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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

Bukowski: Born Into This

Charles Bukowski, celebrated blue collar novelist, poet, alcoholic and sonorous bullshitter, was well known in Los Angeles long before his autobiographical novels delivered searing portraits of a Southern California underclass that
would resonate worldwide. The meandering but genial documentary Bukowski: Born Into This,
an official selection at the 2003 Sundance Festival, looks back in time
to this era, as well as sifting through an abusive childhood, a half
dozen turbulent relationships and a variety of low-paying, non-creative
menial occupations that included 14 years as a postal employee. For the full review, from IGN, click here.

Brokeback Mountain

Reduced to caricature prior to its release, and now a new form of derisive shorthand for bigots everywhere, Brokeback Mountain
remains a powerful and acutely affecting film, and not nearly for the
reasons many out to wage their own political crusade ascribe to it.
Yes, it is a love story centering around two homosexual cowboys. But
its observational prowess is nearly unrivaled in all of American film
of the past several years not directed by Alexander Payne. Brokeback Mountain
is
also a keen rendering of the corrosive nature of self-denial. Dreams
of all types are buried and traded in every day across the world, but Brokeback Mountain
shows — in moving, modest and melancholic fashion — just what it means
to deny something that is a part of you to your very core.

Opening
in Wyoming, the story throws together two itinerant ranch hands, Ennis
Del Mar (H eath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who find work
under Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) herding sheep in the summer of 1963.
Both rugged individualists, the pair forge an unexpected bond and
tumble into a lusty physical clinch, but part ways at the end of the
job. Engaged to Alma (Michelle Williams), Ennis gets married; Jack also
weds, tying the knot and having kids with outgoing, well-to-do rodeo
queen Lureen (Anne Hathaway). A couple years later they reconnect,
though, and enter into a protracted, if limited, affair consisting of
stolen fishing trips and camping vacations.

Director Ang Lee, working from an adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short
story of the same name and using Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting score
as an aural highlighter, locates the unseen social forces and the
limits of personal nerve that inform his characters’ behavior
. The
fierce insight and clench-jawed genius of Ledger’s performance in
particular lies in the manner in which he never allows himself to even
entertain the possibility of honest happiness.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen that preserves the aspect ratio of the film’s original theatrical exhibition, Brokeback Mountain
comes housed in an Amray case, and features English and French language
Dolby digital 5.1 audio tracks alongside optional English, French and
Spanish subtitles. Four single-digit-minute featurettes comprise the
disc’s bonus materials
, looking in cursory fashion at the film’s
character development, the modus operandi of director Lee, the
particulars of Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s adaptation and the
production itself. Of this quartet, the “script to screen” featurette
is probably the most interesting, but everything about this release
clearly augurs a more comprehensive, double-disc special edition DVD

somewhere down the line. To that end, hedge your collecting plans
accordingly. A (Movie) C- (Disc)

Mrs. Henderson Presents

Based on the true story of a wealthy English widower who operated a
nude revue on the West End during World War II, director Stephen
Frears’ awkwardly titled Mrs. Henderson Presents is a cheeky look at the special
type of wartime fortification that no amount of guns and sandbags can
provide
. A sort of hodge-podge mixture of Topsy-Turvy, The Full Monty and that old episode of The Golden Girls
where ostentatious, entitled Blanche finally meets her male
counterpart, the film works chiefly as a sharp, smartly funny
two-hander
— a delicious showcase for stars Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins
— before taking a final act turn that overreaches just a bit in its
grasp at grand statement. For the full review, from IGN, click here.

Jarhead

Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is making a convincing claim for “Year of” honors in
impending 2005 wrap pieces and awards season races everywhere. Gyllenhaal is
Swofford, a naïve sharpshooter who comes to the Marines from a dead-end
background. There he meets up with the taciturn Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and
many others, and they train under Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx) before being
summoned to the desert staging ground in a five-month-plus ramp-up to conflict.

A big part of Jarhead is about the tedium of war, as chronicled
through that wait. It’s here that the movie’s keen and glancingly heartrending
sense of detail
(a “Wall of Shame” for Polaroids of cheating girlfriends and
wives back home
; coerced drug liability waivers signed just prior to going into
battle) gets its hooks into you. Once the bullets start flying, however,
Jarhead ironically becomes a bit more unfocused. This was, after all, a
war won quickly through the air, and while the movie depicts honestly and
forthrightly the conflicted feelings the Marines have about this (bloodthirsty,
combat-hungry but on-edge), there’s not a clear sense of the lines of the front
for the skirmishes that do take place to feel rooted and substantial.

That’s part of the point, I realize. War is a big word — perhaps the heaviest
three-letter word in the English language — but Jarhead gets the micro
right while the macro feels out of focus a bit.
The film isn’t a minor work, but
neither does it achieve masterpiece status; its meter is actually more like that
of a stageplay than a film, due in large part to the anecdotal nature of the
source material. That may be a turnoff for some folks, and certainly account for
divided/conflicted opinion, both critically at large and even within one’s own
reflections on the movie.

