage of the home she shares with another stripper. The roommate makes the mistake of borrowing the automobile, which, of course, is spotted by one of the Big Boss’ henchman and leads them to the bar where they work. The dancer’s troubles are compounded when her deadbeat boyfriend finds the money and drugs, and decides to use them to finance a body shop … sadly, car bodies. It’s a mess, alright. Too bad Canadian director Lee Demarbe, whose previous credits include Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter and Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace, is better at coming up with grindhouse titles than delivering grindhouse values.


Eclipse Series 24: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King

Anyone who believes that reality didn’t exist on television before The Real World: Las Vegas obviously hasn’t heard of the ground-breaking 1973 PBS series, An American Family or, for that matter, Albert Brooks’ parody of the show, Real Life, which appeared six years later and foretold how easily it would be to manipulate the outcomes of such productions.

Widespread acceptance of fly-on-the-wall documentaries made by such cinema verite and direct-cinema pioneers as Allan King, Frederic Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, Richard Leacock, Robert Frank, Chris Marker, Roman Kroitor, Wolf Koenig and Robert Drew, opened the door for Charlotte Zwerin, Les Blank, Werner Herzog,  Errol Morris, Barbara Kopple, Kartemquin Films and Michael Moore.

The latest addition to Criterion Collection’s revelatory Eclipse Series re-introduces the documentaries – a.k.a., actuality dramas – of the little-known Canadian filmmaker, Allen King. The ones here represent the length and breadth of King’s 50-year career, which was shared by frequent forays into episodic television and the occasional feature film. Warrendale (1967) documents five weeks in the lives of a dozen children living in a home for emotionally disturbed kids; A Married Couple (1969) records five weeks in the very loud marriage of a cantankerous post-hippie, pre-yuppie couple; Come on Children (1973) describes how several disaffected urban teens adjusted to 10 weeks of communal life in a farmhouse; Dying at Grace (2003) introduces us to five terminally ill cancer patients with lots to say about life and death; and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005) follows the daily care of eight patients suffering from dementia and memory loss.

Almost all of the people we meet in the early documentaries are stuck in the mire of messy lives. It’s especially difficult to watch the children, who lack the ability to control their emotions and prevent physical confrontations with the facility’s supportive, if overwhelmed staff. The teens in the farmhouse are alienated from their parents and society, but share a love of music and no small amount of talent. The couple’s marriage is a train wreck waiting to happen. Knowing that King soon will die of brain cancer only makes the final two docs that much more poignant.

The 1982 PBS mini-series Middletown revisits the notion, advanced by researchers 60 years earlier that the citizens of Muncie, Indiana, best reflect the forces that make America tick. Not surprisingly, the Midwestern community has changed with the times – especially in the area of racial relations and economic trends — even as certain bedrock values have remained very much the same.

Each of the chapters in Peter Davis’ production focus on a different aspect of Muncie life:  sports, politics, faith, family businesses, marriage and coming-of-age in a modern public high school. The final segment proved so controversial in its portrayal of Muncie teens that it was eliminated from the television presentation and shown in theaters. Compared to what we see in the Allan King set and Middletown, most of today’s reality shows belong on the Cartoon Network.


Modern Family: The Complete First Season

Spartacus: Blood and Sand: The Complete First Season
Bored to Death: The Complete First Season
Amish Grace

Entering its second season, the hit ABC sitcom Modern Family has given itself a mighty tough act to follow. It was nominated for 14 Emmys, winning 6. It won a Directors Guild prize and a pair from the Writers Guild. More importantly, perhaps, it demonstrated that premium-cable networks weren’t the only ones that could create intelligent offbeat comedies.

The hook going into Season One was having one of three related families being gay. Given the increasingly conservative public face of America, it took something resembling courage to introduce a gay couple with an adopted child. I can’t recall there being much of a controversy, though. Their addition made the already ecumenical cast of characters that much more diverse and representative of the crazy quilt of contemporary American families.

The generous Blu-ray package includes d

eleted, extended and alternate scenes and interviews; a gag reel; and the featurettes Real Modern Family Moments, Before Modern Family, Fizbo the Clown, Modern Family: Making of ‘Family Portrait’ and Modern Family Hawaii.

The Starz miniseries, Spartacus, delivered more action, gore and skin in its allotted 60 minutes each week than most such series do in an entire season. It stars hunky Andy Whitfield as a Thracian soldier betrayed by his Roman allies, who kidnap his wife and ship him off to gladiator school. A massive chip on his shoulder demands that he seek revenge against his Roman owners, while using his natural skills not to survive but also convince them of value as a prize fighter.

If the Thracian makes his boss money, he’s told, his wife will be returned to him. Borrowing a page from the WWE playbook, his owner re-names him Spartacus, the last great Thracian warrior. A victory over a notorious grappler ensures he’ll be a popular champion. Beyond any bloodletting in the arena and potentially dangerous rivalries in his dungeon home, though, Spartacus also has to deal with the depraved machinations of several desperately horny women and their debauched husbands.

(It required full-frontal nudity on the parts of the gladiators, as well.)

Spartacus isn’t for the squeamish, though. While undeniably exciting, the fight scenes are almost preposterously graphic in their depictions of severed limbs, beheadings and arterial bleeding. The bonus material adds commentaries, behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers, several explanatory featurettes on the gladiator camp, historical backgrounders, special effects and, on Blu-ray,

four Directors’ Cut Extended Episodes.

Bored to Death is an exceedingly offbeat HBO comedy series in which a nebbishy writer (Jason Schwartzman) moonlights as a P.I. He gets dubious support from a cartoonist (Zach Galifianakis) and a millionaire (Ted Danson), who’s game for just about anything. Various noir conceits are employed by the writers, who also make it difficult for Schwartzman’s self-involved character to pull off the charade.

Bored to Death continually runs the risk of being too hip for the room, but, while it’s on track, it’s very clever. Look for appearances by Olivia Thirlby, Kristen Wiig, Parker Posey, Bebe Neuwirth, Patton Oswalt and Jim Jarmusch. The set adds Making of Bored to Death; Jonathan Ames’ Brooklyn; deleted scenes and commentaries

Lifetime’s Amish Grace attracted a huge audience to the cable network when it debuted last March, on Palm Sunday. It was inspired by a terrible shooting at a one-room Amish schoolhouse and the community’s willingness to forgive and comfort the family of the murderer, who committed suicide. Kimberly Williams-Paisley plays an Amish woman whose oldest daughter was killed. Her husband is one the community leaders called upon to craft a response that represents their faith, as well as their pain.
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Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon