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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

Deer Woman

The “Masters of Horror” anthology series — from Showtime,
and released on DVD by Anchor Bay, who’s done well in large part by
carving out a lucrative niche with said genre — has gotten a lot of
mileage out of effects work and slight shock, low-fi gambits that still
appeal to the Fangoria set. Not all of their entries, though,
have the most economical and streamlined use of limited means that
informs a lot of the best psychological horror works. And certainly not
all of them have the streak of humor that director John Landis’ Deer Woman has.

Directed by Landis from a superb teleplay written with his son, Max Landis, the hour-long film stars Brian Benben (HBO’s Dream On, the bafflingly canted and sort of artsy introduction to breasts for many a prepubescent boy) as cynical detective Dwight Faraday. While investigating a series of grisly murders in the Pacific Northwest, Faraday comes to suspect that the culprit may not be someone, but instead something — an ancient Native American mythological creature (looker Cinthia Moura, also above), bridging human and nature with deadly results. Bounced from his regular rotation, Faraday keeps in touch with his friend and fellow officer, Jacob Reed (Anthony Griffith), and keeps researching, advancing his case by pointing out that most bloody crime scenes don’t come with, you know, hoof prints.

Oscar-winning make-up designer Howard Berger’s work is superb, Moura is (wisely, for so many reasons) a dialogue-free menace, and Landis plys the audience with fanciful flashbacks that skillfully feed the story. Deer Woman‘s triumph is its blend of medium-grade titillation and gallows humor, mixed in with a few nice shock scares. Everything is of a piece, pointing the movie in the right direction. It’s a nice curveball entry in this series, and Benben delivers a winning, very funny performance, reminding you of why he was on the cusp of neurotic leading man stardom in Dream On‘s heyday.

Presented in 1.77:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, Deer Woman comes with a laudatory featurette on Landis and his work, a behind-the-scenes making-of featurette, and on-set interviews with Benben, Griffith and Moura. There’s also a really fun audio commentary track with Benben and Griffith, as well as an interview with Landis, by series creator Mick Garris, at the Fantasy Film Festival. Trailers for other “Masters of Horror” releases, a still photo gallery and DVD-ROM copies of the screenplay and a screensaver round things out, making Deer Woman easily one of this series’ best releases, quantitatively and qualitatively. A (Movie) A (Disc)

Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection

What’s
the measure of a blockbuster-in-waiting? Well, these days it means not
just a movie itself, but a flooded market of ancillary and catalogue
product, in addition to all the more obvious promotional tie-ins
. Ergo,
on the eve of Bryan Singer’s big-screen re-imagining, witness Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection.

Fleischer
Studios — later called Famous Studios after being acquired by Paramount
— produced 17 Superman cartoons from 1941 to ’43, and these ran in
front of a variety of feature film engagements during that time. In
these days, Superman was still a relatively new character, having been
created in a 1938 Action Comics tome from Jerry Siegel and Joe
Shuster. Max and Dave Fleischer were contracted for the work, and many
of the iconic phrases associated with the Man of Steel (including,
“Look, up in the sky!” and “Faster than a speeding bullet…”) were
birthed from these shorts. Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection brings together this entire canon, certainly groundbreaking for its time, and still a treat for fans of animation history.

With titles like “The Bulleteers,” “The Mechanical Monsters” and
“The Japoteurs,” these shorts ran six to seven minutes apiece
, and
featured Clayton “Bud” Collyer as the voice of Clark Kent and Superman,
Joan Alexander as the voice of Lois Lane and Jackson Beck as the
strips’ narrator. Each is braced with matted background paintings, and
brimming with colorful, often fiery action sequences in which Superman
consistently rescues Lois and/or the citizenry of Metropolis or
Manhattan (the setting had yet to be fully finalized). “The Magnetic
Telescope” finds Superman coping with the fallout from a collision of
comets that results from an overeager scientist, while “Terror on the
Midway” finds him doing battle with a couple of panthers and a gigantic
ape — a definite, winking stand-in for King Kong. Other shorts take
maniacal human villains as their antagonists, including “Electric
Earthquake,” in which a Native American scientist with an underwater
laboratory threatens to destroy Manhattan unless it’s returned to his
people. The plots are straightforward, and there’s not much in the way
of nuance, but completists will appreciate some of the gaps this fills
in.

DVD special features for the program, which is presented on a single
disc in 1.33:1 full screen in a regular Amray case, include a nice
array of retrospective material. First off, though, is the transfer;
though imported from original 35mm prints and negatives, and thus a
vast improvement over any VHS bootlegs floating around out there, the
picture is tinted and beset with fairly consistent grain
. Additionally,
the audio is frequently tinny, sounding like it’s coming through a wet
cardboard box. Ultimately, this won’t be enough to dissuade
super-minded collectors from adding Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection to their haul, nor necessarily should it be, but for the casual fan it is worth mentioning.

What helps mitigate these shortcomings is the care put into the
supplemental features
. A foldout insert booklet provides plenty of
contextual background on the series, while the DVD itself includes a
synopsis of each cartoon with facts and trivia from author Ross May and
Super-fan Steve Younis. There are also bios of the voice talent, a
two-minute trailer for the Superman live-action serials from later in
the 1940s, a four-and-a-half-minute wartime parody of the series from
Warner Bros. entitled Snafuperman, employing their Private
Snafu character, and a phone interview with Joan Alexander in which she
reveals that she had to slyly re-audition for the part of Lois Lane

after capricious underwriters gave her the boot the first time around.
Why, Superman himself would appreciate that initiative! C+ (Movies) B- (Disc)

LAFF: Islander and Swedish Auto

Forget
the parties, desperate schmoozing and contrived photo opps — one of the
greatest things about film festivals is the sympathetic audience
.
Whereas flash, vim and high concept ideas frequently overwhelm general
audience moviegoers, those devoted film fans attending festivals around
the United States often get to experience more recognizably down-tempo
and innately relatable fare. This is certainly true of much of the fare
at the ongoing 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival, including several
narrative films in competition for the Target Filmmaker Award, which
carries a cash prize of a cool $50,000.

First up is Islander,
directed and co-written by rising talent Ian McCrudden and starring
fellow co-writer Thomas Hildreth, Amy Jo Johnson
, Ron Canada and Boogie Nights’ Philip Baker Hall in a
key supporting role. Set in a tight-knit Maine coastal community whose
lobster industry is drying up and causing all sorts of tensions, the
movie centers on irascible family man Eben Cole, whose aggressive
protection of territorial fishing boundaries against mainland
interlopers yields unfortunately life-changing results. Returning to
the island after an absence of several years, Eben finds himself a
pariah, as well as a virtual stranger to his daughter Sara, whom
ex-wife Cheryl (Johnson) has cut off all contact with. What we see,
though, is a changed and much more pensive man, even though Cheryl has
moved in with Jimmy (Mark Kiely), a former colleague of Eben’s.
Reluctant to lose his family and start anew elsewhere, Eben must fight
to reestablish a claim to the only life he has ever known, even if the
mooring of that life appears to be hopelessly eroding.

Islander is just a bit obviously plotted and overcooked early
on — in its eagerness to set the scene, every interaction is
emotionally charged — but you can veritably taste the salt
water air of the setting
, courtesy of cinematographer Dan Coplan’s
beautiful blue-grey palette and composer Billy Mallery’s gentle,
evocative score. Fed by McCrudden and Coplan’s melancholic close-ups
and some quite fine ensemble acting, the movie only deepens as it
progresses. Hildreth in particular — a dead ringer for a more mature
Skeet Ulrich, if ever there’s a need for a Chill Factor sequel
— is a revelation, proof that there’s leading man talent in many an
actor resigned to supporting character roles.
In charting Eben’s
struggle to reclaim what he has lost, Islander indulges a
quietude not frequently seen in much modern studio product, and
consequently blossoms into a stirringly nostalgic tale of small town
Americana
.

