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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

The Best of Friends, Volumes 3 & 4

Again, it’s an end-of-month archival expansion here at Shared Darkness, ergo this DVD review of a Friends compilation set, originally published upon its release in 2001. To wit:

If you have no friends or just prefer the tremendously telegenic lookers of NBC’s eponymous hit sitcom over your own, fear not, for The Best of Friends, Volumes 3 and 4 features 10 more episodes from the series’ first six seasons. Billed as episodes voted the best by both fans and the series’ creators, this attractively packaged set nicely mixes installments that give each of the stars of Friends some time in the spotlight, with each episode including previously unaired footage. While the lack of strict adherence to chronology may irk some, this tack actually allows for the pleasure of watching haircuts change and characters develop without sitting through several entire seasons worth of shows.

At first a show built around simple types, obvious jokes and telegraphed conceits (albeit delivered in a very talented and good-looking way), Friends has really grown throughout its super-successful run. Even if its situations are still sometimes a bit transparent, its layered comedy has really enriched the characterizations. This DVD set includes a 40-minute behind-the-scenes documentary from 1999 that takes viewers all the way through the show, from writing, script development and set construction to shooting with a live studio audience. It does not, however, answer one crucial question. How many promotional photos have these six taken together? The world may never know. B (Shows) B (Discs)

The Golden Bowl

Again, it’s an end-of-month archival expansion here at Shared Darkness, ergo
this DVD review of The Golden Bowl, originally published upon its release in the wintry holiday months of 2001. To wit:

The
Golden Bowl is a sumptuously costumed, comfortably bloated and generally well-acted
affair that, curiously, doesn’t elicit much of a response. An intricately
plotted tale of thwarted love and betrayal set between 1903 and 1909, The Golden Bowl tells the story of
extravagantly wealthy American widower Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) and his
sheltered daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale). Adam spends most of his time
collecting precious works of art for his planned museum in what is always
referred to as only an “American city.” By chance — and perhaps something
more — they both marry at the same time, only to discover that their respective
spouses, a beautiful but clingy former friend of Maggie’s named Charlotte Stant
(Uma Thurman) and an impoverished Italian aristocrat named Prince Amerigo
(Jeremy Northam), are romantically entangled with one another.

It’s this
foursome, pairing off in all sorts of different and interesting ways, that
serves as the strength of The Golden Bowl.
Nolte delivers an intelligent, mannered performance, and Northam is a talented
actor and fine as rain here, though it remains a bit disconcerting throughout
the film’s running to watch him portray a born-and-bred Italian. Finally,
Beckinsale pokes through the emotional mutedness of both the times and the
script; we see her passion and desire, even if the character of Maggie is often
a puzzlingly reactive figure. So, to recap: decent screenplay, superb acting,
fantastic set design and photography — then why doesn’t this movie feel great?
Well, at two hours and 10
minutes, it is a bit long. But mainly it’s just that the metaphors deployed are
fairly obvious and the slow, played-out peacocks’ dance of romantic discovery
and recrimination that the film puts on display a bit tiresome
. Fans of the
actors involved may likely find this adaptation a Golden experience; others, however, may want to get to the bottom
of another Bowl. Still, the
widescreen DVD transfer, with both English 5.1 and French 2.0 audio, does a
fantastic job of capturing Tony Pierce-Roberts’ cinematography, particularly in
glorious establishing sequences at the Verger estate in Fawns and the Palazzo
Ugolini. Other air-quote extras are fairly sparse, with only scene selection, biographies,
subtitles and the movie’s theatrical trailer. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C (Movie) C- (Disc)

A Beautiful Mind

Again, it’s an end-of-month archival expansion here at Shared Darkness, ergo this review of 2001’s Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, originally published upon its theatrical release. To wit:

If genius presupposes the question, seeing the answer before the query or even the full diagnosis of the problem, we in movies rarely get a sense of that quicksilver interior monologue — the ambition, ideas and concepts that drive and motivate great inventors, scientists, mathematicians and writers. Most directors, after all, aren’t geniuses. Most studio execs aren’t geniuses. And certainly audiences aren’t comprised of geniuses — the grosses of Tomb Raider proved that.

Hence when films about genius are made, we’re usually fed cloying or melodramatic stories about compartmentalized brilliance — people with amazingly specialized knowledge but flagrantly miserable personal lives or relationships — the point of which, one assumes, is simply to reaffirm the humanity of those viewed as occupying the ivory tower. “See,” the filmmakers say, “this person isn’t really better than you — their talent comes at the expense of other desirable, mutually exclusive traits.”

