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Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrap: Hereafter, The Switch, The Fighter, The Wildest Dream, Yi Yi, Sharktopus …

Hereafter: Blu-ray
In the opening minutes of “Hereafter,” tourists along a Thai beach are enjoying another leisurely day in paradise. A French reporter, Marie, played by Cécile De France, has just agreed to leave the hotel to buy souvenirs for her boyfriend, who’s too lazy to do it himself. Just as she’s about to pay the shopkeeper for an item, the roar of a giant wave becomes audible in the near-distance. Moments later, Marie has been devoured by devoured by the wall of water, along with everyone else on the busy street. Now, even if an earthquake and tsunami hadn’t struck Japan in the last few days, the re-creation of the 2004 disaster would be unnerving for most people to watch. Given what we’ve seen on the news in the wake of that tsunami, however, it’s downright creepy. (Indeed, the movie was still playing in Japanese theaters the day of the disaster. It’s since been pulled from distribition.) Among other things, it provides a street-level view of the destruction, as it’s happening, while also following Marie as she’s upended and carried underwater to her near-death experience. As a demonstration of state-of-the-art special-effects work, it could hardly be a more impressive.

Marie’s tortured recovery parallels the emotional and spiritual turmoil affecting other survivors of similarly devastating events in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter.” Most prominent among them are a 12-year-old London boy (Frankie McLaren), whose twin brother was killed by a truck moments after bullies stole his cellphone, and an American psychic, George (Matt Damon), whose gift has become a curse. To say that each of these people is in desperate need of help is like saying the tsunami was awfully wet. The screenplay, by Peter Morgan (“The Queen”), follows them on their individual journeys to an inevitable reunion. “Hereafter” is an admirable attempt to make sense of the inter-connectedness of tragedy and the possibility of life after death, but it’s far too great a subject to be tackled in what essentially is a romantic drama. Coming to DVD so soon after the Japanese disaster, its focus on something other than physical survival almost seems frivolous. Better, I think, was Peter Weir’s “Fearless” (1993), in which Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez explored similar parapsychological territory.

All that said, Clint Eastwood has yet to make a movie that isn’t worth watching, and “Hereafter” is very well made. The acting, including strong supporting performances by Jay Mohr, Richard Kind, Lyndsey Marshal and Bryce Dallas Howard, is universally top-notch. The Blu-ray package offers several excellent bonus features, including, “Tsunami! Recreating a Disaster,” “Is There Life After Death?,” “Clint on Casting,” “Delving Into the Hereafter,” “Twin Bonding,” “Why the White Light?” and the 90-minute documentary, “The Eastwood Factor.” – Gary Dretzka

The Switch: Blu-ray
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: In “The Switch,” Jennifer Aniston plays Kassie, a single woman of a certain age, with a desperate desire to experience motherhood. You can almost hear her character’s biological clock ticking away as she argues the pros and cons of a turkey-baster pregnancy with best friend and perennial bachelor, Wally (Jason Bateman). Finally, she picks a handsome sperm donor, Roland (Patrick Wilson), who celebrates the decision as if he had just been canonized. The doofus even throws a party to mark the impending insemination. What we know and Kassie and Roland don’t is that a drunken Wally has played a trick on the couple, and it involves the precious liquid substance. He forgets that he did anything sinister, however, until seven years later, when he meets Kassie’s son, Sebastian, for the first time. She’s moved back to New York to be closer to Roland, who, in the meantime, has gotten a divorce and is thrilled for the opportunity to get closer to Kassie and Sebastian. The kid’s cute as a Hollywood button, of course, and he immediately warms to Wally. If you can’t guess what happens next, there’s a very good chance, 1) you’ll thoroughly enjoy “The Switch,” or 2) you haven’t watched a rom-com since Rock Hudson and Doris were an item, and semen was a forbidden subject in movies.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with Aniston’s performance. She remains an appealing actor, albeit one with a death wish when it comes to approving scripts. “The Switch” was directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who, in addition to “Blades of Glory,” are credited with the abominable ABC sitcom, “Cavemen.” Screenwriter Allan Loeb’s last picture was “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” How do these guys keep their jobs? The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, an alternate ending, bloopers and the making-of featurette, “The Switch Conceived.” – Gary Dretzka

