Posts Tagged ‘Restrepo’

Sebastian Junger Remembers Tim Hetherington

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

“What a vision you had, my friend. What a goddamned terrible, beautiful vision of things.”
Sebastian Junger Remembers Tim Hetherington

DGA Docs Noms: Solid … If a Bit Predictable

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

The DGA announced nominees for Documentary this morning. Nothing terribly surprising about the noms, other than the absence of Exit Through the Gift Shop. Wonder if there’s the feeling that Banksy isn’t a “real” director, or some lingering feeling that the film is a hoax? I can’t really argue against any of the directors who were nominated, though:

Last Train Home

Inside Job

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Waiting for “Superman”


Looks pretty much like a take on how the final Oscar nominees for doc could turn out. The most interesting thing to me is the presence of both Alex Gibney and Charles Ferguson on the list. Gibney mentored Ferguson through his first doc, the very excellent No End in Sight, and it showed. Now Ferguson hits it out of the park again in a year when Gibney has two docs — Client 9 and Casino Jack and the United States of Money — that could have conceivably been nominated.

I still haven’t seen Last Train Home, which is leading the pack for next week’s Cinema Eye Awards, or Restrepo. The latter, at least, is in my screener box at home and I suppose I should force myself to finally watch it. I know, I know. It’s a great movie. I hear you. I’m just so worn out by war movies, I haven’t had it in me to watch it. But I will.

I would have liked to have seen a little love for Thomas Burstyn, who directed This Way of Life, which is still one of my favorite docs of the year (it has the third slot on my Top Ten Docs list this year). But this isn’t a bad list, overall.

Wilmington: The Ten Best of 2010

Friday, December 31st, 2010

So here’s my list of The Ten Best Movies of 2010, plus Honorable Mentions and a separate list of documentaries. I know it’s customary at this time to write about how awful a year it was, and how I had to struggle to find ten movies worthy of recognition, and how Hollywood is so bankrupt artistically and so bereft intellectually that the mere act of compiling a ten best list has become supremely dubious and morally questionable. But actually, I thought the moves were one of the few good things about 2010. (They’re certainly better than the last election.) And if you couldn’t find ten good ones, you weren’t trying.

MW on DVDs: Restrepo, Inception, The Grapes of Wrath, Shrek Forever After … and more

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010


Restrepo (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington, 2010 (Virgil)

Restrepo is a documentary about the war in Afghanistan that’s beautifully shot and terrifyingly convincing. The color photography is crisp and clear. The subjects, a platoon of American soldiers in the mountains, are amazingly candid. The directors — journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and combat photographer Tim Hetherington — try to capture the images and the words of their subject, the men of the Second Platoon, 183rd Airborne Brigade, and not obviously intrude on them. They succeed, admirably.

So we see the Second Platoon’s daily routine, watch them as they horse around, listen as they’re being interviewed by the filmmakers, watch an occasional battle from ground zero (usually signaled by bursts of gunfire and the camera image jerking around as the photographer tries to get his bearings). At the end, we see some of them leave. After fifteen months and over 50 casualties in the region, they will all leave, as the Americans abandon the Taliban-infested area, the Korangal Valley, regarded as one of the world‘s most dangerous hot spots.

The title Restrepo refers to a 20 year-old medic named Juan Restropo, who was the platoon‘s first casualty. Restrepo, whom we see very briefly, was a happy, generous guy who played the guitar and was very much liked by his buddies. They named their digs after him: Outpost Restropo.

The movie is all about war, danger and friendship — and judging by what we see here, the Afghanistan War is a pretty awful one to have to fight. There’s nothing obviously political in Restropo either way: no flag-waving, no military bashing. Junger and Hetherington‘s movie focuses instead on the men who have to fight the war the politicians whip up: the kind of war that most of those politicians — including bellicose chicken hawks like Dick Cheney — never fought and never will. That’s the true politics of it, I guess. As Sam Fuller once explained , if you make a war movie and do it honestly, it always becomes anti-war. And — think of those two vets who didn’t even know me but chased my attacker and got him — maybe it always becomes pro-soldier as well.



Inception (Four Stars)

U.S.; Christopher Nolan, 2010 (Warner Brothers)

It begins with a man washed up on the beach, awaking as if from a dream, waves crashing around him.

What happens next? Worlds of wonders. Dreamland cubed.

Christopher Nolan‘s Inception — with Leonardo DiCaprio as a tortured guy who shoves dreams into your head — is obviously some kind of masterpiece. It’s a truly — CLICHÉ ALERT — mind-bending science fiction movie about the power of dreams, the persistence of memory, the anguish of lost love, the chains of conscience and maybe as much as anything else, the sheer lunatic joy of making a big, crazy action movie spectacular with no rational limits on either your budget or your imagination.

That blurb cliché “Mind-Bending” is actually the right word (le mot juste) here. Nolan uses the magic of movies and moviemaking to try to bend our minds and play with our heads, to put our imaginations into overdrive and to expand the boundaries and possibilities of big-budget studio movie-making. (And he does it, in this age of Pixar, for adults.) Dom/DiCaprio’s job, manufacturing dreams, is the perfect movie profession and Nolan plays it, and him, to the hilt.

At one point, Nolan folds a whole packed Parisian street in on itself. Later, he turns a plush hotel corridor into a zero gravity battlefield, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Di Caprio‘s right hand man) swimming through the air or dancing from wall to ceiling to wall like Fred Astaire hoofing his way ‘round the revolving room of Royal Wedding. Elsewhere, Nolan and his company drive an express train through a Los Angeles street in the middle of a car-chase shootout, or have two characters walk up (and simultaneously down) a set of steps modeled after M. C. Escher’s famous Moebius Strip endless staircase — until the movie’s effects wizards break the steps loose and set the walkers free.

Nolan, like the young Orson Welles, is blessed (and cursed) with the moviemaking tools that Welles compared to the world‘s biggest electric toy train set, and he summons up one surreal image or ferocious action blowout after another. Brilliantly, swiftly, he (and editor Lee Smith) cut from year to year, character to character (DiCaprio‘s Dom Cobb, his team, his employer, his target and the tormentors in his memory), from country to country, city to city (Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Tangiers and the soundstages of Cardington, England), with a mix of stylistic chutzpah and loony abandon that perhaps only a moviemaker with a budget in the two hundred million dollar range, and a writer-director (Nolan) married to his producer (Emma Thomas), could muster.

The result has already been subject to all the obvious movie comparisons: from the Matrix and James Bond shows, to Dreamscape, and to Nolan‘s previous chronology-fracturing or reality-twisting thrillers Memento, Following, Insomnia and The Prestige; from DiCaprio’s previous 2010 nightmare excursion Shutter Island, and to Minority Report, Total Recall, Impostor and other Phillip K. Dick-derived nightmare movie fables.

But Inception, a movie drunk on the magic of movies, goes further. It summons up hints and echoes of everything from La Jetee, Hiroshima mon Amour and The Italian Job, to Vertigo, and Citizen Kane. The film is full of grand illusions, grand flourishes. In the smash-up cross-cutting finale, it recalls the roaring, fugal, four-part climaxes of D. W. Griffith‘s great mad silent epic Intolerance.

Hans Zimmer wrote the non-stop, bombastic but emotion-drenched score, which suggests Wagner at the Apollo; Edith Piaf, no less, sings, under the credits, her heart-twisting memoir/anthem of defiance Non, Je ne Regrette rien (No Regrets), which also threads though the entire movie.

It’s excessive. It’s overblown. But above all, it’s a movie by a filmmaker who loves movies, and wants to explore their possibilities in an arena as endless and bewitching as that Escherian staircase (which seems to be going nowhere, then springs suddenly free). Inception is like a heist thriller fashioned by Lewis Carroll, reincarnated, and based on some three-dimensional chess game –or like a whole roller-coaster ride designed by Escher, a wild plunge that keeps dropping though one Phillip K. Dickian alternative reality-world after another, until finally it almost leaves us where we began (delirious, washed ashore on a beach, below towering crumbling cliffs) — and then takes one more step.

It’s hard to synopsize any of this, because the whole movie is literally (and subliminally) one surprise and shocker


after another.


Besides, the inevitable, maybe planned effect of seeing Inception and maybe getting a little bewildered, is to want to see it again, to clear up the confusion or re-experience its delights, or possibly to gather evidence for a nasty debunking Kaelesque review. (Not once, but again, is the test of greatness. And maybe of a marketing strategy too.)

Still, it won’t hurt you to know that DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb is an American exile in Europe, and that he’s a highly paid, inwardly tormented specialist in the art and science of extraction. “Extraction” involves invading a human subject’s subconscious dream state to extract information — a process prized by corporations who want to steal ideas from each other.

Inception damners and debunkers need go no further than that: Why in the world would anyone spend so much money and go to such perilous extremes (a process that may involve kidnapping, deception, jail time and possible dream-state death) to steal an idea, when you might get the same results using the old fashioned methods of bribing an employee, hacking a computer, or hiring and wiring a hooker?

The answer is the same one you’d give to anyone who complained that John Ford‘s marauding Stagecoach Apaches didn’t win the battle by shooting the fleeing stagecoach’s horses. Why ruin a good story with too much damage from the over-analysts Alfred Hitchcock scornfully called “The Plausibles?”

Besides, why don’t those plausibles try riding after a stage and shooting a rifle at the same time? Plausibility be damned. With Inception, we’re talking about a movie where people steal each other‘s dreams and go in and out of each other‘s heads, for God‘s sake.

Anyway, Dom is hired, in our future and in the movie’s past, by the suave Japanese magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe of Tampopo) for a complex extraction job on a corporate rival. But Dom is asked this time to reverse his usual modus operandi: To implant an idea (or use inception) in the mind of a young corporate nabob-to-be, Robert (Bobby?) Fischer (Cillian Murphy), whose father, corporate head Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite) is dying, before the eyes of Bobby, and of Tom Berenger as the troubled legal counsel, Browning.

To help, Dom assembles a team of old reliables (dead-serious right hand man Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and genial chemist-anesthesiologist, Yussef, played by Dileep Rao), old rivals (brash “forger” or impersonator Eames, played by Tom Hardy), and fresh faces (brainy architect Ariadne, played by that freshest of faces Ellen Page.)