Also playing in narrative competition is writer-director Derek Sieg’s Swedish Auto, starring erstwhile Winona Ryder boy-toy Lukas Haas and January Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada).
A muted mood piece full of busted, quiet detail, the film tells the
story of shy, rural Virginia mechanic Carter (Haas), who spends his
days fixing Saabs and Volvos and his nights shadowing beautiful college
student violinist Ann (Brianne Davis), so entranced by her music is he.
Before the movie can fully explore this intriguing blue collar/white
collar dichotomy, though, we find out that someone’s also following Carter, as it turns out: Darla (Jones), the pretty waitress from the local burger joint.

These cosmically matched voyeurs enter into a delicate courtship
dance, exchanging shy smiles whose deeper meaning we’re left to read
into by ourselves. Jones, a real looker who caught her big break in American Wedding, shows promise here in a restrained role that’s underwritten seemingly as an act of artistic artifice, but Swedish Auto
is still a bit too reticent for its own good, despite its genuinely
rooted sense of place
. It’s the backhanded definition of a festival
film, which is to say imbued with beautifully reserved visuals and
thoughtful performances, but not necessarily enough native, realistic
drama.

The 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival is spread out at 11 different
Westwood venues, all within walking distance of each other, and spans a
vast spectrum of moviemaking in its selections, from intimate indies
and “dark wave” guilty pleasures to a variety of special events. For
more information on the films above, as well as others in the festival
, visit the LA Film Festival’s semi-eponymous web site by clicking here. More to follow throughout the week…

Superman Returns

Bryan Singer, who
brought deep and enriching allegorical underpinnings to the X-Men franchise, abandoned that series
to rescue Warner Bros.’ foundering attempts to rejuvenate the character of
Superman. His long-awaited efforts finally take to the screen in the form of Superman Returns, a movie that swings
heartily for the epochal fences
.

Set after a five-year absence from Earth during which he’s
traveled to the destroyed remains of his home planet, the film finds Superman
(newcomer Brandon Routh) returning to Metropolis and comfortable margins of his
meek alter ego, newspaperman Clark Kent, where it seems only cub photographer
Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) has really noticed Clark’s absence. Superman’s
one-time love, hard-charging reporter Lois Lane
(Kate Bosworth), has taken up with Richard White (James Marsden), the nephew of
Daily Planet editor Perry White
(Frank Langella). She’s also won a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial entitled
“Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” but the biggest rub for Superman is that
she has a son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu).

After Superman boldly announces his return with the
theatrical rescue of a compromised shuttle launch
, he sets about zipping to and
fro and taking care of some of the little stuff — pettier crimes like bank
heists, and averted natural disasters and the like. Unfortunately, former
nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, playing the less-is-more card until he’s
truly required to chew scenery) was paroled since Superman failed to show up to
testify at his trial (!)
, and his discovery of Superman’s “Fortress of
Solitude” and its intergalactic crystals has given him the idea of drowning
existent coastlines and creating a super-continent, all to drive up property
value. Naturally Superman, unlike The Big
Lebowski
’s Dude, will not abide.

Routh acquits himself nicely in the title role, even if his
characterization is for the most part an earnestly square, more finely groomed
imitation of Christopher Reeve’s work
. As Lex Luthor, Spacey is granted one
deliciously maniacal scene, but otherwise works in tones of (relatively) muted
archness, leaving most of the best lines to cohort Kitty Kowalski (Parker
Posey), who begins to entertain doubts about her complicity in the plot after
meeting Superman in a contrived rescue. The work of Bosworth, however, is much
more problematic.
A serviceable actress in the right parts, she comes across
here as too far young and over her head, and has none of the edge or convincing
aplomb of Margot Kidder’s iteration of the character.

One of the things that made last summer’s Batman Begins so interesting — even if
its action-fueled finale was a case of sludgy backsliding — was the manner in
which it answered origin questions big and small, but also used these details
to drive the story forward in a fresh and organic way
. Superman Returns, by contrast, has little of this type of
innovation going for it. Even for audiences who haven’t fetishistically
revisited Richard Donner’s 1978 original, significant portions of this movie
may feel like a fevered reset of the character’s mythology, and not just
because swatches of the late Marlon Brando’s narration as Superman’s father
Jor-El are used herein.

X-Men 2 — have at the center of their movie a suitably thorny
interpersonal hurdle in the form of Lois’ romantic entanglement and son, but
the eventuality of this strand is fairly obvious from its introduction, and not
just because Richard, apropos of nothing, awkwardly intones to Clark upon first
meeting him, “No matter how close I get to her, that woman is always a mystery to me.” Trading in the
same sort of elegance and high-stakes emotionalism that made his work on the X-Men franchise so enthralling,
everything here seems stretched like taffy.
When a big interpersonal reveal
comes, we’re still more than an hour away from the finish line; when disaster
for Metropolis is averted, 50 minutes; when Superman plummets to the ground in
a moment of sacrificial grace and glory, 20 minutes.

The film, too, is hamstrung by a few nagging incongruities,
whether it’s Clark seeing Lois off in a cab, immediately donning his Superman
get-up and arriving at her home after
her commute, or Lois taking Jason with her when she decides to snoop around
Lex’s hideout, a massive boat. Brass tacks: the film feels less essential than
either of the first two Spider-Man
and X-Men films, and even Batman Begins. For all its flash, Superman Returns is a great deal too
long — particularly its first hour, which could stand to be thoroughly
collapsed
— and it feels all the more so because it comes off “merely” as a
state-of-the-art re-up for a new generation rather than a vital
contextualization or rebirth of the character.

What somewhat saves Superman
Returns
, of course, is its often dazzling technical proficiency. When you
see a movie of this ilk you want to see some great action scenes and feats of
derring-do, and those promises are for the most part delivered upon. From Guy
Hendrix Dyas’ superlative production design and the smoothly integrated
airborne sequences to John Williams’ stirringly iconic theme and composer John
Ottman’s fine work as well, the film never for a moment comes across as less
than a top-notch affair. Singer, meanwhile, can craft quiet scenes as well as
energetic action bits, but it’s only the movie’s highly touted
bullet-to-the-eye sequence — probably the finest and most instantly classic
single CGI shot since the original bullet-time work of
The Matrix — that really sticks with you.

In the end, Superman
Returns
’ success relates somewhat to one’s level of expectation. Measured
against the relatively high bars of other recent superhero fare, it feels
uncomfortably familiar.
For those looking for a slice of high-flying
entertainment, however, it certainly suffices. (Warner
Bros., PG-13, 156 mins.)

LAFF: The Devil Wears Prada

While
the rest of the country braces for the onslaught of all things
Superman, Westwood Village is playing host to the 2006 Los Angeles Film
Festival through July 2, after years of the event being held in
Hollywood
. Offering forth more than 170 feature and short films, plus
star-studded events like world premieres, special hosted tribute
screenings and intimate coffee talks and poolside chats with various
industry insiders, including A Scanner Darkly director Richard Linklater, LAFF truly has something for film fans of all stripes.

Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep’s The Devil Wears Prada
kicked off the festival last Thursday night, in advance of its
nationwide theatrical bow from 20th Century Fox this coming Friday,
June 30. Fox Searchlight’s Little Miss Sunshine closes the festival, meanwhile, while Sony Pictures Classics’ Quinceañera, releasing in August, also screens as a centerpiece selection.

In brief, Prada, based on Lauren Weisberger’s best-selling
2003 novel, is both the coming-of-age story of a top fashion magazine
editor’s lowly second assistant (Hathaway) and a glorious, showcase
reminder of the unparalleled talents of Streep. With her icy visage and
matching snow queen coif, Streep cuts an effectively chilly figure as
the eternally sour and entitlement-driven Miranda Priestly, but she
also lends her enough humanity to help elevate the movie above mere
boss-from-hell tomfoolery, and into an effective if glossy and
decidedly estrogenized mentor-associate dramedy
, a proxy portrait of
powerful women and the unique price they must pay for their ambition.
Men may not necessarily be predisposed to want to go see this movie,
given its subject matter and lax treatment of male supporting
characters, but erstwhile Princess Diaries star Hathaway acquits herself nicely and Streep helps make it much more than just worthwhile.