Russell Crowe, the film is based on the life story of John Nash, a very real and very brilliant mathematician who battled schizophrenia and later triumphed, going on to win the Nobel Prize. Of course, his genius does comes at the expense of other qualities (talking to the opposite sex is an amusing weak point), but the grand point of the film is that it doesn’t necessarily have to, and Howard and Crowe convey this in a manner that is utterly lacking in condescension or vanity.

A West Virginia native who wins a prestigious scholarship to Princeton, Nash arrives on campus with the idea that there is a crystalline architecture to the universe that we all only briefly glimpse. He’s dogged in his pursuit of an original idea, and his theory of governing dynamics, refuting Adam Smith and centuries of philosophy, breaks bold new ground. Despite his BMOC reputation, Nash largely keeps to himself, socializing mainly with his English Lit major roommate Charles (Paul Bettany). After graduation, he accepts a teaching and research post at MIT, where he meets Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), a student who draws him out of his shell and provides a platform of continuity from which Nash can better relate to the outside world. While at MIT, Nash is contacted by William Parcher (Ed Harris) of the Department of Defense, and so also begins doing some secret code-breaking work for the Pentagon. But the stress and detail of his work proves too much, and Nash cracks. Without giving too much away, it suffices to say that the film’s advertising campaign involves a fair amount of ingenious misdirection, with the real arc of A Beautiful Mind simply being: genius, madness, Nobel Prize. Yet filmgoers are unlikely to feel ripped off or lied to, since Nash’s “diet of the mind,” in which he says he chooses simply not to indulge certain appetites, proves as exciting and interesting as any thriller plot element.

Akiva Goldsman’s script, adapted very loosely and liberally from Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash, is by far his best writing that I can recall, and one of the best screenplays of the year. The dialogue crackles and Nash’s fellow students and later co-workers Sol and Bender (Road Trip’s Anthony Rapp and indie staple Adam Goldberg) are particularly clearly drawn and delightfully witty (“He’s your son,” mutters an exasperated Sol of Nash at one point). If some of the other characters are more cloak-and-dagger, it’s with good reason.

Of course, Goldsman also has the advantage of two top-shelf talents. Crowe delivers another Oscar-caliber performance of courage, intensity and wit, his ferocious intellectual curiosity shining through. Connelly, meanwhile, is equally remarkable. Opposite Crowe you need an actress who can emotionally take charge of scenes (hint: not Meg Ryan), whether from a position of power or not, and Connelly absolutely does. Their exceptional work, along with Howard’s sterling, even-handed direction make A Beautiful Mind a beautiful thing. For an interview/feature piece on the film, click here. (Universal, PG-13, 135 minutes)

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee is an inspirational
drama powered by template familiarity and an abundance of earnestness. The
winner of the 2000 Nicholl Fellowship, a screenwriting competition sponsored by
the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, writer-director Doug
Atchison’s film pulls heartstrings effectively if frequently deliberately, but
locates genuine feeling with such sincerity
that it stands poised to catch fire
with early summer niche audiences open to emotive counter-programming in the
face of an onslaught of bigger-budget flash.

While a very different type of movie, one of the things last
summer’s documentary smash March of the
Penguins
proved was there is a market for heartfelt, broad-audience films
outside of the more traditional, big studio family fare. Though lacking that
film’s novelty, Akeelah and the Bee
could easily emerge as a low-lying, long-playing arthouse success, given proper
coddling and circumstance.

The film’s plot is a relatively straightforward and
chronological telling of personal triumph, charting the progression of Akeelah
Anderson (newcomer Keke Palmer, above), a bright but somewhat shy 11-year-old girl, through
a handful of city and regional contests to the national finals in Washington,
D.C.
An excellent student with spotty
attendance, Akeelah hails from one of the poorer school districts in Los
Angeles
, and is goaded into entering her class’
spelling bee by her principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), who’s desperate to
affect change and improve his school’s image.

Despite the objection of her mother Tanya (Angela Bassett),
Akeelah presses forward with the guidance and assistance of Mr. Welch’s friend,
forthright former college professor Dr. Josh Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). As she
meets and befriends fellow competitors that have in some cases been training
for years, Akeelah overcomes self-doubt and rallies the proud residents of her
community behind her, scoring a spot in the finals and competing for the
championship.

Some of the film is shot on location, helping give it a
rooted sense of place. While not gritty by any means, these passages help
highlight the difference between Akeelah’s world and the more privileged
upbringing of her fellow contestants. The film is likewise studded with
occasional, incisive dialogue that helps underline the racial and class divides
under the microscope
, such as when Akeelah says to her principal of Dr.
Larabee, “He lives in this neighborhood? I thought you said he was important.”

