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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

Running Scared

So many studio films these days feel carefully plotted, and even those that shock and thrill audiences often locate their twists within the carefully prescribed confines of their genre. For those who appreciate the particular coarseness of American cinema, but still like a little danger and careening uncertainty in their cinematic diet, might I suggest writer-director Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared.

The film opened in February on the strength of leading man Paul Walker, and seemed a cinch to pull in a large swath of underfed action fans. But its debut booking in only 1,600 theaters and a marketing campaign that couldn’t successfully convey its rangy, idiosyncratic appeal submarined the movie’s commercial prospects, and it pulled in under $7 million domestically. Very diverse critical opinion — some loathed its deep, scandalous plot niches and over-the-top violence — certainly didn’t help matters; it was somehow as if every straightforward action fan telepathically picked up on the movie’s handcrafted eccentricity while potentially sympathetic arthouse fans read populist reviews dinging the movie as brawny, exaggerated and sadistic.

Walker stars as Joey Gazelle, a low-level mobster who finds his life turned upside down when a drug deal goes bad and he’s put in charge of getting rid of a hot weapon used in the shooting of a crooked cop. Before he can, however, the next-door neighbor’s kid and one of his son’s friends, little Oleg Yugorsky (Cameron Bright), finds and uses the weapon on his abusive father, setting off a charged dash through the night in which, alternately, Joey and his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga), each try to find both Oleg and the gun before the corrupt Detective Rydell (Chazz Palminteri) or Joey’s own criminal family can turn on them. Twists come aplenty, but the movie’s best cards lie in its colorfully out-there supporting ensemble, which includes Johnny Messner, Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell.

Arriving on DVD in a fine 2.35:1 transfer that preserves both the aspect ratio and lurid color palette of the movie’s original theatrical presentation, Running Scared comes with an English 5.1 Dolby surround sound track and a DTS ES 6.1 surround sound track, as well as English and Spanish subtitles. A graphic novel from PJ Loughran which recreates the film’s climactic hockey-rink sequence is included, along with five minutes of comparative split-screen between Kramer’s storyboards and two finished scenes, as well as an audio-commentary track with Kramer in which he reveals, creepily, the herpes medication prescription in the medicine cabinet of a supporting character.

An 18-minute making-of featurette, meanwhile, includes on-set interviews with all of the principal cast plus producer Michael Pierce and production designer Toby Corbett, and impressively tips us off on a few amazingly non-CGI, practical camera set-ups and shots. Running Scared may have foundered at the box office, but there’s no reason not to give it a shot on DVD, and this nice disc allows for the jaw-dropping unease it induces to be more comfortably experienced at home. B+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)

Dharma & Greg: Season One

With all apologies to Paula Abdul, there are no dancing animated cats in Dharma & Greg, but, like the erstwhile pop star and current day, unhinged American Idol
judge’s most (in)famous music video of yesteryear, this popular ABC
sitcom from the late 1990s takes ample delight in the intermingling and
attraction of colorful opposites.

Co-created by Chuck Lorre and
Dottie Dartland as a vehicle for star Jenna Elfman — who then-president
of ABC Entertainment Jamie Tarses had under development contract — the
series was built around the simple conceit of culture clash and
newfound romantic bloom
. In the pilot, free-spirited yoga instructor
and all-around hippie chick Dharma Finklestein (Elfman) catches the eye
of moneyed, conservative attorney Greg Montgomery (Thomas Gibson) on
the subway. After she shows up impulsively at his office, they begin a
whirlwind courtship that sees them take in baseball game, fly to Reno
for blueberry pie and finish off the evening with a quickie marriage.
The rest of the show, then, and particularly this first season, is all
about the fits and starts of their doe-eyed second guesses, and the
high contrast between their respective families.

While the show gets off some good jokes here and there, both
highbrow (“I know free spirits like her… I went to Vassar,” says
Greg’s mother of Dharma) and quasi-low (answering his cell phone when
he’s in the shower, Dharma chirps “Greg pants… he’s not in them right
now”), most of the appeal of Dharma & Greg lies in its
savvy ensemble casting
(Mitchell Ryan and Susan Sullivan co-star as
Greg’s stuffy parents, Alan Rachins and Mimi Kennedy as Dharma’s
unmarried mom and dad) and the widely drawn dissimilarities of its
characters. While later seasons would wear down under the weight of
this premise, early gambits like having Dharma explain that she doesn’t
have two dogs, but rather one of her dogs has another dog (“It
was his bar mitzvah present…”) somehow here come off as fresh, perhaps
because of the relative novelty of Elfman’s squinty, whimsical grin — a
marked contrast from many of the neurotic small-screen leading ladies
of her era
.

Spread out over three double-sided discs housed in slimline cases with a cardboard slipcase, Dharma & Greg: Season One
is presented in clear 1.33:1 full frame transfers, with English and
Spanish stereo tracks and optional English, Spanish and French
subtitles. As far as supplemental extras, co-creator Lorre ended many
episodes with rambling text diatribes as vanity cards, and those are
reproduced here in scrollable fashion. There’s also a 10-question
trivia game, good for a single playing. Less disposable are a clutch of
enjoyable audio-commentary tracks from Elfman, Kennedy and Rachins, who
identify various extras and bit players (Elfman’s real-life niece plays
a young Dharma), speak warmly of Gibson and one another, recollect the
key snipping of several lines of over-obvious reconciliatory dialogue
from the end of the pilot and offer up all sorts of other nice
anecdotes. There’s also a 14-minute retrospective featurette that
includes interviews with Lorre, Elfman and all of the other principals
save Gibson, who apparently can’t be pried away from the set of Criminal Minds in order to offer forth any such glad-handing reminiscences. B- (Show) B (Disc)