The Fighter: Blu-ray
As happens in all of the best movies about boxing and boxers, the action that occurs in the ring during “The Fighter” is less interesting than what takes happens to Irish Micky Ward outside of it. The fisticuffs are nothing less than convincing in David O. Russell’s highly entertaining and ultimately quite inspirational drama, but, let’s face it, no one’s going to top “Raging Bull” in that department. What’s terrific in “The Fighter” is its protagonist’s twin dedication to his dysfunctional family – they make the Snopes look like the Kennedys — and his working-class hometown of Lowell, which is a shadow of its former self.

Mark Wahlberg plays welterweight Micky Ward, a boxer destined to be remembered primarily as the underachieving half-brother of top contender, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Everyone defers to Dicky, who, even when he becomes a crack addict, is accorded the title “The Pride of Lowell.” Micky loves his brother, but wants to make a name for himself, both in the ring and with their overbearing mother, Alice, who’s portrayed with savage intensity by Melissa Leo. After suffering a broken hand in defense of Dicky, Micky’s climb to prominence is as emotionally satisfying as it was unlikely.

“The Fighter” hones pretty close to the real story of the brothers, who are shown in the closing credits and features package. Russell’s depiction of working-class Lowell in the late 1990s also rings true, right down to the ratty bouffant hairdos of Micky and Dicky’s possibly demented sisters and a dialect of English unique to the region. The Oscars accorded to Leo and Bale for their take-no-prisoners performances are richly deserved, as well, even if they nearly overwhelm those of Wahlberg and Amy Adams, as Micky’s deceptively tough bartender girlfriend. The Blu-ray package contains commentary by Russell, deleted scenes, a pretty good making-of featurette and a profile of Lowell and the boxers’ legacy there. – Gary Dretzka

Director/co-writer/composer Federico Zampaglione crosses so many genre boundaries in “Shadow,” it’s tough to know exactly where one ends and the other begins. Although it has many good things going for it, including much beautiful Alpine scenery, its inability to decide what it wants to be likely will drive hard-core fans crazy. Jake Muxworthy plays a young America soldier, David, fresh from the war in Iraq, who’s in the mountains on a long-awaited biking expedition. At an isolated inn, David rescues a pretty damsel, Angelina (Karina Testa), who’s being harassed by a pair of English knuckleheads on a hunting trip. The bikers and the hunters meet again in the high country, where Angelina gets revenge on the yokels by causing a big deer to avoid being shot. This results in a chase through the forests and near-rape of Angelina. After another escape, the chase begins anew in a section of forest reputed to be haunted by an evil force. Eventually, all four are captured by an evil doctor, who resembles Nosferatu and has a torture chamber Dr. Josef Mengele would have envied. Yet another big twist awaits viewers, but there’s no sense ruining the surprise.

“Shadow” is recommendable mostly for its splendid, if occasionally foreboding scenery, and Zampaglione’s pulsating score. It provides a pleasant diversion from the sometimes illogical narrative. Fans of Italian genre specialists Dario Argento and the Bavas will recognize the director’s debt to them, as well. “Shadow” arrives with a very decent making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest
Conquering Mount Everest may not be the challenge it once was – serious climbers now complain of human traffic jams on the peak – but, even today, no mountaineer worth his salt can ignore its place in the annals of sports history. A century ago, however, it remained an elusive trophy for anyone outside the Himalayan Sherpa community. In 1999, Conrad Anker made the near-miraculous discovery of the long-frozen body of British mountaineer George Mallory, who, 75 years earlier, died within meters of the summit. Mallory was last spotted alive 800 feet below the top, but a thick bank of clouds would roll in, obscuring any record of his progress and death. Anker, a prominent American climber, found Mallory with almost all of his belongings intact. Missing was a photo of his wife, Ruth, which he pledged to leave at the summit. Its absence, along with the body’s position on a known exit route, led Anker to believe Mallory had conquered the peak long before Sir Edmund Hillary, in 1953.