Ariadne‘s name, of course, is the same as that of the lady who helped the Theseus of Greek mythology thread his way in and out of the Labyrinth, and she helps introduce the other key plot element, besides being an invaluable angel of exposition. (Since she‘s new to the game, Dom has to give her a crash course in everything you wanted to know about extraction and inception but were afraid to ask). Her key plot function? Love and plot. Ariadne, it seems, is also the protege of brilliant, compassionate professor Miles (played by Michael Caine, who maybe should be incepted into every noirish movie), and Miles is also the father of Dom’s tragic dead wife, Mal (played by Marion Cotillard, who also played Piaf).


The tragedy of Mal’s death (she left their two children behind) is what has caused Dom‘s exile, and her persistence (and the children‘s) in his memory and dreams is what makes him a walking or dreaming time bomb.


That‘s the premise of the story, and you‘ll understand why too much further synopization may be unwise or unwieldy. Perhaps we should remember, as Nolan and Caine once explained to us (in the deadly magician thriller The Prestige), that the three acts of a great magic trick are, in fact, the Pledge (where something ordinary is introduced), the Turning (where it turns into something extraordinary) and the Prestige (where whatever disappeared in the earlier acts reappears).

It’s hard to describe anything in Inception as the Pledge, because almost nothing is ordinary, which may be another forgivable flaw. And the whole last part of the movie is steeped in that incandescent succession of dreamlike exploding action scenes that finally pour into the three-strand inter-twisting climax, where whatever disappears can’t always be trusted to reappear — but where it’s so damned entertaining, I never once thought of complaining. After all, Prestige isn’t everything.

Nolan seems fascinated by the idea of anti-chronological plots. (His Memento — a story told in reverse order, following a protagonist with short term amnesia — is a neo-noir of genius). He‘s also soft on reconfigured genre tropes and standbys, with talismen (the spinning little top that here keeps reappearing), with sexy killers and villains, and, most disturbingly perhaps, with husbands who have destroyed, intentionally or not, their wives. (Perhaps Emma Thomas should remember this the next time they put a budget together.)

In Inception, he revisits many old pets and odd obsessions and complicates them all. It’s not hard to see why this is a script that took him ten years or so to write, ever since Memento. (2001, wasn’t it?)

It’s rare to see a big Hollywood super-production for adults that‘s this complex, this ambitious, this amusingly tricky and this this woundingly personal — or that has so much psychological layering and emotional resonance. (Why, it’s almost like a kid’s movie from Pixar!) I went to see Incepetion twice, both to clear up confusion and to re-experience its delights. And though the confusion may be dismissed as another marketing strategy, (see above) — if you can’t figure it out the first time, buy another ticket and go again — the fact is, I did enjoy it more. (Not twice, but again, is the test of greatness,)

One of the movie’s great pluses is that cast, especially DiCaprio. As he did in Scorsese‘s Shutter Island, one of Inception‘s only artistic rivals among the big Hollywood movies this year (well, of course, there’s also Toy Story 3), DiCaprio supplies this show with a solid emotional center, anchoring a story that often seems in danger of flying off into zero-gravity FX limbo or devolving into some ersatz Phildickian dreamworld. Those tormented eyes, that quizzical half-grin, that deceptively boyish, slighty pinched matter-of-fact delivery of DiCaprio’s grounds the movie. Cottilard and Page help humanize Inception as well, and so of course, does Caine. And, in fact, so do all the others, in dreams or out.

They make the movie’s FX prestidigitation connect with us more. So does the interesting fact that Nolan uses mostly in-camera effects, except in stuff like the Escherite or trompe d’oeil fantasias where he needs CGI. (After all, the “socialist” French government won’t allow visiting Yank film companies to really fold Paris streets in on themselves.) CGI, when used to create something in a supposedly real world, can be annoying. Here, with real-life objects and in-camera effeets used to create dreams and make them solid, the more occasional CGI arabesques flow in seamlessly.

That‘s also why Inception deserves the high praise its gotten from most critics. I don’t mean to imply that this is some immaculate Inception, or to infer too much of a comparison between Nolan’s film and a godhead movie like Citizen Kane (though Inception is obviously, the work of a Kane-savyy diretcor, as well as a Blade Runner-savvy one). But like Citizen Kane, (whose design and effects team came partly from the dreamy ’30s Astaire-Rogers movies), Nolan’s new show is a movie that makes imaginative use of the zeitgeist and many of the technical magic tricks, devices and styles of its day (from Spielberg’s to Michael Bay‘s) — but bends them in trickier, deeper, more magical directions. It isn’t a movie that audiences love mostly for its characters and social ideas, like The Kids are All Right — even though the characters aren’t just along for the ride. Here, it’s the overall frame, design and style that are the main stunners.

In a way, the philosophical engineer of this train is the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whom we’ve mentioned before, and who saturates this movie like real maple syrup on a hot pancake. Dick’s commercial heyday, ironically, came with Blade Runner (based on his fantastic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) a movie released after Dick‘s death. These days — though in life, Dick was an often impoverished pulp creator, dismissed as a hack by Establishment lit-types — producers seem ready to buy and film anything of Dick’s, even a cheapo novella like Minority Report that he wrote for the lower-echelon sci-fi mag Fantastic Universe — maybe. even his shopping lists or death certificate.

Dick was the master of alternative world stories (like The Man in the High Castle, still unfilmed) — though one of the best Dick-style novels may be The Lathe of Heaven, a Phildickian pastiche done by his friend Ursula K. LeGuin. He also did stories about dreams within dreams and competing dreamers, including a terrific pulpy ‘50s Ace paperback novel called Eye in the Sky. And he portrayed the horror and aranois of the drug-ridden California world around him, in A Scanner Darkly. What makes Dick a great writer, and a great read, is the effortless, almost offhand way he creates those dream alternative worlds: step by step, brick by brick, talking about them as if they were already right here, all around us. That’s the approach Nolan often takes here, very pungently and successfully.

There’s another level to Inception. In some ways, and maybe not even intentionally (or inceptionally) this is a movie about making movies — about conceiving them, painstakingly getting them put together (with help from corporate types), and then watching almost helplessly, as they finally unfold. Gordon-Levitt describes his character Arthur, the calm, clear-headed facilitator, as like a “producer” and DiCaprio‘s mercurial Dom as like a writer-director. That they are.

And Dom’s crew is like the movie’s company-crew. Nolan’s crucial collaborators — production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, special effects supervisor Cris Corbould, Zimmer, cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Smith, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland — are they the dream invader’s henchmen? Of course. The film is a bit like an action movie blockbuster crossed with Fellini‘s 8 ½, a movie about a movie that actually was made, despite everything.

When we watch films that plunge us into dreams or nightmares, or pull us into something like the dream state — movies like Kane, Vertigo or Singin’ in the Rain, Blade Runner, Beauty and the Beast, Sherlock, Jr. or Intolerance — we’re getting the pleasures of the movies in a pure way, caught up in the flow, lost in the reverie, singing in the storm. Inception is in that category, maybe not as good, but often as compelling and hypnotic, and nearly as … memorable.

It’s also a movie that made me sad for a different reason. Almost forty years ago, in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union, in the heyday of the anti-Vietnam war era, a bad-tempered right wing fellow student from a well-heeled family, who got into a fight with one of my friends (I pulled the assailant off and Union security intervened) went looking for us the next morning, with a crescent wrench and an ice pick in his bag. He found me in the Union Rathskellar, rushed up and sent the wrench crashing down on the back of my head, fracturing my skull and coming within an eighth of an inch (according to my doctor) of killing or paralyzing me.

As I lay there in a genuine pool of blood, two other fellow students — both Vietnam vets as I remember — chased the wrench-wielder for several blocks, and, after he pulled his ice pick on them, they disarmed him and held him for the police. (God bless and keep you, guys, wherever you are.) I was carried to the UW hospital where the operation to clear out the loose bone chips was done quickly without anesthesia, and , that first night, when I was finally unconscious — dreaming maybe –my 56-year-old mother sat out in front of my hospital room all night, guarding it.

My attacker was later found guilty of conduct regardless of life. But, after insisting he was defending himself from me (by hitting me in the back of the head?), he was released without jail time by the judge, a notorious Madison drunk, who may have been sympathetic to the defendant‘s higher social class.

I survived. But, over the decades, ever since then, I began losing the hearing in my left ear, and, even worse, I began losing my ability to remember my dreams. I still remember in detail, many that I had before the attack and some that I had afterward, but almost none that I have these days, right now.

I know I still have dreams, because, very occasionally, I‘m startled awake in the middle of one and I remember what seems a minute or two of the pure fantasy that happened just before the wake-up. Once I was jumping up in a theater audience after suddenly remembering I was supposed to be in the very play I was watching. Once I slid down an icy crevasse, some place, somewhere. Once I did something or other with Julia Roberts. (A pretty good minute, that.). But most of the rest is gone.

I miss my dreams. Maybe my mother is in some of them. So I’m actually very happy to see all the grand, complex, extravagant and thrilling fanastias, pretend-dreams and mementos that Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and the others have put on the screen here, to shove or seduce mad visions into our heads.

The M. C. Esher staircase. The Paris street that folds over on itself. The zero gravity hotel corridor. The James Bondian snow battle. The express-train that comes suddenly out of nowhere. The lady Marion whom Leonard DiCaprio loves, standing on the ledge, about to jump. Edith Piaf. No regrets. The two little children, looking away. A Moebius Strip of the mind. A Phil Dick cocktail. Men in high castles. Scanners darkly. The van full of dreamers that keeps falling, falling, over a bridge and down toward the water below. The delirious survivor washed up on the beach, the waves crashing around him…

Inception forever, I say. Dreamers arise. For the most part, I’ll give Nolan a temporary pass from Hitchcock‘s Plausibles. After all, Nolan and all his crew give us plenty to dream on here. And dreams are precious, never more so than when you’ve lost them.

Extras: Featurettes; Conceptual and promotional art; Hans Zimmer score selections; trailers.



The Grapes of Wrath (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U. S.: John Ford, 1940 (20th Century Fox)

The best movies, like the best novels, affect you powerfully, but sometimes differently, throughout your life. They can move you, chill you, devastate you, teach you, maybe even change you.

Here is a great movie adapted from a great novel: John Ford‘s savagely beautiful, deeply emotional film of John Steinbeck‘s poignant, epic masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. The new DVD release has been out a while, but that hardly matters. You must own it, keep it in your hearts if not on your shelves.

