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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

Touched

When
one peruses the credits of a straight-to-video title and sees the
above-billed star also featured as a producer, there’s understandably
cause for, A) concern, B ) snickering, C) both A and B, or D) questions
about whether Lebanese-born producer Elie Samaha is involved in what is
invariably described as a long-gestating “passion project” for said
actor
. Thankfully there’s no need for D) with regards to Jenna Elfman’s
Touched (though the former Dharma & Greg star is a Scientologist and Samaha did have a hand in shepherding the god-awful Battlefield Earth
to the big screen). In the end, though, that doesn’t necessarily make
this straightforward and earnestly pitched tale of yearning and
you-can-do-it inspiration any more entertaining than your average
Lifetime tele-pic
.

Written and directed by Timothy Scott Bogart (the short-lived small screen serial Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book), Touched
(rated R, kids… but only for language) centers around loving young
father Scott (Randall Batinkoff), who awakens from two years in a coma
following a terrible auto accident to find his life completely changed.
As he struggles to cope with the loss of his son and the gaps in his
memory, he comes to realize that he is quite literally losing his
bearings and sense of touch.

On cue, enter Angela (Elfman), the nurse who tended to Scott during
his two lost years — the nurse with a kindred spirit and wounded past
of her own. Scott finds comfort and rootedness in Angela; she helps him
confront the realities of his new life and point him toward new
possibilities, showing him that there is a journey of hope and love in
the future. Does standard-issue dialogue about bereavement and
reclaimed hopefulness ensue? Check. Coy flirting around trees strung
with white Christmas lights? Check.
Bruce Davison in a supporting role?
Check. Kisses in the rain? Well… you’ll have to watch the movie.

Look, Touched isn’t awful, but neither is it the most
commendable use of Elfman’s sunny-leaning talents
. Granted, she’s not
the aggrieved lead herein, but even her casting opposite such seems to
wear off some of her luster. Surely there must be a television pilot or
indie big screen comedy out there in need of an irrepressible female
lead. Right?

Packaged in a regular Amray case, Touched is presented in
1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 audio track and
optional Spanish subtitles. There are, unfortunately for Elfman fans,
no supplemental extras to complement this DVD presentation, which does
seem strange given her producorial championing of the project. C- (Movie) D (Disc)

Roseanne: The Complete Fourth Season

Sure,
she’s crass and abrasive, and probably not someone with whom you or I
would really want to work. (Not to mention horrible at carrying the
national anthem’s tune.) But there’s no denying that Roseanne
Barr-Arnold-back-to-Barr is funny, and that her eponymous sitcom helped
change the face of television in the late 1980s and early ’90s,
becoming a smash hit with an underclass that collectively saw a bit of
themselves in the less than perfect family on display
.

Rooted in her in-your-face stand-up persona, Roseanne
starred its namesake as the cranky, sarcastic head of the blue collar,
Midwestern Conner family. Along with husband Dan (John Goodman) and
sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), Roseanne rode herd on her three kids,
perpetually exasperated oldest daughter Becky (Lecy Gorenson), sardonic
and reserved tomboy Darlene (Sara Gilbert), and young DJ (Michael
Fishman). The fourth season, spanning 1991 and ’92, finds Dan
continuing to struggle to make ends meet at his motorcycle shop, while
Roseanne picks up shifts at a diner at the mall, where Martin Mull
recurs as her boss. Frank foregrounding of social and other family
issues remains the series’ bread and butter, though, including Becky
asking her mother to consent to getting her birth control bills, as in
the season opener, and Darlene growing continually disaffected as she
enters her high school years.

This fact — and of course Roseanne’s own gum-smacking, dismissively
acerbic personality — points to the show’s greatest strength: its
willingness to show its frequently bickering main characters in an
unsympathetic light and then slowly redeem them through genuine
familial fence-mending
. Such indulgence not only makes for a more
realistically three-dimensional family unit, but also lends old sitcom
clichés — as when Roseanne and Dan pull a prank on a neighbor during
Halloween and win a costume contest — a fresh energy. It’s also worth
pointing out that Metcalf really reveals herself as the glue of the
entire show, whether it be in her wide-eyed or slow-burn counterpoint
silences or in a more central role
, such as when she becomes depressed
over seeing an ex-boyfriend with his new lover in “Why Jackie Becomes a
Trucker.”

Spread out over four discs in two slimline cases in turn housed in a cardboard slipcase, all 25 episodes of Roseanne’s
fourth season are presented here in 1.33 full screen, with a Dolby
digital audio track that honestly seems mixed across the board a bit
too low. Thankfully, though, distributor Anchor Bay graces the
collection with a number of pleasurable extras rare for many catalogue
small screen releases, and rarer still in later-season sets. Included
are new interviews with the always outspoken Roseanne, as well as
Gorenson and Fishman.

Best among the supplements, though, are two video commentaries with
Roseanne
. While it’s obvious she hasn’t prepped at all for these,
that’s part of the charm, as she assays her own look as “pre-nose job,
pre-facelift” and rips writers for, at her insistence, bringing back
guest star George Clooney — who did 10 episodes on the show’s first
season as Booker, Roseanne’s coworker — only to stick him in a moose
costume during most of the Halloween episode
. She also reveals a few
random fun tidbits, such as the fact that the cast apparently kept fan
letters stocked in the freezer of the on-set refrigerator, the better
to read through during production down time. B+ (Show) B+ (Disc)

Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 3

Marrying
the sort of crime fiction widely popular in the 1930s with a grittier
aesthetic, deeper sense of detail and decidedly more world-weary
point-of-view, film noir came of its own as a genre in the 1940s to
mid-’50s
, bringing to the big screen a feeling and impression of moral
ambiguity heretofore unseen.

