MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Una Noche
In her first feature, writer/director/co-producer Lucy Mulloy has captured a side of Cuba largely unseen in the movies. Filmed on location in Havana, “Una Noche” is set in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and populated with adults and children, who, for their entire lives, have only known struggle, shortages, police repression, poverty and a desire to taste something resembling freedom. Not everyone desires to move immediately to the United States, for all of those swell minimum-wage jobs or careers in the drug trade. Many want simply to be given an opportunity to find meaningful work and travel freely. Mulloy’s film doesn’t dwell on the trappings of poverty, but it’s an inescapable fact of the characters’ lives. Certainly, it hasn’t prevented them from making the best out of a bad situation. “Una Noche” focuses on two boys and a girl, about to risk their lives on a journey whose success depends on the ability of a raft made of inner tubes and rope to keep them afloat for 90 miles. Each has a different reason for embarking on such a risky mission and no idea what to except once they get to Miami … if they get to Miami. Elio and his kick-boxer sister, Lila, are unreasonably optimistic that their father will welcome them to Florida with open arms. Raul works with Elio in the grimy kitchen of a hotel catering to Canadians and Europeans. He is a natural-born hustler in a city intent on building walls between the native population and visitors looking for a taste of Old Havana. (In one scene, a hotel’s security guard reports back to his superiors, “There’s a citizen talking to a blond.”) Neither of the boys is confident of succeeding where so many others have failed, but, at least, the hotel kitchens in Miami should provide a healthier work environment than those at home. After attacking a tourist having sex with his older lover, Raul knows that the police have narrowed his options to one. The second half of “Una Noche” takes viewers from the teeming streets of the city to the solitude provided by empty seas and fickle currents. Once they make it past Cuba’s navy and shore patrol, they’re at the mercy of the elements and appetites of the occasional shark. Mulloy does a nice job making the transition from crowded and vibrant, to isolated and thrilling, seem as seamless as possible. It’s impossible not to see in the eyes of Elio, Lila and Raul the same hopes, fears and emotions that have fueled countless other treks, some of which ended in unrecorded tragedies or the realization that America is no more the promised land than was Castro’s Cuba. Although “Una Noche” isn’t at all preachy or polemical, it’s clear that a half-century’s worth of embargoes have punished the people we meet in the movie far more than the Castro brothers and their associates. – Gary Dretzka

Sweetwater: Blu-ray
In its determination to be a revisionist Western, Logan and Noah Miller’s “Sweetwater” owes too much to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s otherworldly “El Topo” and not enough to Peter Fonda’s contemplative “The Hired Hand,” both of which were shot in New Mexico in the early 1970s. It was a time when filmmakers took chances simply because it was time for a change and producers were desperate to capture the same audiences attracted to “Easy Rider.” The decidedly grotesque characters who populate “Sweetwater,” which was shot in some of the same New Mexico locations, and exist in a universe closer to that belonging to early Clint Eastwood than John Ford and John Wayne. Like most other fads, revisionist Westerns went out of fashion when they stopped selling tickets. Apparently, no one was in a hurry to showcase “Sweetwater” after it debuted at Sundance, so someone decided to whip up some pre-DVD publicity by leaking images of a topless January Jones (“Mad Men”) wading in a shallow river and wielding a very large six-gun. Far from attempting a fourth version of “Annie Get Your Gun,” the Millers simply reverse the traditional role played by women in frontier dramas, making her an avenging angel. Before that can happen, though, Sarah and her husband (Eduard Noriega) are introduced as being everyday homesteaders, anxious to till the land and raise a family. Unfortunately, their nearest neighbor is a bible-banging polygamist (Jason Isaacs), who believes that God speaks through him and He isn’t fond of interlopers. Naturally, everybody in the nearby town is too buffaloed by the fire-breathing charlatan to confront him on his gospel of violence. When Sarah’s husband and dog are slain, no one volunteers to bring the evil Prophet Josiah to justice.