It’s a book and a movie, of course, about the Okies: wandering poor American families, struck down hard by the Depression, forced from the land where they’d lived and farmed for generations, forced onto the roads, in rattletrap vehicles, with scant resources, then viciously exploited by the California corporate growers who battened off their misfortune and the cheap migrant labor it helped supply. It’s the saga, rustic and tragic, of the Joad family, farmers on the Oklahoma plains, driven off their farm by the wind that blew away the soul, the harsh climate that impoverishes and destroys the land, the harsh, foreclosing banking policies that impoverish or destroy the people.

We see the whole world of the Dust Bowl and the Depression through the experiences of the Joads: Ma and Pa, Grandpa and Grandma, Uncle John, the kids, Rose of Sharon, and, most unforgettably Tom Joad — the rebel with, finally, a cause, the fictional character to alive that Woody Guthrie wrote a song about him, and whose last words, to his Ma, before their last leave-taking, no one who sees this movie ever forgets.

In my youth, I loved both Steinbeck and Ford, prodigally. Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men is the first book that ever made me cry — when I read about George and Lenny and the rabbits at 11, off my grandparents’ bookshelves in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. In my college days, I was an English major (Henry James was preferred to Steibeck, or even Faulkner) and I may have let the literary-academic-political trend against Steinbeck sway me or silence me for a while. Fordians back then — and I was one, passionately — tended unfortunately to be sometimes anti-Steinbeck too, and to elevate Ford’s great, but somewhat ignored later movies, often with the conservative John Wayne (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) at the expense of his great middle period pictures, often with the liberal Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln). It is one area where Andy Sarris steered us a little wrong.

Now that I’m older, I know better. I know that the anguish the movie and book record are if anything, underplayed; that the movie’s “sentimentality” is closer to reality than many other message movies that critics call “realistic” — and that the economic and social horrors that writer Steinbeck and director Ford evoke, are closer than we imagine, and would be much closer if it weren‘t for the political reforms that came out of the Depression, from FDR and the New Deal, reforms that people like Steinbeck and Ford fought for — and that the bank-worshipping, money-adoring G. O. P. now despises and wants to repeal.

I feel ashamed at even slight scraps of a callow “go along” reaction toward these two great artists and their American masterpiece — though, truth to tell, I always did love the book. But I now think the movie of The Grapes of Wrath is one of Ford’s four or five greatest films, worthy to be ranked right alongside The Searchers and Stagecoach, both of which in many ways, it resembles.

Like them, and many other Ford movies, it’s a quest film — and even a bit of a revenge movie too. It begins like The Searchers, with a solitary man appearing from the landscape, heading toward home: Tom Joad (Fonda), an ex-con with gentle eyes and a fierce temper, who killed a man and now returns home, on a darkening plain under a harsh sky, deserted. He remeets two old acquaintances, now wanderers too: Casey a preacher (John Carradine, in his finest movie performance), and Muley (John Qualen in his), a scavenger hiding like a “graveyard ghost” in the land he once farmed and owned. They talk: Steinbeck’s characteristic biblical, tough jawboning (sympathetically scripted by Nunnally Johnson), the talk of common folk, sometimes profane or earthy, sometimes elevated to simple grandeur.

Then: Tom’s family. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), the fleshy matriarch in a broad hat, who has to assume control. Pa Joad (Russell Simpson) the gaunt old patriarch, who cedes it. Wily, foxy, nervously cackling old Grampa (Charley Grapewin, in one of the greatest small parts in movie history), grinning Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury), the younger folk, the kids, all set to leave the land they grew up on — now stolen from them by the banks and the greed-crazed creeps, the money-grubbing politicians and callous fancy dans who run them, (and whose spiritual descendants fill the banks and the halls of congress today) — piling into a ramshackle truck, held together with spit and rope, that can barely hold them, on their way to the fruit-rich, grape-and-orange heavy farms of California, the promised land.

What they find are farms owned by corporations and policed by thugs, offering bare subsistence pay (not enough to feed a family), and, if you object, a bum’s rush, a blacklist and a killing club to the head.

It was Steinbeck’s most powerful, most controversial story, damned and banned and burned by the corporate growers and politicians, loved by readers. And it’s one of Ford’s great quests, like the ones in Stagecoach, in The Long Voyage Home, in Wagonmaster, in The Quiet Man, in The Searchers, in Cheyenne Autumn.

In images lovingly crafted by Ford and his matchless cinematographer, Gregg Toland, we see the truck farms and the cheap, ramshackle worker camps, run by local bullies and enforcers. We see the nascent labor movement, which preacher Casey embraces, and, because of which, he’s struck down by the thugs. We see the land and the people, magnificently shot by Toland in a style that suggest Walker Evans, in the year before Toland shot the equally brilliant — but much different — Citizen Kane.

Some of John Ford’s searches end happily; some don’t. The Grapes of Wrath takes us, and the Joads, on a shattering journey into the despoiling of the American dream. There’s hope in the movie, but it’s largely for the future — exemplified by the final somewhat forced “We’re the people” speech by Ma Joad, a scene that producer Darryl Zanuck (a Republican with principles and guts) wanted, and that Ford didn’t. (Ford refused to shoot it, and told Zanuck to do it himself, which the producer did.)

Ford wanted instead to end the film with the shot of solitary Tom, walking in silhouette on the hill, against the morning sky, alone, perhaps forever severed from his family, moving toward the certain future — perhaps to join a labor fight, perhaps to wander forever between the winds. Ford was right; Zanuck was wrong. And if The Grapes of Wrath had ended with that eloquent silhouette-on-the-hill shot (which Ingmar Bergman took and elaborated for The Seventh Seal), then its kinship to The Searchers (as well as Grapes’ more obvious Western movie descendant, Cheyenne Autumn) would be more often noticed. Tom Joad and Ethan Edwards walk or ride toward us out of the landscape, and then, at the end, they return to it.

Henry Fonda was a great actor, never better than as Tom Joad, but his later iconic position as the American cinema’s quintessential liberal sometimes blinds us to how good, how scarily, touchingly, wonderfully good, he can be. (And is, especially in The Grapes of Wrath). Fonda’s Tom Joad is a miracle of compact, truthful, deeply honest, deeply archetypal American movie acting. No one on God’s green earth could have done it better. We know Tom is kind, loving. We know he can be dangerous, a killer. We know he loves his family, his mother. (There is no other love interest, for Tom or anybody, except Rose of Sharon’s failed engagement.) We know he hates injustice. Watching him, watching that lean lanky torso, that grave face and those dark child’s eyes, and hearing that tough, simmering Midwestern drawl, we hate injustice too.

John Ford won the Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath. He deserved it. Jane Darwell won for Ma. She deserved it too. Henry Fonda was nominated and lost to his best friend, Jimmy Stewart. I’m sure even Jimmy would have said his old roommate deserved it more (just as Jimmy deserved it the year before, in 1939 for Mr. Swmith goes to Washington.)

But another actress — who never even got the chance, who wasn’t nominated, who didn’t even get the part — may have deserved it more too, was that one person on God‘s green earth who could do it better. Book or movie, “The Grapes of Wrath” is a masterpiece, and I‘m as moved by Darwell‘s Ma as everyone else. But let us now praise famous women: I believe “The Grapes of Wrath” would have been an even greater film, if Ford had been allowed the casting he wanted, the choice he personally made for Ma Joad, but that was nixed by the cost-conscious studio. Fox wanted a contract player. But Ford wanted Beulah Bondi to play Tom Joad‘s ma, as she had played Tommy Mitchell’s ma in Make Way for Tomorrow, and as she later played Jimmy Stewarts’s in It’s a Wonderful Life, and crochety old Granny in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner and many, many others.

Ford wanted Bondi and he cast her. He was right there too. A methodical teacher-turned actress, Bondi went to the Okie camps to live with and study those women. And then Fox took the part from her, the role that would have won her the Oscar — and would, I think, have been one of the greatest performances in all film history. (Watch Make Way for Tomorrow, and try to tell me I‘m wrong, and that John Ford was wrong.)

Jane Darwell threw her heart into the role and she deserved her season of glory. But so did Beulah Bondi, who never even got an Emmy until the end of her life (for The Waltons). And when I think of Bondi playing that last scene with Fonda, dancing with him to Red River Valley, then bidding him goodbye in the darkness, the strains of the folk ballad echoing over the fertile, scarred land, the two (in my imagination) playing the scene that was never shot, yet as beautiful and as real and moving to me as so many scenes in Grapes of Wrath that were, it makes me do once again what I did those many years ago — when I set down my grandparents’ copy of Of Mice and Men, on a summer afternoon, after I had just learned what words could do, what fictional characters could do, what literature could do, what an American story, deeply felt and beautifully told (by a Steinbeck, by a Ford), could do. It makes me weep.

Extras: An excellent double commentary by Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw and by Ford scholar (and my old writer/partner) Joe McBride; A&E documentary on Zanuck; Depression era Movietone News drought reports; Outtakes; Still Gallery; Featurettes.



The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Volume Two (Three Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.K.; Hugh David & Ronald Wilson, 1973 (Acorn Media)

Dorothy Sayers was a classic British murder mystery novelist whom tonier critics of the day preferred to Agatha Christie. Sayers’ writing style was more obviously literate (she later translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into English), her stories were more novelistic, her characters a bit deeper, her paragraphs longer, and in The Nine Tailors, she wrote a detective novel that, like E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case ) if not quite on the level of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone or Charles Dickens’ Bleak House), seemed a respectably serious novel as well as an engrossing murder mystery, and one that seemed to elevate the whole genre from melodrama to real drama. (I always preferred Christie, though.)

Sayers also invented a detective, Lord Peter Wimsey (marvelously played on British TV by Ian Carmichael, the naïve protagonist who clashed with Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas and Richard Attenborough in I‘m All Right, Jack). Wimsey was a fittingly named, classy comic character: an acid-tongued but compassionate detector with a taste for high literature, a gift for baroque piano playing, a genius for sleuthing, and the services of Bunter, the best butler this side of Jeeves. (Wimsey was a bit of a playful snob, and his leftist acquaintances were mostly comic relief.)

