Left of the Dial, Little Manhattan, and Occupation: Dreamland

Raging liberals, puppy love, and the hazards of Iraq.

Left of the Dial

HBO, $24.98

This HBO documentary chronicles the quick ascent, even quicker crash, and somewhat inspiring recovery of Air America, the liberal answer to right-wing-dominated talk radio. Although Dial focuses on the station's triumph over allegations of fiscal impropriety that come just two weeks after its 2004 launch, don't expect much detailed explanation.

The main story is more personal: the growing pains of Air America's staff, set against the backdrop of the emotionally charged presidential race. Filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan capture strong personalities including Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken, both radio novices but the station's intended celebs, which prompts a bit of sulking from talk-radio veteran Randi Rhodes. Comedian and apparent prima donna Marc Maron also throws his fair share of hissy fits. Indeed, we're treated to a juicy glimpse of the personal politics behind the launch of this political network.

Dial is modeled as an underdog's comeback tale, as the startup survives both financial controversy and the defeat of John Kerry. This, the doc tells us, gives the station's stars even more passion and sense of purpose. Worthwhile DVD extras include interviews with both Rhodes and Garofalo. MARISA MCQUILKEN

Little Manhattan

Fox, $27.98

Movies about 10-year-olds falling in love are inherently disturbing (pudgy kid fingers locked together, sloppy kisses landing in the general vicinity of the face), and Manhattan barely avoids vomit-inducing sappiness while reviving the Kevin Arnold character from The Wonder Years, here named Gabe and played by Josh Hutcherson. This kid's the creation of Mark Levin (a Wonder Years writer working in concert with wife Jennifer Flackett), and Gabe also uses voice-overs to relate his problems to viewers. In Manhattan, his problems are his parents' looming divorce and continued co-habitation, and his newfound obsession with Rosemary (Charlie Ray).

After bonding in summer karate classes, Gabe and Rosemary spend a couple of weeks flirting, bickering, frolicking, and riding around on his scooter. (Actually, that last part may have made me upchuck slightly in my mouth.) Gabe then discovers that Rosemary is leaving for summer camp and, without delay, private school in the fall. This turns him into a crazed gorilla-child who jumps around his room in tighty-whities crying hysterically and screaming her name. Again, this can be a disturbing movie.

Manhattan does feature charming and believably awkward performances by its two young leads, although Cynthia Nixon, as Gabe's mom, has been considerably neutered from her Sex and the City days. It's all fluffy and trite, but those small sweaty palms seem real. (Levin and Flackett provide a commentary.) HEATHER LOGUE

Occupation: Dreamland

Rumur, $24.98

The recent release of journalist Jill Carroll, kidnapped for three months and threatened with death by her captors, is a reminder of how treacherous Iraq is for the media covering that war. It's sadly ironic that Dreamland co-director Garrett Scott died of a heart attack while swimming off the San Diego shore, two days before this war doc won an Independent Spirit Award. He and Ian Olds previously spent six weeks in early 2004 following members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in Fallujah, maybe the most dangerous and hostile area of the Sunni Triangle. Their intimate, sympathetic vérité look at the soldiers is nothing but realistic about that cauldron of resistance. To make a difference in Fallujah, says one lieutenant, would require "years and years and years of people like us getting blown up." Says one grunt of their midnight raids (resulting in zip-tied wrists and sandbags over heads, before the Abu Ghraib revelations made such imagery notorious), "I'm sure it scares the shit out of people." In other words, the mood is a little more jaded than in Gunner Palace, because the occupation has gone on that much longer and the cumulative death toll risen that much higher. (A recent Christian Science Monitor poll of our troops confirms this.)

Scott and Olds share a commentary track with ex-soldier Joseph Wood, although their remarks are mostly procedural. They give due, in the credits, to local filmmaker James Longley (Iraq in Fragments) and CNN's Kevin Sites. Indeed, some of their footage—including a scary IED explosion—appears to have been shot by others during the two subsequent sieges of Fallujah, after they left. In a terrible sense, all these independent filmmakers and journalists are braving the lethal climate of Iraq because it's such a great documentary subject. In another bit of irony, the FX TV series Over There is new to DVD—though it was canceled after just one season. Fictionalized war stories just can't compete with Dreamland's reality. BRIAN MILLER


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