“The Wildest Dream” uses archival film footage and letters to re-create Mallory’s expedition, which was undertaken from the Tibetan side of the peak. Interspersed within it are snippets of an interview with the climber’s granddaughter and images from Acker’s own physical homage to Mallory. The fascinating documentary arrives with more interviews and background material; international trailers; and original notes from Mallory’s fellow team member, Noel Odell. — Gary Dretzka

Au revoir les enfants: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Yi Yi: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

There’s been no shortage of dramas, documentaries and books dealing with the duplicitous behavior of many French politicians, clergy and citizens in World War II. Depictions of the heroism of Resistance fighters are out there, as well, but the best ones demand a willingness to read subtitles, which is a sacrifice most Americans won’t make. Far less is known about the deep-seeded anti-Semitism that led so many French men, women and children to their doom, alongside communists and freedom fighters. By comparison to the Nazis’ struggle to conquer Russia, their occupation of France was a cakewalk.

“Au Revoir Les Enfants,” Louis Malle’s duly celebrated and universally accessible memoir of life at a Catholic boarding school in occupied France, is the kind of film that makes one doubt not only the existence of a deity, but also the inherent goodness of mankind. It does so without a single image of a concentration camp or ugly anti-Semitic diatribes. Once again, it’s the banality of evil that finally is so offensive. It is 1944 and the Allied invasion of Europe has already begun, in Italy. We watch as the noose tightens around the long-protected church and school through the eyes of 12-year-old Julien Quentin, one of only a small handful of Jews in residence. A betrayal alerts the Germans and their French lackeys to a priest active in the Resistance and the Jewish students are swept up in the same net. We’re shocked not only by the cowardly actions of anti-Semitic informers, but also the expressions of helplessness on the faces of the students as they witness the removal of their principal and classmates.

The Criterion Collection presentation is typically impeccable, with a series of interviews from historians, critics, filmmakers, Malle and Candice Bergen, his wife at the time of his death. The most interesting thing revealed in the featurettes is the director’s alienation from his French peers, who couldn’t accept his embracing of Hollywood, and savage response to such lesser efforts as “Crackers” and “Alamo Bay” by influential American critics. He was rewarded for his decision to return to France to make “Enfants” with seven Cesars, including one for Best Picture. Also in the Blu-ray package are the character study, “Joseph”; “The Immigrant,” Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 short comedy, featured in the film; and a book with essays by film critic Philip Kemp and historian Francis J. Murphy.

Released in 2000, “Yi Yi” signaled the arrival of Taiwan as a major producer of intellectually challenging films, accessible to international audiences. Writer/director Edward Yang puts one seemingly ordinary Taipei family under a microscope, exposing all manner of fissures, fault lines and facets. The family isn’t nearly as interesting as, say, the Corleones or Ewings, but Yang still manages to squeeze nearly three hours of compelling material from the activities of the extended clans. It begins, as so many family reunions do, at a wedding, but then moves to the hospital bed of seriously ill elder. From there, the characters’ individual threads begin to fray and merge. If anything unites them, though, it’s the general feeling that all of the adults have made mistakes in romance, business and friendships, and time is running out on their ability to rectify the disappointments. Again, while none of it is earthshaking, the characters’ responses resonate well beyond the usual familial boundaries.

Continually stealing the spotlight is 8-year-old Yang Yang, who is adept at capturing personalities in his photographs of the backs of family members’ heads. Besides the newly restored digital transfer, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, the Blu-ray offers commentary by Yang and Asian-cinema critic Tony Rayns; an interview with Rayns about Yang and the New Taiwan Cinema movement; and a booklet with an essay by film writer Kent Jones and notes from the director. – Gary Dretzka

Gamera: Double Feature

If ever there were a match made in TV heaven, it’s the one that merged the Syfy Channel and Roger Corman’s fantasy factory. ”Sharktopus” is the latest entry in a catalog of made-for-cable movies that already includes “Dinocroc vs. Supergator” and “Dinoshark,” and soon will add “Piranhaconda.” No one, with the possible exception of Dr. Moreau, has proved as adept at vivisection as Corman and his minions. Add Eric Roberts to the mix and you have a movie that strives for cult immortality. In “Sharktopus,” Roberts plays a genetic scientist, Nathan Sands, who’s been commissioned by the U.S. Navy to create a super-weapon (inspired, perhaps, by Lamberto Bava’s “Devil Fish”). Like a frat boy on summer break, the S-11 hybrid heads for the beaches of Mexico, where there’s a ready supply of bikini-clad prey. The scientist falls in love with his creation, so it’s left to his biomechanical-engineer daughter (Sara Malakul Lane) to subdue the monster. It’s all remarkably silly, but what else would one expect from Syfy and Corman? The Blu-ray package adds commentary with producers Roger and Julie Corman, and a trailer.