This set is the better of the two Acorn Wimsey sets now available — and not just because it contains a fine version of The Nine Tailors. These three adaptations, like the two in Volume One, are stylistically ordinary (like the original Upstairs, Downstairs, they look like TV shows more than movies), but they are all faithfully taken from Sayers’ novels, well and wittily written and consummately acted by Carmichael and the supporting casts. They’re real treats for anyone who remembers Sayers, Wimsey and the classic days of the British detective novel. And there are more of them than in Volume One!

Includes: Murder Must Advertise (U. K.; Rodney Bennett, 1973). Three Stars. Murder and Wimsey erupt in the sometimes tawdry worlds of British public relations and journalism. Five Red Herrings (U. K.; Robert Tronson, 1974). Three Stars. Sayers liked to satirize the Bohemian world of British artists; here she surrounds an arist‘s corpse with six suspects — five of them red herrings.

The Nine Tailors (U.K.; Raymond Menmuir, 1975). Three and a Half Stars. The world of British country church bell-ringing (source of the title), exhaustively researched and lovingly portrayed, provides part of the rich backdrop for this famous classic mystery about old crimes and stolen emeralds.

Extras: interview with Carmichael; Sayers and Carmichael biographies; Production notes.



Shrek Forever After (Also two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo) (Three Stars)

U.S.; Mike Mitchell, 2010 (Paramount)

Shrek Forever After is supposedly “The Final Chapter.” But that title may be partly true, partly false. Can anything really (or fantastically) be both final and forever after?

The mega-grossing DreamWorks feature cartoon series, which began with a bang in 2001 — a Cannes Film Festival Official Selection, and a best animated feature Oscar — has had is ups and downs in the two sequels since (2004‘s business-as-usual Shrek 2 and 2007‘s so-so Shrek the Third). But this Chapter Four in the hip fairytale of the enchanted Princess and her surly green Ogre love, won’t spell bankruptcy in anybody’s books.

It’s a funny movie, well-executed and well-acted, and it’s also , as the first Shrek was, and the next two often weren‘t, a pretty good story.

That can’t have been easy. The problem with making a follow-up to the 2001 Shrek is that, in narrative terms, it was perfect in itself. After Shrek the Ogre (Mike Myers), completed his quest with his ever-rapping Donkey pal (Eddie Murphy), and kissed the beautiful, but fitfully monstrous Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and she became not all-Princess but all-Ogre, and the two went off to live happily ever after in a world that didn’t have the Looks-Uber-Alles hiring policies of the average American TV show, the story really had nowhere else to go.

But like all automatic sequels to big hits, it went there anyway. Fast. Luckily, in those next two Shreks, Shrek and Donkey picked up some interesting travel companions — most notably the swashbuckling little pussycat Puss in Boots, voiced to a fine turn by Pedro Almodovar’s old pal Antonio Banderas. And the movies were entertaining enough, if not exactly the sassy, dreamy, wise-acre, Cannes-smashing triumph the first one was.

Shrek Forever After though (Did anyone try to make it Shrek 4Ever After?) has a nifty premise, thanks, one supposes to writers Josh Clausner and Darren Lemke. (Clausner wrote the Steve Carell-Tina Fey fish-out-of water mom-pop rom-com Date Night.) There’s a new villain in the kingdom of Far Far Away — well-actually an old villain, recycled from the Grimm Brothers: a smarmy, duplicitous, wicked little bad-chappie named Rumpelstiltskin, drawn as if he were a midget Jim Carrey or ‘50s comic Orson Bean, played like Billy Crystal as the devil, and voiced very amusingly not by a star actor but by a cartoon factory working stiff: DreamWorks’ head of story Walt Dohrn.

Rumpel, you’ll remember from Grimm, was always hoaxing and misleading people and robbing them blind on contracts, which suggests he had a future not in fairyland but on Wall Street. Now, the nasty little cartoon bastard is back, with his big strange Mother of a Goose and lots of awful schemes. He hates Shrek, hates Fiona, hates little birds and bunnies, hates everything good and decent, hates all of us. And he’s as sneaky and devious and destructive as a political campaign manager with a huge TV budget. Capitalizing on Shrek’s middle age malaise, a discontent that hits him at his Shrek triplets‘ hectic birthday party — and cognizant of the Green Guy’s yearning for the old days when he could just roar and everyone would run away — Rumpel offers him a contact. Shrek will get one day as the old horrific monster of the first Shrek. And all he has to give up is one insignificant 24 hours from sometime in his childhood.

Such a deal! And such a soundtrack! (Everything from “I’m a Believer” to the Carpenters’ “Top of the World.“) Unfortunately, Rump‘s contract has a Catch-22, an “It‘s a Wonderful Life” clause that wrecks Shrek‘s world and turns Far Far Away into someplace from which any Ogre would stay far, far away if we could: the shadowy, dark side Rump of Fairyland. The insignificant day Rumpelstiltskin chooses for foreclosure is the day Shrek was born, meaning that — in the new alternative-world Phil-dickian Far Far Away, run by Rump, the Goose, the Pied Piper, and lots of “Wizard of Oz-y” witches looking for Shreks to shred and Totos to stomp — Shrek, like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, was never born and never existed.

What a mess! People may be scared of him, but nobody knows Shrek. Donkey, now a beast of burden for the local witch brigade, doesn’t know him. Puss, now a lazy fat cat who can barely buckle his swash, doesn’t know him. The Gingerbread Man doesn’t know him. Fiona, now the leader of the local Ogre rebellion against the tyranny of Rumpelstiltskin, doesn’t know him, and won’t kiss him. And a true-love kiss is the only thing that will wipe out the bad contract, foil Rumpel’s plot and restore the Shrekian order. Shrek has only one day and night to get that smacker from the new two-fisted Fiona, while eluding the wicked witches, enduring 1001 wisecracks from Donkey and trying to keep Puss off the Fancyfeast.

I know you’ve heard it all before, especially “Top of the World.“ But I’ll bet you still want to see what happens next (even though you pretty much know). That’s the innovation of the fourth Shrek. It has funny, well-articulated characters — they all do — but it also has an engaging story.

The movie’s new director Mike Mitchell, doesn’t exactly have the most intimidating credentials. Both Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo and that sequel of sequels, Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo are on his resume. (Shame!) But he does a good job here, not only getting snappy performances from everybody (probably not that big a trick, considering this cast, which also boasts Larry King and Regis Philbin as Doris and Mabel), but deftly modulating the pace and mood from frenetic to somber, and the dramatic-comic hues from bouncy-light to horrific-dark.

Director Mitchell also plays four parts in the movie well, notably his show-stopping gig as Butter Pants, the little boy whose father (Ryan Seacrest) prods Shrek, at the birthday party, to deliver a good old-fashioned Shrekian roar. It’s a great bit: This squashed, dour-looking little toddler, repeatedly insists, in a phlegmatic, deep bass Foghorn Winslow sort of voice, “Do the roar” — the biggest laugh line in the entire movie. (In fact, Mitchell’s Butter Pants may get more laughs with fewer words than any character in movie history.) Overall, the character animation in Shrek 4 is terrific, especially for Puss in Boots (great cat moves) and Shrek (what a kisser). But actors like Dohrn, Banderas and Myers (the guy who puts the Shrek in “Shrek“) — not to mention Murphy and Diaz — are a large part of what makes the movie tick, and click.

For his amazing ability to act the ass, Murphy deserves a standing donkey ovation. For her Joan of Arc-ish inspiration — with her evergreen beauty, and a heart, as the DreamWorks advertising department might say, Somewhere Ogre the Rainbow — Diaz deserves a Princessy salute. And for his incredible penetration, as Puss, into the heart of feline cunning and cat bravado, Banderas deserves all the fancy-feasting, all the executive purring (and the promised spin-off movie) DreamWorks can provide. What an Ass! What an Ogress! What a Puss!

As for Myers, what can we say? What a Shrek! Do the roar, dude.

There is life after The Love Guru.

Monsters vs. Aliens (Three Stars)

U.S.; Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens seemed a little better to me while I was watching it than it does in retrospect. But it’s still a pretty nifty show: a fast-paced parody horror sci-fi comedy extravaganza with an all-star cast and lots of gaudy 3D effects. If you see it in 3D (and you should), it looks great — the kind of movie where the ingenious technology takes on an added measure of delight because its handled so skillfully and playfully.

Monsters is also a love letter to some of the most entertainingly cheesy horror movies of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, with specific references to The Attacking 50-Foot Woman (who becomes voice actress Reese Witherspoon’s Ginormica/Susan Murphy), The Fly (who becomes Hugh Laurie‘s fiendishly laughing Dr. Cockroach), The Blob (who becomes Seth Rogen in the role he was born to play, laid-back, Jell-O-bodied, ultra-blobby B. O. B.), Mothra/Godzilla (who becomes Insectosaurus, a behemoth who never speaks, but whose silence, according to a hot Hollywood rumor, was dubbed by either Joaquin Phoenix, or by Ben Stiller imitating Joaquin Phoenix, or by the late Marcel Marceau) and, I guess, The Gill Man/Creature from the Black Lagoon or maybe Eeegah! (who become Will Arnett as The Missing Link).

A formidable lineup indeed — though sadly, there was apparently nothing here for Phil Tucker‘s immortal crybaby Robot Monster, which, considering the modest expenditure on R. M.’s costume (a gorilla suit and a fish bowl, as I remember), seems a shame on all concerned. How soon we forget! But there are good enough jokes about s.f. icons Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters With an E. T.), George Lucas (it takes place in Modesto) and Stanley Kubrick (Kiefer Sutherland as Gen. W. R. Monger apes George C. Scott’s sublime Gen. Buck Turgidson, and there’s a Strangelovian war room for President Stephen Colbert).

The plot is wickedly ingenious and ingeniously…wicked. Susan, a Modesto TV gal about to be married to her preposterously vain news anchor fiance Derek (Paul Rudd) — who owes his career to the new masturbation fantasy strategy of selecting TV news anchors (and movie critics) — is plunged into a meteorite shower, swollen to near 50 foot proportions, dumped by disgraceful Derek, and then hurled by Gen Monger into the secret subterranean whoozits which is home to the rest of the Monster Mob,

The fearsome fivesome’s life-or-death mission: to battle and destroy the unstoppable extraterrestrial invasion of a gigantic robot and his maniacal employer, four-eyed Gallaxhar (played to nasty perfection by Rainn Wilson). Gallaxhar, like Chuck Jones’ Marvin the Martian in the Duck Dodgers cartoons, is loaded with gadgets and doesn’t go down easy. The robot utterly ignores Pres. Colbert’s touching grand gesture of intergalactic peace and love, a spirited rendition of the Close Encounters theme, segueing right into the equally throbbing theme from Beverly Hills Cop. Perhaps the next number in this thrilling Colbertian medley was “Can’t Stop the Music.” But we’ll never know; the robot rudely marched off to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge, without even a nod to Ray Harryhausen.