There’s significant debate over when exactly film noir was birthed. Some cite 1941’s The Maltese Falcon as its launching point, others call that film merely a progenitor of Fritz Lang’s M, from a decade earlier. For some it’s a little known RKO picture, 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor; for others, 1944’s Double Indemnity, or Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Murder, My Sweet,
also from that year. Regardless of what exact line of demarcation one
chooses to use, however, this much is certain: though rooted in certain
tropes and mores of German expressionism and French social realism, the
genre came of age in a big way in the United States after the
conclusion of World War II
, when battle-toughened Americans were much
more willing to accept pictures with a harder, more cynical edge, or at
least those that had no desire to reflect or sermonize a broader
cinematic morality.

Characterized by sordid urban narratives frequently told from the
point-of-view of a criminal or at least somewhat morally dubious
character, noir came to be associated, cinematographically speaking,
with deep shadows and strong, canted angles
— all the better to disrupt
the typical harmonic space of most pretty-as-a-picture stories.
Narratives were often marked by institutional corruption, sexual or
romantic obsession, duplicitous identity, murder-for-hire and other
manner of extreme psychological duress. To that end, another fine
collection arrives in the form of Warner Bros.’ five-film Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 3.
Included here are Howard Hughes’ 1951 presentation of
The Racket, starring Robert Mitchum; the Chandler mystery Lady in the Lake (no relation to M. Night Shyamalan’s soggy tale); 1949’s justly under-regarded Border Incident, starring Ricardo Montalban; and Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino’s On Dangerous Ground,
a visually remarkable slice of investigative fatigue powered by Bernard
Herrmann’s score. Also starring Mitchum and Jane Russell, His Kind of Woman meanwhile least fits the mold here, studded as it is with sassiness and subversiveness, though it’s still a fun time.

A six-disc compendium sold only as a set, Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 3
includes each film in its own slimline case, all of which collectively
slip into a sturdy cardboard keepcase which features a suitable
pastiche of hardboiled sketch imagery from the film’s individual
posters and one-sheets. A variety of audio commentaries from film
scholars and genre enthusiasts dot each release, and Warner Bros. has,
gratifyingly, spread the assignments around so that the purveyors
aren’t overextended and don’t return to the same description
. His Kind of Woman and The Racket lack the accompanying theatrical trailers of the other titles, but the big boon is the inclusion of the documentary special Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light.

This edifying 66-minute full screen presentation includes interviews
with a wide variety of figures
— from directors like Christopher Nolan,
Paul Schrader and Sydney Pollack to writers Christopher McQuarrie,
Frank Miller and James Ellroy and archivists, authors and historians
like Hayden Guest, Glenn Erickson and Eddie Muller — and benefits from
this widely cast net. Also included on this phenomenal bonus disc are a
collection of five vintage, loosely categorized noir shorts from MGM’s
“Crime Doesn’t Pay Series,”
including Oscar nominees Forbidden Passage and The Luckiest Guy in the World. B+ (Movies) A- (Discs)

Prince Valiant: The Complete Series, Volume 1

Wizards
and warriors, knights and princesses will never leave us — there’s just
something indubitably kick-ass about chain metal — but the box-office
success of The Lord of the Rings franchise has definitely
helped unearth and reposition a veritable treasure trove of fantasy
adventure and Camelot-era entertainment product
, and one such offering
is the animated Prince Valiant series.

Winner of the
1993 Humanitas Award in the category of Children’s Animation and three
Silver Angel awards honoring productions that uphold values of “moral,
ethical and/or social impact,” Prince Valiant is based on Hal
Foster’s comic strip of almost seven decades ago
. In charting the
quests and escapades of its titular headstrong nobleman (voiced by
Robby Benson) and his quest for knighthood under King Arthur (voiced by
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), the series offers up lightly moralizing lessons
about navigating treachery and betrayal, “true worth being on the
inside” and the like. Along for the adventures are the loyal Arn
(voiced by Michael Horton) and feisty maiden Rowanne (voiced by Noelle
North), while wise old wizard Merlin (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer) also
pops up from time to time with shrewd advice or a helpful gift.

Accessible perhaps to a fault in its flatly rendered style, Prince Valiant’s
matte animation will likely bore latecomers to the medium who’ve been
raised on Pixar’s leaps-and-bounds improvement in background detail and
convincing shading
. Likewise, those who don’t naturally gravitate
toward template narratives of honor, duty and sacrifice will likely
find the staid stories and bloodless action of no permanent consequence
herein fairly tedious. Still, across the 33 episodes gathered here
there are enough recognizable guest voice talents (Patty Duke, Wil
Wheaton, Roddy McDowell, Teri Garr, Marilu Henner and Ron Perlman,
among others) to help give the show a bit of a goosing nostalgic
appeal
, if only one has sympathetic inclinations for the outmoded
technique on display.