Jarhead reminded me in significant ways of the recent Iraq war
documentary Gunner Palace, because it assays the very personal cost of
broad, international conflicts. Mendes’ film isn’t incendiary, or even
particularly an antiwar salvo. It’s not an indictment of one political
philosophy, but rather a rebuke of the system and a psalm for the pawns of the
chessboard.
One particularly effective scene finds the soldiers — pushed into a
full-gear demonstration football match — haranguing an irritated Sykes in front
of a camera crew about all the pieces of equipment that either they don’t have
(and haven’t for months) or don’t properly work.

On an end note, slightly amusing is the fashion in which the film is being
doggedly sold as a hoo-rah!, pro-military, bootstraps actioner, with
Foxx’s proud speechifying capping off bits of strung-together action mayhem. The
irony is that within the film that speech, while sincere, comes at a down
moment, when two men are sharing a frank conversation wherein the undiscussed
white elephant is the essential futility of their grunt existence but devotion
to it nonetheless. Americans who’ve never served have a complicated,
contradictory and often almost embarrassed relationship with our Armed Forces.

Jarhead grippingly flirts with peeling back the layers of truth on these
subjugated capital-I issues, but as its brawny marketing shows us, that
awkwardness will not likely change anytime soon. DVD extras include two audio commentary tracks (one with Mendes, another with Swofford and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr.), deleted scenes with an introduction by Mendes and editor Walter Murch, news interviews and more. B (Movie) B+ (Disc)

La Bête Humaine

Jean Renoir’s brooding, palpably anxious 1938 melodrama La Bête Humaine
is a bit of a curveball in the legendary French filmmaker’s canon
, but
no less a work of considerable intrigue and import. Adapted from Émile
Zola’s novel, the film, starring Jean Gabin (Pépé le Moko, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi),
is perhaps Renoir’s most roundly populist offering, and remains to this
day a hardboiled and suspenseful journey into the wounded psyche of an
everyday working man
.

Part pulpy noir antecedent and part
exercise in grimy realism, the film’s story centers on Lantier (Gabin),
an unbalanced train engineer who, moved to groggy lust, plots with the
married Severine (Simone Simon) to bump off her older husband, Roubaud
(Fernand Ledoux). It gives away nothing to say that Severine’s
motivations are suspect, and so naturally lethal manipulations follow
all manner of mutual sexual exploitation. The commercial success of the
picture — Renoir’s biggest hit — lies somewhat in the sudsy nature of
its material, but also in the filmmaker’s infallible eye for authentic
detail. The story works so well because we feel the well-worn, dog-eared soul of Lantier, his pawned dreams and swallowed class resentment.

Criterion’s superb release features a new, high-definition digital
transfer of the original, uncensored full-screen version of the movie,
which really makes a difference in Curt Courant’s stunning
cinematography, particularly with shadow and in the recesses of the
frame. There are still apparently a few missing or irrevocably damaged
frames here and there, resulting in some occasional hitches, but
otherwise the film looks better than it has any right to, with very
minimal scratching. In a six-minute introduction to the film from some
considerable time after production, Renoir reveals that he hammered out
his adaptation in only a dozen days, and there’s also a new, 11-minute
interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich in which he waxes
philosophic and contextual
about both Renoir and La Bête Humaine’s place in his filmography.

Also included is seven minutes of footage from 1957 of Renoir
directing actress Simon in a bit of a fanciful live recreation from the
movie, plus 24 minutes of interviews from a French television program,
with Renoir, Zola scholar Henri Mitterand and others, on the unique
challenges of adapting Zola’s work to the screen. Rounding out the
supplemental material is the film’s theatrical trailer and a gallery of
on-set photographs and theatrical posters that complement a 38-page
insert booklet
featuring musings and memories from critic Geoffrey
O’Brien, film historian Ginette Vincendeau and production designer
Eugene Lourié. B+ (Movie) A- (Disc)

South Park: The Seventh Season

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated series South Park
got its start as a defiantly crude slice of counterculture, with the
shock value of potty-mouthed adolescents and the bashing of various
sacred cows. As it’s aged, though, it’s only gotten smarter and better,
surpassing The Simpsons as the best animated comedy on television several years ago, and holding onto that title with ease.

Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy

We swell the rolls here at Shared Darkness as
time and inclination permits. Ergo, this review of Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, originally published upon its
limited theatrical release in November of 2001. What? You didn’t see it then? Well then it’s new to you, sucker! To wit:

Any way you slice it, 1,600+ movies is a lot of screen time.
So no matter how averse you are to pornography, chances are you’ve laid eyes on
one Mr. Ron Jeremy (below), the clown prince of smut, a 23-year industry veteran
nicknamed “The Hedgehog” for his chubbiness and preponderance of body hair.
Stop playing it off.