The festival is spread out at 11 Westwood venues, all within walking
distance of each other (shuttles make getting around even easier), and
spans both the globe and a vast spectrum of moviemaking in its
selections, from intimate indies and “dark wave” guilty pleasures to
big-budget studio fare. For those in the area, individual event and
screening tickets are still available for purchase at
LAFilmFest.com, or by calling 1-866-FILM FEST. More to follow
throughout the week…

The Great Robot Race

One of the television news mags — I think it was Dateline NBC,
because I seem to remember Stone Phillips’ smug visage — recently had a
little fantastical end-of-show segment about the possibility somewhere
down the line of robots eventually taking over humanity
. They
interviewed some chap in England who’d implanted various microchips
under his skin all in the name of human betterment, and who was getting
ready to have a processor placed literally on his brain (hey, seems
like a good idea). They even interviewed the author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising,
although he admitted his tome was tongue-in-cheek (way to sell your
book, jackass). All of this got me thinking, when watching The Great Robot Race on DVD, “Hey, these are probably the first-generation foot soldiers in our future enslavement!”

Directed by Joseph Seamans and narrated by John Lithgow, The Great Robot Race
runs just under an hour and chronicles the October 2005 DARPA Grand
Challenge, a race for robotic, driverless vehicles
sponsored by the
Pentagon’s research agency. Twenty-three vehicles line up, with names
like Ghostrider, Terramax, Highlander and Stanley. The course is a
130-mile stretch of scorching Nevada terrain, and the cash prize is $2
million, with the unstated but no doubt the additional incentive of
possible dangled government contracts in unmanned warfare
investigation.

Interviews with writers from publications like Scientific American
help lend jargon-cracking insight to some of the terminology (hydraulic
steering assembly, inertial measurement unit and shift and brake
actuators), but for the most part the program does a savvy job of
explicating robotic sensors, apps and vision in layman’s terms, while
also focusing on the race’s hard-charging endowment personalities, like
Carnegie Mellon’s Red Whittaker and brothers Bruce and Dave Hall, the
guys behind Drillzilla on Battle Bots. There’s also footage
from previous races, wherein a “computer glitch” sends one contestant
hurtling off a short track and into a guard rail. (Sure. I blame
the two guys in red shirts lurking at the edge of the barrier; clearly
this robot has some bull in her.) All in all, this forward-looking Nova
special is intriguing (yes, there’s even a clip from The Terminator 2),
though the term “race” will be somewhat misleading to those expecting
brute-force sprints rather than technological marathons. Bring it on
robots, says I.

Housed in a regular Amray case, The Great Robot Race is
presented in 1.85:1 widescreen enhanced for 16×9 televisions, along
with an English language Dolby 2.0 audio track. The only supplemental
extras come in the form of DVD-ROM teaching materials in a downloadable
.PDF file — possibly all part of the robots’ master plan to isolate and
dominate the most technologically savvy of us. B (Movie) C- (Disc)

Moistboyz: Live Jihad

Despite
their obvious musical craftsmanship and ecstatic performance energy, I
never really “got” Ween
, the gleefully dirty-minded satirists of the
alt-rock ’90s. Comprised of Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman, aka
Dean and Gene Ween, there was always an unnerving
shock-for-shock’s-sake quality to their misogynistic and race-baiting
frat boy humor. It felt like really smart and well-crafted dumb music
made predominantly for a set that might not mistake it for empty
theater
.

Offshoot Moistboyz, then, simply extends the pair’s
anarchic, jovial political incorrectness (after all, what better way to
drum up attention these days than toss around the word jihad?),
and finds it invading fresh new subgenre terrain (a relative term here,
considering they’ve been spitting out occasional releases for the past
decade) in the form of thrashing rap metal. Caustic single “O.G.
Simpson” was the duo’s initial claim to fame, but that doesn’t show up
in the course of this 75-minute show, filmed live at the Bowery
Ballroom in New York City in mid-September of 2005. Spanning material
from all four Moistboyz records, multi-instrumentalist Mickey Moist
(Melchiondo) and pants-slung-low frontman Dickie Moist (that would be
Freeman), pausing occasionally to quote from Pulp Fiction,
together with their backing band rip through a sweaty show full of
smirky crassness (sample lyric: “Shit stains cooking in the crack of
your ass!”) but also undeniably catchy punk-metal catharsis.

Directed by Marc Schmidt-Casdorff, the concert is full of both the
forceful vigor that marks the best of punk rock as well as a pointedly
subversive theatricality
. The fact they’re straight-facedly playing
characters comes through loud and clear. The hard-charging set list is
comprised of: “Great American Zero,” “That’s What Rock & Roll Can
Do,” “The Tweaker,” “U Blow,” “Lazy and Cool,” “Officer Please,” “White
Trash,” “1.0 (Fuck No),” “Keep the Fire Alive,” “The Year of the
Maggot,” “Captain America,” “Crank,” “Carjack,” “In the Valley of the
Sun,” “Roy,” “The Spike,” “Good Morning America” and “Fuck You.”
Strangely, a cover of Hanson’s “MMMBop” is not included.

Moistboyz: Live Jihad is presented in a regular Amray case,
with a Dolby digital audio track that ably handles the high-register
demands of the show. It’s presented in full screen, but enough creative
shots and angles are commingled so as to give one a fresh sense of the
stage and space
. An unfortunate lack of extras makes this screeching
document pretty much a wash for Ween/Moistboyz newbies, but one
imagines there’s a sneering, and perhaps even erudite, devotee out
there that will be more than happy to provide you with a rolling
commentary track should you need/want one. B- (Concert) D+ (Disc)

One-on-One with Uwe Boll

Director
Uwe Boll is a filmmaker in the grand, throwback tradition of the
snake-oil showmen of the medium’s traveling circus infancy
. Derided by
some (okay, many), he’s made a handful of genre flicks (Blackwoods, House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark), most of which are rooted in videogames, and recently also started challenging journalists to boxing matches (no word yet on whether or not I’ll make the cut). His latest film is January’s BloodRayne,
now new to DVD, complete with a feature-length audio commentary track
with Boll and star Kristanna Loken, storyboards, a five-minute CGI
montage, a 53-minute dinner-and-discussion with IGN’s Chris Carle, and
a separate copy of the eponymous videogame itself. I took some time
recently to talk with Boll about both BloodRayne, its
disappointing and strange commercial release, and his myriad of
forthcoming projects. The conversation is excerpted in brief below, 15
questions for 15 rounds.

Alone in the Dark that there were a lot of script problems on that movie and you weren’t really happy with it. So for BloodRayne you went out and secured Guinevere Turner (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page, television’s The L Word). How did that come about?

UB: We were definitely looking out for better writers, and
for better writing for all the movies coming up, and Guinevere Turner —
even if she has no ideas from videogames — came up with the best pitch.
We were so convinced that I gave her a full briefing — like 10 pages
that I wanted in the script and she was really able to get in: the way
BloodRayne looks and fights, and certain back stories and brimstone and
vampire hunters. So this was basically a very positive development that
we had a writer like her.

BS: What about for Dungeon Siege: In the Name of the King, which seems to be your biggest production to date?

UB: It’s three times bigger than all of the other movies I
have done, and it has a $60 million budget. What is really massive is
that we have 1,400 CGI shots, which is more than (the second) The Lord of the Rings,
and it will be a big, epic movie — the first fantasy epic. All of the
other movies (I’ve done) are more horror and action, so it’s a
different thing. The writers on Dungeon Siege, David Freeman
and Doug Taylor, they both wrote the main story and script, even though
there were other writers involved. It took one and a half years, and
the first draft was like 300 pages long, but they really worked
together and developed a great script. It’s heartbreaking, full of
fantasy, interesting twists and characters, which is one of the reasons
that we got so many great actors in the film
. But the same is true of BloodRayne.

BS: What was it about BloodRayne that most interested
you? I know you’ve snapped up a lot of videogame properties, that
you’ve searched for film ideas there, in that medium. But was it the
character first and foremost?