Far from being a fading flower, Sarah proves to be a formidable foe. By the way she handles the pistol, it’s clear that the widow knows a thing or two about defending herself. That she’s not at all embarrassed about being half-naked in front of Josiah’s henchmen also leads us to believe that she’s accustomed to being naked in the company of strangers. Before getting married, Sarah worked at Madame Bovary’s Home for Tarnished Ladies of the Night – run by Amy Madigan – Sarah knows how to charm men like the snakes they are. When made aware of the rising death toll, the governor orders a broadly drawn lawman (Ed Harris) to look into the matter. Sheriff Jackson fits into the established cast of characters as if he were auditioning for a role in Todd Browning’s “Freaks.” Where “Sweetwater” disappoints is in its reluctance to delve below the surface of the crazy characters. Most of them are introduced for the sole reason of being killed. Minus the weight she was required to put on after Betty Draper became Betty Francis in Season Four of “Mad Men,” Jones is credible as both a frontier wife and veteran hooker. Without the formidable presence of Harris and Madigan, however, “Sweetwater” would be of interest for the splendid scenery and a flash of frontier boobs. For diehard genre buffs, that might be sufficient reason to recommend “Sweetwater” on DVD and PPV. – Gary Dretzka

The Berlin File
When he isn’t threatening the United States with nuclear destruction, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is keeping his name in the news by hanging with Dennis Rodman, kidnapping 85-year-old American tourists and killing off his relatives. If the “supreme leader” isn’t completely insane, his resemblance to Rufus T. Firefly could hardly be more disconcerting. Kim’s willingness to play poker with the lives of tens of millions of Koreans, at least, has created an opening for filmmakers to exploit the level of tension on both sides of the DMZ. “The Berlin File” is an espionage thriller set in the German capital, which continues to vibrate with Cold War intrigue. As the movie opens, an illegal arms deal is about turn sour. Although it’s difficult to determine exactly where the Koreans’ allegiances lie, we recognize the fingerprints of rogue dealers from Eastern Europe, Israel and possibly the United States. After a listening device is detected and the various players scatter into the bowels of the hotel, it becomes clear that someone’s been playing both sides against the middle. The botched operation has alerted military officials in Pyongyang to the likelihood of a double-agent on their team. Embassy officials are concerned, as well, about a rather sizable sum of money that’s gone missing. To rectify the situation, a greatly feared “ghost agent” is dispatched to Berlin. Action specialist Ryoo Seung-wan neatly combines elaborate set pieces with intense interpersonal drama to keep things from getting bogged down in frequently confusing Korean politics. “Berlin File” benefits from the distinctly foreign location and a budget large enough to sustain the action, which, for once, isn’t completely dependent on martial arts or gratuitous chases and shootouts. – Gary Dretzka

The Bellman Equation
As cameras have become smaller, cheaper and easier to disguise, and the Internet continues to open doors to the past, the number of hyper-personal documentaries has grown, as well. “The Bellman Equation” is a perfect example of a movie that opens a Pandora’s Box of long-held family secrets. Gabriel Lee Bellman spent 16 years of his life researching on his grandfather, Richard Bellman, a brilliant mathematician, medical researcher and computer scientist. Even after watching the documentary and reading up on the titular principle, I couldn’t possibly encapsulate Bellman’s significant contributions to geekdom. For the record: Bellman was a Brooklyn-born master of applied mathematics, renowned for his invention of “dynamic programming” and its role in solving difficult problems in control theory, economics and medicine. A fiercely independent and controversial figure, Bellman published more than 40 books and 600 papers before his 1984 death, at 63, after surgery to remove a brain tumor. The Bellman Equation has become an important tool in using math to solve difficult scientific problems in other disciplines, including game theory. As thanks for his work as a theoretical physicist on the Manhattan Project and, after the war, at the RAND Corporation think tank, Bellman was required to stand before the HUAC Inquisition and explain why he shouldn’t be lumped in the same pile as the Rosenbergs. He would be completely vindicated, but not before some of the tar attached itself to his reputation.

As is typical in such documentaries, “The Bellman Equation” would start in one place and take the subject’s grandson somewhere else entirely. Along the way, he would discover that any understanding of his grandfather’s beliefs and contributions to society would necessarily be based on discussions with his own father, psychotherapist Eric Bellman. Like other children of men consumed with their work, Eric paid a stiff price for his enigmatic father’s only occasional dabbling into family concerns, assertions of superior intellect and the effects of a midstream divorce. Even though he would become an established psychotherapist, with the “Bellmen Syndrome” added to his list of credits, Eric still appears to be dealing with significant issues of his own. He rarely looks comfortable in conversations with his son. Like his father, Gabriel spent several years pursuing interests in film and entertainment, before settling on the law. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he is a member of the Mensa Society. “Bellman Equation” spends a lot of time discussing theories and achievements beyond the kin of most unscientific minds. While it’s easy to admire the mathematician’s accomplishments — in the abstract, anyway – the mystery his grandson hoped to solve remains largely intact. If anything, “Bellman Equation” teaches us that being a genius only makes one smarter than other people, not a better human being. – Gary Dretzka