If you have blood in your veins and popcorn in your mitts, how could you not enjoy something like that? Especially when the filmmakers — directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon and writers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky — immediately flex their 3D muscles by hurling meteors at us and bopping a paddleball, House of Wax-style right in our faces? How could you not be utterly entranced by a 50-foot-tall cartoon Reese Witherspoon, in 3D yet? And how refreshing it is to see a current movie where Paul Rudd doesn’t get the girl — or the guy.

The technical ingenuity of the better contemporary cartoon features is now such a constant that its easy to ignore it and complain about something else, like the script or the 3D glasses. But Monsters vs. Aliens keeps projecting right off the screen, in ways you can’t ignore, especially when Ginormica is around.

Kids be damned. I had a good time at M.v.A. and sometimes you’re lucky to get even that. Meanwhile, we can confidently await the inevitable sequel, this time in 4D, “Destroy all Monsters! Destroy all Aliens!“ — where Colbert and fish bowl-headed Robot Monster (Seth Rogen in the role he was born to play) sing “Sometimes When We Touch (The Honesty’s Too Much)” to a rampaging octopoid-android and The House Republican Glee Club does a frenzied can can cameo to “No, No, Nanette,” Anne Coulter does a Gypsy Rose Lee strip to her original song, “Destroy All Liberals,” while the MSNBC Hardball-ettes answer smartly with “Barack Around the Clock.“

I don’t see how it can miss — especially if they have a paddleball scene.

Mademoiselle Chambon (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

France; Stephane Brize, 2009 (Lorber/Kino)

“Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.“ So says the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. So perhaps, for much of Mademoiselle Chambon, says Stephane Brize, the director/co-writer of this Brief Encounter-ish tale of a somewhat happily married house builder, Jean (Vincent Lindon) who falls in love with his little boy‘s schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain).

Thanks to Lindon, Jean goes very believably heartsick when Mlle. Chambon plays the classical violin (especially Edward Elgar), and then also must deal with her approaching departure, his own strongly moral nature and the fact that his wife, Anne-Marie (Aurore Atika) is both blameless (even if she is ignorant about direct objects in French grammar) and pregnant.

Lindon and Kiberlain, both exemplary actors, are an interesting couple — she’s brainy, wispy and interested, he‘s brawny, good with his hands and shy. And this adaptation by Brize and co-writer Florence Vignon of Eric Holder‘s novel, wrings as many drops of erotic tension, as many moony stares and averted eyes, pregnant silences and yearning almost-touches, as it can. Most of the passion is sub-surface, as it was in David Lean and Noel Coward’s postwar classic of Rachmaninoff-drenched repression. (See above). The visual style is chaste too. When young, smart-ass media neo-conservatives bitch about French movies, this may be part of what bothers them. Sex mixed with principles isn‘t their cuppa, and neither are movies that take romance seriously.

But in many great love stories, it’s the difficulties that make the drama, the frustrations that feed the passion. And that‘s the case here, too. Thanks to Lindon and Kiberlain, we feel again what it means to suffer, silently. Chambon is not great, or near-great, but its certainly good. Wispy, but good. (French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Interview with Brize; Deleted scenes; Stills gallery; Trailers

The DVD Wrap: Inception, Restrepo, Videodrome, Cronos, Strictly Ballroom … and more

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Inception: Blu-ray

Normally, I wouldn’t recommend watching a background featurette before checking out the main attraction first. The summer smash, Inception, demands a bit more work on the part of the viewer than most movies, though, and to fully enjoy the experience, some preparation is advised.

This isn’t to imply the only people capable of fully grasping what’s happening in Christopher Nolan’s multilayered thriller are those already acquainted with the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, only that some appreciation of the psychology of dreams is advisable. Otherwise, why bother trying to make sense of the often confounding array of chases, dizzying shifts in time and dimension, precisely timed break-ins, brilliant escapes and amazing visual effects? Sit back and enjoy the mayhem. Inception is a movie that asks more questions than it can possibly answer in one sitting.

I recommend starting with the featurette, Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious, in which several learned doctors, psychologists, theorists, authors and professors describe various theories pertaining to dreams and the brain’s capacity to process memories and other visual impulses. None of the movie’s secrets are revealed in the discussion and no one’s fun will be spoiled. Even those who aced Introduction to Psychology: 101 in college meet find value in the refresher course. That’s because most of what takes place in Inception plays out like a dream experienced during REM sleep.

Just when you think you can predict what’s going to happen next to characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Ken Watanabe, Lukas Haas, Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page, Nolan’s abruptly pulls the rug out from under them … and, by extension, us. Their mission is to enter the sub-conscious mind of a powerful energy magnate (Cillian Murphy) and plant an idea that will bear fruit at another time and in another dimension. DiCaprio’s crew may be able to anticipate shifts in their target’s brain activity, but a stray impulse could propel them into unknown territory and imprison them in his subconscious mind forever. And, as if this mission weren’t delicate enough, DiCaprio’s master thief is struggling to keep his own sub-conscious from imploding, along with memories of his seemingly doomed family in a previous, present or future life … take your pick. All of this action occurs at breakneck speed and against a background of constantly evolving natural disasters.

In addition to the primer on dreams, the Blu-ray’s bonus package offers fans much grist for the intellectual mill. Viewers who’ve already watched Inception in theaters may want to slow things down a bit, so they can study individual scenes in the interactive “Extraction Mode.” It provides immediate, full-screen access to making-of shorts and backgrounders. Other supplementary material includes “Inception: The Cobol Job,” a prequel to “Inception” in the form of Motion Comic. It explains how the dream-travelers were enlisted by Cobol Engineering for the mission. “Project Somnacin: Confidential Files” introduces “highly secure” tech files and schematics for the dream-share technology (requires BD-Live compatibility). There’s also a Conceptual Art Gallery, Promotional Art Archive, trailers and TV Spots.



It’s always interesting to learn the titles of movies screened by our presidents in theaters at the White House and Camp David, or on DVD. Indeed, a 2003 documentary All the President’s Movies addressed that very question. Richard Nixon was partial to Patton, we’re told, while Bill Clinton favored American Beauty. (Insert your own joke here.) Before being elected to his current job, Barack Obama cited the first two installments of The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia as his faves. Typically, our leaders have favored movies that promise to be highly entertaining or inspirational, rather than polemical and downbeat. In this, they’re not much different than the people who voted for them.

Considering how deeply the incumbent Commander in Chief has committed himself to the never-ending “war against terrorism” in Afghanistan, I would hope that he’s reserved time to view Restrepo, a documentary that not only honors the soldiers fighting there, but also suggests the futility of trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghans for whom the Taliban represent less a threat than errant Hellfire missiles. (Made in 2005, Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 9th Companytells almost the same story, except from the point of view of Russian occupiers, 20 years earlier.)

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo is a feature-length documentary that chronicles the 15-month deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in the hotly contested Korengal Valley, adjacent to the border with Pakistan. The outpost carved into a mountainous ledge overlooking the valley was named in honor of a platoon medic who was killed in action. In total, the filmmakers spent a year imbedded with Second Platoon, Battle Company, often following them on patrols and public-relations meetings with local elders. That the men (and filmmakers) were subject to daily attack by insurgents hardly qualifies as news. Indeed, they took it for granted.

It’s what we see the soldiers do when they aren’t returning enemy fire – besides doing chores, calisthenics and ragging on each other — that makes Restrepo seem, at times, otherworldly. Even as deeply dug in as these men were, they had access to video games, satellite telephones for calls home and a canteen that would make veterans of previous wars green with envy. As connected to the outside world as they were technologically, however, the soldiers knew that they were surrounded by an environment made hostile by the elements, a deeply committed enemy and traumatized locals.

As for their priorities, making Afghanistan a safe place for democracy and the antics of corrupt politicians is pretty far down a list that begins with staying alive, intact and relatively sane. In other wars, these young men could have expected occasional days of relief behind the front lines, in the company of other off-duty GIs and with access to modern plumbing and USO shows. Not so, these guys, and not so, this war. Hetherington and Junger have produced a document that is as politically neutral as The Hurt Locker, and demonstrates admiration for the courage of the enlisted men. Viewers are left to make what they will of a postscript that says Restrepo was abandoned by the army after Second Platoon left it, in 2007. The DVD adds extended interviews, deleted scenes and an update on the soldiers’ current whereabouts.


Videodrome: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Cronos: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

In the movies of David Cronenberg, horror takes many forms. A few have been populated with recognizable monsters, whose appearance alone is sufficient cause for fright. Typically, though, the Canadian filmmaker has found terror in places overlooked by most other artists. While his early projects merged science fact and science fiction with large dollops of paranoid speculation, the monsters in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence were decidedly human. Released in 1981, at the dawn of the video age, Videodrome prophesied a world in which certain forms of recorded entertainment literally would suck viewers into a subliminal realm dominated by predatory capitalists, religious zealots, sexual deviants and despots of all stripe.

By controlling the visual media, these criminals, clowns and charlatans could control large segments of society. Horrific images of a television programmer (James Woods) being turned into a human VCR were as unsettling as the film’s premise, which also anticipated the coming age of nanotechnology. Cronenberg would re-visit the human-hardware concept in eXistenZ, in which gameports were embedded organically in bodies. Any sequel to Videodrome would be hard-pressed to imagine something more horrifying than the current confluence of social media, reality television, celebrity worship, cyber-voyeurism and tweet-speak.

Made without the benefit of CGI, Videodrome effectively mimicked the low-tech appearance of underfinanced indie stations and local-access cable shows. Wood’s programmer is desperate to air something dramatically different than reruns of Gilligan’s Island and the rants of televangelists. He finds it in a mysterious cable transmission, which features the apparent torture and murder of women at the hands of masked sadists. If that weren’t shocking enough, the programmer discovers that the irresistibly nasty images mask subliminal messages that could influence the actions and opinions of viewers.

