MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Real Steel, Whistleblower, 8 more

Real Steel: Blu-ray
I was a little surprised at how much fun I had watching “Real Steel,” a very expensive movie about robotic boxers that basically combines the entire “Rocky” saga with the venerable children’s toy, “Rock’em, Sock’em, Robots.” The story’s large heart, though, can be attributed to fantasist Richard Matheson, who, in 1956, wrote the short story “Steel,” which would be adapted for “Twilight Zone” and nearly 50 years later as “Real Steel.” Not being aware of the screenplay’s provenance ahead of time, I actually found myself wondering if the entirety of Shawn Levy’s movie could have been compressed into a single half-hour episode of the landmark sci-fi series. Apparently, yes. Fact is, there are very few of the show’s gem-quality episodes that couldn’t have been expanded into feature films. By adding a hundred more minutes and a lot more dough to Matheson’s concept, Levy and writers John Gatins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven were able to take the “Rocky” conceit and embellish it with sub-plots involving father-son bonding, the evils of gambling and booze, and the redemptive power of love. Toss in the Spielbergian notion that kids are inherently smarter than adults and, voila, you have “Real Steel.”

When we meet sideshow hustler Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), two significant changes are about to occur in his life. First, he’ll lose a large bet on a fight pitting his robot against another boxer owned by his longtime nemesis. (It’s not the robots fault that Charlie took his eye off the prize at the wrong moment.) Second, he’ll learn that a woman and son he abandoned long ago have died and he’s being asked to sign away his rights of parenthood to her sister. Charlie has no emotional ties to the boy, so he happily agrees to accept a payment in return for his signature. With the money in hand, he’ll be able to buy another pugilist and get back on the circuit. What neither he nor Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) have taken into consideration, however, is that Max (Dakota Goyo) is a huge fan of robot boxing and, in fact, knows more about the sport than Kenton. An unlikely compromise is reached when Charlie agrees to let Max travel with him during the summer, while Debra and her husband are enjoying a romantic sojourn in Italy. Charlie is skeptical, but the kid almost immediately saves his dad’s ass by getting a Japanese-built replacement robot to understand English commands. Anyone familiar with “Rocky” probably could guess what transpires in the next 90 minutes, but why spoil the fun?

Everyone in the movie looks as if they belong there, except Jackman, whose Charlie Keaton is altogether too soft and unscarred to be a broken-down boxer and hard-drinking grease monkey. Kids who only know the Aussie actor through his “Wolverine” persona won’t mind the discrepancy, however. It allows Levy to give Charlie a beyond-gorgeous girlfriend (Evangeline Lilly) and a crowd-pleasing personality, when he suddenly manages to sober up. In any case, the real stars of the movie are the robots, none of whom is made to look as if it were manufactured inside by computer software. Their boxing talent was enhanced by Levy’s decision to hire Sugar Ray Leonard to supervise the actors involved in the motion-capture process. Thus, the fights in “Real Steel” pack a more realistic punch than those choreographed for the fighting games I’ve seen in arcades. Moreover, the gigantic robots are given personalities that shine through their metal face-plates. The Blu-ray featurettes include several instructive making-of mini-docs, including breakdowns of the highly complex robot-junkyard scene and Leonard’s contributions to the film. There’s a mockumentary in which actors remain in character to discuss Charlie, Max and the heroic robot, Atom; bloopers and deleted scenes; a DVD and digital copy; and Second Screen, which allows viewers to use their computers to interact with the movie. – Gary Dretzka

The Whistleblower: Blu-ray
The old adage about war and conquest, “To the victors go the spoils,” doesn’t necessarily apply to contemporary conflagrations. Today’s combatants don’t wait for a truce to be called before they begin to rape innocent women and children, and there’s rarely anything left of the countryside and coffers worth plundering. In many cases, it’s never really clear who, in fact, benefitted most from the wars or whether the ceasefires were merely a ruse. In “The Whistleblower,” a woman cop from Nebraska agrees to become a “peacekeeper” in just such a situation. At the time the movie was set, Bosnia was in shambles and combatants on all three sides of the fight continued to hate the others and sabotage efforts for a lasting peace. Indeed, peacekeeping forces still are based in the region to keep the sides separated. In return for a tidy sum of much-needed money, Nebraska cop Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) agreed to go to Bosnia, where her training could be used to track down war criminals, rapists and common crooks, alike. The black market was thriving, as it does in all wars, and old scores were still be settled. Bolkovac had seen terrible things as a police officer, but nothing could have prepared her for what she found in Bosnia. Like most outsiders, the single mother had assumed that anything done in the name of the United Nations would be aboveboard and humanitarian. It wasn’t until she began using her investigative skills to track down those responsible for the beatings of a pair of young prostitutes that Bolkovac understood that her concept of justice had little to do with peacekeeping. Within days of her arriving in Sarajevo, she was made aware of a club in the mountains that was equal parts brothel, tavern and torture chamber. The girls had been kidnapped from their homes in cities previously policed by Soviet-trained police and troops. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain, traffickers in everything from cigarettes to human beings had filled the vacuum left by no-nonsense law-enforcement techniques. (If anyone were going to profit from criminal enterprise, it would be the Politburo and local apparatchiks.) Moreover, there was a ready market for contraband in the west.