Love, Marilyn
Linda Lovelace’s Loose Lips: Her Last Interview
It isn’t likely that longtime admirers of Marilyn Monroe will learn anything new about her from the readings of newly found letters and journal entries in “Love, Marilyn.” So much is known about her already that anything more would likely come from un-redacted FBI files … unless, of course, J. Edgar Hoover took them with him to the grave. Liz Garbus’ oral biography is distinguished primarily by heartfelt interpretations of Monroe’s deepest thoughts by such actors as Ben Foster, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Elizabeth Banks, Uma Thurman, Jeremy Piven, Viola Davis, Adrien Brody, Lindsay Lohan, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close Hope Davis, Janet McNeer and Oliver Platt. The dear-diary memoirs stretch from her earliest days in Hollywood – when she was preyed upon sexually by agents, studio executives, photographers and other vermin – to her coming of age as an actress, with “How to Marry a Millionaire,” “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot.” Her growth professionally and personally can be measured in the depth of the thoughts she expressed and quality of the writing. “Love, Marilyn” is furthered enhanced by archival newsreel footage and photographs, as well as excerpts from the books and memoirs of Truman Capote, Elia Kazan, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Gloria Steinem and Billy Wilder. Sadly, the opinions we’d value hearing most are those on the Kennedy brothers, who, like nearly every other man in her life, abandoned her in one way or another. Neither is it revelatory that Monroe was her own worst enemy. It wasn’t as if she didn’t see the potholes ahead, either. It’s telling that “Love, Marilyn” hardly ever mentions her having many trustworthy friends, who might have steered her away from them.

Even without the benefit of Monroe’s good looks or any semblance of an ability to act, Linda Lovelace was anointed the 1970s’ top sex symbol. Her only qualification for stardom was an ability to perform fellatio unlike any “actress” before her. That she shared with Monroe a taste for cads with abusive personalities is well known. The men in Lovelace’s life had far less going for them than Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, however. Again, almost nothing shown in “Linda Lovelace’s Loose Lips: Her Last Interview” will come as news to people who’ve read Legs McNeil’s “The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry”; Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary “Inside Deep Throat”; or Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film, “Lovelace.” “Loose Lips” is comprised of material McNeil gathered – and wisely recorded – during interviews with Lovelace, former manager/husband/pimp Chuck Traynor, FBI agent Bill Kelly and one-time co-stars. What separates “Loose Lips” from “Lovelace” most, however, are first-person accounts of events leading to the release of “Deep Throat” and her anti-porn auto-biography, “Ordeal.” Not that any of it matters, anymore – “Lovelace” laid an egg at the box-office, after all – but it’s interesting to hear the late Marilyn Chambers discuss her subsequent relationship with Traynor and almost everyone else dispute her most alarming charges. – Gary Dretzka

Zombie Hamlet
Hell Baby: Blu-ray
The ghost of King Hamlet appears four times in Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, so why not zombies? That is the question at the heart of John Murlowski and John McKinney’s mockumentary, “Zombie Hamlet,” which lampoons the current state of filmmaking in Hollywood and elsewhere. In it, first-time director Osric Taylor is about to realize his longtime dream of re-setting “Hamlet” against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The producer slams the brakes on the gravy train as it approaches a small Louisiana town, with a picture-perfect ante-bellum house owned by Southern matron, Hester Beauchamp, played wonderfully by June Lockhart (“Lassie”). In return for her promise to finance the picture, the trend-savvy Hester demands of Taylor that he write some zombies into the script. When Hester dies unexpectedly in the early stages of the production, the director knows that he will have to keep the news a secret from her protector, a typically Southern sheriff played by John Amos (“Good Times”) and the local gossip reporter (Shelley Long, of “Cheers”), lest her money disappears, as well. The casting decisions are more entertaining than anything else in the movie, although fans of slapstick should find something to enjoy here.