While the movie is less successful in its conveyance of the
passage of time (it ostensibly takes place over the course of a year), Atchison
succeeds in the savvy casting of the kids’ roles, and his work with them.
Palmer deserves special praise for her natural work as Akeelah; she brings a
real sympathy to a role that could be cloying if just played for precocity
.
It’s young JR Villarreal, though — as Javier, an outgoing fellow contestant who
develops a crush on Akeelah and helps root her onward in only the manner that a
peer can — who steals the show.

Fishburne and Bassett, reunited from What’s Love Got to Do With It, do not share many scenes together,
but each successfully fulfill their function within the narrative. As a
professor still emotionally damaged by the loss of his own child and wife,
Fishburne approximates mournful gravitas chiefly through equally clipped and
hushed tones, a technique he’s plied many times before. In the more difficult
but better sketched role, Bassett must show both a single mother’s tough love
as well as a yielding realization that Akeelah needs her unconditional support.
That the film doesn’t force a love connection between the two is appreciated. (Lions Gate, PG, 112 mins.)

The Net 2.0


I’m not quite sure what the point, per se, of a movie called The Net 2.0 is when none of the stars of the first film are back, it doesn’t continue the story through the same characters, and your two above-title leads are… Nikki DeLoach (television’s North Shore) and Demet Akbag (gesundheit!). And while the 1995 original grossed more abroad than it did Stateside ($59 million to $50 million), it’s not even like The Net was that big of a hit.

Still, more than any other studio, Sony has been aggressive in cranking out straight-to-video sequels of even relatively high-end flicks of every type of genre (Wild Things, Hollow Man, The Cutting Edge, The Sandlot), and now The Net 2.0 is up to bat, serving as a European film school for director Charles Winkler (son of Irwin, director of the first film) and others.

The plot centers on Hope Cassidy (DeLoach), a beautiful computer expert who travels to Istanbul (not Constantinople) for what appears to be a perfect gig. She instead ends up caught in a high-tech frame job, her bank account emptied, her name changed on official documentation and someone else having slid up her awaiting position. After having unsuccessfully attempted to convince boyfriend James (Neil Hopkins) to accompany her, she finds herself alone and in Turkish prison, something anyone even casually familiar with Midnight Run will tell you is bad news. Hope must then use brains and beauty — along with the assistance of a mysterious cab driver and a flight attendant — to unravel the mystery, uncover the truth about what’s happening to her and get her good name back.

The film opens with a fleet-footed chase sequence and then liberally indulges in a flashback structure that sets up everything I’ve just mentioned and shows Hope arguing her case with Dr. Kavak (Akbag). Filmed entirely on location in Istanbul (the first American movie to do so, its producers note), The Net 2.0 achieves a certain mad-dash production value, lensing at and around the Blue Mosque, Souzer Plaza and many other beautiful buildings. Unfortunately, its visual palette is still relatively cramped owing to its obviously breathless production schedule, and the story itself is of only moderate intrigue. The lack, too, of more even passably recognizable faces in supporting roles makes this a tough sell on this side of the Atlantic. DeLoach is attractive, but doesn’t radiate the same sort of sympathetic girl-next-door imperilment as Sandra Bullock in the original film, making The Net 2.0 a relatively senseless update.

Housed in a single-disc Amaray case, The Net 2.0 comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen that preserves its original aspect ratio, and the transfer is actually pretty solid, with nice differentiation in colors and an attendant lack in grain. While the film is at times a bit over-edited for my liking and duly over-reliant on close-ups and two-shots, cinematographer Steven Douglas Smith does a good job of capturing Istanbul exteriors with minimal or no lighting set-up. Only the movie’s dank interrogation scenes are awash in the murky inconsistencies of multiple-hued grey.

An English language 5.1 Dolby mix anchors The Net 2.0, and cleans up many of the audio problems you might expect from a budgeted film of this level with a good amount of outdoor shooting. Dialogue is clear and consistent, and the action incorporates just enough rear channel effects to give these scenes a significant depth. Dolby surround tracks in French and Spanish are also available, alongside a Portuguese 5.1 track. Subtitles are available in a wide variety of languages, including English, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Korean and Spanish.

With a buffet of bonus previews for other Sony releases, The Net 2.0‘s one supplemental extra is a lively, breathlessly paced feature-length audio commentary track with director Winkler and writer-producer Rob Cowan. Between the two they cover all manner of production minutiae on the 24-day shoot, and if the film were better it would possibly rate as worthy of a repeat listen.

If there’s a through-line here, it’s about the difficulty of the production and dealing with a variety of Turkish actors (only three American actors were brought over) and Russian stuntmen, many of whom speak no English. Winkler even lets slip that the line producer, production manager and rest of production team quit several days before the start of principal photography in a fit of pique over “lack of organization, or accusations of a lack of organization or whatever.” With a paucity of extras, too, Winkler and Cowan both pop up on screen, and virtually every other member of the production team seems to grab some background time as well. At one point, Winkler shares one story of a mental patient at a location shoot that grabbed him and licked his face, and another anecdote includes the art department botching a scene set-up that leads to an expensive post-production fix. This falls in with an overall frank discussion of cultural differences and loss of nuances in which dirty laundry is aired, but never in a particularly nasty manner.

