MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: Machete, Dinner for Schmucks, Easy A, Howl … and more


In this insanely hyperactive action flick, Robert Rodriguez delivers on the promise made in the faux “Mexsploitation” trailer that accompanied Grindhouse. It would be folly to attempt any synopsis of Machete, except to recall that Danny Trejo’s character is a former Mexican federal agent, seeking to exact revenge on the American druglord (Steven Seagal) who is responsible for the deaths of his wife and child. Since he’s in Texas, anyway, though, Machete accepts a contract to assassinate a rabidly anti-immigration senator (Robert De Niro). In fact, the assignment is a set-up.

Ostensibly, Machete has as large a target on his back as the senator. Unlike some movie anti-heroes, however, Machete isn’t invincible. If it weren’t for the assistance of some hard-core Chicanas (Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez) and a small army of low-riding homeboys, the local rednecks might have chopped him up with his own machetes and served him for dinner at the next Minuteman banquet.

Some critics have suggested that the trailer was the movie, only shorter. That’s probably true for fair-weather fans of grindhouse nouveau, but, loyal followers of Rodriguez and Tarantino’s oeuvre will undoubtedly have a blast. The action is non-stop, thoroughly goofy and well over the top. Like most contemporary grindhouse epics, too, appearances by actors familiar from other genres add much diversionary fun.

Besides De Niro, Alba, Rodriguez and Segal, who hasn’t appeared in a theatrical picture in years, the cast includes Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan, Jeff Fahey and Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin, Daryl Sabara, Tom Savini, Michael Parks and Rose McGowan. (Machete is co-directed by his fave editor, Ethan Maniquis.) It’s Trejo’s show, however, and his machetes of mass destruction are all one needs to recommend it. The only bonus feature of note is the deleted scenes.


Dinner for Schmucks: Blu-ray

My limited knowledge of Yiddish slang precludes me from parsing the difference between “schmuck” and the more mundane, “moron,” at least for the purposes of this review. For as long as I can remember, the use of the word “schmuck” in mixed company was discouraged, if only because it also meant “penis.” Dinner for Schmucks was adapted from Francis Veber’s more subtle pleasure, The Dinner Game. In contemporary Hollywood, subtlety is for suckers.

The basic concept works for both pictures, though. A group of self-satisfied friends meet on regular basis for dinner. Each is required to bring a guest so insufferably pompous, maddeningly boorish or terminally stupid that he’s crowned that week’s prince of fools. This premise wouldn’t amount to much if, at some point in the movie, the fools didn’t turn the tables on their mean-spirited hosts, begging the question as to who’s the real schmuck. And, of course, this is exactly what happens.

Steve Carell has made a career playing these kinds of self-absorbed doofuses, and his nebbish IRS agent, Barry, is custom made for exhibition in the dinner game. Among other irritating habits, Barry collects dead mice for future use in historical dioramas. Paul Rudd plays Tim, an ambitious executive whose boss (Bruce Greenwood) demands he prove his mettle by participating in the game. Tim knows the hapless diorama maker is his ticket to promotion after running into him with his car while Barry’s picking up a dead mouse in the street. Little does Tim know how stiff the competition for the dunce cap will be.

Director Jay Roach doesn’t trust the material enough to forgo a clunky romantic contretemps between Tim and his spectacularly beautiful girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak). It provides more evidence of Barry’s clumsiness, but, otherwise, prolongs the wait for the dinner party. That said, Dinner for Schmucks is far more entertaining than other recent boys-will-boys comedies, all of which are founded on a stupidity contest of one form or another. Carell gets ample support from Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement and Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords), Lucy Punch and Ron Livingston. And, yes, the entertainment provided by the so-called schmucks is hilarious. The hi-def edition arrives with the featurettes, “The Biggest Schmucks in the World,” “The Men Behind the Mouseterpieces,” “Meet the Winners” and “Schmuck Ups,” as well as deleted scenes.


Easy A: Blu-ray

In the absence of any better ideas, some screenwriters have found success by adapting classic works of literature for teenage audiences. Cruel Intentions was inspired by Les liaisons dangereuses; Emma begat Clueless; Shakespeare provided the fodder for Romeo+ Juliet, West Side Story, O, 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Will Gluck’s wonderful teen rom-com, Easy A, was informed, at least, by The Scarlet Letter.