Anyone who followed Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” already know what to expect from Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s genre spoof, “Hell Baby.” In it, Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb portray an expectant couple that moves into a haunted fixer-upper in New Orleans. Crazy stuff begins to happen as soon as they cross the threshold of their new home. Being haunted is one thing, but the continuous intrusions by a demented neighbor, F’resnel (Keegan-Michael Key), are too far out, even by New Orleans’ liberal standards. So, too, is the arrival of the mother-to-be’s horndog sister (Riki Lindhome). The Vatican takes reports from New Orleans seriously, sending a pair of exorcists (Garant, Lennon) to the scene. “Hell Baby” is as nuts as it sounds. Not all of the gags work, of course, but the ones that do make the film recommendable to fans of the improvisational humor in Second City, Groundlings, “Children’s Hospital,” “Human Giant” and the State. – Gary Dretzka

Angels of the Skies
For most of the first half of Christopher-Lee dos Santos’ WWII drama, “Angels of the Skies,” viewers are required to endure almost 70 years’ worth of clichés collected from British war movies. All of the Brits are “chaps”; the Germans are “jerries”; the crew chiefs are “skippers”; and officers carry batons to emphasize the points they’re attempting to make in briefings. If the producers of “Angels” had abruptly decided to change course in midflight, the same dialogue could just as easily fit a comedy. As the bombers embark on their missions, the airmen maintain a droll “stiff upper lip” tone in their communications. Once the flack starts popping over Nazi-held territory, however, the story becomes universally recognizable as one of survival against difficult, if not insurmountable odds. What makes “Angels of the Skies” different from dozens of other movies on the subject is the addition of a talented South African pilot, Earl Kirk (Nicholas van der Bijl), to the collegial mix of experienced Brits. Although the airman have been assured by their commander of Kirk’s ability, they take it as an affront to king and country. After learning that he’d volunteered to serve the Allies’ cause and, in doing so, had left behind a pregnant fiancé, wins him a measure of respect, but he’ll still have to prove himself in the sky. And, this, he does. Kirk also demonstrates the right stuff on the ground, as the surviving crew members are required to escape a platoon of jerries, under the command of a merciless SS officer. Unlike too many old-school war pictures, the fliers’ well-being can never be taken for granted by the audience or characters. “Angels” will mostly appeal to WWII buffs and completests. – Gary Dretzka

Hallmark: When Calls the Heart
Disney/BBC: Wolf Blood: Season One
PBS/Frontline: Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria
Michael Landon Jr. is to faith-based, Dove-approved rom-drams what Martin Scorsese is to gangster movies. Although his films espouse so-called Christian values, they’re frequently disguised to the point of being invisible, which is jake with me. “When Calls the Heart” is a historical drama based on a bestselling series of novels by Janette Oke (“Love’s Abiding Joy”) about life on the Canadian frontier. If you’re already thinking, “Little House in the Great White North,” you wouldn’t be too far away from what happens here. Polly Draper plays Elizabeth Thatcher, a young woman who grew up back east in an environment marked by wealth and privilege. Anxious to give something back to her Canadian brethren, Elizabeth volunteers to teach children at a one-room school, currently doing double-duty as a saloon. Fueled by all of the best intentions and escorted by a handsome Royal Canadian Mountie, Elizabeth gets her first taste of frontier life when their stagecoach is robbed by a gang of desperadoes. It delays their arrival in her new hometown, whose residents recently experienced a hugely traumatic event. In a parallel storyline, Elizabeth is inspired by the dramatized messages found in the diary belonging to her long-lost Aunt Elizabeth’s (Maggie Grace). That “When Calls the Heart” ends with several storylines unresolved clearly owes to Hallmark’s plans for a spinoff series that’s set to begin in January, with a different cast.

A hit on British television, “Wolfblood” is a teen supernatural series that, in various ways, resembles “Buffy,” “Twilight” and Michael Landon Sr.’s “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” For all intents and purposes, 14-year-old Maddy (Aimee Kelly) is a normal kid. In fact, though, in addition to all of the usual human traits, she possesses the more extraordinary qualities of wolves, including an obsession with marking her territory and dissuading fellow wolfbloods from crossing familial borders. The fun begins when her heightened senses alert her to the presence of another wolfblood, Rhydian (Bobby Lockwood), in school. If only because the series is produced in England, the Disney Channel import is more substantial than other such shows. The necessarily generic setting, however, could be Anytown USA.

Dozens of movies have been made about the impact of incurable diseases, unstoppable epidemics and undefined viruses. Typically, the source of the plague is discovered and eliminated within the 120-minute length of the average bio-thriller. The “Frontline” presentation, “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria,” lays out an all-too-real medical-horror scenario, without also providing viewers with a happy ending. Reporter David Hoffman investigates the rising number of cases involving the spread of untreatable infections and frustrating search for a cure. Fueled by decades of antibiotic overuse, the crisis has deepened as major drug companies have abandoned the development of new antibiotics as not being cost-effective endeavors. The next-most-horrifying thing about the PBS report is learning that researchers have, so far, been unable to nail down meaningful clues as to where knowing when, where and how the next outbreak will occur. – 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