Overall, The Net 2.0 is a mediocre film enlivened by a commentary track that is no-holds-barred but also not overly spiteful. Winkler and Cowan are both aware of the type of film they made, and cop to shortcomings when noticeable but also talk about several ingenious, on-the-fly fixes. That said, there’s little of note in the actual product itself to get excited about other than the locale. Techno-thriller fans or those looking for a Turkish travelogue may spark to The Net 2.0, but others will want to sidestep its latticework. C (Movie) C (Disc)

Swimming Pool: A Sexy, Quasi-Foreign Mystery

Ludivine Sagnier). A tailor-made distraction in human form, the lissome, seemingly carefree Julie couldn’t on the surface be more at odds with the prudish Sarah, who’s bothered as much by her young housemate’s pert breasts as by her drinking coffee from bowls. A feather caught up in the breeze of life, Julie whiles away her time swimming and sunbathing, sometimes in an art-deco bikini but just as often in nothing at all. She also exhibits a rapacious sexual appetite that she sates with the swarthiest of men.


If Julie represents youth’s arrogance and natural, anything-goes inquisitiveness, Sarah proves to be curious too; she spies on Julie, discovers her diary and eventually starts keeping a running sidebar narrative on her computer that she uses to infuse her novel with fresh blood. Against her better judgment, Sarah’s maternal instinct is also triggered when she finds a pair of Julie’s panties in the lawn and Julie doesn’t immediately return home one night. Julie, for her part, eventually comes into clearer focus as a much more complex figure than Sarah ever gives her credit for. So… maybe this odd couple has a few things in common after all.


Swimming Pool’s muted tone hearkens back to a previous metaphysical meditation on love and loss from Ozon — Under the Sand, which also starred Rampling, and told the story of an only marginally satisfied middle-aged woman whose husband simply disappears one day at the beach. On one hand, there’s a fantastic sense of the unknowable to this film, as Julie flings her way from one man to another: what’s the story here, and how is this going to play out? Still, paradoxically, Swimming Pool’s sense of drowsy contemplation seems to portend a curveball or two, a feeling confirmed when, at roughly 70 minutes into the movie, the story’s own galloping impulse for mystery really kicks in.


Concocted by Ozon with his Under the Sand collaborator — novelist and screenwriter Emmanuele Bernheim — Swimming Pool is, I’m willing to bet, influenced to at least some degree by David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It’s a film that is interested in creativity, identity, divergent personal and professional aspirations and the very real manner in which those components coexist and intermingle within each of us. The difference is that Ozon’s movie is in some ways even more slippery; though slow in tone, it starts out being about one or two very concrete things and then, after a few delicately played twists and turns (shocking isn’t the word, cunning is more like it) becomes something entirely different, something that it clearly always was, but just not to the naked eye.


A pro’s pro, Rampling expertly conveys hidden reserves of jealousy and desire that slowly come bubbling to the surface. Meanwhile, Sagnier (whom American audiences might have glimpsed as Tinkerbell in P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan) is utterly amazing as Julie. Light years removed from her mischievous but juvenile role as the youngest link in Ozon’s musical murder mystery 8 Women (another worthy rental, I might add), Sagnier exudes a voracious sexual energy that makes her the physical, emotional and psychological centerpiece and linchpin of Swimming Pool. As adolescent fear and desperation slowly erode Julie’s brassy, exhibitionistic veneer, Sarah crosses psychological arcs with her; it’s a carefully choreographed dance, and Sagnier and Rampling execute it with perfection.


Sprinkled liberally with life’s intangibles, almost all of Ozon’s movies — and Swimming Pool most particularly — have a deep, engaging elusiveness, the swirl of an involving dream. Auteurs of the American independent scene would do quite well to pay attention to the director’s touch with surface and subtlety; Ozon can stage a skilled, playful interaction with the best of them, but there’s almost always a latent subtext playing in the scene as well, and it’s this very exact and exacting accumulation of details that brings into starker psychological relief the complexity of his characters. Ozon is attentive to their humanity and covertly plumbs their inner psyches. We understand his characters’ dilemmas — whether they’re explicitly voiced or not — sometimes even before the characters do.


For those who found themselves caught up in the aforementioned Mulholland Drive and/or Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s exhilarating Adaptation, Swimming Pool is well worth a dip. Alluring and inventive, though at the same time possessing the understated and relaxed rhythms typified by much foreign cinema, it’s a brilliant and very sexy mystery. During and after, you’ll be lost in thought — a feeling you might not experience that frequently this summer.