Even though Bolkovac had collected the evidence needed to arrest the people responsible for the girls’ beatings and enslavement, she was greeted with both indifference and outright resistance in nearly every office she entered. She was told that such matters weren’t covered by the UN mandate and, in Bosnia, evidence and witnesses tended to disappear into thin air. As soon as a brothel was closed, it somehow managed to reopen within a few days. It wasn’t until Bolkovac discovered that employees of companies contracted by the UN – and tangentially the U.S. State Department – had been profiting from the trafficking that she knew what she was up against. It’s a simple enough scenario, really. Corruption is an equal-opportunity disease and it feeds on poverty and despair. Trafficking has become so common that prostitutes from eastern European are as easy to find as foreign-exchange students in places like New York and Las Vegas, the capitals of Europe, Israel and morally lax Arab sheikdoms. It also has become a staple of TV crime dramas. Our inability to stop it borders on the mysterious. In her debut feature, Larysa Kondracki does a nice job replicating war-torn Bosnia and setting the table for a first-rate thriller. A Canadian of Ukrainian background, she was well aware of the epidemic of human trafficking in Eastern Europe.  She also spent time with Bolkovac, now living in Amsterdam, whose memoirs shone a spotlight on the widespread corruption among UN employees and private contractors (none of whom have faced trial). It is a little bit difficult to buy Weisz as an unarmed peacekeeper, willing and able to stand up to the most heinous of criminals, but that’s only because of her physical stature, not her acting. As dark and pessimistic a movie as it is, “The Whistleblower” works both as a thriller and indictment of serious criminality. The Blu-ray edition features interviews with key cast members – Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci, David Strathairn – and the people they represented in the film. – Gary Dretzka

Paranormal Activity 3: Blu-ray
First, a confession: when I watch scary movies at home, I leave the lights on. I do the same thing while screening most other DVDs, but in the case of horror movies, at least, a bright fluorescent light tends to dull some of the edge on the knives. Being, at heart, something of chicken, I probably would have avoided the “Paranormal Activity” films in the theater entirely. Even in the light of day, however, they still retain much of their ability to shock and disturb. “Paranormal Activity 3” opens in 2005, with Katie and Kristie Rey rediscovering a box of long-forgotten cassettes in a closet. Immediately, the movie flashes back to 1988, when the same women were wee lasses and have only just begun to realize they’re different than other kids. Among other things, they don’t seem to mind the presence of ghosts in their bedroom, toy bears that talk back to them or, just for kicks, frightening their parents half to death. As usual, we are made aware of what happens in their Carlsbad house through the eye of strategically placed camcorders. Here, one is even mounted on an oscillating fan, so it can repeatedly move from one room to another. All hell can be breaking out in the kitchen, for example, while the living room is even quieter than a mouse.

Fans of the series already know not to take their eyes off the grainy monitor or dismiss what’s visible along the edges of the frame. It’s especially true for “PA3,” because that’s where directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish”) enjoy introducing their surprises. Not all of them are terribly subtle, either. As the alternately cute and creepy girls, Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler are always fun to watch. They make it easy to believe that something abnormal is going on their room and they’re willing to protect the spirit’s secrets. What keeps us guessing, though, is the degree of threat the ghost actually poses, if any. Maybe, it’s a friendly ghost, like Casper. The Blu-ray edition adds a short “Scare Montage,” a long and short version, a commercial for Dennis’ wedding-photography business, and digital, UV and DVD options. – Gary Dretzka

Hell and Back Again: Blu-ray
Essential Killing

There is moment in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Hell and Back Again” when almost everything that’s wrong and right about our presence in Afghanistan becomes crystal clear. It comes during the 2009 assault by U.S. Marines on Taliban strongholds in the country’s yet-to-be-pacified Helmand Province. Men and women with Company E, Second Battalion, of the Eighth Marines had been helicoptered into the region, with orders to clear the enemy from villages being used as shelters and for storing weapons and other supplies. In addition to eliminating the Taliban from the area, the marines were instructed to explain the mission to town elders and assure them of America’s desire to bring peace and democracy to the region. The officer in charge was stunned to hear that, to a man, they would prefer it if all outsiders simply left their towns and left them alone. (“If you really want to help us, why don’t you leave?,” appeared to be the consensus opinion.) They were pissed off that the Americans had instructed all of the residents to leave their homes, some of which would be ransacked in the search for weapons, and they couldn’t plant their crops. The elders weren’t belligerent and they demonstrated no sympathy with the Taliban, but they’d had enough of the war and didn’t care who knew it. Not trained in the arts of debate or negotiation, the marine could do little more than apologize for the trashed houses, explain why it happened and promise reimbursements for the damage. Apart from that, the marines had their duties to perform and weren’t anxious to stand around any longer waiting for the insurgents to zero in on their positions. Given their druthers, the Americans would have preferred to be home, too. Instead, they’re stuck fighting an enemy they can’t see, won’t surrender and aren’t able to obliterate with bombs because any accidental civilian casualties could produce another public-relations nightmare. Apparently, building a democracy in this tribal backwater wasn’t high on anyone else’s list of priorities.