The more he learns about the conspiracy, the further Woods is sucked into its evil vortex. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition boasts a restored high-definition digital transfer of the unrated version; commentary by Cronenberg, DP Mark Irwin, Woods and co-star Deborah Harry; an extended version of the bootleg “Samurai Dreams” video shown in the movie; the featurette, “Forging the New Flesh,” with FX genius Rick Baker; “Fear on Film,” a 1982 roundtable discussion with Cronenberg, John Landis and John Carpenter; a booklet of essays; and the 2000 short, Camera.

The 1993 horror-fantasy Cronos introduced Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro to genre enthusiasts crying out for something different that slashers, splatter and increasingly more grotesque cyber-villains. At 29, Del Toro was the consummate genre geek, with his own effects emporium, Necropia, and a resume that included several short films and television productions, an executive-producer nod for Dona Herlinda and Her Son (1986), and 10 years worth of makeup and effects credits.

As a boy, he was so enraptured of monsters and fantasy that his deeply religious grandmother attempted to have him exorcised … twice. Cronos opens in 1535, inside the shop of an alchemist and tinkerer who’s putting the finishing touches on a scarab-like time piece. Flash ahead 400-plus years and we’re told that Mexican antiques dealer Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) has come into possession of certain items salvaged from the alchemist’s lab, which was destroyed in a landslide. The scarab is hidden inside a statue of a cherub, infested with giant cockroaches.

After an impromptu inquiry about the cherub, Gris finds the scarab inside the carving and, under the watchful eye of his granddaughter, restores the timepiece’s gold ectoplasm to its former luster. After winding the mechanism, however, Gris finds his hand grasped by the scarab’s hidden claws and his palm pierced by a metallic stinger. Soon thereafter, the old man’s wrinkles have disappeared and he looks 20 years younger. Clearly, the scarab possesses magical powers. It is about this time, as well, that Angel, the American nephew (Ron Perlman) of a filthy rich Mexican gentleman, arrives on the scene. The geezer is aware of the scarab’s provenance and desperately wants to live forever, if only to cheat Angel from his inheritance. In the ensuing test of wills between the old men, the one who’s beginning to understand the true cost of living forever tries to discourage the other from finding it out for himself. That never works, though, does it?

Cronos is a wonderfully inventive entertainment and it looks superb in Blu-ray. It also was omen of good things to come from Del Toro, who would go on to make The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II, Pan’s Labyrinth and a pair of Hellboy installments. (Mimic, his first foray into Hollywood, was more like a nightmare.)

The Criterion edition adds a newly restored high-def digital transfer, audio commentary with Del Toro and the producers; new interviews with Del Toro, Perlman and producer Bertha Navarro; a separate interview with Luppi; “Geometria,” an unreleased 1987 short horror film; Welcome to Bleak House, a tour by del Toro of his memorabilia-filled office; a stills gallery; and booklet featuring an essay by critic Maitland McDonagh.


Strictly Ballroom: Special Edition
Dancing Across Borders

Given the recent release of Moulin Rouge! and “Romeo + Juliet” on Blu-ray, I was surprised to see Miramax’s Special Edition of the similarly wonderful Strictly Ballroom arrive in standard DVD, albeit with a stack of neat extras. The colorful costumes, especially, would have lent themselves to hi-def, as would the delightfully eccentric musical presentation.

In it, a rising star in the world of ballroom dance meets a plain-looking young novice, Fran – a Gypsy, perhaps — who convinces the young man, Scott (Paul Mercurio), to listen to his heart and break some rules in his pursuit of glory. Holding Scott back is a domineering mother, herself a ballroom champion, who demands of her son that he stay on the straight-and-narrow path with his approved partner (Gia Carides), a frosty blond hoofer. She knows how reluctant the establishment is to change and fear the young man will ruin the opportunity for her to bask in his reflected glory.

Naturally, in Luhrmann’s inventive hands, Scott and Fran are able to silence the naysayers with a spectacular blend of traditional and interpretive dance routines. In the end, of course, everyone’s a winner. This was Luhrmann’s first feature and a limited budget precluded much experimentation. Besides the appeal of the dancing, Luhrmann was helped greatly by the ensemble work of veteran Aussie actors who could play it straight and campy with equal dexterity. The bonus package includes a deleted scene, the featurettes “‘Strictly Ballroom’: From Stage to Screen” and “Samba to Slow Fox,” a design gallery and commentary. Anyone who’s taken a fancy to the broadcast networks’ prime-time dance competitions will especially love Strictly Ballroom.

Anne Bass’ fine cross-cultural documentary, Dancing Across Borders, also cautions against too narrowly defining what constitutes High Art. A prominent patron of American and European ballet companies, Bass also devotes much of her abundant energy to organizations promoting Khmer culture.

It was on a visit to Angkor Wat that the Ft. Worth socialite discovered a young dancer, Sokvannara Sar, who was performing with other students of the Wat Bo School of Traditional Dance at Preah Khan. Something in his makeup convinced Bass that Sar might be able to excel at Western ballet, which requires turns and leaps unknown to Cambodia dance. The teen’s re-education would require that he leave his family, which depended on his contributions of money and labor.

If he weren’t so determined to succeed on his own terms as a dancer, Sar might have stayed home to work the rice paddies. The gamble paid off, though. Bass brought Sar to New York, where he auditioned for the School of the American Ballet and studied under ballet mistress Olga Kostritzky. Sar never abandoned the traditions of Cambodia, but the time he spent away from home weighted heavily on him. Sar’s commitment inspired Bass to pick up a camera, herself, to document what it took to become a professional dancer in America these days.

Dancing Across Borders represents an accomplished cinematic debut, especially for someone whose philanthropic time is so much in demand. The scenes shot in Cambodia, still reeling from the excesses of the Khmer Rouge, are quite beautiful. The DVD adds performance footage, an interview with the director and photo gallery.


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
Lennon NYC

Apart from being iconic 20th Century personalities, publisher Hugh Hefner and musician John Lennon shared several noteworthy characteristics. Most notably, perhaps, both men were targets of repression under the Nixon administration for their political views and lifestyles. They also were fabulously rich and hugely influential outside their chosen professions. Although they often courted the media, Hefner and Lennon would contribute time and resources to progressive causes, without first consulting with publicists. At some point, both men were condemned – and admired – for their choice of female companionship.

Had they met, and I’m not sure they didn’t, the Playboy and the Beatle probably would enjoyed each others’ company. That much, at least, can be inferred from this pair of enlightening bio-docs.

Without ignoring the opinions of his detractors, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel argues that the Playboy founder – who’s still very much alive, thank you — ultimately will be remembered as much as an outspoken advocate of human and civil rights as for any of his centerfolds or girlfriends. Besides giving money and space in Playboy to controversial causes, Hefner consciously used his syndicated television shows as weapons against racism, not only by inviting celebrities of all racial and political stripe to share his “penthouse” parties, but also for treating them as welcome guests, not merely entertainers.

Although such liberality cost the show broadcast outlets in the South, it also gave jazz musicians, comics, political figures and blacklisted entertainers a forum that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. More to the point of the magazine, however, Hef never backed down from challenges presented by those who would deny the right of free sexual expression to consenting adults. For example, Hef once helped to free a Georgia man serving a 10-year prison sentence for the crime of (wait for the drumroll) … fellatio. If the man had been caught doing the same thing in any of the other 49 American states, the worst penalty he might have gotten was a citation for disorderly conduct.

The vocal opposition is represented in Brigitte Berman’s film by feminist and longtime detractor Susan Brownmiller, singer Pat Boone and talk-show host Dennis Prager. Among those testifying in Hefner’s defense are Tony Bennett, Jim Brown, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson, Jenny McCarthy, George Lucas, David Steinberg, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Shannon Tweed and Gene Simmons. The film also offers vintage performances, from “Playboy After Dark,” by Pete Seeger, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez and blacklisted harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler. Actors Tony Curtis, Robert Culp and James Caan are there to remind us of the fact that the Playboy mansions have been used for other reasons than promoting liberal causes and most involved scantily clad Bunnies.

If the film seems at times to resemble a premature obituary for the 84-year-old sybarite, I say, better now than later.

The title of Michael Epstein’s LennonNYC is a bit of a misnomer. Although most of the events chronicled in the biodoc take place in Manhattan, the tragically short resurrection of the former Beatles’ career and marriage wouldn’t have been nearly so dramatic if it weren’t for the time he spend in Los Angeles. It was where he went for shelter after the breakup with Ono, recorded with Phil Specter (among others) and came close to drinking himself to death. It made his return to productivity and sobriety in New York that much more significant.

Much of the material here will be familiar from the more tightly focused documentaries, Imagine and The U.S. vs. John Lennon. The nearly 10-year arc of LennonNYC combines artistic elements of his life with corresponding personal, political and social concerns. It opens with Lennon championing the cause of jailed Michigan White Panther leader John Sinclair, who was imprisoned for possession of two joints. His ability to draw a huge crowd to a Detroit rally, and impact Sinclair’s almost immediate release, caught the attention of both left-leaning political strategists and Nixon administration officials who feared his charismatic appeal.

This led the Nixon/Ford Justice Department to actively pursue his deportation. It was during this four-year nightmare that Lennon compounded the agony of his appeals by separating from Ono and moving with May Pang to Los Angeles, where he spent more time partying than making music. His time spent wandering in the wilderness came to an abrupt and welcome end in 1975, with several high-profile musical collaborations, his reuniting with Ono and the nearly simultaneous birth of second son Sean and cessation of deportation proceedings.

For the next several years, Lennon divided his time between raising Sean and quietly returning to his music. The tragedy of his murder, in 1980, nearly coincided with the release of the album, “Double Fantasy,” which signaled his return to the musical limelight. In addition to archival footage of Lennon in concert and with Ono, LennonNYC is distinguished by the insightful recollections of fellow musicians, producers, friends and lovers. The film appeared first as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series, in the lead-up to the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death at 40, on December 8.


Big Bad Mama/Big Bad Mama II: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics
Lady in Red/Crazy Mama: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics

The titles included in the latest installment of Shout!Factory’s Roger Corman’s Cult Classics series could hardly be more representative of the impresario’s overriding principles of American cinema. The only things missing here are rocket ships, murderous critters and Barbarian women wearing animal skins. Otherwise, the movies overflow with car chases and explosive crashes, machine-gun fire, vengeful women, gratuitous nudity, B-list stars, rockin’ soundtracks and borrowed plots. All were shot on absurdly short schedules and suffocatingly tight budgets, by young filmmakers who would go on to make their marks in mainstream Hollywood.