United 93

Before bringing his frenetic touch to the spy thriller The Bourne Supremacy, British director Paul Greengrass made a movie called Bloody Sunday, which offered forth a realistic recreation of the 1972 civil rights march in Northern Ireland that devolved into a massacre. (It’s the same incident that spawned U2’s anthemic “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”) In a gut-wrenching merging of style and material, Greengrass explores many of these same themes in United 93, his grief-soaked telling of the one hijacked plane on September 11, 2001, that didn’t reach its intended target.



Frankly incapable of being judged on any level as a regular film — there’s an accompanying tension and trepidation that permeates any viewing, and it’s certainly the quietest audience with whom you’ll ever sit through an opening credit sequence — United 93 nevertheless stands as a singular achievement, although whether it’s one that people will want to re-experience remains to be seen. (Ten percent of its opening weekend grosses will be donated to a special memorial fund).

The story of Flight 93 and its eventual crash-landing in a Pennsylvania field is of course a completely known one, but instead of hiring well-known actors, Greengrass smartly went through a careful audition process — inclusive of meetings with the family members of victims — and cast an ensemble of mostly unknowns (hardcore film aficionados may recognize maybe three or four faces), all in an attempt to make the recreation of the events more believable. He further advanced this delicate agenda by also utilizing many of the flight controllers and actual governmental agents, including FAA National Operations Officer Ben Sliney, on duty that day. This gives United 93 an eerie sense of otherworldly recreation, of sometimes almost being found footage.

While some of the on-board specifics are speculative, much is known, and United 93 artfully establishes the panic of all parties involved, as internecine governmental confusion over precise rules of engagement and just what sort of situation they’re dealing with overwhelms — if only for a few hours — the best of everyone’s professionality and ability. There’s a naturally mounting tension to the chronological timeline, of course, but also some bits that many people might have forgotten, including the fact that the hijacking of Flight 93 took place after the first two planes hit the World Trade Center, and that there was much FAA confusion over the fate of American 11, and whether it had hit the WTC or was still in the air. All of this roiling chaos and uncertainty is abetted by the movie’s claustrophobic sense of space, masterfully captured by Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s trademark visceral camerawork and further anchored by a tactfully inconspicuous score from John Powell.

What some will seize upon — more than likely as a general feeling more than anything else — is the breadth of United 93’s scope and how that may on a personal level blunt, if not the movie’s emotional currency, then its “rightness,” let’s say. In cutting back and forth between Flight 93, various air traffic control centers and the military command center, Greengrass juxtaposes the story of the doomed airliner against the frantic efforts of those charge, shifting the heavy bulk of the action to the plane only in the last 35 minutes or so. Many filmgoers may be left wanting more details about the passengers, of whom we learn very little. It’s certainly true that in offering this wider context, we lose some focus and grasp of the putative focal point.

Despite its title, though, this film isn’t “merely” the story of United 93. This tack is somewhat a function of necessity, as certain passengers’ life rights were sold to an A&E telepic, Flight 93, which bows on DVD next week, and others understandably were leery of any cinematic exploration of the subject. To focus more upon or tell the story of only one or two passengers, though, is to risk minimizing the collective heroic and moral stance of those aboard United 93. There’s a saying that truth is found in jest and death, and the latter portion of that sentiment is born out here. While the turmoil of that day marks the film on a certain level as a vicarious glimpse into hell via those that lost their lives, United 93 is also a slowly building collage of dread. Emotionally tough but completely riveting and absorbing in its verisimilitude, United 93 doesn’t suffer an exploitative impulse or frame. It is challenging and demanding filmmaking, not for everyone. But it is honest. (Universal, R, 110 minutes)

The Louis Malle Collection

Film for the late French director Louis Malle — perhaps best known for his conversational arthouse bauble My Dinner With Andre
— was a way to explore the full breadth of what interested him in life;
he consequently helmed a diverse slate of work over the course of his
career, from documentaries and seriocomic romps to shambling character
studies and chic tales of adultery and recrimination. Still, it’s the
unique skill with which he honestly and adroitly located the wrenching
emotional realities of adolescence that mark his coming-of-age movies
as, collectively, his best and most timeless works
. Gathering Murmur of the Heart, the virtually forgotten Lacombe, Lucien and Au Revoir Les Enfants in a superb boxed set, Criterion celebrates Malle’s unique insight and talent in fine fashion.

Set in France in the mid-1950s, 1971’s Murmur of the Heart
charts the maturation of a boy, Laurent Chevalier (Benoit Ferreux),
who’s driven by surging testosterone and a burgeoning curiosity in both
sex and music. After his older brothers take him to visit a prostitute
and he contracts the titular weakness, a symptom of scarlet fever,
Laurent visits a spa with his smothering mother Clara (Lea Massari),
where he starts to see her in quite a new light. The roots of queasy
taboo on display in writer-director David O. Russell’s debut, Spanking the Monkey, can be found here, though Malle manages to for the most part keep things light-hearted and accessible.