Photographer and documentarian Danfung Dennis was embedded with Company E as it carved its way slowly through the countryside. Even though, like the marines, he constantly put himself in harm’s way during the mission, Dennis was able to capture remarkable images of the marines in combat and while preparing for it. Not only would “Hell and Back Again” demonstrate to viewers back home the courage and dedication of American forces in Afghanistan, but also some of the obstacles to peace and democracy. After returning home, he learned that his closest friend in the unit, Sgt. Nathan Harris, had been seriously wounded and would require at least a year’s worth of therapy to regain his ability to walk, again. Dennis cuts back and forth between scenes of the fighting in Afghanistan and Harris’ home life. The 26-year-old North Carolinian had been in his third tour of duty and desperately wants to return to action after he heals, which doesn’t seem likely. Harris is in great pain and the medication he takes often blurs his consciousness. If it weren’t for the devotion and loving care administered by his wife, he might have turned one of his ever-present handguns on himself. Watching local residents go about their daily business as if Americans weren’t fighting and dying halfway around the world greatly depressed him, as well. Politics aren’t discussed in either location and, unlike the conscripts in Vietnam, these professional warriors don’t appear to be alienated from brass in Afghanistan or at the Pentagon. “Hell and Back Again” is a remarkable documentary, impressively shot and deeply affecting. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Dennis and editor Fiona Otway; a demonstration of the technical equipment; a music video of Willie Nelson’s “Hell and Back”; featurettes in which family members are coached on what to expect when their relatives return from the front and what injured marines need to know about their rehabilitation; deleted scenes; and a PSA for the outreach group, Blue Star Families.

Although Vincent Gallo plays an escaped Taliban prisoner in Jerzy Skolimowski’s exciting survival drama, “Essential Killing,” no one appears to be making any obvious points about what’s happening in the war. Any Boy Scout already knows that survival in the wild often requires the adoption of skills better suited to animals. Neither is it a secret that, once cornered, a man or an animal will do take out the enemy. Still, no one in “Essential Killing” would be where they are if it weren’t for the war in Afghanistan. After killing three Americans in the rocky badlands of Israel-for-Afghanistan, Gallo’s Mohammed is nearly blown to smithereens by a missile shot from a helicopter. He survives the blast but has lost his hearing, which becomes a problem when he’s interrogated by a CIA type demanding answers to questions he can’t comprehend. Neither does waterboarding make communications with the mute prisoner any easier. While being transported from one secret detention center in Europe to another, the vehicle in which he’s seated swerves to avoid some wild pigs and tumbles down a rugged cliff. Before the truck bursts into flame, the handcuffed prisoner escapes into the woods, which are covered by a thick coat of snow. The rest of this brisk, 83-minute thriller follows Mohammed as he attempts to reach something approaching sanctuary. The mountains are rugged, the ground and rivers are frozen over and it isn’t long before helicopters and wolves are hot on his trail. His escape is further impeded by an inconveniently placed animal trap, into which he steps. (Blessedly he isn’t required to chew off his ankle to escape it.) There’s more, but the surprises are best left unspoiled.

For their efforts, Skolimowski and Gallo both won major awards at the Venice Film Festival. In an interview with the director included in the DVD, Skolimowski describes just how difficult it was to shoot “Essential Killing” in minus-30-degree temperatures and in the forbidding mountains of Norway and Poland. As far as I can tell, the movie was only shown in the U.S. at a Polish Film Festival. Fans of action and adventure shouldn’t miss it on DVD. – Gary Dretzka

The Moment of Truth: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Given most Americans’ revulsion toward the “sport” of bullfighting, it’s entirely likely that the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of “The Moment of Truth” will go largely unseen, as it was in 1965 when it made only a brief stop in New York. Even if one cared to market Francesco Rosi’s masterpiece as “The Greatest Movie About Bullfighting” ever made, which it probably is, they’d only be risking the consequences of pissing off the actresses who pose naked for PETA ads and Humane Society activists. Film buffs, however, could easily find other reasons to watch “The Moment of Truth,” even they’re opponents of blood sports and leather shoes. Rosi’s docu-drama uses bullfighting as an entry point in his search for the soul of a country, Spain, and the heart of a champion, Miguel Mateo (a.k.a., Miguelin). The splendidly photographed movie alternates between scenes constructed to advance the story of a young peasant’s rise from obscurity to superstardom and documentary footage of Spanish religious festivals and the rituals attendant to bullfighting. It does not avoid the violence and gore of the corrida, mostly inflicted on the bulls and horses ridden by picadors, but occasionally to humans, as well. Indeed, it practically rubs our noses in it, allowing us to make our own judgments about the pastime and people who watch and profit from it. As such, “Moment of Truth” could only have been attempted by someone not carrying baggage to the set each day. Strapped for time and money, the Neapolitan filmmaker Rosi — one of the lesser-known post-WWII neo-realists outside Europe — elected to shoot the events as they happened and absent such safety nets as stunt doubles and rehearsals. It helped mightily that cinematographer Pasqualino De Santi’s was able to locate a lens capable of delivering nearly crystal-clear images of the fans and fighting from long distances.