UB: First of all, I always wanted to do a vampire movie, and
here was a chance to do a videogame-based vampire movie and to do it as
a prequel, and really in Transylvania. This is one of the reasons we
shot in Romania. All of this fed my excitement. It was completely
different. In Alone in the Dark you had creatures, House of the Dead is more an action fun zombie movie, and BloodRayne
was more of a character-driven, period piece vampire movie, and so
totally different from the movies I’d done before. There’s a lot of
misunderstanding in the public, where people think I am this guy doing
videogame-based movies and they’re all the same. But this is bullshit
because in videogames you have all genres. You can do an adventure
movie, a horror movie, fantasy, sci-fi. So you have the same
flexibilities as any other movie. So I always look out to make sure
that I do different movies and genres.

BS:
What was it about your leading lady, Kristanna Loken, that most
attracted you — the fact that she has action experience but is
beautiful too?

UB: We had a list of three women that we thought would be good for BloodRayne.
It took a while because Kristanna lives partially in South Africa, so
we went first to another actress, but she passed on it, which was good.
And then Kristanna came back and called me on my cell phone in the
middle of the night in Romania, where (I was scouting), and said she
really wanted to do it. And I had loved her in Terminator 3. BloodRayne is tall, strong and a real heroine, an Amazon fighter. And she’s perfect.

Alone in the Dark and Blackwoods were both hammered critically, and ranked pretty low on various critical aggregate sites, and BloodRayne didn’t do much better. Is that something that you pay any attention to, or does it just make you redouble your efforts?

UB: Look, you never go easy over it, and I think there are
reviews that are fair and good, coming up with the positive and
negative things about that release. (pause) And there are also reviews
out there where they go on the message boards and they see what kind of
videogame geeks, how much they hate me or whatever. They’re getting
influenced not by critics, but more (by) people hanging out on the
Internet. Then they write negative reviews about it because they read
so much negative stuff there. And I also think that from time to time
there are reviews that are unreasonable and unfair, and this is
something I cannot do anything about. But my wish for the future is
basically that more people see the movies before they write something
and before they judge the movies. And then they should compare it to
similar movies and write something based on their real impressions.
This would be my wish list for the future.

Of course these are genre movies and not everybody likes that, so you cannot expect with House of the Dead to get a great review in the Washington Post.
But these are $20 million movies, and the people working on my movies
are all A-list crew people, A-list CGI people. My camera guy, Mathias
Neumann, won all kind of awards; he got, last year in New York City,
the (award for) Best DP in commercial advertising worldwide, so these
people are professionals. And the (effects) people on Dungeon Siege right now are the same people that did Mission: Impossible III and Superman.
So if then people write, “Uwe Boll’s movies are trash,” or, “He is like
Ed Wood,” then this is bullshit. You can write that you don’t like the
story, or you think it’s poor direction or poor acting or whatever, all
this kind of stuff, no problem, but to write that the movies are
completely garbage or are made like hobby movies or amateur movies has
nothing to do with those movies. Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead and BloodRayne are technical, state-of-the-art — they are more expensive and better technically than White Noise
and these kind of other movies. This is the reality. They’re looking
better, our score is always played with a symphony or orchestra of 120
people, made by people (who’ve worked) with Hans Zimmer. And (critics)
writing this bullshit means also that this crew is unprofessional, and
this has nothing to do the reality. I don’t care if the people on the
Internet are writing it, but if the New York Times guy is trashing BloodRayne
(as if) I did a movie on 8mm or something, then I have to think it’s
kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy in his head: “Oh, it’s from Uwe
Boll, I have to trash it.”

BS: If it’s the Internet geeks or fan-boys that so vehemently
dislike you, do you foresee a time, then, because you’re so associated
with videogame adaptations, when you’ll step away from that a little
bit?

UB: Absolutely, I’ll be doing two movies this year. I’ll do Postal, based on the videogame. And Seed
is a horror movie I’ve written which has nothing to do with a
videogame. And in the next few years, I will do definitely a minimum of
the same amount of non-videogame movies as videogame movies.

BS: Tell me a little about those films, then. What’s shooting first and what’s your schedule for the rest of the year?

UB: Seed comes first. In July we start it, and it’s
based on the history of the U.S. death penalty. So you know that under
U.S. law that if you survive three executions in the electric chair
they have to let you go
.

BS: I did not know that.

UB: Yeah, but it’s the truth. And in the 1960s and ’70s,
there were electric chairs that were in really bad shape, basically
fucked up, and people survived it but were brain-dead. There are rumors
about what really happened to the people, but they claimed that they
are dead because they had no idea what they should do with these bodies
where the heart was still working but the rest of the body is almost
dead. And so then they buried the people alive.

BS: Wow.

UB: Seed is based on this kind of story, and the
fictional part is that a guy comes back and they dig him out after
having been buried. And (laughs) so it’s a really super, super hot
horror movie.

BS: Has that been cast yet?

UB: No, we start in the next few weeks, but we’ll go more for
unknowns. Because it’s based on reality I don’t want it to be too much
like BloodRayne or whatever. It would be bad for the movie. My
plan is to shoot it more like a documentary — all hand-held, and to get
that feeling like you get in Henry: Portrait of a Serial [Killer], for example. So this (is the) kind of feeling I want in Seed. We’ll have actors that we know, but I don’t want a big star.

BS: And what’s the gist of Postal?

UB: Postal is an action-comedy in a way. It’s like Falling Down,
with Michael Douglas, but funny. In the game you can play it without
violence, too. You can go in a bank and wait in a row; you wait for
two-and-a-half hours in the videogame and then basically you cash in
your check. But also you can go in the bank and kill everybody, and
cash in your check super-fast. (laughs) And in the game you can play
George Bush, Jr. or Osama Bin Laden, you can play all kinds of people.
And my plan is to do, like, Wag the Dog meets Pulp Fiction meets Falling Down.
The script, right now, is being re-written by the game guys. Running
With Scissors is a company in Arizona (that) developed the game on
their own as outsiders, and they’re super-involved also in the
development of the movie. And I think it will be a hilarious movie.
We’ll go for a bigger cast, but only as cameos. We have a couple cops,
and a local political guy who wants to join forces with Bin Laden. So
you have all kinds of freaks and people running around. I think it will
be really funny.

Sick Girl

The “Masters of Horror” anthology series — premiering on
Showtime in the fall of 2005, and
subsequently released on DVD by Anchor Bay, who’s done well in large
part by carving
out a lucrative niche with said genre — has given old maestros and new
hired hands alike the chance to flex their muscles in short-form
projects.

Director Lucky McKee is of the latter category. He burst onto the mainstream scene, such as it was, with 2002’s May, a sincerely creepy psychological horror flick about a disturbed young woman (Angela Bettis)
who harbors a crush on a nearby guy (Jeremy Sisto), and takes out her
obsession on dolls, and then people. Studded with unnerving detail, it
was a legitimately impressive and audacious indie-minded flick. “Masters of Horror” entry Sick Girl reteams McKee and his May star, then, but unfortunately to lesser mesmerizing effect.

Misty Mundae, credited here by her given name, Erin Brown), though, she feels the endorphins of love surging through her body for the first time. Unfortunately, there’s still the matter of bugs in their relationship, and when some very important ones get loose in Ida’s apartment, it has some deadly consequences.

Bettis is a perfect match for wounded and/or constipated characters of this nature; she conveys their wound-up awkwardness and isolation (maybe she watched Carrie
every day growing up) without ever dipping into clichés of loserdom. So as a character piece, Sick Girl has a few things going for it. Unfortunately, Misty is a cipher, and while McKee concocts a few nice ewww moments (Chinese food with cockroaches would qualify), latter-act bug point-of-view shots come off as eye-rollingly cheesy and nonsensical inclusions. Jesse Hlubik, meanwhile, costars as Max Grubb, the third side of Sick Girl‘s triangle.