Fans of ultra-cheesy cinema have long looked to Japan for beyond-the-pale entertainment. It would be difficult for any contemporary schlockmeister to out-cheddar the “Gamera” franchise, in which a giant flying turtle, that can also spit fire, saves Japan from destruction by equally bizarre alien creatures. “Gamera vs. Zigra” and “Gamera: The Super Monster” represent the final two titles in Shout! Factory’s series of movies, released from the mid-1960s to the early ’70s. (“Super Monster,” sent out in 1980, was constructed of clips from earlier movies.) In “Zigra,” the tusked turtle battles a marine creature that resembles a go-bot. Both films feature newly re-mastered transfers in their original Japanese language, as well as English dubs. – Gary Dretzka

Waste Land
Nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category, “Waste Land” chronicles Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz’ fascinating ability to create artistic images from recyclable garbage. For the purposes of Lucy Walker’s film, which is set largely in Rio de Janeiro, Muniz’ medium is delivered daily to the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho. Once delivered there by a constant stream of trucks, the garbage is picked clean by “catadores” seeking to make a steady income from recyclable material. The process is amazing, as are the people who call Jardim Gramacho home. Muniz, who was born in Brazil, has done very well for himself, selling art made from found material. He wanted to give something back to less fortunate Brazilians, by teaching them how to create portraits of themselves from photographic images and recyclables.

That’s fun to observe, but what really makes “Waste Land” come alive is Walker’s ability to get close to the “catadores” and tell their stories without pity or condescension. They are, after all, able to support themselves by selling the carefully sorted material to aggregators, educate their children and create a civic infrastructure, including a library with thousands of discarded books. The real kicker comes at an auction, where one of Walker’s primary subjects learns the value of recycled material on the open market … and the irony of watching someone paying very good money for garbage repurposed by the amateur artists. The DVD adds extended bonus footage and “Beyond Gramacho: An Untold Story.” – Gary Dretzka

No One Knows About Persian Cats
With fed-up individuals finally beginning to demand reforms from dictators in the Middle East, it’s interesting to look closely at a few people who willingly put their well-beings on the line before it became cool. Bahman Ghobadi’s “No One Knows About Persian Cats” describes the lengths to which some Iranian musicians will go to express their feelings in song and through instruments. The ones we meet here are forced to rehearse in places so far off the beaten path that government spies won’t hear them and rat them out. These Persian cats are musicians who merge traditional Persian themes and rhythms with hard-core western rock ’n’ roll. They’d love to tour Europe, sell a few CDs and return home afterward, but know the Islamic regime could pull the plug on them at any time it wanted and thrown them in a dungeon.

As interesting as the musicians’ stories are, the music is even better. “Persian Cats” carries a wallop politically, artistically and inspirationally. Watch it and you’ll know a little bit more about the forces motivating some of the protesters, at least, in the streets of Cairo, Tehran and other Middle Eastern capitals. It arrives with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

In the not-so-distant past, almost every indie comedy or romance that made it into general release could be described as “offbeat” or “quirky.” Lately, the word “disturbing” pops more readily to mind. “Spooner” is a throwback rom-com with very few obvious pretentions, some funny conceits and a cast loaded with enthusiastic actors. The title character, Herman Spooner, is an awkward teenage boy in the gangly body of 29-year-old slacker. His parents have laid down the law, by insisting that he move out of the family abode on his 30th birthday. Nothing personal intended, but mom and dad want to re-claim their personal space and enjoy some alone time before it’s too late. Spooner (Matthew Lillard), though, is having no luck selling cars and wouldn’t know how to maintain an apartment, even if he could afford one. Just as he’s about to forsake all hope, though, he is pulled over to the side of the road by a woman named Rose (perky Nora Zehetner), whose car has broken down. She’s perfect.