We’re introduced to Miguelin in Pamplona as he weaves his way through the crowd of knuckleheads attempting to outrun bulls and steers to the city’s Plaza de Toros. More interesting than the “running of the bulls,” however, is the pageantry associated with the carrying of the medieval statue of Saint Fermin through the narrow streets of the oldest part of Pamplona. The procession is accompanied by dancers, gigantes, cabezudos and other street performers. From there, Miguelin visits his parents in an impoverished farming community, telling them that he’ll be seeking his fortune in Barcelona. After drifting through various odd jobs, he discovers a school for aspiring bullfighters, not unlike the many martial-arts facilities found in otherwise empty storefronts and strip malls in the U.S. Naturally full of himself and itching for fame, Miguelin startles the great matador El Cordobes by jumping into the ring in street clothes and mocking the bull being fought. It makes him an instant star. From here, Rosi dramatizes the courting of Miguelin by agents, promoters, fans and jet setters. Typically, the late nights and adoration do very little to enhance the torero’s performance in the ring, which swiftly evolves from unconventional to foolhardy. If the movie ends in tragedy, at least it’s of the operatic variety. The Criterion Collection’s high-definition digital restoration makes “Moment of Truth” look as good as if it were new. The Blu-ray includes an informative interview with Rosi, conducted in 2004, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Peter Matthews. Again, the bullfighting scenes are pretty tough to take. Anyone who made it through Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” however, probably will make it through “Moment of Truth” without fainting. It’s worth the effort. – Gary Dretzka

Wings: Blu-ray
William Wellman’s terrifically entertaining and still exciting “Wings” often is mischaracterized as the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. In fact, it was honored as the Best Picture, Production, with “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” taking home the trophy for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production. Consolidated a year later for the purposes of bestowing a less specific Best Picture award, the categories would make even greater sense today, when fragile arthouse films continually butt heads with mega-budget projects intended to sell lots of popcorn. (And, even then, a superior entertainment such as “Harry Potter” can’t crack the Top 10.) No matter, in 1927, both “Wings” and “Sunrise” deserved their Best Picture nods and continue to entertain DVD and Blu-ray viewers, lo these 80-plus years later. The story of “Wings” can easily be boiled down to that of two men who have gone to war and the girl they both leave behind. It’s a formula that’s served Hollywood for decades, to varying degrees of artistic quality. Here, though, Wellman based much of what happens on his experiences in World War I, when he flew combat missions for the French Foreign Legion and, later, trained pilots for the Army Air Corps. Among other things, it added to the verisimilitude of scenes in which planes fought like dogs in the skies, while, simultaneously, ground troops skirmished on the ground. Given the presence of Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper, the romance pretty much took care of itself. The nicely restored Blu-ray version adds the hi-def featurettes, “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky,” “Restoring the Power and Beauty of ‘Wings’” and “Dogfight,” all of which are worth the time to explore. – Gary Dretzka

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Adventure
Elvis Found Alive

Roger Corman’s Cult Classic’s Lethal Ladies Collection, Vol. 2

Don’t you just hate it when you miss an entire fad or a decade-long trend goes by without you? That’s how I felt when I picked up “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Adventure” and realized that I was completely ignorant of one of the great cultural sensations of the 1980s and ’90s. In effect, Matthew Bates’ highly enjoyable documentary allowed me to jump on a bandwagon that long ago passed me by. Just as the Maysles Brothers and D.A. Pennebaker revolutionized the way American documentaries were made in the 1960s with cinéma vérité, in 1987 “Shut Up Little Man” wrote the book on something called audio vérité. That was when a couple of guys from the Midwest moved into an apartment building in San Francisco and couldn’t help eavesdropping on the nightly rants of their boozehound neighbors, Peter and Raymond. Their tirades were so loud – and strangely entertaining — they kept Wisconsin ex-pats Mitch Deprey and Eddie Guerriero up all night. The first thing they did after having their neighbor’s door shut in their face was to rig up a microphone to record the arguments, during which Peter repeatedly demanded, “Shut up, little man,” of his roommate. The profanities were delivered with a cadence and forcefulness that recalled Charles Bukowski and several of R. Crumb’s nastier characters. After a while, Mitch and Eddie began inviting people over to listen to the arguments and sharing tapes with friends. They, in turn, passed the tapes along to friends who worked in radio, the theater and ’zines. It became such a phenomenon that, without the young men even knowing it, their tapes were being transcribed and turned into plays, comic books and cold readings. The new documentary begins by describing Peter and Raymond’s spiels and explaining Mitch and Eddie’s methodology. Bates goes on to chronicle the legal machinations involving copyright issues and royalties. It then describes his own attempts to find Peter and another occasionally heard friend and get them to sign releases, possibly paying them some money in return. Nearly 20 years later, Peter wasn’t aware that anyone had been listening to their fights, let alone the viral spread of the tapes. “Shut Up Little Man” goes on speculate on how much of an impact such examples of audio vérité would have on such upcoming social media as You Tube and Facebook. It’s fascinating stuff.

Elvis Found Alive” is a profoundly strange and surprising well-made mockumentary about one man’s search for truth in the death of Elvis Presley. Even though the title of Joel Gilbert’s film suggests that the DVD might merely be compendium of sightings at convenience stores and gas stations, it treats the possibility of Elvis’ life after apparent death straight as an arrow. As such, it reminds me of Neil Burger’s “Interview With the Assassin” and Niels Mueller’s “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.” As the story goes, Gilbert was so moved by a pilgrimage to Graceland, he decided to use the FOIA to request the King’s FBI files. Although they arrived heavily redacted, the ink was barely dry and easily removed. What convinced Gilbert that something fishy might be going on was the frequent mention of Elvis’ alias, Jon Burrows. From there, it was rather easy to locate a Jon Burrows residence in Simi Valley, California, and, as luck would have it, the owner was in a mood to reminisce, if only in shadow. Apparently, Elvis’ undercover work for the DEA targeted key individuals – Bill Ayers and Joey Gallo, among them — in the Weather Underground and Italian mob. Even with the protection of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis was told there was a contract on his life and it was to be taken seriously. His death and funeral were elaborately stage and he’s been underground ever since. The other big revelation is that Elvis’ obsession with law enforcement and the American way derived from nearly a lifetime of reading Captain Marvel Jr. and modeling his public persona on the character.