What sets the Big Bad Mama epics, Lady in Red and Crazy Mama apart from lesser Corman efforts is the cohesiveness of their narratives. They don’t rely on the audience’s willingness to forgive cheesy production values and cornball dialogue for their commercial success. If you were 17 in the 1970s, watching a double-bill Big Bad Mama and Crazy Mama at the local drive-in, you might have been tempted to stop necking long enough to enjoy the pictures.

It would be impossible to address the appeal of the first Big Bad Mama without also mentioning the fact that Angie Dickinson – among the most beautiful and classy women ever to appear on the silver screen – sheds her clothes in the service of a plot that reads very much like a white-trash version of Bonnie and Clyde.

As the bank-robbing Wilma McClatchie, she makes love to a fellow crook, played by Tom Skerritt, and a sharp-dressed huckster, played by William Shatner. Normally, that would be sufficient cause to recommend a Roger Corman movie, but “Big Mama” is enhanced, as well, by the bluegrass music of David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, and some of the coolest vintage automobiles ever to be assembled for a demolition derby. Thirteen years later, in Jim Wynorski’s Big Bad Mama II, Dickinson would return in the similarly entertaining shoot-‘em-up, but a newspaper reporter played by Robert Culp is only allowed the pleasure of making love to Angie’s body-double.

Here, Wilma and her two jailbait daughters exact revenge on the politician who killed their husband/father and stole their farm. Danielle Brisebois and Playboy Playmate Julie McCullough supply the celebrity skin.

A drop-dead sexy Cloris Leachman plays the title character in Crazy Mama, a rare PG action comedy directed by Jonathan Demme. Leachman plays Melba Stokes, who, as a child, was driven from her family’s Arkansas farm by a greedy capitalist. Now living in SoCal, circa the late-1950s, with her mother, Sheba (Ann Sothern), and randy teenage daughter, Cheryl (Linda Purl), Wilma decides she wants to re-appropriate the property. She’ll finance the cross-country excursion by stealing unattended cash boxes at fairs and racetracks, and robbing businesses.

Donny Most (Happy Days) plays Wilma’s future son-in-law. Jim Backus and Stuart Whitman also play prominent roles. Dennis Quaid, John Milius, Bill Paxton, Will Sampson appear in small parts, as well. The rock classics on the soundtrack are as expressive and delightful as any of the dialogue.

John Sayles wrote the screenplay for The Lady in Red, a far less humorous re-telling of the FBI manhunt for John Dillinger (Robert Conrad), from the point of view of the prostitute falsely accused of setting up the gangster for the feds. Here, too, the female protagonist — Polly Franklin, played by a fetching Pamela Sue Martin — rises from the dust of poverty and parental abuse to impact events in the big city.

Besides her role as Dillinger’s lover, Franklin labored in a sweatshop and as a taxi dancer, for which she served time in jail, and would graduate to work in a brothel and diner. The story follows Franklin beyond the cowardly excessive assassination of Dillinger outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater, to her ill-fated attempt at making a name for herself as a criminal. The cast also includes Louise Fletcher, Robert Forster, Christopher Lloyd and Kitten Natividad. All of the movies are accompanied by an entertaining and informative commentary tracks and interviews with, among others, Dickinson, Corman, Sayles, Demme and Wynorski. The easy rapport between the producer and the artists makes the commentary tracks highly recommendable.


The Year of Getting to Know Us

It’s taken almost three years for this not terribly convincing dramedy about a garden-variety dysfunctional family to make the journey from Sundance to the direct-to-video marketplace. It’s not for lack of star power, certainly: Jimmy Fallon stars opposite Sharon Stone, Lucy Liu, Tom Arnold and Illeana Douglas. Hundreds of DVDs get released each year with lesser fire-power and worse scripts.

In his feature debut, co-writer/director Patrick Sisam makes the fatal mistake of casting SNL alum Fallon in a role that diminishes his naturally buoyant personality in the service of a character so morose that he’d even be a bummer at a funeral. In The Year of Getting to Know Us, Fallon plays commitment-phobic New York freelance writer, Christopher Rocket, with the nicest and most supportive girlfriend (Lucy Liu) in the world. Nevertheless, he treats her as if her lingerie is woven from poison ivy.

The blame for such inexplicable behavior is placed directly on the shoulders of his distance, golf-addicted father (Tom Arnold) and a hippy-dippy mom (Sharon Stone, in a bright-red wig), both of whom were too self-centered to notice he existed most of the time. When his dad suffers a stroke, Rocket elects to return to his Florida home, where he’ll be reminded of every emotional wound suffered at their hands. At the same time, he’s reunited with an old pal who knows too many of the writer’s secrets, a female classmate for whom he’s carried a torch, a too-caring neighbor and other reminders of a failed youth.

Things get even more complicated when his girlfriend decides to join him in Florida. What this picture needed was a far greater balance of comedy and drama, and a lot more room for Fallon to demonstrate why we should care about such a mope. The DVD adds footage from a panel discussion held after the movie debuted at Sundance. Typically, cast and crew behave as if the crowd had just watched Citizen Kane.


The Stranger in Us

In his freshman feature, writer/director Scott Boswell demonstrates a technical sophistication uncommon not only in so-called Queer Cinema, but most other indie products, as well. The Stranger in Us is a character-driven story about an aspiring poet, Anthony, who follows his lover, Stephen, a therapist, across the country to San Francisco. Once there, Anthony discovers that Stephen isn’t at all reluctant to work out his anger issues on him.

The situation forces Anthony to find solace and companionship in the streets, where he’s a decided outsider. He’s forced to make new friends and embark on adventures he might not have considered if things were better at home. Boswell’s camera is never more than a few feet from the characters, whether they’re walking down the street or having sex. The lighting is naturalistic, almost to a fault, and the love-making occurs as it might in real life. On the other hand, Boswell’s decision to experiment with narrative flow makes viewers work too hard. All things considered, though, an impressive debut.


Dennis Hopper: The Early Works

When Dennis Hopper died last May 29, at 74, obituary writers had more than a half-century of movie titles from which to choose career highlights. As far as I know, none of the articles mentioned his appearances in the productions included in the interesting retrospective, The Early Works. Like most stars whose careers began after 1950, Hopper’s earliest credits represented appearances on the small screen. The shows represented here are Medic (1955), in which Hopper played an epileptic; Public Defender (1955), in which he assumed the familiar role of juvenile delinquent; The Loretta Young Show, opposite the pig-tailed diva (1955); and, believe it or not, the 1964 “Bobbie Jo and the Beatnik” episode of Petticoat Junction.

The set also includes Hopper’s first feature lead, in Night Tide (1961), a supernatural romance inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s Annabelle Lee. In the psycho-thriller, he played a sailor in love with a possibly murderous mermaid. There also are previews of Key Witness, another teen-crime drama, and Night Tide. In every role, Hopper’s trademark mix of intensity and vulnerability is on full display. The shows probably were recorded from kinescope copies, so they aren’t of the highest visual quality. They are fun to watch, though.


Caged Animal

Originally titled “The Wrath of Cain,” the straight-to-DVD prison drama Caged Animal almost certainly will be confused with two previous Ving Rhames prison flicks, Animal and Animal 2, in which he plays a jailed gangsta’ named James “Animal” Allen. All’s fair in love, war and genre movies, I suppose, but there ought to be a MPAA rule against such ruses.

I’d hate to think that someone, somewhere, felt one Ving Rhames prison movie is indistinguishable from all other Ving Rhames prison movies. Here, the scariest looking guy in Hollywood plays, what else?, a former gang-banger who’s become nearly as powerful a presence in prison as in the streets of L.A. Cain’s top-dog status is threatened by the arrival of an old nemesis, Redfoot, who’s played by Robert LaSardo, the richly inked Hispanic actor who’s played more homeboys and convicts than any actor alive. Caged Animal also co-stars Nipsey Hussle, Robert Patrick, and Jeanette Branch.


Hunter Prey
Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray

Comics and superhero geeks might know writer/director Sandy Collara best for his nifty short, Batman: Dead End, in which a confrontation between the Caped Crusader and Joker is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a gang of Predators. Hunter Prey provides a wonderful example of what an imaginative FX specialist can do with a minute budget.

Here, the answer derives from going Old School, relying more on prosthetics, costumes and a unique setting than CGI effects. After an alien spacecraft crash-lands on a rocky and arid planet somewhere in the cosmos, its crew of bounty hunters is instructed to re-capture a prisoner the ship was carrying. The first half-hour of Hunter Prey doesn’t promise much in the way of adult thrills, as all but one of the four characters resemble Ninja Turtles in Iron Man costume and their weapons and shields look as if they were purchased at toy store.

The action, which mostly involves hiding behind rocks and firing off the occasional shot, seems to be confined to a giant sandbox. Before long, though, the Baja California location takes on a sinister personality of its own and the aliens’ cat-and-mouse game becomes a battle of wits. One doesn’t expect to encounter such spare entertainment in 2010, so Hunter Prey requires no small degree of patience on the viewer’s part. Their patience is rewarded with a film that’s more of throwback to Twilight Zone or Outer Limits than Star Wars, and some old-fashioned fun.

A product of Iceland, Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre describes what happens when a boatload of stranded eco-tourists is rescued by a family of degenerate sailors from Satan’s merchant marine. The confrontation between whale huggers and whale muggers isn’t nearly as one-sided as one might imagine, really. The whalers may have all the weapons, but they’re also as dumb as rocks, which leaves them vulnerable to booby traps and sloppy mistakes.

The result is a bloodbath the equal of any butchering that occurs on a Japanese whaler. Gore fanciers won’t even have to understand Icelandic to enjoy the slaughter in Whale Watching Massacre, as half of the dialogue, at least, is in English. True genre fanatics will appreciate the brief, but unforgettably gruesome appearance by native Icelander Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Stranger in Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Daddy in Chainsaw Sally and Krenshaw in Brutal Massacre: A Comedy.