Boogie
Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s big-screen opus of porn as one big
dysfunctional family, the millennial/final frontier syndrome, or perhaps just a
general newfound reality-fed voyeurism
, but there have been a spate of movies
over the past several years (almost all of which have been documentaries) to
tackle the adult film business and/or group sex. Yet few offer the truthful
duality of Scott Gill’s Porn Star: The
Legend of Ron Jeremy
, which examines the daydreams and hard nights of the
world’s most improbable sex symbol
. Unlike several other recent documentaries
from the women’s perspectives, Gill’s film — blissfully excised of cattiness
and paranoia
— doesn’t shy away from the indeniably intriguing good time
theatrics of the porn industry. But it still manages to fleetingly capture in
its creases and folds Jeremy’s ennui and unspoken dissatisfaction with his dual
status in life.

At the center of this all, of course, is Jeremy’s unending
quest for professional legitimacy
. We hear about it all, from his bit parts in Killing Zoe and Detroit Rock City to being edited out of John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Affably self-touting, and
possessing a three-ring binder literally filled with thousands of scrawled
phone numbers of scattered-to-the-winds “contacts,” Jeremy’s obsession with the
craft of acting (at times he comes off as an earnest cousin of Jon Lovitz’s
“Master Thespian” character)
and its application for him in mainstream movies
says everything that Jeremy himself won’t quite say.

Born Ronnie Hyatt in March 1953, Jeremy stumbled into the
adult film biz rather late (he graduated from Queens College with a Masters in
Special Ed, and even spent two years teaching disadvantaged children before
succumbing to the acting bug and chasing down off- off-Broadway parts in the
late 1970s), courtesy of a “Boy Next Door” photo mailed into Playgirl by his then-beau. Is there
anything in his upbringing that would seem to augur this sort of career path,
you might ask. No, not really. His popularity within adult film seems to stem
from sense of humor, but that humor is probably largely a defense mechanism
,
the result of the death of Ron’s mother from Parkinson’s when he was in third
grade. But his upbringing was mostly normal, and he continues to have a good
relationship with both his father and sister.

Gill mixes style and footage admirably, following Ron from a
college party where he’s inducted as an honorary fraternity member to the set
of adult flick Ally McFeel
, and includes
interviews with everyone from industry staples Al Goldstein and William Margold
to friends like actor Al Lewis (yep, Grandpa Munster) and director Adam Rifkin.
There are problems, though. Gill commits the cardinal sin of documentary
filmmaking, copping out on asking the tough (and most obvious) questions of
Jeremy’s family — it’s obvious that the adult industry, and Ron Jeremy’s place
in it, is his main interest, the rest of his life reduced to little more than
curio status. Yet you can’t really find it in your heart to hold these
transgressions against the film for long, perhaps evidence of Jeremy’s secret
sway, perhaps just an indication that this is a compelling story of a man who
is at once a hero and a pariah. (Maelstrom, unrated, 81 mins.)

9 to 5


Before the term “glass ceiling” really entered into the popular lexicon, 1980’s 9 to 5
tapped into the roiling undercurrent of feminine workplace discord
in
telling the comedic story of three women who team up to put the screws
to their patronizing, deceitful bastard of a boss. It may seem like
nothing in hindsight, but the savvy in-triplicate casting of Jane Fonda (also a producer on
the project), Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin represented significant
shifts or steps forward for each of them, and the movie as a whole definitely benefits from
the starkly contrasting pleasures of their rich interplay
.

Lucky Number Slevin

Lucy Liu), Slevin gets mistaken for Nick and sucked
into a plot involving joint gambling debts to two feuding, equally
paranoid and security-conscious crime lords known as the Boss (Morgan
Freeman) and the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley).

In order to erase his debt to the Boss, Slevin is charged with
bumping off Yitzchok (Michael Rubenfeld), the gay son of the Rabbi. The
Rabbi, meanwhile, has his own demands of Slevin. It soon becomes
apparent, meanwhile, that “Smith” is actually Mr. Goodkat, a famously
discreet assassin, and he has strange and murky plans involving Slevin,
who must in turn start thinking on his feet in an effort to turn the
tables on those that would take advantage of him.

McGuigan also directed Hartnett in Wicker Park, another movie
on one level about the convergence of identity and opportunity, and he
made use there of all sorts of slurry, obfuscating devices. Here,
though, he has material whose ingrained archness better matches some of
the things he’s trying to do
. Jazzy interstitials make short work of
many a character and scene, and the film’s opening preface from Smith
spells out its diversionary gambit. The set design is all flirty ’60s
décor, full of pop and lines of distinction. What’s left, though
incredibly arch, is energetic and charismatic.

Hartnett gets to play askance and off-kilter, something he does
well, and that many of his blander roles don’t afford him the
opportunity to do. The meet-cute banter with Liu is fun if tonally
dubious
, harkening back to the days of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
At one point Lindsey compliments Slevin by saying he reminds her of
James Bond; this later entails a discussion of whether or not this
really was a compliment, based on which Bond she was talking about. If
Willis, in full-on stoic mode, is merely a placeholder here, you don’t
fault him too much given the size and function of his part in this
rangy ensemble. As slick and masturbatory as it is freewheeling and
fun
, Lucky Number Slevin is a crime caper predicated on head feints. If that bothers you, don’t play its slots. (MGM/Weinstein Company, R, 110 mins.)