The Arena,” “Cover Girl Models” and “Fly Me” are three of Roger Corman’s sexiest and most outrageously entertaining releases. They also comprise the second volume of “Roger Corman’s Cult Classic’s Lethal Ladies Collection” from Shout! Factory. Released in 1974 and starring the great Pam Grier and and Margaret Markov (“Black Mama, White Mama”), “The Arena” (a.k.a., “Naked Warriors”) is a dead-ringer for the Showtime’s version of “Spartacus,” right down to the many large-breasted gladiators. It was directed by Steve Carver, who also shaped the skin-tastic Corman actioners “Big Bad Mama” and “Capone.” After a colossal food fight between slaves, the powers that be in Rome decide to give spectators something different: female gladiators. Naturally, once the ladies agree to join forces, an uprising is organized. The mix of sex and violence against women might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the context makes up for lots of sins.

In the extremely goofy and remarkably similar “Cover Girl Models” and “Fly Me,” sexy supermodels and flight attendants get caught up in dangerous games of spy-vs.-spy. This being the early 1970s, there’s plenty of kung fu action and horrifying fashions. Both were shot on location in Hong Kong, the Philippines and L.A., which explains the cheapo sets and subpar acting, even for a Corman flick. Look for the names of future big shots Joe Dante and Jonathan Demme in the credits roll. — Gary Dretzka

The Confession
Starring John Hurt and Keifer Sutherland, “The Confession” began its cinematic life on the Internet and Hulu as nine short weekly chapters in a 70-minute psychological thriller. Hurt plays a priest who is forced at gunpoint to hear the confession of a professional hitman. After admitting that he’s just killed a man and his last confession was, well, never, Sutherland’s assassin engages the priest in a debate about the existence of God and his relevance in a world filled with pain. He describes in detail other hits, during which he displayed a semblance of mercy toward some of the intended victims. As the hitman’s confession progresses, we sense something below the surface is struggling to get out. I won’t say what it is, but the foundation for the revelation is well laid. The webisode format isn’t a perfect fit for a feature film. Here the episode breaks are anything but seamless, for example. There’s no faulting the acting, though. Both Hurt and Sutherland approach the material as they might a two-man play off-Broadway. The bonus features add three more chapters, which take the story out of the confessional, and interviews about the webisode process. – Gary Dretzka

Ostensibly an exercise in torture porn and found-footage horror, “Undocumented” describes in vivid, often disgustingly graphic detail what could happen if the right-wing fundamentalists running for the presidency convinced voters that illegal immigrants and undocumented workers were subhuman and worthy of being hunted down like terrorists. Even a president’s tacit approval of allowing armed militias to patrol our borders — rounding up or killing anyone whose neck is darker than red — could promote Old West-style vigilantism and a return to lynching as a law-enforcement option.  In “Undocumented,” militia members have constructed their own temporary holding pens and inflict their own forms of punishment on border-crossers. If that doesn’t sound particularly horrific, I dare you to watch “Undocumented” and try keep your eyes from turning away from the screen even once. In it, a team of gringo documentary makers attempt to follow a group of poor Mexicans who have hired a “coyote” to help them cross the border. It would be a dangerous mission by any journalist’s standards, but the necessity to occasionally use lights to record their movements doubles the risk. Factor in a pack of blood-thirsty vigilantes and it becomes horror. I won’t spoil anyone’s, er, enjoyment of the movie by revealing any of the punishments exacted on the illegals caught within hours of entering the U.S., but, take my word for it, they border on the hyper-realistic. First-time director/co-writer Chris Peckover requires of the documentary makers that they film the tortures as they’re being applied and record the rants of the militia leaders. It’s their intention to ship the tapes to television stations across Mexico as an example of what awaits illegal immigrants in the Land of the Free. It’s a reasonable premise for a horror movie, no matter how difficult it is to watch. “Undocumented” also is competently produced, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find Peckover’s name on future credit rolls. – Gary Dretzka

As insidious a practice as it is, audiences have shown a willingness to buy into the notion that art forgery is a romantic pursuit and the saps who make the mistake of buying fakes are too wealthy to pity. If the direct-to-DVD “Fake” doesn’t break much new ground on the subject, it’s at least able to keep viewers guessing as to where, when and how master forger Daniel Jakor will be made to pay for his crimes. Insulted by the attention paid to a classmate whose work he considers to be inferior, Jakor (Gabriel Mann) decides to demonstrate how easy it is to emulate the same style. What begins as a stunt, however, becomes a profession when important gallery owners insist on paying him handsomely for the paintings he explains were given to him by the artist. His art-authenticator girlfriend, Kelly (Jill Flint), admonishes him and threatens to leave if he doesn’t quit. By now, though, he’s hooked. Jakor has learned to copy the work of far more famous painters and, anyway, the money’s good. After they split up, he disappears into the criminal underground, reinventing himself as he goes along. Eventually, he finds himself in the unenviable position of being indebted to an unethical gallery owner who thinks he can deceive a mobster with an appreciation for art. At the same time, Kelly has forged a relationship with a misplaced FBI agent (Fisher Stevens) who knows little about forgery but is desperate to sink his teeth into a gangster (Robert Loggia).