Spread out over five discs and presented in 1.33:1 full screen, Prince Valiant: The Complete Series, Volume 1
comes housed somewhat awkwardly in a double-wide Amray case with a
snap-in tray and a bottom-entry cardboard slipcover. A nice,
eight-page, full-color insert booklet includes episodic summaries, but
the real bonus reward is found in the fifth disc’s collection of
interviews
with series creator David Corbett, writer Brooks Wachtel and
comic strip historian Rick Norwood. An impressive storyboard gallery of
well over 150 images, a slideshow of character drawings and background
paintings, a selection of five scripts in PDF format and two episodic
audio-commentary tracks with Corbett, Wachtel and voice talent North,
on “The Trust Betrayed” and “The Awakening,” help mitigate transfers
that import wholesale grain and other artifact inconsistencies. C- (Show) B+ (Disc)

Flesh for Olivia

Misty Mundae has climbed the ladder to the top of the B-movie starlet food chain through performances both smolderingly sexy (Lustful Addiction, Girl Seduction) and slightly goofy and endearing (Spider-Babe, Erotic Survivor). Flesh for Olivia,
though, captures none of her innate charms. Representing her last
starring role for the notorious, underground Factory 2000 film studio —
for whom she starred in numerous features and shorts at the beginning
of her screen calling — it instead serves as an ignominious footnote
chapter in an otherwise successful career.

Written and directed by William Hellfire, Flesh for Olivia is billed as a grim and violent piece of erotica, and a putative sequel to 2001’s Silk Stalking Strangler.
In reality, though, it goes with an elliptical and impressionistic
approach that doesn’t at all suit its material. Further saddled with a
dispassionate voiceover, unfocused performances and lame, droning
music, the 2002 movie is a creative stillbirth and unworthy digression
for longtime fans of Mundae, or indeed anyone interested in this
fashion of indie exploitation
.

The story finds Mundae’s title character under the thumb of a
sleazy, violent and voyeuristic pimp, Claudio (Dean Paul). At his
direction, Olivia spends her time seducing willing young women to put
on kinky shows, women like Melody (AJ Khan). When things get out of
hand, though, and Melody’s roommate Alice (Dr. Jekyll and Mistress Hyde’s
Julian Wells) returns and witnesses shocking in-camera footage, she may
be the next innocent beauty to experience the pleasure and pain of
Olivia’s devastating allure.

Hellfire has the barest strands of a narrative, and no real ideas about how to effectively stretch this out to feature length. (Flesh for Olivia
runs 73 minutes, and that’s including the world’s slowest credit crawl
ever.) He opts to flash back and forward through time on occasion, but
this gambit — like the movie’s love affair with affected slow-motion —
comes off as desperate and completely transparent. Mundae, too, seems,
terribly uninterested and uninvested in the proceedings, consigning Flesh for Olivia to the bottom-of-the-basement bargain bin.

Flesh for Olivia comes housed in a regular Amray case with a
full-color paper insert that includes a few cast photos, and is
presented in 1.33:1 full screen. Distributor EI Cinema typically goes
all out with their releases in terms of supplemental materials, but Flesh for Olivia
includes only an admittedly expansive trailer gallery for its other
films. Additionally, the disc is plagued by significant artifacting and
playback glitches around the 25-minute mark
, making this seemingly
rushed-out flick one of their worst releases. D- (Movie) D (Disc)

An Advance Look at Lady in the Water

I caught a screening of Lady in the Water last week, and while a full review will drop first thing Friday,
day-and-date with its wide release, it suffices to say that, in the
broadest terms, the movie will likely further entrench mass opinion on
M. Night Shyamalan, with a majority of mainstream filmgoers brandishing
the pitchforks and lanterns of, if not outright dismissal, then at
least eventual indifference
with regards to the director’s name as a
marketing tool.

Watching Lady in the Water,
I was again struck by the thought that Shyamalan needs to take a step
back from the edge
. On one level, this is surprising. I previously
thought his obdurate preoccupation with namesake twists was holding him
up, as most readily evidenced by The Village, which had at its core an interesting idea but no actual interest in exploring said though, just an irksome degree of coyness and smugness in its own masturbatory delayed gratification.

Lady in the Water,
though, just shows him indulging other different if sometimes equally
problematic instincts. Apparently based on a bedtime tale Shyamalan has
told his kids for years, the film has a less involved sleight-of-hand
than his other movies. It’s rather straightforward actually. The
narrative centers around an apartment complex superintendent (Paul
Giamatti) who comes to the aid of a mythical “narf” (think mermaid
minus the tale) named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) living beneath his
swimming pool, and then rallies a motley cross-section of residents to
help secure Story’s safe passage back to her world, past a turf-backed
creature that wants to kill her.

There will be some praise for the film rooted solely in its authorial self-assurance — something Shyamalan’s films will never lack — and rest assured that an equal amount of animus will in fact be as much about Lady in the Water‘s
marketing as a thriller as its actual dramatic content. (Warner Bros.
has cut a good trailer, but trust me, it’s not a suspenseful film, per
se.) In the end, though, Lady in the Water
is hampered by a mode of storytelling so out-of-step with mainstream
tastes that word-of-mouth is, quite frankly, going to be a bitch
. More
to follow soon…

Kevin Smith on Clerks II

Kevin Smith is a talker. You probably knew this, however. His movies are full of dialogue — wonderfully effusive (and frequently profane) explosions of words. I caught up with him recently at a press day in advance of Clerks II, and this is what one question about the movie’s genesis produced.