Two World War II-set films complete Criterion’s set. Starring non-professional Pierre Blaise, 1974’s Lacombe, Lucien
shines a light on the slow pull of personal corruption in telling the
story of an 18-year-old French peasant, sent away from his family’s
farm, who joins up with the occupying German police force. The film’s
emotional opacity dovetails nicely with Tonino Delli Colli’s foreboding
cinematography to create a memorable portrait of the banality of evil.

Au Revoir Les Enfants is Malle’s deeply personal 1987
masterwork
, in which two parochial school students in 1944 France,
Julien (Gaspard Manesse) and Jean (Raphael Fejto), form a friendship
that’s torn asunder by the Gestapo. Though existing in a harsh setting
that bears surface similarities to Lacombe, Lucien, the movie
is unperturbed and matter-of-fact in tone, perfectly balanced between a
sweeping World War II melancholia and more personal connection. While
Malle rarely double-dipped explicitly into the same idea bin, the
inclusion of these two films and their pairing with Murmur of the Heart
feels right in its thematic arc for this set, offering up convincing
evidence that few directors have portrayed the to-scale epiphanies of
growing up as poetically as Malle.

Presented in brushed-up transfers in their original 1.66:1 aspect
ratio, all three of the aforementioned films are available separately
or in a boxed set that includes a hearty fourth disc with over four
hours of supplemental material. In addition to more than 40 minutes of
new interviews with Candice Bergen (Malle’s wife) and Malle biographer
Pierre Billard, there are also excerpts from a French television
program featuring the director on set on each of the films
. Three audio
interviews spanning three different decades — two from the National
Film Theater in London and the other from the American Film Institute —
run an average of just over 45 minutes apiece, and give a nice overview
of Malle’s work in his own words.

The most tangentially inspired extra here — or, indeed, anywhere
that I’ve seen in a while — is the inclusion of Charlie Chaplin’s 1917
silent short The Immigrant, featured prominently in Au Revoir Les Enfants
.
The original theatrical trailers and essays by historian Francis J.
Murphy and film critics Michael Sragow, Pauline Kael and Philip Kemp
round out the collection, along with a fold-out insert of Malle’s
filmography. To purchase the set via Amazon, click here. A- (Movies) A (Discs)

Mary Steenburgen, Forgotten Oscar Winner

Some actors and actresses are synonymous with the Academy Awards, even in loss, while others are anonymous, even in victory. Mary Steenburgen is of the latter category. With her kids now ages 21 through 26, though, the actress can jump
wholeheartedly into a David Mamet Atlantic Theater play that much more easily and, who
knows, perhaps one more Oscar-caliber supporting role. “I’ve pretty
much defied most of the boxes,” she muses. “If I’m in a box, I don’t
know what the name of it is.”
For the full interview, from FilmStew, click here.

Unscripted

There’s reality television and then there’s the sort of small screen verité that’s captured — loosely scooped up, really — in Unscripted, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Grant Heslov’s short-lived HBO
series. Given the show’s ruthlessly indifferent portrayal of Los
Angeles’ aspirant creative community as a den of backstabbing cajolers

in which only fitful personal progress is achieved (two steps sideways
and a half step back for every one forward), it’s not surprising that
this quote-unquote comedy was euthanized before it could ever really
find an audience.

If Entourage is the satirical hipster version of the City of Angels, the off-the-cuff Unscripted is a jazz-improv exercise, a tone poem that almost by its very nature sometimes connects and sometimes doesn’t. For the full DVD review, from IGN (and from last November), click here.

Lost: The Complete First Season

I first reviewed this set back upon its original release in September of last year, for a magazine who shall remain nameless until legal proceedings against them are settled. But I have thoughts about Lost, the hit ABC show about airplane crash survivor
castaways stranded on a mysterious island. Oh, do I have thoughts. And they are
not necessarily kind ones, I’m afraid.

Mad props first go out to ABC for carefully cultivating
a hit that’s in substantive ways a more difficult sell than the glossy Desperate Housewives,
with its sugary twists and bitchy rejoinders. Though the pilot for the show
(great looking, by the way) was one of the most expensive in recent small
screen history, it was the subsequent sales job that really helped build
word-of-mouth. Lost
next must be praised for the considerable amount that it does quite well,
including the juggling of a vast stable of characters, many of whom are certainly
not network wishlist material
. (Seriously, that co-creators Damon Lindelhoff
and J.J. Abrams were somehow able to limit the number of hot chicks to a measly
two out of 16 primary cast members is its own special feat in casting
achievement.)