Presented in 1.77:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, Sick Girl comes with the usual complement of solid bonus features that dot Anchor Bay’s “Masters of Horror” releases. In addition to a still photo gallery, a DVD-ROM
screensaver and copy of the screenplay, a McKee text biography and trailers for other releases, there’s a warm, friendly audio commentary
track with McKee, composer Jaye Barnes Luckett and actors Bettis and Hlubik, full of anecdotal riffs. There’s also a behind-the-scenes making-of featurette, a more specific look at the movie’s creepy-crawly effects work and on-set interviews with
Bettis, Brad McDonald and Mundae/Brown. C+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)

The Road to Guantanamo

Part documentary, part dramatic recreation, The Road to Guantanamo offers forth a
prima facie account of three British citizens who were held for more than two
years without charges in the eponymous American military prison in
Cuba,
an opaque facility whose continued operation represents an ongoing payoff in
propaganda for would-be international jihadists.

Michael Winterbottom, is a filmmaker known
— to the degree that he is, outside the hardcore arthouse set — largely for his
intersecting interests in war, class, sociopolitical activism and their
respective influences upon the human condition
. His movies, too, often come
wrapped up in collagist, avant-garde storytelling. From both the similarly
minded Welcome to Sarajevo and In This World to last year’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
and 9 Songs, though, Winterbottom
remains a filmmaker in many ways more appealing in principle than in actuality
— an intellectual of wide and varied preoccupations who has a propensity for
getting lost in too much navel-gazing. Very interesting but in some ways also
frustrating,
The Road to Guantanamo
continues that trend
.

Intercutting dramatizations with neophyte actors and
interviews with the real-life figures they depict — Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed and
Shafiq Rasul, who range from 19 to 23 years of age at the time of the events —
the film chronicles the events that follow from the group setting out from the
British Midlands town of Tipon for
Asif’s arranged marriage in Pakistan.
After the wedding is postponed, the trio and another friend, Monir Ali, cross
over the Afghanistan
border just as the U.S.
bombing campaign of that country intensifies. From there their dark,
surrealistic misadventure only worsens, and they are eventually captured by
Northern Alliance forces, transferred to American custody and taken to Camp
X-Ray and, later, the more permanent Camp Delta, in Guantanamo.

Cast against the rhetoric of absolutes that President Bush
and, to a lesser if more articulate degree, British Prime Minister Tony Blair
have fed their respective publics about the enduring war on terror and the
identities of those radical, dangerous “dead-enders” held in Guantanamo, the
movie is undeniably illuminating
. The so-called “Tipton Three” (Monir gets lost
and is never heard from again), while not angels (each was at some point on
probation for petty offenses back in England),
are hardly Al Qaeda terrorists or even flaming ideologues. They’re rendered in
full, three-dimensional form, and their caged humiliation and torture (at the
hands, variously, of Americans, Brits and, most brutally, Northern Alliance
Afghanis) delivers a calculable impact.

Still, The Road to
Guantanamo
, from its too haphazardly quilted opening through the first 35
minutes or so, plays too coy with the group’s motivations
, never adequately
assessing why these somewhat secularized loafers would go willfully into a war
zone on a good Samaritan’s lark. The admission of a more mercenary or at least
foolhardy call to arms wouldn’t necessarily completely dint the impact of the
subsequent moral questions under the microscope, but Winterbottom and
co-director Mat Whitecross seem to tacitly acknowledge the complications this
presents by skirting the issue entirely. The result, though, is a movie that
seems to be deficient in due diligence. Lacking both a sermon-to-the-choir
fervor or a libertarian persuasiveness,
The
Road to Guantanamo
instead lies flat.

Additionally, it’s problematic to cut back and forth between
characters and real-life figures who look little alike, and this tack robs the
movie of a sense of distinct rootedness. Instead, despite the fantastical and
inherently stirring true story on display, we’re left for the most part with only an
impressionist’s sense of swirling grey morality
. (Roadside Attractions/Film
Four, R, 94 mins.)

Wassup Rockers

The latest in Kids and Bully director Larry Clark’s voyeuristic forays into teenage alienation and sexual acting out, Wassup Rockers takes as its motley crew of protagonists a group of long-haired skateboarders from the South Central Los Angeles ghetto. As with all of Clark’s movies, there’s a verité immediacy to the proceedings. Unfortunately, unlike those two aforementioned in-your-face gems, there’s also a pandering and indistinctness that mark it as among the lesser of his works.

Wassup Rockers charts a skipped school day in the life of these “Latino Ramones” — black-clad, tight-pants-wearing punk aficionados who, constantly harassed for being different, fight to be themselves. Along with a few friends, the group takes a series of busses up to Beverly Hills to skateboard. There, hassled by the police,targeted by residents and seduced by two schoolgirls (Laura Cellner and Jessica Steinbaum) who spark as much to their ethnicity as their scruffiness, the boysmust navigate a surrealistic maze of mock-danger and try to return to the air-quote safety of their own impoverished burg.

Clark’s films typically have a roughhewn quality, but here he somewhat eschews the handheld nihilism of his earlier work for a few more staged and rooted shots. He still has his cinematic, fetishistic affection for skinny, shirtless teen boys and pouty, jailbait girls (in Clark’s world, everyone under 21 is a sexual magnet) and there’s his usual discerning eye for quick, shorthand detail — from the dirty crasher’s den that’s perfect in its name-brand-less anonymity to a scene where one character’s mother returns home in the morning with a wad of single dollar bills. The kids, too, are all right — they have a natural charm.

But something about Wassup Rockers feels reductive, perhaps because there’s so little individual insight into the characters. There’s no doubt legitimacy to the tension between the Latino “rockers” of the title and their neighborhood’s African-Americans,as well as the preppy teens they encounter in Beverly Hills, but things here feel paradoxically authentic and staged. The settings are grungily accurate — save for when we enter tonier territory — and the crew eventually achieves a sort of collective wounded grace and place in our memory (Clark is a superb caster, as the careers of Kids alums Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigny attest), but Wassup Rockers is beset with clownish, wildly farcical elements that ring false.

We know the kids aren’t Mexican, as they constantly have to remind various folks they encounter, but they do come across as emblems of a cultural minority that Clark seems to want to flog and celebrate by merely contrasting with buffoonish subsets from other races. By the time Janice Dickinson, in a weird cameo, is electrocuted in a tub after attempting to seduce Kico, you’re left wondering exactly whose view of Los Angeles Wassup Rockers represents. (First Look, R, 110 mins.)

Click

There are comedies of guilty affirmation — about overworked,
and thus insensitive, parents — and there are comedies about omnipotent wish
fulfillment, and now there’s Adam Sandler’s Click, a middling mash-up of various well-tested comedic
formulas
that’s rooted in a familial maturation not fully evidenced in the
movie’s trailer and television advertising campaign.

The story centers around Michael Newman (Sandler),
a workaholic architect who’s so caught up in striving to give his family — wife
Donna (Kate Beckinsale), young son Ben (Joseph Castanon) and daughter Samantha
(Tatum McCann) — the material things that he didn’t have growing up that he
often finds himself on the outside of his domestic life looking in. Constantly
striving to please his boss (David Hasselhoff) and win a crucial promotion,
though, has taken its toll on Michael’s patience and health. When his
frustration over a series of petty incidents involving a remote control boils
over, Michael heads out late one night to buy a universal remote. At a Bed Bath
& Beyond, he stumbles across an eccentric employee named Morty (Christopher
Walken
) who bestows upon him an experimental prototype gadget that allows
Michael to exert godly all-powerful control over the mundanities of life
.

Michael understandably becomes addicted to this
rush of power, fast-forwarding through commutes to work, obligatory dinners
with his parents (Henry Winkler and Julie Kavner), arguments with Donna and the
like. He even uses it to settle a few scores with the smarmy neighbor’s kid (in
a winking shout-out to Billy
Madison
’s O’Doyle family
). But before Michael knows it, the
remote is anticipating his choices and programming itself, a la a Tivo
wish-list. After he decides to flash forward a couple months to the previously
mentioned promotion, Michael finds himself hurtling through time against his
will, and stuck with a personal life dinged by regret
and disaster.