“I really wanted to tell a story about what it was like to
be in my 30s, and I tried to do that with Jersey
Girl
and I think I was kind of successful in what I wanted to do, but at
the same time it’s a movie that’s a bit manipulative, tends to be a bit mawkish
and what not,” says Smith. “So I wanted to do version of movie that was a little bit more in
touch with reality, which is odd because this movie does have a donkey show at
its epicenter
. So I thought Clerks was a movie about what it felt like to be in
my 20s and I could use Dante and Randal as a way in, so suddenly it became
Clerks II. I talked about doing the movie back in 1998, and in the tale end of
the Dogma credits, which came out in ’99, it said, “Jay and Silent Bob will return
in Clerks II: Hardly Clerkin’.” And then I thought you know what, maybe I
shouldn’t fuck with the sacred cow. If I do a sequel to the first film, what if it
sucks and people retroactively go back and hate on the first film as well
? So
it became Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,
but all the ideas were there, and the groundwork had been laid in my head, and
that Dante and Randal story was always kind of in the background. I figured I’ll
do it in comic book form or what not.”

“And then when I started thinking about
telling the story about what it felt like to be in my 30s I thought, shit,
that’s the story. It’s all coming together, it’s gelling now. Some people
online have been like, well, it’s obviously a reaction to Jersey Girl. Jersey Girl didn’t do well
so he’s going back to the well and retrenching. And they’ve missed the target
but hit the tree — Jersey Girl played a role but it wasn’t that. Because  I was already dialed into Clerks II while
making Jersey Girl, to some degree
. Because I was like, “Man, the next movie I don’t want to
work with famous people or celebrities, I just want to work with people who are
unknowns. I don’t want to have to worry about In Touch or US Weekly putting them on the cover every
fucking week.” I mean, it’s weird when you spend two years of your life trying
to put togther a story and then you sit down to talk about it, and nobody wants
to talk about it. [Instead] they say, “Did you see the pink diamond, is it huge?”
I’m like
yes, but, what does that have to do with anything man? When the backstory
overshadows the story, it’s just not cool anymore. As a storyteller it’s kind
of insulting
— it’s like Jesus Christ, either the movie is as bad as you say and you have
nothing to talk about except these two or you find these two more fascinating
than the movie we put together.”

The Groomsmen

Edward Burns burst onto the scene in 1995 with
The Brothers McMullen, a genuine Sundance success story that was shot on
a budget of $25,000 with cameras on surreptitious loan, as the story goes, from
his day gig at Entertainment Tonight or another one of those syndicated
tele-mag shows. He subsequently landed Cameron
Diaz
, Jennifer Aniston, Heather Graham and Brittany Murphy for other early movies, then segued into
acting in studio projects, including Saving Private Ryan and, gulp,
Life or Something Like It. Burns’ bread and butter, though, has always
remained flitting tales of romantic nervousness and blue collar ennui set
amongst beer-swilling Irish Catholics
, and so it continues with The
Groomsmen
, his latest film.

The movie tells the story of a reunited group of lifelong suburban New York
pals — Paulie (Burns), older brother Jimbo (Donal
Logue
), irrepressible cousin Mike (Jay Mohr), family man bar owner Dez
(Matthew Lillard) and T.C. (John Leguizamo) — who all gather in advance of
Paulie’s impending marriage to his pregnant fiancée, Sue (the aforementioned Murphy). All manner of would-coulda-shoulda
secrets, frustrations and resentments are trotted out and dissected
, with each
character searching for their own sort of settlement.

If blithely tossed about $20 bills are the currency of early John Grisham (and anyone
who’s read The Firm knows what I’m talking about), tall cold ones are the
narrative crutch of Burns’ oeuvre
; there’s never been a substantive male
conversation that didn’t revolve around and/or involve beer in his screen world.
In The Groomsmen we have to wait all the way until the second
scene of the movie, but then, soon enough, characters are swigging whilst
picking up one another from the airport, fishing, eating, reminiscing… you get
the picture.

A snapshot of thirtysomething reticence, the movie is all very familiar,
both in general and when placed up against Burns’ other work
. But it’s also
decently acted, giving most of its male cast against-type roles to play around
with, and Mohr plenty of scenery to chew. Burns further indulges this with
longer set-piece takes and wide shots, providing an easy-to-swallow answer for viewers who’ve
wondered where The Brothers McMullen’s neo-masculine ambivalence has gone
in the past decade. (Bauer Martinez, R, 98 mins.)

Landmark Re-Ups the Westside

Landmark Theatres
— the nation’s largest theater chain devoted exclusively to art and
independent film, with 57 theaters in 23 markets — are collaborating to
create the largest independent film center in the country, aiming to
boost the Westside’s fading trendiness factor and help reestablish it
on the map as a destination for the film industry.

Ted Mundorff, Landmark Theatres senior vice president of film and
advertising, is touting the atmosphere and convenience of the
admittedly impressive sounding, renovated three-story venue, which will
be accessible both from the street and via a bridge that connects it to
Nordstrom and the Westside Pavilion shopping mall when it reopens with
the center in early summer 2007
. The first floor will include several
new high-quality restaurants, while second and third floors of the
facility will feature 12 screens projecting independent films using the
latest in film and digital technology, as well as a lounge and wine
bar
.

Mundorff also says that the new Landmark Film Center at Westside
Pavilion will partner with the Los Angeles film industry and area film
schools
to “promote the education and training of those pursuing
careers in the film industry, and to provide a venue for screening the
works of up-and-coming filmmakers.” I seem to remember a lot of similar
noise being made about a planned national chain of Sundance-minted
theaters
, so let’s hope the Landmark Film Center keeps their end of
that bargain, and experiences enough success that other companies start
taking a look at their business model. If interesting stories and
independent film are going to continue to be theatrically viable deep
into the 21st century, their funders and financiers need better
alliances with exhibitors and theater owners.
Not to go soapbox on all
of you, but there’s absolutely no reason in the Internet age that true
film fans should have to drive two hours or more across the state — to,
say, Austin, Chapel Hill or Chicago — to see the best of independent
film.