Across the Line: Blu-ray

Writer/director R. Ellis Frazier says that the inspiration for Across the Line (a.k.a., “The Exodus of Charlie Wright”) came from Bernie Madoff, who elected to face prosecution for his crimes, rather than put his family at risk from potentially dangerous creditors. Mob banker Charlie Wright has no such scruples and splits town moments before he’s about to arrested by the FBI.

Although Wright is believed to have more than a billion dollars stashed away in foreign bank accounts, he heads directly for a dumpy apartment in Tijuana. Normally, T.J.’s one of the last places on Earth a rich hoodlum would go to avoid arrest. There probably are more kidnapers, U.S. and Mexican drug agents, desperados and federalis there than anywhere else in Mexico, and a wealthy hoodlum would be fair game for all of them.

Among other parties interested in capturing Wright are the Russian mobsters who entrusted him with their funds. The only person not armed to the teeth and desperate for revenge is Wright, who is searching for the daughter of a woman he loved and left behind many years ago. That pretty much sums up the appeal of Across the Line, except to point out that one of the parties interested in capturing the fugitive is an overextended Tijuana crimelord, played by Andy Garcia, and that the lovely Claudia Ferri plays a hooker of a certain age who volunteers to help Wright in his mysterious quest.

After a certain point, it becomes clear that Frazier’s film is as much a meditation on growing old in a cruel business as it us about the chase, itself. I doubt the likely audience for “Across the Line” will embrace such a subtle conclusion, but Tijuana provides enough visual diversions to disguise the subtext until near the film’s gentle climax. Also featured in the cast are Mario Van Peebles, Danny Pino, Gina Gershon, Luke Goss, Raymond J. Barry and Elya Baskin. There’s a bonus making-of featurette.


A Dog Year

Earlier this year, Jeff Bridges won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in Crazy Heart, a movie that very nearly went straight to DVD. It wasn’t so much that the film wasn’t ready for prime-time, as for the lack of imagination and financial courage on the part of it original backers, Country Music Television and Paramount Vantage. Fox Searchlight saw a potential hit in Crazy Heart, as well as possible award contention for Bridges, at least.

In addition to roles in such high-profile pictures as Iron Man and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and the upcoming True Grit and TRON: Legacy, Bridges had also logged time in a bunch of underachievers and charity cases. Among these titles were The Open Road, in which he played a former baseball star who could have been Bad Blake’s twin brother, and the HBO original, A Dog Year, as a writer also nearing over-the-hill status.

In the latter, Bridges’ Jon Katz is an author in his mid-50s who’s grown weary of banging his head against a writer’s block the size of a Rhode Island. For reasons that aren’t made entirely clear, Katz agrees to take in a border collie with ADD. It had been abused by its former owner and was celebrating its newfound freedom by bowing to no man. Katz already owns two extremely obedient golden retrievers, Stanley and Julius, who try very hard to ignore the intruder, Devon. Nearly at wit’s end, Katz decides to move into a dilapidated farm house, where he and Devon can flake out as much as they want.

A neighbor suggests Katz turn Devon over to the local dog-whisperer (Lois Smith), who senses that the primary thing the dog needs in his life is to be re-introduced to a flock of sheep that need herding. Without giving anything away that couldn’t already be guessed, Devon’s redemption inspires Katz to get back to his word processor and write. A Dog Year is a decidedly small film, but it plays extremely well on the small screen. Bridges seems content to play second fiddle to the unruly pup and the result is a film that dog lovers of any age can enjoy. The DVD includes a making-of featurette.


The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer

This light-hearted animated feature was distributed to theaters throughout South America, Central America and Mexico, by Fox, before landing in DVD on American shores. Nationality plays far less a role in enjoyment of cartoons than live-action pictures, of course, but The Dolphin is informed by a distinctly Hispanic vibe. In it, a dolphin named Daniel defies the elders in his pod by embarking a journey of discovery and adventure with a small coterie of friends.

I doubt that its producers would discourage comparisons with Finding Nemo, even if its budget is far smaller than the one allotted The Dolphin. In the period between the two movies’ release, software costs have diminished to the point where smaller studios can afford to capture magic that looked revolutionary and prohibitively expensive only a few years earlier. The movie’s rated PG, for “mild scary action and brief rude humor,” but I can’t imagine children being any more scared by The Dolphin than the G-rated Bambi and Old Yeller. The disc offers English and Spanish audio tracks.


Space: 1999: The Complete Season One: Blu-ray
Space Precinct: The Complete Series
Hoarders Season Two: Part One

Thirty-five years ago, it must have seemed entirely reasonable to think men and women would be living on our moon, if not other planets, by now. Who could have imagined that future lunar missions would be scrapped in cost-cutting campaigns or that Americans would lose interest in a program that had yet to reveal the presence of life or edible green cheese? It was with that original flash of optimism in mind that Britain’s ITC studio launched an expensive sci-fi series that took seriously the notion that a research facility, housing more than 300 people, would be built on the moon.

Unfortunately, the space station and everyone on it would be hurled into Deep Space after the moon broke away from Earth’s orbit, following a series of nuclear explosions. Among the well-known actors populating the Moonbase Alpha were Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (Mission:Impossible), Barry Morse, who played the police detective assigned to tracking down David Janssen on The Fugitive.

The American presence of Space 1999 was limited to independent stations that could afford the money and time for the syndicated show. (Today, the producers would have their pick of a dozen different cable stations.) The A&E Blu-ray package adds 5.1 surround-sound audio, along with the original mono; audio commentaries; music-only tracks, behind-the-scenes featurettes; image galleries for all episodes; trailers; textless titles; Barry Gray’s theme music demo; alternate opening/closing titles; Landau and Bain’s intro and outro for the U.S. premiere; SFX plates and deleted SFX scenes with music tracks.

Gerry Anderson, who exec-produced Space 1999, Thunderbirds and Supercar, also was responsible for the exceedingly goofy Space Precinct, a 1994 series that merged elements of sci-fi shows with police dramas. Although shot in the U.K., it featured a pair of veteran New York cops entrusted with the pursuit of alien and human criminals on the planet Altor. The detectives were played by Ted Shackelford and Rob Youngblood.

When A&E debuted the reality-based series, Hoarders, it was difficult for me to imagine the show lasting two weeks, let alone two seasons. If there’s one thing Americans love to do, however, it’s watching people nuttier than themselves on television. Before long, fictional hoarders would start being murdered by their piles of junk on such shows as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and local TV news shows would beat the bushes for hoarders of their own.

As we learned, hoarders risked nervous breakdowns if forced to eliminate even the most insignificant-seeming item from their archives. This show helped them endure the ordeal. The DVD set includes the first seven episodes of the second season and additional footage.

Other new TV-to-DVD packages include, SpongeBob SquarePants: Season Six, Volume 2, which offers more of the same undersea nonsense, and Touch of Frost: Season 15, which purports to be the final year for the venerable series. An alternate ending is included.

Things to Be Thankful For

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

We’re getting an early start to the long holiday weekend around here; Seattle got nailed by an early snow storm, which gave the kids a couple snow days tacked onto the Thanksgiving weekend. So we’ve got the unexpected bonus of a six-day holiday weekend around here, and spirits are high. I hear that Angelina Jolie hates Thanksgiving and doesn’t want to perpetuate celebrating an anniversary of murder, and to that I say, well, good for her, and I guess can see her point.

But for me, Thanksgiving has always been not about the past and Pilgrims and Native Americans, but about the present and the future; it’s a time to take a pause from the hectic pace of life and reflect on the many blessings we have in our lives. Around here, we try to focus with our kids on helping them to be aware of how fortunate we are to have a nice home to live in, plenty of food to eat, warm clothes to wear, jobs that provide the money to support our family. And, of course, to be aware that others are not so blessed, and to make room in our hearts and our budgets to give to those who need a little boost to help them out.

Thanksgiving for me is also about getting mentally geared up for the upcoming Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa season, when we should be as mindful (or more) of giving as well as receiving. This is absolutely my favorite time of the year, and this year in particular my heart feels very full.

I’m very thankful this year for my own good health, and for healthy, happy, well-adjusted kids and a new marriage. I’m immensely thankful to still be employed in a tight economy, and to be able to write and edit for a living when there are many other crappy jobs I could be doing just to make ends meet. I’m thankful for amicable relationships with ex-spouses that allow us to have a crazy, loving, blended extended family where everyone gets along most of the time.

We will be having lots of family time this holiday weekend. In between marathon sledding sessions, warming up with hot cocoa and popcorn by a cozy fire, and delightfully raucous games of Munchkin and Zombie and Chthulu Dice with six kids and two game-geeky grownups, I have big plans this weekend to snuggle up under warm covers and work my way through the stack of screeners beckoning from the foot of the bed.

The screener fairy has been making daily stops by our house, so in between holiday activities and cooking and playing, I’m planning to watch Restrepo, The Kids Are All Right, Road to Nowhere, The Lottery, Somewhere, The American, The Town, Greenberg and Babies. I’m even going to take a second look at Hereafter, and we have both Inception and HP 7.1 to watch again (really loved that movie, though I will enjoy more watching it together with 7.2 after it comes out … I think the pacing will play out better that way).

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the awards-season movies What do you love? What do you hate? Who’s getting overlooked? Who’s overrated? What do you think about this new docs category at Sundance? Are you fine-tuning your own Top Ten list? Do you care about Oscars and Golden Globes and BAFTAs (oh my)?

Happiest of holidays to you and yours. I hope you enjoy your time with friends and family, as I plan to. But if you need a break from hearing Aunt Ethyl’s stories for the 89,000th time, drop on by and let’s chat about movies too. As for me, I have a few more films I need to see yet in addition to the screeners I have here before I can narrow down my own top ten and gear up for voting with my critics’ groups. True Grit, Rabbit Hole and The Fighter are the big ones I have yet to see before I can hone things down seriously. There is much movie-watching to squeeze in around holiday stuff, but this is such a wonderful time of year, I don’t even mind how hectic it gets.

Happy holidays to all, and I’ll see you after Thanksgiving!

Wilmington on Movies – The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Last Airbender, Love Ranch, Restrepo, Let it Rain and Sweetgrass

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Two Stars)
U.S.; David Slade, 2010

Midway through The Twilight Saga: Eclipse — a mediocre movie based  on another Stephenie Meyer novel, and poised to rake in oodles of cash, — Taylor Lautner suddenly showed up, grinning and preening, seemingly deep into his role of Jacob Black, the spurned but persistent Native American werewolf. (more…)