Early on, Sandler flaunts his typical gleeful
mania, but the film also injects some of Punch-Drunk Love’s swallowed, tears-of-a-clown
melancholy. While Beckinsale isn’t required to do much more than show up, look
pretty, halfheartedly argue and flirt a bit, Click dials up the sweeping, familial emotionalism to an
intriguing degree, courtesy of Rupert Gregson-Williams’ maudlin score and other
musical choices that highlight the poignancy of Michael’s increasing despair
.
That the movie is rooted in family isn’t a surprise in and of itself, given
Sandler’s well-documented grandmother fetish and dedicated loyalties, on
display in everything from his solo comedy CDs and Happy Gilmore to later work
like Big Daddy and Mr. Deeds. His own
impending and subsequently realized fatherhood, however, has obviously colored
and matured Sandler’s take on life, and Click reflects that.

The film isn’t “dark” per se, but it is being sold,
in a bit of an end-around, as a much broader comedy than it really is. Click’s grab at Bruce Almighty-type,
Everyman omnipotence is unsurprising, given that it’s also penned by that
film’s writers, Mark O’Keefe and Steve Koren
. From Michael’s first interaction
with the magical remote up through two clarifying return trips to Morty, Click hits its
expected beats
in mostly winning fashion. When the remote mimics DVD menu
options, Michael flits back to various adolescent highlights, witnesses his
“making of,” explores different language and aspect ratio options for his own
amusement and even listens to James Earl Jones’ audio commentary track on his
life.

As directed by Frank Coraci (The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer), though,
the movie slowly morphs into an earnest vehicle for the affected espousal of
platitudes. Sandler plays these dramatic scenes fairly well, and special
make-up effects designer Rick Baker provides gives the movie an extra card up
its sleeve. Still, while these moments are deeply felt, the jumps to and fro
seem arbitrary
. When the compulsory leap back to learned, It’s a Wonderful Life-style
illumination occurs, it feels a bit like, well, flipping on the television and
catching the moving but emotionally partitioned conclusion of a movie you
haven’t necessarily seen before but have already heard about through friends. (Sony/Revolution, PG-13, 106 mins.)

The Wild Wild West: The Complete First Season

Forget,
if you can, the garish, abominable feature film that it spawned, which
was good only for a few choice shots of Salma Hayek. Instead, cast your
mind back to the 1960s television show starring Robert Conrad, a
relatively daring mash-up of dusty Western serial and espionage
adventure. What’s that? Your parents didn’t permit “the talking picture
box” under their roof, nor card games, dancing and that confounded rock
’n’ roll music? Or maybe you weren’t yet alive?
Fear not, now you can
rediscover small-screen escapades of years past with The Wild Wild West: The Complete First Season.

Set
in the dusty 1870s, the series centers around two Secret Service men —
ever resourceful ladies man James West (Conrad) and his colorful
sidekick Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) — who crisscross the country in a
high-tech railroad car, executing impossible missions (long before
identity-altering plastic masks, it must be noted) handed to them
directly by President Ulysses S. Grant. Risking life and limb to
protect the security of the United States, these two professional
troubleshooters unravel a variety of wicked schemes — from art and
money counterfeiting and rogue-weapon technologies to stolen
radioactive elements and killer automatons — devised by an array of
criminal masterminds. Their chief adversary, though, is the diminutive
Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), who would appear in 10 episodes
over the course of the show’s run.

The Wild Wild West was birthed in 1965, the same year that saw the debut of Hogan’s Heroes, Petticoat Junction and Lost in Space,
among other series. Its blend of genres is interesting, and some of its
stylistic gambits (scratched-frame effects to render an explosion, for
instance) still come off as casually brilliant, low-fi hurdles of
production means
. Other bits don’t quite pass the smell test, however,
including West flirting with the secretary of a man he was charged with
protecting immediately on the heels of the latter’s death. Episode
highlights here include “The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth,” which
marks the first appearance of Dr. Loveless and includes future Bond
baddie Richard Kiel as his towering henchman Voltaire, as well as “The
Night of the Druid’s Blood,” in which West and Artemus investigate a
rash of murders involving distinguished scientists.

Spread out on seven discs housed in slimline cases in a cardboard
slipcase, Paramount’s collector’s edition presentation of the complete
first season of The Wild Wild West is a well packaged affair,
with a solid, if at times somewhat ornamental, slate of extras
overseen
by DVD producer Paul Brownstein. The episodes themselves, all 28, are
presented in 1.33:1 full frame with an English language Dolby digital
mono track, and benefit from a quite fine restoration that reduces
grain to a minimum. Alongside a slew of audio introductions, Conrad
sits for a few commentary tracks, and there are all sorts of
promotional bumpers and commercials that further showcase Richard
Markowitz memorable theme song
and Robert Drasnin’s scores.

The best extras, though, might just be a spate of 1988 audio
interviews conducted by author Susan Kester for her book on the show.
These tidbits include chats with Markowitz, writer John Kneubuhl,
producer Fred Freiberger and others
. The most interesting is a
15-minute chat with late CBS executive Ethel Winant, who vividly
recalls the show’s challenging mix of period piece detail and
bigger-than-life villains, its roots in James Bond-esque spy games, the
difficulties in casting Conrad (not a big star at the time, and
considered far too short by many) and fired series creator Michael
Garrison’s lawsuit to win himself back a spot on the show. Alternate
versions of the theme music from the original master tapes and a photo
gallery are also included here, in a catalogue title set that admirably
goes the extra mile in its efforts to showcase to a younger generation
what made it special at the time. B (Show) A- (Disc)

The King of Queens: 5th Season

Some spin-offs never really find their own authentic voice (cough, cough, Joey,
cough, cough…), while others establish their own roots so quickly and
effortlessly that you virtually forget about their offshoot status. The
latter is certainly the case with The King of Queens, a genial, well-worn comedy that took its leading cues from fellow CBS laffer Everybody Loves Raymond and eventually worked its own comfortable groove into couches all around America.

Created by Michael Weithorn and David Litt, The King of Queens
centers around parcel delivery truck driver Doug Heffernan (Kevin
James) and his wife Carrie (Leah Remini). In place of a brood of
precocious and/or ankle-biting kids, however, is Carrie’s father Arthur
(Jerry Stiller), who lives with the couple. As is typical of these
“oafish patriarch” shows, Doug spends plenty of time raging against
Carrie’s attempts to get him to lead a healthier lifestyle, and many
jokes come from the mindset and canted point of view of a
sports-obsessed guy’s guy
. (“Great, I screwed up and ate all the
franks,” says Doug mournfully at one point. “Now all I have left is a
stupid bowl of beans.”) The regular addition of Mad TV’s Nicole
Sullivan as Arthur’s part-time caregiver Holly is an inspired touch,
and Victor Williams scores subtle points for his work as Doug’s
recently divorced best friend, Deacon Palmer.

Several of the episodes this season dip back into overly familiar
terrain, like Doug and Carrie’s nervousness and competitiveness with
their new, white-collar neighbors. But there’s some legitimate fun to
be had too. “Mentalo” works in a few flashbacks to Christmases past in
telling the mixed-up story of how the anticipation of others’ holiday
gifts leads to a chain of escalating spending wherein no one really
gets what they want. “Loaner Car” is amusing; Doug and Carrie attempt
to boost Deacon’s holiday spirits, leading one of his little kids to
pen a ruminative school paper in which he states, “Now we have no
family, so we’re having Thanksgiving with a white family.” Another
highlight is “Attention Deficit,” wherein Doug becomes obsessed with
having the best Super Bowl party, even getting decks of playing cards
with himself on the back printed up (“Look what happens when you flip
through them — they don’t move, just like me!”). Guest stars over the
course of the fifth season’s 25 episodes include Marcia Cross, Dave
Foley, Ted Lange, Anne Meara (co-star Stiller’s real-life wife) and Lou
Ferrigno as a sad-sack neighbor.

