It's a Wild World 

Socialist leaders in Latin America (South of the Border), US soldiers in Afghanistan (Restrepo), and demon zombies in Barcelona ([REC] 2).

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Oliver Stone's South of the Border is the sort of foreign-affairs political report you seldom see on American commercial TV. In fact, Stone's documentary directs some of its most scathing contempt at CNN and perennial bugaboo Fox News for parroting the hostility of this country's military-industrial complex toward Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, the preferred Latin American "red menace" of the last decade.

Chavez's crime? He gave the finger to the International Monetary Fund, Big Oil, the George W. Bush administration, and the Pentagon, by deciding that oil-rich Venezuela — the third-largest exporter of petroleum products to the US — should go it alone without Washington's "help." Former army officer Chavez, who grew up poor and rode a populist electoral wave to the presidency, is presented as a truly "popular" leader, concerned more with ordinary Venezuelans than with the wishes of multi-national corporations. For his efforts, he was made the target of a failed rightwing coup attempt in 2002. But he keeps hanging on and driving yanqui neo-cons crazy. He's not alone.

After spending a large chunk of its 78 minutes on the self-proclaimed "Bolivarian" Chavez and his socialist vision, Stone's doc visits a number of Latin American leaders and discovers that, in his words, "there's a revolution underway in South America." Contrary to the continent's sad history of army-backed coups and oligarchies, this time it's coming from the left rather than the right, and peaceably, through elections. Take Evo Morales' Bolivia, which kicked out the American Drug Enforcement Administration and is attempting to recover its own natural resources from US corporations. Or Argentina, where the successive governments of Cristina Kirchner and her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, defaulted on the country's debt and dumped the IMF. Argentina is now proudly anti-"free trade."

One by one, such former US clients as Brazil, Paraguay, and Ecuador have embarked on a "new way of thinking." An important piece of their thinking, according to Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is that "the poor are being treated like human beings." Imagine that. One-time plutocratic dictatorships who took money and support from US companies are now adopting a "neo-liberal" stance and insisting on social justice instead of profits, and it seems to be working.

South of the Border was written by veteran Pakistani-British political analyst and novelist Tariq Ali (he was allegedly the subject of The Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man") and poli-sci prof and UK Guardian columnist Mark Weisbrot, so there's no mistaking the film's progressive slant. Ali, in particular, sees the northward flow of people and cultural influences from Latinoamérica to los Estados Unidos as "a bridge of ideas" that can only help spread the word. In that respect, the documentary takes a hopeful tone.

Chalk up this provocative doc as the type of project only an Oliver Stone (JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon) could swing — a contrarian report that dares to air points of view that routinely go missing from mainstream news in the US. It will ultimately sell fewer tickets in theaters than one afternoon's worth of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. But at least Stone, Ali, Weisbrot, the Los Angeles-based distributor Cinema Libre, and the film's apparently sincere, socially oriented subjects will have had their shot, no matter how fleeting, at speaking truth to power inside the mighty American media machine. For that reason alone, South of the Border is an event.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo deserves some highlighting as one of the very few films from our current "war years" — the US has been at war in Iraq and/or Afghanistan for more than seven years now — that resonates after the lights go up.

Journalist/filmmakers Hetherington (Liberia: An Uncivil War) and Junger (he wrote The Perfect Storm) accompanied a platoon of US Army troops deployed in the Taliban-occupied Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan ("the deadliest place on earth") to a still more dangerous forward outpost named for PFC Juan "Doc" Restrepo, a American soldier who died there. Life at OP Restrepo is a curious combination of shura, or meetings, with valley elders ("We'll flood this place with money and healthcare and projects," promises the officer to the tribesmen); reimbursing local farmers for cows accidentally shot; and four or five deadly firefights a day, everyday. We observe the soldiers, feel the tug of the earth as they burrow in to avoid incoming RPGs, and learn a little bit about the job they do.

The film's fly-on-the-wall style pays dividends. A few of the grunts are restless, immature kids, but the constant threat of death ages them. Capt. Dan Kearney relies on by-the-book solutions when he first arrives. Speaking about the constant insurgency, he says: "I would fix it, and we wouldn't get shot at anymore." That, too, changes with experience. We get the feeling that the same documentary could have been made in Vietnam, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, anywhere. The men of Restrepo can't really separate the hostiles from the locals. It's the same old story. You're the foreigner. It's their land, and you're just a visitor.

The men of Barcelona's police tactical squad are fighting another kind of insurgency in Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza's stylish horror hottie [REC] 2: rabid, fast-moving, screeching, bloody, demonically possessed vampire/zombies, infecting new victims by biting them. The run-amoks are holed up in a cavernous, fetid, pitch-black apartment building, and it's up to Dr. Owen (Jonathan Mellor), a Roman Catholic priest in charge of a team of police raiders, to exterminate the brutes and rescue any survivors, with TV reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) along for the ride.

Those who Owen and his men don't shoot to death they attempt to exorcise with full church ritual. So we get a combo of Alien, the Exorcist movies, the Blair Witch series, every zombie pic ever made, plus a touch of the Saw films. Little Spanish Linda Blairs with men's voices running in from all directions in the dark. Kudos to sound designer Oriol Tarragó for his masterful sound effects, and to Pablo Rosso's cinematography. Filmmakers Balagueró and Plaza, further examples of Spain's resurgent horror film industry, keep the proceedings fast and violent, with feral demon kids and a surplus of imaginative restatements of the genre's best-loved clichés.

Restrepo
Rated R · 93 min. · 2010
Official Site: www.restrepothemovie.com
Director: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington
South of the Border
Rated NR · 102 min.
Official Site: southoftheborderdoc.com
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone
Producer: Fernando Sulichin
Cast: Tariq Ali, Raúl Castro, Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Cristina Kirchner, Néstor Kirchner, Fernando Lugo and Evo Morales
[Rec] 2
Rated R · 85 min.
Official Site: www.rec2lapelicula.com/index.php
Director: Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza
Writer: Jaume Balagueró and Manu Díez
Producer: Julio Fernández
Cast: Manuela Velasco, Leticia Dolera, Javier Botet, Ferran Terraza, David Vert, Alejandro Casaseca, Ana Isabel Velásquez, Andrea Ros and Juli Fàbregas

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