Rising superstar Emma Stone plays Olive, a hip, if little-noticed high school girl, who sees her life paralleling Hester Prynne’s in the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. East Ojai High School may be the only public school in America where virginity is still something to which boys and girls aspire. In an effort to avoid one embarrassing revelation, Olive inadvertently sparks a rumor that leads her fellow students to believe she’s promiscuous.

After accepting more than her fair share of undeserved humiliation, Olive decides to profit from the misconception. In return for money, she allows closeted gay kids and other dweebs to use her as a beard. Despite the windfall, the ruse complicates matters with the only boy she wants to impress. Stone delivers writer Bert V. Royal’s waspish dialogue with great moxie and sympathy for Olive. The other characters are allowed to get in some licks of their own, as well.

I’m far from being a teenager, but I think Easy A was one of the best films of 2010, regardless of genre, and Stone’s performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination. True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld may already have nailed down the spot annually allotted an actress playing a teen role, though. Here, Stone gets plenty of help from Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, as her bemused parents, hunky Penn Badgley, snarky Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow and Malcolm McDowell. The Blu-ray package adds a great deal of bonus material, including commentary with Gluck and Stone; a pop-up trivia quiz; BD-Live connectivity; a making-of documentary; gag reel; audition footage; and featurettes, “The School of Pop Culture: Movies of the ’80s” and “Vocabulary of Hilarity.”



Allen Ginsberg’s great primal scream of a poem, Howl, is at the center of Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman’s film of the same title. As epic poetry goes, Howl is a million times less cinematic than, say, Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales or, even, The Cat in the Hat. The filmmakers, though, use the debut reading of the poem as a stepping stone to other aspects of Ginsberg’s amazing life.

First, they dramatize publisher and book-seller Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1957 obscenity trial. We’re also introduced to fellow Beats muses, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, who played key roles in the development of the poem. James Franco portrays Ginsberg with an eerie specificity, as he alternately reads Howl before an audience and tells the story of his life and coming-out to an interviewer. Finally, for better or worse, the poem has been animated by art director Eric Drooker. (It could easily exist as a stand-alone short film.) That’s a lot of material to stuff into a 90-minute bag, but Epstein and Friedman manage to pull it off in nimble style.

In our collective memory of him, Ginsberg sometimes resembles a harmless hippie Santa Claus, still worshiped by the counterculture as a founding father and accepted by the mainstream as a symbol of America’s “tolerance” of oddballs and rebels. As Howl points out, however, Ginsberg and his poem were the furthest things from mainstream in the mid-1950s. The Beats represented repudiation of post-war complacency and conformity, and, along with Kerouac, Ginsberg was its most visible diplomat. He openly celebrated his homosexuality at a time when it was illegal in most states and feared by a majority of Americans.

Beats and beatniks were ridiculed in the media for their shaggy appearance and despised by philistines for their taste in everything from shoes (sandals) to music (be-bop). Howl captures all that and more in documentary-like fashion. Franco is nothing short of terrific and he gets excellent support from John Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Straithairn, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, Jon Prescott and Aaron Tveit. The bonus material adds several making-of featurettes and backgrounders, including a reading of Howl by a much older Ginsberg.


Beautiful Kate

Apparently, Hollywood has a problem with incest. The negative reflex explains why it took nearly 30 years for Newton Thornburg’s perfectly adaptable novel, Beautiful Kate, to make the move from page to screen, and why it took an Aussie production company to make it. After Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown acquired the rights to the story, she moved it from Chicago to the “bush,” in Australia’s Flinder Ranges.

Its protagonist is a young writer, Ned, who’s been asked by his younger sister to return home to pay a final visit with his estranged father. Ned arrives in the company of a pretty bimbo, Toni, whose presence disturbs the uneasy calm enough to bring the family’s dysfunctional history back into focus. Through flashbacks, we learn of Ned’s illicit relationship with his sexually aggressive twin sister and how it resulted in a pair of tragic deaths. Even on his death bed, the old man is a brute. He minimizes everything in Ned’s life and blames him for the collapse of the family ranch. It opens wounds that never completely healed.

One of the most popular actors in Australia, Ward wrote and directed Beautiful Kate. By transferring the story to a remote outpost in the middle of nowhere, she was able to show how such isolation impacted on the lives of characters making the transition from childhood to sexual maturity surrounded by a herd of randy sheep. As twins, Ned and Kate already were closer than the average brother and sister, if only because their father’s ugly behavior forced them to take shelter in each other’s arms. To reveal any more would spoil too much of the movie’s surprises.