Mini’s First Time

raison d’être for their
individual works, they seem largely to be aping convention in an effort solely
to land their next gig. If you think about it, this trend is in some ways
actually more craven than broadly pitched, mindless Hollywood
fare, which at least usually has the good sense and decency not to try to
present itself as thoughtful, and certainly not as art. All of which brings us
to Mini’s First Time, an empty
vehicle of flattened emotional affect
from screenwriter and debut feature
director Nick Guthe.

Born — as its breathless over-narration more than adequately
informs us — to an embittered, gold-digging mother (Carrie-Anne Moss), teenaged
Mini (Thirteen’s Nikki Reed) lives
life in the Hollywood fast lane. Estranged from said
alcoholic, philandering mother, Diane, and her equally emotionally isolated
stepfather, executive publicist Martin (Alec Baldwin), Mini lives her life as a
mission to collect as many behavioral cherry pops — as many original
experiences — as possible. (Not to nitpick, but wouldn’t the more apt and
interesting title then be Mini’s First
Times
, plural?)
To that end, she takes a job at a high-end escort service,
and who should one of Mini’s first clients be except… Martin.

Instead of running nauseously from the room, however, Mini
rationalizes that it’s OK since they’re not really related, and thus coaxes an
unaware Martin into a shadowy but satisfying sexual encounter. When he finds
out what’s happened, Martin is momentarily thrown, but — his reasoning perhaps
impaired by a loveless marriage — he pursues a continuation of their
relationship, and soon finds himself amenable to Mini’s suggestion that they
conspire to have Diane committed to a mental institution
by eliciting further
outrageous and zonked-out behavior through meting out a combination of drugs,
alcohol and psychological intimidation. Mini eventually arouses the suspicion
(and possibly more) of her hornball television producer neighbor (Jeff
Goldblum), and this and other events lead to continuing inquiries from a dogged
beat cop (Luke Wilson).

Like similarly sour-cheeked adolescent tales of manipulation
and emotional disconnection
Pretty Persuasion and The Chumscrubber, Mini’s First Time attempts to walk a
tightrope between sly, dark and/or tongue-in-cheek comedy and somewhat shadowy
menace, but comes across as smirky, contrived and unconvincing. Here the adult
characters are at least a bit less buffoonish and a bit more rooted in the real
world, if no less wholly irresponsible in their parental duties and adult
oversight. But while the character of Mini somewhat recalls, in her lack of
altruism and coldly intellectual honesty, Linda Fiorentino’s turn as Bridget
Gregory in director John Dahl masterful slice of ’90s noir,
The Last Seduction, there’s neither the
shock nor the heft of that unapologetic opportunism here.

While dealing with his unlikable protagonist and having her
do nasty and scabrous things, Guthe also wants to imply that Mini acts the way
she does because she’s a wounded bird or somehow fighting for survival, even
though the film’s ludicrous ending realistically completely undercuts this
suggestion
. From a purely practical and entertaining point-of-view, though,
there’s no palpable warmth to Martin and Mini’s relationship past the first
sexual bloom, so you know long in advance the two twists that are inevitably
coming. What one is left with is a triple-smug picture that enjoys flaunting
its “inappropriateness” and then trying to convince you that in doing so it’s
revealing some significant anthropological or sociological truths
. I’m sure
someone will indulge these, Mini’s First’s
lies, but it won’t be mainstream audiences, or even most desirously agreeable
independent film fans. (First Independent, R, 91 mins.)

Snakes on a Plane Gets a Poster

Snakes on a Plane
blog party, but the film’s poster has finally released, causing more
than a few raised eyebrows among the self-appointed cultural
commentators of the blogosphere.

There’s been a lot of attention heaped on this movie — about an FBI agent (Samuel L. Jackson) assigned to protect a witness in a murder trial, and the Mob boss who
attempts to kill said witness, via titular manner, during a flight over
the Pacific — because of its deliciously pokerfaced Teflon title, and
almost all of it sight-unseen. Now, on the heels of its first teaser
trailers comes the poster for Snakes on a Plane,
though, which bows August 18 from distributor New Line, and I’m not
sure that it really works
. Shouldn’t the title be ironic counterpoint
to what is otherwise a deadly straightforward concept pitch
? This
poster doesn’t seem to be that.

1997’s Anaconda gathered Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson, Ice Cube and Eric Stoltz, among others (think of that cast in the same film
now!
), but it wasn’t until after the movie opened, mid-spring, that
audiences discovered the unhinged delights of Jon Voight’s performance,
during which he at one point actually winks after being regurgitated by
a giant snake. Would selling the movie with a wink have increased its
$130 million worldwide haul, split almost evenly between domestically
and abroad? Unlikely, as kitschy products — movies inclusive — have a
short shelf life when birthed honestly but additional cachet when
discovered more organically
. Audiences enjoy feeling smarter,
collectively and individually, than a movie like Snakes on a Plane,
and trying to lure in a crowd not predisposed and programmed to its
tongue in cheek tone could have the opposite effect of dampening viral
enthusiasm. So has Snakes on a Plane
peaked? We’ll see, time will tell. But it feels like it.