The King of Queens: 5th Season is presented on three discs
stored in attractive gatefold packaging that is in turn housed in a
cardboard slipcase. Episodes come in 1.33:1 full frame transfers, with
English Dolby surround sound audio. As is unfortunately too frequently
the case with later seasons of current day sitcoms, there are no
supplemental bonus features contained here
. While there might not be a
lot for James or Remini at this point to say about their characters,
surely some of the series’ writers could offer up a handful of
interesting audio commentaries or interviews about the plotting out of
seasonal arcs or other such tidbits, which would be a nice morsel for
longtime fans. B- (Show) D (Disc)

Five Warner Bros. Comedies

If
it’s true that “it takes all kinds,” as the saying goes, one can
reasonably extrapolate that it’s probably also true that comedy is even
more subjective than drama. For proof, witness this loosely grouped
collection of five disparate, catalogue comedy titles from Warner
Brothers, each available separately on DVD for the first time.

The Loved One,
from 1965
, kicks things off, a jolting wake-up call for those that
think farcical broadsides are an invention of particularly the last
decade of the 20th century. Based on novelist Evelyn Waugh’s outlandish
lampoon of American entrepreneurial spirit and avarice, the film is a
death-mocking farce set in and around a dreadful California funeral
parlor. Directed with fitful pluck by Tony Richardson (Tom Jones),
at just under two hours the movie unfortunately doesn’t have the pacing
to match its shrill, piercing tone
. Out-there performances from a
tangled ensemble cast — including John Gielgud, Rod Steiger, Jonathan
Winters, Tab Hunter, Milton Berle, Liberace (!) and James Coburn — make
this a kooky treat.

Next up is the following year’s A Fine Madness, directed by
Irvin Kershner
. Set and filmed on location in New York’s swinging East
Side, the movie stars Sean Connery as Samson Shillitoe, a womanizing,
lothario poet and disenfranchised carpet cleaner (surely there’s some
subtext there) who rages against the pressures and demands of the
modern world. Joanne Woodward costars as his frustrated wife Rhoda, and
Jean Seberg is a fling, the wife of a scheming psychiatrist (played by
Patrick O’Neal) who attempts to extract revenge on Samson by
prescribing brain surgery for him. While A Fine Madness is
tonally to and fro, Connery lets loose of all his coiled 007 charisma
in interestingly goofy fashion; for those that think he’s more screen
personality than actor, this is an attention-grabbing test of theory
.

Two movies from 1968 follow — Peter Sellers’ I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and filmmaker Richard Lester’s Petulia,
which is a bit of a classification stretch as a pure comedy by most
standards. In the former, a satire of the hippie generation, Sellers
plays Harold Fine, an uptight lawyer who turns his tunnel-visioned
dedication to turning on, tuning in and dropping out when he falls in
love. It’s a movie mostly for devotees of the actor. Petulia,
on the other hand, is a quite fine if frequently forgotten film about
an erratic, unhappily married San Francisco socialite (Julie Christie)
who spites her husband by indulging in an affair with a newly divorced
surgeon (George C. Scott). It’s a demanding film that flits back and
forth in time, challenging many storytelling conventions of the era,
but one whose superlative and engaging lead performances mark it as
definitely worthwhile
.

Lastly there’s 1971’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,
a silly mash-up of tin pan alley slapstick antics and goosed-up Mob
clichés
, with “Hey!” and “What could I tell you?” substituting for
“Fuggadaboutit.” Midnight Cowboy and Serpico
screenwriter Waldo Salt’s colorfully lenient adaptation of legendary
newspaperman Jimmy Breslin’s comic novel
about a Brooklyn turf war
traverses overly comedic and ironic ground by now familiar to anyone
who’s seen Analyze This, Analyze That, The Last Don, The Sopranos
or any other number of underworld-fueled dysfunctional family shows,
but Dave Grusin’s musical contributions, though, help keep things light
and airy. The story centers on Kid Sally (Jerry Orbach), a scheming
small-timer who targets crime boss Baccala (Lionel Stander) for
toppling, and includes a young-ish Robert De Niro in a supporting role
as Mario, one of Kid Sally’s cohorts. Fantasy Island’s Herve Villechaize also stars.

Each title comes housed in a regular Amray case, and all the films
have been newly re-mastered and are presented in 16×9 enhancement for
widescreen televisions. Theatrical trailers stud each release, rich
evidence of just how much the art of the cinematic sales pitch has been
refined over the course of several decades. Other DVD extras are pretty
sparse, including brief new making-of featurettes on Petulia and The Loved One.
A Fine Madness,
meanwhile, features a six-minute period piece featurette, entitled
“Mondo Connery,” which touts the “juicy, jumping world” of the movie’s
narrative. Solemnly narrated showman’s prose is interspersed with
randomly culled on-set footage (Woodward knits!), to often
unintentional comedic effect. It would’ve been great to hear Connery’s
present-day thoughts on the movie in the form of an audio commentary
track or even interview but, alas, I guess that wasn’t in the cards. B- (Movies, Collectively) C+ (Discs)

Dazed and Confused

Just as Raging Bull
was, in retrospect, anointed the title of best film of the 1980s by
many critics despite its Oscar shut-out in the major categories (it would be Robert Redford’s Ordinary People that cleaned up that year), so too is maybe Richard Linklater’s little indie that could, 1993’s Dazed and Confused, perhaps the best film of the 1990s, or at least one that certainly merits inclusion in the discussion.

What?
Yes, I said it. After all, is there a more confident, graceful, crisply
characterized and terrifically funny evocation of adolescent time and
place than Linklater’s slice of life circa 1976?
Charting both a group
of rising seniors and incoming high school freshman over the course of
the last day of school and that evening’s subsequent keg-fueled party, Dazed and Confused
is smart, inquisitive and superbly cast
. Ironically, for a film that
Linklater says studio suits at the time felt that they couldn’t sell
since it had no “name actors” in it, the movie would serve as a
repository for a number of future stars and recognizable faces,
including Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla
Jovovich, Jason London, Rent’s Anthony Rapp, Parker Posey, Cole
Hauser, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Nicky Katt and — if you squint at
a key extra in a parking lot scene — Renee Zellweger.

Shot for $6 million, Dazed and Confused is marked by
Linklater’s keen sense of detail (students while away time in their
last class of the year listing episodes of “Gilligan’s Island”) and
digressive frame of mind, which director of photography Lee Daniel
abets with smooth handheld work that follows our burn-outs, bookworms
and jocks to and fro. Music also plays an important part in the film,
and Linklater’s choices (from Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” which opens
the movie, to Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Peter Frampton and
Foghat) are all inspired and pitch perfect, well worth their
significant apportion of the movie’s budget. Perhaps the best gauge of
the brilliance of Dazed and Confused though, comes in the form
of young Wiley Wiggins, who plays object-of-upperclassmen-torture Mitch
Kramer with such precise exasperation — part fear, part swallowed awe
that it almost sends one hurtling back to adolescence themselves.

Criterion’s double-disc DVD release of the film finally gives fans the full reverential and reflective treatment that Dazed and Confused
so richly deserves.
Packaged in a unique and colorful cardboard
slipcase with punched-out holes that spotlight character pictures, the
movie is presented in an all-new, high-definition 1.85:1 anamorphic
widescreen transfer, with Dolby digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks and a
warm feature-length audio commentary from Linklater, wherein he
recounts inspirations for various scenes and the nervousness he felt in
making the movie. A robust collection of deleted scenes includes
several that give the movie additional philosophical (not surprising)
and political (surprising) undertones, including one in which Benny
O’Donnell (Hauser) argues with Randall Floyd (London) over the outcome
of the Vietnam War.

The second disc houses a superlative 50-minute documentary by filmmaker Kahane Corn on the making of Dazed and Confused,
and rare on-set interviews and behind-the-scenes footage is also
included, as well as material from a 10-year anniversary celebration.
Some of the audition footage is a hoot, but the off-disc extras only
get better, as they include a black-light reproduction of Frank Kozik’s
original poster and a 72-page booklet that includes an essay by Chuck
Klosterman, amusing character biographies and a reproduction of John
Spong’s excellent retrospective interview article from the October 2003
issue of Texas Monthly. Among the revelations therein: Affleck couldn’t (and perhaps still can’t?) drive stick and Posey, on As the World Turns at the time, was able to book the movie only after her character there was rendered into a coma. A+ (Movie) A+ (Disc)

Dumbo

A smash hit upon its commercial release in October of 1941, Dumbo
remained Walt Disney’s stated favorite film of all his animated brood,
up until his death
. A surprise? Perhaps. But looking back on the
streamlined movie and its simple messages about friendship, courage and
the persistence of effort, it’s easy to see why.