Ben Mendelsohn and Sophie Lowe are quite good as the star-crossed twins, as are Brown, Rachel Griffiths and Maeve Dermody in important roles. Ward shows great promise as a director of features. She succeeds in capturing the sense of desolation felt by the young characters, while also showcasing some of Australia’s great beauty. There are deleted scenes, interviews and background material.


Ticking Clock: Blu-ray
Bitter Feast
Gun: Blu-ray
Haunting of Amelia

The new year brings with it a flood of direct-to-DVD titles that share a lust for blood and bizarre plot twists.

In Ticking Clock, Cuba Gooding Jr. plays an investigative reporter who specializes in exposing police ineptitude in murder cases. This doesn’t endear the writer to police when people around him start dropping like flies and he’s the most likely suspect. We know, of course, that the reporter didn’t commit any of the grotesque crimes, but become as suspicious as the police when the Gooding’s character argues that time-travel is the only logical way the real killer could have gone undetected for so long a time. It also explains how the reporter is the only person who can prevent even more murders. A word to the wise: mixing time-travel and mystery-solving only works when it involves Sherlock Holmes.

If you’ve ever wondered why more critics aren’t attacked by the victims of their snarky wordplay and harmful condemnations, Bitter Feast is the movie for you. James Le Gros plays a chef whose cuisine has been attacked unmercifully by a bitter food blogger and stands to lose his TV gig and restaurant because of the put-downs. In response, the chef kidnaps the writer and forces him to meet food challenges that would be simple, if it weren’t for the handcuffs and knife wounds. The worse the dishes are prepared, the more torture is inflicted on the writer. Look for celebrity chef Mario Batali in a brief performance.

Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Val Kilmer make a formidable team in Gun, an extremely loud shoot-em-up set in Detroit. Jackson plays a thuggish gangsta’ out to control the illicit gun trade in the upper Midwest, while Kilmer is an ex-con looking for payback in the death of his wife. Director Jerry Terrero nicely captures the icy Rust Belt setting and the results of unharnessed fire power. Jackson’s story breaks little new territory, but moves along snappily. Less convincing is the thug’s boss, a sexy blond improbably portrayed by 23-year-old AnnaLynne McCord. To the directors go the spoils.

Haunting of Amelia (a.k.a., The Other Side of the Tracks) is a supernatural romance that can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be scary or sentimental. As such, it more closely resembles a Halloween special on the Lifetime network than a full-blown mystery or horror flick.

Ten years after a tragic train accident killed his girlfriend, restaurant employee Josh (Brendan Fehr) suddenly finds himself surrounded by people from his past. The anniversary of the accident coincides with a school reunion, so at least one of the appearances can be explained. The other visitor, an attractive brunette 10 years younger than Josh, takes a few more seconds to figure out. Haunting of Amelia benefits mostly from its woodsy Connecticut setting.


Case 39

The always-welcome Renée Zellweger plays a social worker, Emily, assigned to the case of a little girl who was brutalized by her psycho stepparents. Too traumatized by the experience for another placement, the kid, Lilith (Jodelle Ferland), begs Emily to assume the role of foster mom. Predictably, little Lilith then begins to exhibit the same sorts of traits that might have caused her former guardians to stick her into an oven and turn on the gas.

Case 39 looks good, but, apart from some hideous deaths, there’s nothing really new here. Zellweger is joined by such fine actors as Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper, Cynthia Stevenson and Callum Rennie. The package includes 18 deleted scenes and featurettes on the special visual effects.


Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season
Mannix: The Fourth Season

There’s thin pickin’s on the TV-to-DVD front this week. HBO sends out the fourth-season package of Big Love, during which Bill saved his son from bird-smuggling Mormon kidnappers, got deeper involved with casino intrigue and ran for political office. The polygamist’s decision to out himself in public causes much tension among the wives and prompts them to think and act for themselves, for once. The new season starts this month.

As played by Mike Connors (born, Krekor Ohanian), Armenian-American P.I. Joe Mannix was one of the most popular crimefighters in television history. This might have had something to do with the fact that he seemed like an average Joe, drove hot cars and got beat up a lot. His pretty African-American assistant, Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), also is frequently put into harm’s way. The new set represents the fourth season in an eight-year run on CBS.

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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