In the meantime, by all means, click over to their
web site
for more on the movie, including wallpapers and desktop icons. No free snakes, though. What bullshit…

On The Limbo Room

For those in Los Angeles, meanwhile, the estimable Ray Greene mentioned
to me that the American Cinematheque’s sneak preview, “Alternative
Screen” presentation of The Limbo Room
on Thursday, July 20
features a striking new voice in American independent film in the form
of actress-turned-director Debra Eisenstadt. Both David Mamet fans and
disgruntled college professors, of course, will remember Eisenstadt —
who made her debut as a writer-director with 2001’s Daydream Believer
— from the 1994 film version of Mamet’s incendiary two-hander Oleanna, in which
she played the female lead opposite William H. Macy. Both that
experience and the text of Oleanna itself inform this feature, which Greene calls “an intriguing blend of Michael Haneke and All About Eve,”
about the blurring of reality and fiction in the lives of a group of
New York stage actors working on a play involving an onstage rape
. The
film played at Slamdance earlier this year, and is currently seeking
North American distribution. More to soon follow…

On Tenacious D’s Test Screening

Eagerly awaited, much discussed and long delayed for a variety of reasons (depending on whom you believe), Liam Lynch’s Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny
enjoyed a test screening last night in Pasadena
, and I had an
acquaintance in attendance. Due to release in mid-November from New
Line, the film had the accumulating stench of a good idea whose time
had perhaps passed due to co-star Jack Black’s rapidly rising star.
There were rumors of re-shoots and heaps of scrapped musical sequences.
While those may or may not be true, at least one person thought it
delivered. “It restores my faith in Jack Black again after Nacho Libre,”
my source said. “It’s really funny, even though you can tell they’re
going to have to tighten it up a little.”
Most heartening for studio
execs and number-crunchers, he said, “It works too as a sort of
self-contained origin story for those who haven’t ever heard of the
band.” Yes, that’s right, the film centers on naïve Midwesterner Black
and his pal Kyle Gass, who team up in Venice Beach to quite
self-consciously form the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world. The
title refers to a magical guitar pick that they set out to purloin to
aid them in their quest.

You, Me and Dupree

You can clearly chart the arc of ambitious ascendancy in the careers
of many movie stars
, generally based on an examination of their
selection of scripts when they arrive at a place that affords them more
choosiness. But Owen Wilson has, ever since bursting onto the scene in
the 1994 indie Bottle Rocket, followed not so much a path less taken as one artfully obscured by brambles.

Behind Enemy Lines,
which represented an obvious if still earnest and good-natured attempt
at crossing over into another genre — been the quietest of any
consistently steady movie star, probably because his inimitable brand
of comedy comes from a place of cud-chewing informality and
relaxedness
. There’s no guile, but neither is there a hard sell. Wilson
just does what he does, and allows you to take it or leave it. Cast
again as an affable, shaggy-haired, loosey-goosey man-child, Wilson is
the marginal saving grace of You, Me and Dupree, a familiarly
plotted, three’s-a-crowd comedy
which suffers a slow start and trades
too frequently in broad, garish strokes before rallying with some late
atypical turns.

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (Welcome to Collinwood),
the movie opens with the Hawaiian nuptials of Carl Peterson (Matt
Dillon) and his new wife, Molly Thompson
(Kate Hudson). Carl works for
Molly’s well-to-do architect father (Michael Douglas), an
overprotective single parent whose passive-aggressive distaste for his
son-in-law (which is to say any son-in-law) eventually tips
wholeheartedly into the latter, leading him to suggest a vasectomy to
Carl. So there’s stress on the work front for Carl, and soon on the
home front as well.

Dupree is Carl’s best friend and best man, and as such Carl offers
to let him stay with he and Molly when Dupree gets bounced from his job
and apartment in the same day. Dupree promptly sets about violating
boundaries both tangible
(he orders cable TV, changes the answering
machine message and bursts into their bedroom without knocking as
they’re about to have sex) and more ambiguous (“You’re newlyweds,”
intones Dupree in Wilson’s friendly drawl, “and a big part of that is
making love. You’re gonna explore each other — I get that”). Things
culminate with Dupree accidentally burning down the living room, the
result of an overly candlelit romantic encounter with a Mormon
co-worker Molly attempts to set him up with. As the parallel frictions
of work and a chastised Dupree
— who the couple bounce but later take
back in — drive Carl to distraction and create real conflict between he
and Molly
, it’s the unlikely Dupree who rides to the rescue of the
relationship.

You, Me and Dupree is actually three movies mashed somewhat
clumsily into one
. The first third to half of the film is actually the
most familiar and least interesting — the story of Dupree the loveable
screw-up, and his transmutation into the houseguest from hell. While
Wilson’s skill with an offbeat line reading provides a few fleeting
moments of bemused charm, what doesn’t wash here is the alternating
obliviousness, sensitive-guy charm and wide-eyed raconteur spirit of
the character.

The second (and most interesting) portion of the film involves Molly
bonding with Dupree after getting to know him in ways that Carl has
never bothered to; the pair cook a meal together for Carl and, in a
somewhat clever twist upon expected gender roles, dish about the
uncommunicativeness of the man they share in their lives
. It’s only
here, in fitful bits, that You, Me and Dupree feels really
fresh and new. The final act of the movie dissolves into an obstacle
course of steeplechase silliness
, set off by Carl — painted into a
psychological corner by Mr. Thompson’s mental abuse and Molly’s new
closeness with Dupree — finally boiling over and leaping across the
dinner table at his best friend. Naturally, this alienates Molly,
laying the groundwork for an implausible and wholly contrived, but
still emotionally successful grand-gesture finalé
in which Carl, with
an assist from Dupree, stands up to his father-in-law
and tries to win
back his wife.