Jakor’s hubris complements the gangster’s greed and eventually they put themselves in a pickle even the FBI agent can spot. The only real question now involves Kelly and her willingness to rescue her old pal from a life of scribbling graffiti on the walls of his prison cell. I don’t think “Fake” would have a chance in hell of succeeding on the big screen. On DVD, though, it’s at least as entertaining as your above-average Lifetime movie. – Gary Dretzka

Beware the Gonzo
When revenge-of-the-nerds movies veer into teen-angst territory, the results aren’t always pretty. The less commercially ambitious they are, however, the better it seems the picture is. I don’t know if its backers anticipated “Beware the Gonzo” would strike a nerve with teenagers and return a profit. It’s far too derivative, I think, to impress anyone who can remember “Freaks and Geeks” or “Napoleon Dynamite.” Still, it’s never wise to underestimate the buying power of the Nerd Nation. Here, Eddie “Gonzo” Gilman (Ezra Miller) is less a nerd than a classic high school wiseass who isn’t shy when it comes to taking on the jock aristocracy. He constantly makes the mistake of thinking that muscle-heads Barbies can be intimidated by logic and the well-placed zinger. As such, he’s constantly getting beat up and threatened with expulsion for hurting the feelings of jock aristocracy. When the editor of the school paper – himself a star wrestler — nixes an article on steroid use, Eddie rallies the school’s outcasts for the purpose of producing an alternative publication. To this end, he’s surprised by the willingness of one of the school’s hotties (Zoe Kravitz) to set traps for the jocks and humiliate them in print and on the Internet. Right out of the box, the publication is a hit. The principle and editor of the official school paper decide to shut down the Gonzo Files after it prints an expose on the toxic lunches served in the cafeteria. One thing leads to another and the nerds are required to choose between standing up for their beliefs and or risk not getting into a “good” college. Freshman director Bryan Goluboff manages to avoid most of the clichés in constructing his story, although some can’t be avoided. I don’t think anyone older than 18 will find much in “Beware the Gonzo” to enjoy, but teens who’ve considered joining their school’s AV club might to check it out. Other cast members include Amy Sedaris, Campbell Scott and Judah Friedlander. – Gary Dretzka

Another Happy Day
Anyone who doesn’t consider “Rachel Getting Married” and “Margot at the Wedding” to have been sufficiently unforgiving on the subject of reunions staged around weddings ought to check out “Another Happy Day.” It’s populated with even fewer appealing characters than we’ve met in previous dramas about wildly dysfunctional families about to be united in Holy Matrimony. In the hands of fledgling writer/director Jack Levinson — son of filmmaker Barry Levinson — “Another Happy Day” makes the sacrament of marriage seem as blessed as a Planned Parenthood rally at the Vatican. What is heaven-sent here, however, is a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ellen Barkin, Kate Bosworth, Ezra Miller, Demi Moore, Ellen Burstyn, Siobhan Fallon, Diana Scarwid, George Kennedy and Thomas Hayden Church. If the actors had less steady hands, Levinson’s script probably would still be sitting on a shelf somewhere in Hollywood, no matter who his daddy is. It’s that dark. Barkin is at the center of the story as the mother of the groom. She didn’t see much of the young man as he was growing up, because he somewhat inexplicably was raised by his dimwitted father and sexpot stepmother (Church, Moore). Barkin’s Lynn was given custody of their daughter (Bosworth), a “cutter” and occasional patient at a local treatment center. Lynn has two sons by her current husband, an agreeable, if emotionally detached fellow who doesn’t seem to notice the storm clouds gathering above him. One of those sons is about to turn the wedding ceremony upside-down with his alcoholism and substance-abuse problems. The youngest boy spends every waking hour, it seems, filming the relatives in compromising positions. Grandma’s a bitter old WASP, grandpa is a heart attack waiting to happen and Lynn’s sisters are cackling hens. It’s remarkable that these characters are able to exist on the same planet. If that makes “Another Happy Day” sound like a comedy, know that the laughs come from a very dark corner of Levinson’s mind. Again, though, the actors here turns something that could have been painful to watch into a movie that argues: no matter how unpleasant you think your wedding was, it probably can’t compare to the ones that are staged by creators of independent films. – Gary Dretzka