Still, Lost
nags. I watched the series’ complete first season regularly if not religiously
(TiVo allows one to pace oneself and step back from the water cooler-ledge a
bit, where mechanical praise seems to grow like a fungus
), and became
increasingly frustrated with what I felt was a certain masturbatory coyness
that slowly took over the show
. Sixteen is an admittedly big ensemble, but
within the context of the number of purported survivors it’s a relative drop in
the bucket. As the series wore on, the number of deep focus master shots with
dronelike, fuzzy extras in the background completing menial labor while our
leads bicker about briefcases, toy airplanes and the like drove me to batty
distraction.

More and more — certainly as the show wore on in
the first season, and extending all the way now to the end of its sophomore run — Lost feels like a really deft
parlor trick, its glossy inscrutabilities serving as their own indulgent
narrative combines
. I don’t have a problem with this elongation of mood per se,
but the show is being sold and positioned as something else — a colossal
mystery. What happens when viewers decide the revelations stop adding up? It
reminds me a bit of Twin Peaks
— admittedly a far more avant garde show — which tried to play hard to get more
than 15 years ago in some of the same ways that Lost is now. We’ll see how it ends, especially now that
ABC has a cross-promotional cash cow that they’ll want to keep around for six
seasons at a minimum in order to bleed its ancillary value.

If it seems I’m being hard on Lost it’s because the show
comes across to me as a smug honor student coasting on its laurels
. (And if I
have to ever listen to Claire bleat about the “baaay-be” anymore, I may go
Vincent Van Gogh on myself.) While the broad strokes of the writing often
grate, the strong points of Lost
come certainly courtesy of a few of its characterizations, most notably Terry
O’Quinn’s Locke, but also to a lesser extent Naveen Andrews’ Sayid. O’Quinn has
mesmerized me ever since The
Stepfather
, and his less-is-more approach elevates every scene,
if only because he seems to succumb to the ridiculousness of the survivors’
predicament in a fashion I find fresh and appealing.

Despite what one thinks of the show, one really has to admire the work put into, and quick turnaround on, this seven-disc set, attractively housed in gatefold packaging with a cool slipcover. The episodes
themselves are spread out over the first six discs, along with five audio
commentary tracks from cast and crew. (And speaking of five, Abrams tips off listeners
that Jack’s tattoo of the number 5 will become a defining character point this
year, something that I understand has only sort of come to pass.) A series of small-ish behind-the-scenes featurettes give a comprehensive
look at the production, design and location shooting of the show, and tally
about an hour in total
. If you need to know how to chop up an airliner, this is
the supplemental material for you. Deleted scenes and a couple Easter eggs also
offer up their own fun; viewers can no doubt parse these looking for extra
clues about the castaway’s backstories. C (Series) A (Disc)

The Ape

Watching the surreal, seriocomic, low-budget curio The Ape, James Franco’s directorial debut, one can’t help but be reminded tangentially of James Dean, and not merely because Franco memorably portrayed the legendarily brooding, cut-down-too-soon actor in a justly well-regarded made-for-television biopic. No, it’s rather that Franco’s turn as Harry Walker, a would-be novelist struggling with young married life and impending fatherhood, seems to capture everything about the collision of adolescence and adulthood — and its inherent apprehensiveness — that Dean poured into every one of his few screen roles.

Revolutionary Road), its original staging and production cycle. C+ (Movie) B- (Disc)

Breasts/Private Dicks

Co-directed by Meema Spadola and Thom Powers, 1994’s Breasts: A Documentary and its companion piece Private Dicks: Men Exposed examine in sometimes humorous but always humanizing fashion what women and men think about their own sexual running gear. Chatty and straightforward, both films feature abundant nudity of the titular items, and insights into both what their owners think about them and how they frequently impact not only one’s self-esteem but even the general sense of interaction with members of the opposite and/or preferred sex.

Betty Boop and Jessica Rabbit being her ideal role models, while a disconsolate teacher in her early 20s performs the dreaded “pencil test,” stowing a sharpened No. 2 under her sagging mammaries. Adolescent recollections both traumatic and wistful are trotted out, and a mother and daughter — the latter having had breast reduction surgery — together provide interesting familial observations. Other quick, shorthand impressions? Silicone = blech!