Debut screenwriter Mike LeSieur’s screenplay is a fairly
unconvincing, cobbled together mixture of winkingly broad elements
(it’s the type of movie in which Dupree arrives at Carl and Molly’s
house with a moose head and mandolin, just because
) and familiar set
pieces, but just when you’re ready to write it off, along comes a
weirdly pleasant scene like Dupree sincerely guest-speaking at an
elementary school career day
, attempting in somewhat plaintive fashion
to reach the kids who might not know what they want to do in life.
While Dillon is a serviceable actor, he mostly goes over like a lead
balloon here; Hudson, meanwhile, crinkles her nose in too-cute fashion,
and shows off an impressive post-pregnancy figure in another scene, a
fantasy sequence. Mostly, though, it’s again Wilson’s show… though he
surely wouldn’t have you believe it. (Universal, PG-13, 105 mins.)

The Ellen Show: The Complete Series

After the media firestorm surrounding her coming out of the closet died
down — and, too, the sitcom that got dragged into the frequently unfunny
fray as a result — Ellen DeGeneres took some time off before
resurfacing in another hotly anticipated, eponymous small screen
vehicle in 2001. Perhaps the timing wasn’t right then for its success (it was axed two-thirds of the way into its debut run) but in
retrospect The Ellen Show, collected here over 18 half-hour episodes, serves as a warm and winning showcase of its star’s talents.

Co-created by Mitchell Hurwitz (The Golden Girls, Arrested Development) and Carol Leifer (Seinfeld), the show centers around Ellen Richmond, a dotcom executive who returnsto her small hometown to receive an honorary achievement award and ends up staying when her company suddenly goes under. Moving back in with her mother Dot (a perfectly batty Cloris Leachman) and younger sister Catherine (Emily Rutherfurd), Ellen accepts a job offer from he ex-high school teacher and mentor, Mr. Munn (Martin Mull), and becomes a guidance counselor at her old school, where she works alongside her erstwhile senior prom date, the genial Rusty (Jim Gaffigan). Hers is no closeted existence, though; Ellen is openly gay if not currently in the market for companionship (much to the chagrin of the school’s gym teacher). While there are clever tweaks here and there about her sexuality (Wonder Woman, Billie Jean King and Charlie’s Angels posters dot her untouched adolescent bedroom walls), the bulk of the show is about the clash of culture and pace that occurs when Ellen unplugs from her Los Angeles rat race and rediscovers her small-town roots.

Given the pleasant comedic density on display in much of Leifer and Hurwitz’s other work, it’s no surprise that The Ellen Show gets mileage out of a variety of comic devices, from recurrent touchstone jokes and upscale literary references (Henry David Thoreau’s Walden anchors the second episode, in which Ellen obsesses over “deep” reflection) to oblique throwaway lines and smile-inducing puns. Its chief attribute, though, is DeGeneres’ sunny, affable personality. Unplugged from any politicized agenda, on the right or the left, you’releft simply with an innately likeable person with crack comic timing, and The Ellen Show captures its subject’s inimitably canted flight-of-fancy humor with grace and style. Spread out over three discs in two slimline cases that are in turn stored in a sturdy cardboard slipcase, The Ellen Show: The Complete Series is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English stereo track. There are unfortunately no sit-down interviews with either DeGeneres or the behind-the-camera talent, or any other supplemental extras. That’s a shame, since this series deserves a more robust revival. B+ (Show) C- (Disc)

Eugene Jarecki on Why We Fight

Turbulent times tend to help produce more reflective filmmaking, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the wealth of anxious, sometimes allegorical dramas and usually more straightforward nonfiction narratives that have put the war in Iraq and broader questions of domestic security, privacy invasion and American military commitments abroad under the microscope. To this end, director Eugene Jarecki (below) recently took some time to chat about his cautionary documentary about the big business of the American war machine, 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Why We Fight.



Jarecki was inspired to make Why We Fight by then-outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, which Jarecki stumbled across while making his previous film, The Trials of Henry Kissinger. In the classic speech, Eisenhower — the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II — warned Americans of the dangers of what he called “the military industrial complex,” a term coined to describe the increasing power of abetting bureaucrats and unelected — and thus unaccountable — think tanks and corporations who peddle the big business of war. (The prophecy appears fulfilled: America now has a military budget greater than all other 18 members of NATO, and all other discretionary portions of the federal budget combined.)

“The film looks at American wars dating back to the end of World War II and hypothesizes that there’s something that links these wars together,” says Jarecki, “that all too often you find there’s a tremendous gulf between what Americans think the particular war is about when it’s starting and happening, and what they gradually start to wonder about over time. They come to find out and believe that the reasons they’ve been given (for war) are not necessarily in keeping with what’s been discussed and going on behind closed doors. For me, that represents a kind of democratic crisis, that you have such a big disconnect between what the policymakers are doing and what the rest of us think should be happening.”

Unlike Michael Moore or Robert Greenwald, though, Jarecki’s movies tend to take a less overtly politicized bent. “My films try to reject the partisan pigeonholing of some of those other films, and the way that I do that is just by working overtime with a real range of people who are firsthand, front-line insiders,” he says. Interview subjects in Why We Fight range from William Kristol and Gore Vidal to John McCain and the Center for Public Integrity’s Charles Lewis. “I do that because I really like detective movies, and I also know that when people go out on a Saturday night (they) want to go on a journey, and everybody likes to be a sleuth,” says Jarecki. “So I try to structure the films to reveal information in much the same way that I find it in the archives.”