Today’s Special
Any movie about food and foodies that doesn’t inspire you to pick up a Zagat Guide probably isn’t worth skipping a meal to see. “Today’s Special” barely made a dent at the box office when it went into limited release in 2010, but, in fact, it’s pretty mouth-watering. As such, David Kaplan’s low-budget family comedy fits nicely alongside such modest foodie pleasures as “Big Night,” “Dinner Rush,” “Soul Kitchen,” “Tortilla Soup,” “The Ramen Girl,” “Woman On Top” and “Soul Food.” As written by Aasif Mandvi and Jonathan Bines, “Today’s Special” describes how a young Queens sous chef (Aasif Mandvi) learns to love the cuisine of his ancestors and save his father’s rundown restaurant from total collapse. Duty calls at a most inopportune time for Samir, who’s just quit his job at a swank Manhattan restaurant to enroll in a culinary academy in Paris. It puts that grandiose dream on the back burner. His father suffers a stroke that allows him to be lazy for a few months, while Samir tidies up the restaurant. He has no faith in his son’s ability to master the tastes of India and, while recovering, quietly seeks buyers for the joint. Meanwhile, the American-born Samir has found inspiration in an Indian Renaissance man (Naseeruddin Shah) disguised as a cab driver. Akbar introduces Samir to a world of unfamiliar scents, tastes and cooking techniques. Together, they suffer all the usual indignities and trials associated with resurrecting a nearly dead ethnic restaurant. Samir is lifted by the reappearance of an old girlfriend (Jess Weixler), a single mom impressed by his personality transplant. If there’s nothing particularly surprising about how “Today’s Special” plays out, the actors’ upbeat approach to the material and writers’ refusal to belabor the necessary stereotyping is refreshing. The movie, which was adapted from Mandvi’s one-man off-Broadway play, “Sakina’s Restaurant,” put me in a mood for tandoori chicken and the best bread in the world. – Gary Dretzka

Ice: The Movie
Most of the feature-length anime I’ve watched in past year has defied easy description. Before the writers and animators begin throwing the proverbial kitchen sink into the works, something resembling a coherent storyline can be discerned. By the time the end credits roll, it’s clear that no throughline, supporting character or cool visual was left on the cutting-room floor. In “Ice,” Makoto Kobayashi and Yasushi Hirano (“6 Angels”) have conjured a vision of the near future in which an environmental disaster has decimated the world’s population, sparing 20,000 women and no men. If that weren’t a sad enough scenario, the women are themselves divided into warring factions, representing hedonists who couldn’t care less about the promulgation of humanity and the Guardians who do. Apparently, the world’s supply of frozen sperm has been exhausted or contaminated, as well, because the warring parties both are interested in a substance called Ice, which could substitute for man juice. It gets more complicated, of course, but that’s the nuts and bolts of it. Any anime that manages to find distribution outside Japan probably is better than hundreds of others that haven’t, so “Ice” should please fans of the genre here. By the way, the year in which the disaster is supposed to occur is 2012. – Gary Dretzka

David & Kamal
David is a 9-year-old American, in Jerusalem visiting the Israeli father he hasn’t seen in five years. Also 9, Kamal is required by his tyrannical Palestinian grandfather to help support his family by selling postcards to tourists in Old City of Jerusalem. Anywhere else but the Middle East the boys probably could have put their economic and religious differences aside and found enough common ground to develop a budding friendship. In Israel, though, it’s damn-near impossible. Their meeting hardly could be described as cute, at least by Hollywood standards. Kamal spots David as he’s standing outside a dealer in rare coins in the Old City with his dad’s girlfriend. As naïve as most other Americans his age, David makes the mistake of flashing a wad of money. Desperately poor, the street-smart Kamal snatches the pouch carrying David’s precious antique coins, instigating a chase through the narrow streets and alleys of the Old City. Along the way, a gang of Palestinian thugs spots Kamal, who owes them money, and gives chase to both of the boys. Inspired, perhaps, by the story of the Good Thief, Kamal invites David to share his hiding place, which he does. When David demands that Kamal return the pouch, they engage in negotiations that resemble all transactions between merchants and tourists in such places.

When the smoke clears, the boys agree to meet the next day and finalize their deal. His father, who’s been too busy at work to spend more than five minutes with his son, forbids David from leaving the house, but he cons the girlfriend into leaving the apartment long enough for him to escape. What transpires next need not be revealed. Suffice it to say, it involves the thugs; Israeli police, soldiers and political figures; a Bedouin black-marketeer; and a few bruised tourists. The bittersweet ending reflects the complexity of life in both sectors of Jerusalem. Written and directed by Kikuo Kawasaki, the 78-minute “David & Kamal” is set in parts of the holy city rarely seen in movies with much larger budgets. Adult viewers will find holes in the story through which you could drive a Humvee, but kids probably will be able to identify with the boys, if only because they’re bullied, estranged from a parent and aren’t afraid to act on their dreams. – Gary Dretzka

Beginning of the Great Revival
Considering all the hoopla surrounding the 90th anniversary of the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and China’s first wobbly steps toward a representative form of government, it’s fair to wonder how the country will celebrate the centennial. It would require a lot of time, money and effort to top the pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics, but the Chinese seem to enjoy such challenges, even as millions of peasants continue to live at a subsistence level. “Beginning of the Great Revival” follows hot on the heels of Jackie Chan’s “1911” and Benny Chan’s “Shaolin.” Blessedly, very little overlapping of storylines is visible. Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin’s “Beginning of the Great Revival” is similarly epic in scope and loaded with China and Hong Kong’s most popular actors. Here, though, the focus is on the creation of the Communist Party and resistance to those attempting to restore power to the monarchy and various warlords, and lease valuable parts of the country to Japanese imperialists. How much a viewer enjoys the movie will depend entirely on how much they know about Chinese history and respects what the Communist Party has been able to accomplish in the ensuing 90 years. Certainly, I wouldn’t rely on “Beginning of the Great Revival” as a primary source for a master’s thesis.  It can’t be much more misleading than movies we’ve seen about our own Revolutionary War or the ability of the Democrats and Republicans to work together in the common interest of all Americans. The cast includes John Woo, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, Fan Bingbing, Nick Cheung, Daniel Yu, Ye Liu (as Mao Zedong), Wen Zhang (Deng Xiaoping), Ma Shaohua (Sun Yat-Sen) and more than 140 veteran actors. I assume it was a huge hit in the People’s Republic. – Gary Dretzka

Revenge of the Electric Car
Queen Of The Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?