He uses his connections at the dealership to get her car fixed and disable it once again after they share a night of non-sexual bliss (I think) at a suburban hotel, which might have been designed by Montezuma. His parents are nonplussed by Spooner’s sudden reversal of fortune, but refuse to back down from their ultimatum. For her part, Rose doesn’t want to commit to a relationship, because she’s planning on moving to the Philippines. To his credit, Spooner won’t take “no” for answer and this leads to a series of amusing encounters with his co-workers and Rose’s friends and family members. “Spooner” won’t make anyone forget a dozen other quirky, offbeat rom-coms, but it’s something young men and women can enjoy together when the video store has run out of the “new arrivals” they wanted to rent. – Gary Dretzka

A Shine of Rainbows
The title of this often engaging and gorgeously shot family drama is borrowed from the 1984 novel by Lillian Beckwith. Something a bit less touchy-feely probably would have served the movie better, as it contains several hard edges that don’t leave much room for leprechauns and unicorns. “A Shine of Rainbows” describes the journey of a shy and scrawny 8-year-old orphan, Tomas (John Bell), who is rescued from the bullies at the orphanage by a kind-hearted colleen, Marie (Connie Nielsen), who looks as if she’s just stepped out of an Irish Spring commercial. She takes the boy back to her cottage on an island off the Donegal coast, where he essentially has to be taught what it means to be free. It would be an idyllic situation for any child looking for love and stability, if it weren’t for his new father (Aidan Quinn), who expected Marie to return home with a boy who looked a lot more butch. The man isn’t brutal or sadistic, merely grumpy and inattentive. Neither is he in any rush to sign the adoption papers. When tragedy strikes, Tomas, is left without a clue as to what his future holds.

“A Shine of Rainbows” could stand on its own merits as a travelogue for County Donegal. The lush green location is surrounded by sea and mountains, and director Vic Sarin leaves plenty of room for Gaelic iconography and local color. It is appropriately rated PG, which should encourage family and other group viewing. The DVD adds a lengthy making-of featurette, which describes the joys and travails of working in such an off-the-beaten-path project. – Gary Dretzka

UrgencyThis sui generis tick-tock thriller is far too complex for its own good. Brian Austin Green plays Tony, a successful pharmaceutical executive, who discovers a huge flaw in a big-money deal that important people want kept secret. As the deadline approaches and the threat of the secret being revealed increases, people start dying. Moreover, Tony receives word that his wife has been kidnapped and is being held for a $50,000 ransom. That’s chump change for most kidnapers, but it’s closing time at the banks and money’s tight, so her life hangs in the balance, along with the deal. Complicating things further is Tony’s insistence that his bosses and police be kept in the dark about the complications and the necessity for enlisting his secretary to deal with the criminals. Naturally, the cops we do see are more of a hindrance than a help. The director, Kantz, does what he can to plug the holes in the plot, but “Urgency” remains little more than a diversion. – Gary Dretzka

Nova Science Now: How Does the Brain Work?
The human brain has been compared to many wonderful things, from a super-computer to an underappreciated erogenous zone. It’s also said that most people’s brains are operating on less than 10 percent of their potential ability. “How Does the Brain Work?” turns to master magicians to explain how our brains interpret their illusions and make us believe we’re seeing impossible things. As the magicians perform their tricks, researchers study the reactions of volunteers to the stimuli. Among the performers interviewed is Teller, the normally silent half of Penn & Teller. The producers also stage elaborate experiments to test how the brain interprets the passage of time, while it’s in a state of distress. The “Nova” presentation will be of interest to viewers of all ages, even if its approach seems to stress entertainment over education. Nothing wrong with that, though. – Gary Dretzka

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One Response to “The DVD Wrap: Hereafter, The Switch, The Fighter, The Wildest Dream, Yi Yi, Sharktopus …”

  1. Eric Roach says:

    Shadow is a very nice film. Seen it a couple of weeks ago and just loved it. Eric


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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