Clocking in at only 65 minutes, Dumbo
might seem an elongated short by some of today’s standards
. But
director Ben Sharpsteen and the rest of the filmmakers do a remarkable
job of getting to the hearts of their characters in stirring,
minimalist strokes, and the story itself elicits panged sympathy from
anyone (which is to say everyone) who ever faced taunting as an
adolescent. The story, of course, centers on the titular baby elephant,
the floppy-eared son of single mom circus elephant Mrs. Jumbo. Dumbo is
an enthusiastic tyke, but he’s ridiculed by both humans and his own
brethren alike for his physical dissimilarities. With the support of
his unlikely best friend, however, Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo soon learns
that his ears make him unique and special, allowing him to soar to fame
as the world’s only flying elephant.

Sweet, completely straightforward and unpretentious, Dumbo bears traces of German expressionism in its use of shadow and pose, including one shot that serves as direct homage to Nosferatu,
hardly a typical Disney influence. The movie’s hallucinatory pink
elephants sequence serves as a counterbalance to the otherwise bright
washes of color that dominate its backgrounds. Dumbo, meanwhile,
remains a very sympathetic character, his silent suffering a marked
juxtaposition to the excitable derision heaped upon him. It’s no wonder
the movie connects on an almost subliminal emotional level.

This so-called “Big Top Edition” of the movie, housed in a regular
Amray case in a raised, foil-embossed cardboard slipcase, is presented
in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, with Dolby digital 5.1 surround
sound and French and Spanish language tracks as well. The picture looks
great, and animation historian John Canemaker provides a feature-length
audio commentary
that charts the film from its earliest days of
storyboarding in January of 1940 and shines a spotlight on Joe Grant,
Milt Neal, Les Clark and other bit player animators who helped craft
some of Disney’s most memorable work. Canemaker overreaches a bit in
his snippy analysis of the movie’s slapstick clown characters in its
putative climax, but for every occasional eye-rolling faux-profundity
there are six or seven interesting insights and contextual details,
including the assertion that at least one of Dumbo’s bits of dialogue (“Lots of people with big ears are famous”) is a direct reference to Clark Gable.

The bulk of the rest of the movie’s extras, including an art
gallery, a clutch of sing-along songs, interactive children’s games and
two animated shorts (the eight-and-a-half-minute “Elmer Elephant” and
the nine-minute “Flying Mouse”), are imported from the film’s previous,
60th anniversary DVD release, which trims some content here. No matter,
though. Dumbo soars as a film, and this release does too. A (Movie) B+ (Disc)

Inside Deep Throat

I reviewed this film elsewhere last year, both theatrically and on DVD,
and it’s still a quite recent release, but I thought I’d revisit it
again since this non-fiction flick about the most financially
successful independent movie of all time (if
you want to really get down to it) is a transformative, engrossing
overview of both a “dirty,” singular phenomenon and an entire era
.
Co-directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato — the team behind the
equally revelatory The Eyes of Tammy FayeInside Deep Throat takes a
look at the sexually explicit film that dragged pornography out into
the light of day, and made both celebrities and then, in an instant,
social pariahs of its two stars, Harry Reems and Linda Lovelace, né
Linda Borman.

When it released in the summer of 1972 (back
then, before VHS or DVD, adult movies still actually unspooled in seedy
movie houses) Deep Throat touched off a public frenzy, largely
because it was the first such mainstream depiction of its titular sex
act
. Downtown met uptown (Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and others) at
screenings, and in a time when word-of-mouth (not a word, folks) could
actually trump the niche-marketed dollars of Big Advertising, Deep Throat
became a cross-cultural smash, at the same time unintentionally
jumpstarting porn’s headlong dash from the alleys of art to the highway
of money
, much in the way that the success of Jaws and Star Wars refined conventional Hollywood release strategy.

Narrated in gravelly tones by Dennis Hopper and studded with
interview clips from Norman Mailer, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Peter
Bart, Erica Jong, Bill Maher, Wes Craven, Dr. Ruth, Camille Paglia,
Dick Cavett and many others, Inside Deep Throat is on one hand
an examination of the politics of suppression and reactionism
. While
neither Reems nor director Gerard Damiano fit the bill of someone who
can nobly wrap themselves in the Bill of Rights, that is of course the
very point of the protections that document provides, and it’s hard to
believe — and scary to think about — the fact that both faced the
possibility of serious jail time not more than a couple of decades ago
for doing (and watching) things that consenting adults across the
United States do on a daily basis. While not artistically
uncompromising First Amendment revolutionaries, they win our sympathy
because of their sins, not in spite of them.

The film is also funny and at times darkly foreboding, though, as it
details where the money from the film went (the Mob) and the sad
postscript of Lovelace, who became an anti-porn crusader and rape
activist before dipping into drug abuse. Also featured is a digressive
sequence where a cuckolded old exhibitor’s wife repeatedly berates him
for sharing too much information. It’s nothing more than a side
serving, but certainly a glancingly hilarious one.

Like Mike 2

As a straight-to-video sequel to 2002’s Like Mikeperhaps the best ever (which is to say only) film spawned by a lyric in a Gatorade commercialLike Mike 2
boldly extends on the premise of its franchise, following its
diminutive protagonist through several championship basketball seasons
and into a foray into minor league baseball. It climaxes with him
becoming a general manager and director of basketball operations for an
NBA franchise, drafting a high school stiff named Kwame Brown and
berating him in practice for his continued lack of effort and
commitment to betterment.

Umm, actually, that’s not true. As director David
Nelson cops to in an interview at disc’s end, Like Mike 2 is “the same story, new family.”
Ergo, whereas Like Mike
found (then Lil’) Bow Wow’s 14-year-old orphan Calvin Cambridge trying
on a faded pair of lightning-struck sneakers hanging from a power-line
and becoming an NBA superstar, this recalibrated follow-up stars Jascha
Washington as another kid whose skill set is enhanced by a pair of
athletic shoes inscribed with the initials “MJ.” The story centers on
Jerome Jenkins, a “tweenage” street-baller who gets no respect on the
local court because he’s too young, too slow and, worst of all, too
short. So, magic shoes… do your stuff!

Apart from the presence of the diminishingly cute Jonathan Lipnicki (Jerry Maguire), the original Like Mike
at least had a roster of reliably kooky adult supporting players
(Crispin Glover! Eugene Levy! Anne Meara! Robert Forster!) with which
to somewhat distract us. Like Mike 2 gives us Brett Kelly (the fat little kid from Bad Santa)
and… maverick Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in a cameo. Now, don’t
get me wrong — Cuban is a great interview, probably the best
pound-for-pound soundbite in the NBA. But he’s handcuffed by
irrelevancy here, and the earnest presence of veteran actors like
Michael Beach, as Jerome’s father, and Blu Mankuma, as Coach Archie,
doesn’t help inject much in the way of surprise or originality into the
day.

Is Like Mike 2: Streetball worse than, say, Rebound, Martin Lawrence’s dreadful
coach-seeks-redemption-by-drilling-a-bunch-of-middle-schoolers comedy?
No. Rather, it’s a moralizing piece of family fare, competently shot
and enthusiastically acted
. Elementary school hoops junkies will spark
to the fantastical hops with which it imbues Jerome, but slightly older
kids may be a bit put off by the movie’s pandering.

DVD special features for the film, which is presented on a flip disc
in both anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen and 1.33:1 full screen, include a
half dozen deleted scenes and three short behind-the-scenes
featurettes
. In one, a six-minute making-of bit replete with EPK-style
interviews and informal footage from the set, young Washington and one
of his costars, Micah Stephen Williams, praise director Nelson as being
“more black than they are.” (Nelson is white.) That may be the most
stirring or provocative thing on the disc. C (Movie) C+ (Disc)