In “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and “Revenge of the Electric Car,” Chris Paine has built the foundation for a series of industrial-horror flicks not unlike the “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “Saw” franchises. In the former, an entire species of automobiles is wiped out in a conspiracy involving money-crazed capitalists. The title of last year’s sequel suggests that a zombie strain has returned from the dead to demonstrate how difficult it is to kill a good idea. “Who Killed the Electric Car?” revealed that 5,000 electric cars were destroyed by the major car companies because, either, they didn’t work right or profit margins couldn’t sustain the business.  Much of the blame was placed at the doorstep of General Motors, a company not known for its humanitarian and environment qualities. It’s curious, then, that “Revenge of the Electric Car” opens with a positive view of GM’s efforts to correct that image with the new Volt. It also reports on the efforts of Nissan, Tessla and others to revive the program by convincing consumers that electric cars are a sound investment. The manufacturers gave Paine unprecedented access to their plants and development officials, demonstrating how cooperative embattled companies can be when they have a good product to sell. This time around Tim Robbins has replaced Martin Sheen as narrator. Lest anyone think that the “Electric Car” franchise might end with “Revenge,” it’s possible that a third film could made about the Volt’s battery packs, which apparently have shown a tendency to self-immolate, causing damage to property. Even though the Volt was given a thumb’s-up by a federal safety agency, longtime opponents of the GM bailout in Congress plan to put the feet of company executives over the fire in planned hearings.

Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us” joins at least two other fine documentaries – “Colony,” “Vanishing of the Bees” – alerting viewers to the looming environmental calamity referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder. Each is worthy of our attention and interesting to watch, if only because everyone loves honey and beekeepers tend to be eccentric. CCD has only been identified as a potential worldwide hazard within the last 10 years. It began when transporters of hives began having difficulties filling orders by farmers who need the pollen-spreaders to survive.  Today, they’ve been forced to import bees from other countries, a strategy that raises questions of its own. No one knows with any certainty what is causing the bee population to decline so dramatically, although it’s reasonable to think that the widespread use of powerful new pesticides is a factor. By extension, it’s safe to assume that lobbyists for the chemical industry are able to lavish more money on lawmakers than beekeepers, thus clogging the flow of money necessary to fund research. All three documentaries make emphatic cases for the protection of bee colonies, as they are an essential link in the food chain. “Queen of the Sun” differs from the others in that it puts the crisis in a more international context, introducing us to people from Europe and America, to New Zealand. There’s also a discussion of the history of beekeeping and possible organic options. The farmers in all three movies raise parallels between the canaries once used to alert miners about the diminishing supplies of oxygen and the bees now warning us of an impending ecological disaster.  – Gary Dretzka

WWII in 3D: Blu-Ray
Meet the Browns: Season 4

Just when you think you’ve seen everything worth watching about World War II, along comes another cache of archival material recovered from attics, safes and libraries in places no one has previously bothered to search. In the last couple of years, for instance, home-based historians have discovered remarkable, unfiltered combat footage, shot in color. The previously censored material was made to look even more dramatic when upgraded to high-definition. When I saw the title, “WWII in 3D,” I couldn’t help but think of a Michael Bay movie with Zeroes, B-25 bombers, torpedoes and V-1 rockets landing in the laps of PBS viewers. In fact, though, “WWII in 3D” is a truly fascinating examination of the use of stereoscopic photography by Adolph Hitler’s propaganda machine. The long-believed-lost photographs – most were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden – provide a crystal-clear depth of field in which background material is as recognizable as that in the forefront. Among the photos that impressed Hitler was one taken at political rally, when he truly was just another face in the crowd. The documentary also demonstrates how the Allies employed 3D photography in airborne reconnaissance missions, as it allowed intelligence officers to make accurate readings on the size of buildings and objects, as well as the topography of landscapes.

Season 4 of Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Browns” begins with the Colonel suffering a heart attack, a pair of aborted weddings, and several visits to the hospital. It ends with two possible scandals, one involving a possible athletic recruiting and the other a purloined essay. In between, guest stars included Kellita Smith, Christina Milian, Khalil Kain, Judge Greg Mathis, Finesse Mitchell, Beverly Johnson, Bill Bellamy, Reginald VelJohnson, Pat & Gina Neely and Kim Fields. Otherwise, the TBS series seniors living in Brown Meadows remained fully capable of raising a ruckus all by themselves. – Gary Dretzka

Al Di Meola: Morocco Fantasia
It would be difficult to name a musical style or genre that hasn’t been embraced by guitarist Al Di Meola or a marquee talent with whom he hasn’t jammed. Di Meola began his professional career in 1974 with Chick Corea’s fusion band, Return to Forever. A true student of the guitar, his technical skills are unsurpassed, as is his willingness to experiment and broaden his creative base. “Morocco Fantasia” recalls De Meola’s 2009 appearance at the Mawazine Festival, in Rabat, where shared the stage with a diverse ensemble of international musicians and Moroccans  Said Chraibi (oud), Abdellah Meri (violin) and Tari Ben Ali (percussion). The music demonstrates how meaningless borders are when it comes to music. – Gary Dretzka

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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