Why We Fight
also takes a long, hard look at America’s collective psychological state. “I think there’s no question that as a country born in a revolutionary way by a small band of colonists who were also very poetic thinkers, who wrote some of our greatest prose about democracy and the tradition of the fight for human dignity,” says Jarecki, some of that remains imprinted in the American DNA. “All of that is a founding that has a lot of idealism in it,” he continues, “and of course it forgets the Native American massacres, it forgets African-American slavery, it forgets women and other groups and how long it took to find their way in this society. But nonetheless it’s fair to say that America has been, in the broader context of human history, a place for finding better standards for global democracy. Flawed as it is, it has a lot of heart, it’s trying very hard and it’s always been a very well-meaning work in progress. So it’s understandable that Americans should look at past wars in that (revolutionary) context, but the danger is of course when you look at all wars in that context because that would create a sort of carte blanche for our policymakers to always pretend that every war is a great war and a war worth fighting.”

While the film itself is a knockout, the DVD includes a hearty collection of extended and deleted scenes, a nice historical timeline, an audio commentary track by Jarecki and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, an audience Q&A from a special screening, Jarecki’s television appearances on The Daily Show and The Charlie Rose Show and a clutch of educational DVD-ROM material, which turns the disc into a handy lesson plan for educators. Mostly, though, Jarecki hopes Why We Fight inspires a dialogue about the country’s core principles and its massive commitment to such standing army and its attendant infrastructure. “There’s no question that we’re writing the world story now, and the better our story gets the better the world will be,” says Jarecki. “And that means holding America to the type of standards that we care deeply about — the standards that are ingrained in our Constitution and in our founding history.”

The American Experience: Hoover Dam

I
remembered the pictures and a few minor details from American history
class in grade school, but otherwise recollected little about Hoover
Dam. I hadn’t even stopped to visit it during the several times I’ve
driven through Nevada and the surrounding areas. So, settling down to
watch Hoover Dam, I was prepared for a staid little history
lesson. Wrong
. I was quickly sucked into the fascinating story of the
controversial construction America’s own pyramid — a towering structure
which employed thousands during the Great Depression and helped reshape
the economic outlook of all lands to the west.

Amazon Jail/Bare Behind Bars

“Never before have carnal lust, sex and sin been so clearly depicted,” begins a promotional clip for Amazon Jail, one of two slices of ’80s sexploitation from filmmaker Oswaldo De Oliveira new to DVD. Really, never
before? Well, that might be a stretch. Still, these well-produced
titles succeed rather unerringly within the caged confines of their
genre and intent.

Starring Maria Stella Splendore, Nadia Destro and Marta Anderson, 1980’s Bare Behind Bars
is set in an all-women’s penitentiary where group showers, full-on
beatings, water hosings and, yes, body cavity searches at the hands of
a creepy nurse are all part of the normal everyday existence
. To stay
out of the torture chamber, inmates can choose to barter their bodies
to the wicked (female) warden, submit to said nurse or rage emptily
against the machine. Fed up with their lot, the inmates eventually rise
up and decide to wreak vengeance on their jailers. Bare Behind Bars
lacks in the detail of its characterizations (no surprise, really), but
its full-throb conviction goes a long way, both in terms of the
performances and De Oliveira’s manic staging of its many love scenes,
which highlight the charged dash for release of any kind in such a
shuttered environment.

Set deep in the Amazon jungle (natch), 1982’s Amazon Jail
similarly tracks a group of imprisoned nubile naïfs who writhe about a
lot, suffer the abuses of subjugators who aren’t above sampling the
merchandise themselves
(a swarthy Sergio Hingst and his whip-cracking
female second-in-command, Joao Paulo Ramalho) and eventually turn the
tables on their white slave owners. This is probably the more wildly
plotted of the two films
, including an illicit love plot and protracted
escape sequence in which some of these desperate women go from out of
the fire and into the frying pan so to speak, escaping brutal bounty
hunters only to get scooped up by a perverted priest that you just know
Marlon Brando would have had a hoot playing. The energetic make-out
sessions and seriocomic writhing of its first third — despite the grim
tawdriness of its set-up — gives way to legitimate unease in this final
act of flight and fight, with De Oliveira using quick cuts to build the
movie’s rhythm to an impassioned pitch. Amazon Jail won’t be
mistaken for great art, but it does rather artfully blend sex and
violence, indulging a base human preoccupation with both subjects.

Both discs are housed in regular clear Amray cases with thin
cardboard slipcovers with raised lettering, and presented in 1.66:1
widescreen enhanced for 16×9 televisions. The audio mixes are English
language Dolby digital mono tracks, and extremely poorly dubbed at
that, but capture the aural demands of the pictures quite fine. And
speaking of those pictures, the image for both movies is superb,
consistent in color and free from scratches and other debris. The only
extras on each disc, unfortunately, are each film’s own declamatory
trailer
(“This is the story of women trapped into white slavery,
revealing their innermost desires in their fight to escape the terrors
of the Amazon,” intones Amazon Jail), which are a bit amusing in their meticulousness. I mean, if you have movies titled Bare Behind Bars and Amazon Jail,
you don’t exactly have to spend money on overwritten narration, right?
De Oliveira did, though, and that’s one of the things that made him
different. B- (Movies) C+ (Discs)