Men spend a lot of time thinking about their penises and even, as the saying goes, with their penises, so Private Dicks: Men Exposed was a logical follow-up for Spadola and Powers, though one that they admit in bonus interview material they tackled somewhat hesitantly. It turns out that their fears of masculine bravado and lack of candor were unfounded, as Private Dicks is actually the more revelatory and interesting of the two movies, perhaps because of its lack of competition, per se. The winking difference in titles is telling — and on the one hand even somewhat irksome — but its defusing impact is undeniable. In wide-ranging interviews with everyone from high school and college students to a paraplegic to well-endowed but equally articulate porn star Lexington Steele (who casually argues that size does matter, because what women purchases the four-inch dildo?), Private Dicks touches on every conceivable topic related to the penis, from sexually transmitted disease and alteration (“There’s something untrustworthy about the uncircumcised penis,” offers one subject, only half-jokingly) to masturbation and the loss of virginity. Loquacious and overly pedantic explications with slang dictionary expert Jesse Sheidlower become tiresome, but the men here generally open up in illuminating fashion about how their penis affects and informs their relationships.

Each running under an hour in length, both films are presented in full screen, and suffer somewhat from poor video quality and haphazardly produced or inserted stock footage. As sociological documents, however, they triumph over their limited production means and unimaginative presentation. Private Dicks: Men Exposed includes an interview with the filmmakers, a photo gallery and another interview with professional hoax perpetrator Alan Abel, who appears in the movie under an assumed name, claiming to have an erect member under two inches in length. (Though topless, he’s one of the few subjects who keep their pants on.) Breasts: A Documentary, meanwhile, includes more bonus footage, with filmmaker interviews, biographies and trailers and a full half hour of additional interview material. B (Movies) B- (Discs)

When Screen Fashion Attacks, Part One

I saw a young woman in a pair of Ugg boots yesterday, and somehow, exercising great willpower, I managed to resist the urge to beat her about the head and shoulders. My rage finds its roots in the 2004 Garry Marshall movie Raising Helen, and the destructive power of film fashion.

Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon have flirted with but never truly inherited from Meg Ryan in the wake of the latter’s wandering off to become a cautionary Botox tale. This generally means Hollywood makes each year, in groping fashion, a handful of trifles that have been knocking around in development, casting thousand-watt-smile female up-and-comers opposite B-level, sad-sack leading men (John Corbin, Luke Wilson, Edward Burns, John Caviezel and, I’m quite sorry to say it, Mark Ruffalo, who should really stick to dramatic fare) who dare not overshadow their chief investment.

A big screen bauble pinned at the time to the rising star power of Kate Hudson, Raising Helen added a pinch more pathos than usual to the mix, charting Hudson’s tumble from the glamorous life as a fashion mogul’s assistant when her sister and brother-in-law both die, leaving her with their three kids. Overwhelmed uncertainty, bickering and tears are followed in turn by peppy montage, love and hugs all around. The kids raise her, you see?

It’s not the merits of the movie or lack thereof, however, that have left an indelible mark. The poster for Raising Helen featured a side-view of a smiling, sprawling Hudson in micro-shorts and fur-ringed Ugg boots, making her look like a saucy Hoth pin-up. I hated those boots then, but I hate them with an unrivaled zeal even more so now, all for the fashion holocaust they’ve helped spawn.

Seemingly everywhere you turn, you see young girls and even otherwise seemingly intelligent women rocking all manner of Uggs, frequently either with skirts (!) or tucked into jeans (!!). Sigh… You know how parents use “fad” in deriding fashion — emphasizing its negative connotation — when they want to get out of purchasing something for kids? Uggs, I assume shorthand slang for “ugly” (apparently “hideous and laughably crappy-looking” was deemed more difficult to break down into monosyllabic marketing jargon), earn every bit of that clucking disdain and contempt. Sure, they were around before Raising Helen, I gather, but that confounded film and its insidious multi-million dollar marketing campaign helped really launch and further engrain them in the public consciousness.

Look, the big screen sets off and abets all sorts of fashion trends, I realize: wide-faced wraparound sunglasses, fitted men’s shirts, big purses, et al. A famous and prettified person in a certain outfit can make it seem attractive and desirable. But there comes a time to call a spade a spade, and here I’m hollering, “Emperor’s new clothes!” Can anyone defend Uggs on their own merits? To me, the only reason someone should be wearing shoes like that is if they’re involved in some sort of comedic sketch or if they’re going to or coming from playing outside in the snow. Otherwise… just stop it. You look ridiculous, ladies.

American Dreamz

A comedic casserole existing at the intersecting planes of love and
fame, politics and pop culture
, writer-director Paul Weitz’s American Dreamz
is apt to produce uneasy feelings in general audiences not prepared for
the churning, potentially incendiary mix of elements at its core. While
not the cheeky mainstream broadside that it’s obviously and
understandably being marketed as
, the film is enjoyably idiosyncratic
if a little sloppy
, a rib-nudging exploration of manipulated “reality”
that asks viewers to think about the true meanings of the words hero
and martyr.

Flippin’ Joey Lawrence…

I should’ve known this guy shared a birthday with Adolf Hitler…