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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

The Maid

Japanese and Korean horror films have been extremely
important in helping crack open the genre’s commercial vein over the last half
dozen years, playing arthouses in their original form and providing source
material for any number of lucrative remakes, from The Ring and The Grudge
franchises to Dark Water, Pulse and more. Further expanding the
influence of Asian imports, though, is certainly on the agenda of any number of
up-and-coming Asian and Eastern rim filmmakers
, as is the case with
writer-director Kelvin Tong (Moveable
Feast
, Eating Air).

Incorporating hearty elements of Chinese mysticism, Tong’s 2005
movie The Maid centers around naïve and innocent Rosa (exotic Italian-Filipino actress Alessandra
de Rossi
, of Small Voices), who leaves
her native Philippines
for Singapore in
order to work as a domestic servant. A non-believer in the supernatural world, Rosa
breaks the local rules of legend which dictate that during the seventh month of
the Chinese calendar, the gates of hell open and the dead walk the Earth
. Ignoring
these rules for handling the surge in spirits around her has, naturally, disastrous
consequences.

A native hit, The Maid
has going for it larges swatches of impressively balanced mood in its more
spook-worthy set pieces, but the script itself seems a bit inert, and unmotivated
and insincere, really, in the fashion that it so earnestly and ardently pitches
traditionalism
. It’s the sort of lip service that kids pay to church, or the most craven politicians to air-quote family values. The Maid is Tong’s
first horror film, and it feels a bit like a lark — a genre exercise by an
interesting young filmmaker with other, more fervently held interests
, but
perhaps bound by limited opportunity to deliver a scary film. This makes the movie one of
herky-jerky stops and starts, though de Rossi holds sway with her mesmerizing
eyes and a rooted performance.

Indexed at a suggested retail price of $22.95, The Maid is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic
widescreen, along with Mandarin language Dolby digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround
sound audio tracks and, naturally, English subtitles. The DTS track in
particular makes nice use of low-key atmospherics, something American would-be
auteurs would be wise to pay attention to
. Alongside a brief production featurette
are the film’s original theatrical trailer as well as previews of other Tartan titles. B- (Movie) C+ (Disc)

Playtime

Catching a sneak preview of Marc Forster’s adaptation of
Zach Helm’s Stranger Than Fiction recently
brought multi-hyphenate Jacques Tati’s inventive, splendidly choreographed 1967
comedy
Playtime surging back to the
forefront of my mind, and it’s no coincidence. Forster confirmed in a
subsequent interview that Tati’s film was an aesthetic inspiration for his
vision of the new Will Ferrell movie (opening November 10), which charts the psychological
dislocation of a man who starts hearing a narrator describe his life in
intimate detail. The movies would in fact make an interesting double bill one
day, but enterprising film aficionados can program it themselves later this
fall courtesy of Criterion’s fabulous new double-disc DVD release of the former.

Movies about confusion and displacement amongst surging new technology
are nothing new, but Playtime represents
a particularly strong entry in this canon, at least from an purely expressive point-of-view
.
Set in an ultra-modern Paris — full
of disorienting skyscrapers, sterile glass structures and impersonal offices —
the movie comes on the heels of 1953’s Mr.
Hulot’s Holiday
and 1958’s Mon Oncle;
Playtime likewise follows oblivious bachelor
Monsieur Hulot, contrasting his simple outlook on life with the complex rhythms
and bustle all around him. Mon Oncle
was the director-star’s first work in color, and while perhaps representative
of the pinnacle of his achievements, it also sparked a desire to return to
simpler forms. Ergo the minimalist Playtime,
in which Hulot tries in vain to keep a simple appointment in the urban jungle,
only to repeatedly cross paths in bumbling fashion with a group of female American
tourists.

Tati Story, a miniature biographical
film about the titular director. Both hint at the grueling production schedule
of the film, which shot over the course of several years. Film historian Philip
Kemp offers forth scene-specific audio commentary, and while his dissections
tend toward the academic, they do so in right fashion.

Also included is a 50-minute, 1976 (and thus somewhat dated)
episode of the BBC series Omnibus
that examines Tati’s Hulot pictures. Of most interest, though are a 17-minute
audio interview with Tati himself from the 1972 San Francisco International Film
Festival and a 12-minute chat with script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot
, who
discusses at length Tati’s interesting techniques. Cours de Soir, a short film of Tati’s from the same year, wraps
things up nicely, along with an insert booklet that includes an essay from
Jonathan Rosenbaum. B- (Movie) A- (Disc)

Lollilove

A silly and free-form mockumentary look at a charitable
giving outreach plan dreamed up by a young Hollywood
couple, Lollilove is the loose-limbed brainchild/cinematic
exercise of real-life wife and husband Jenna Fischer and James Gunn
. Fischer,
of course, is devastatingly good as the meek but cute Pam on NBC’s The Office, while screenwriter Gunn
(Universal’s Dawn of the Dead remake,
as well as the Scooby-Doo movies) is
making his directorial debut with this spring’s Slither.

Lollilove also finds Jenna and
germophobe James in it as much for themselves and the fame they will accrue as
anything else — ergo, James’ cluelessly condescending observation that homeless
people are “like the end pieces of the loaves of life.”

The movie leans heavily on what are obviously many of the
duo’s real-life photos and videos. In fact, clocking in at a lean 64 minutes,
it’s more of a filmic art project than full-fledged feature
. Directed by
Fischer and scripted by her and Peter Alton — who also serves as the movie’s
editor and director of photography — Lollilove
is no better or worse an execution of the movie’s basic premise than you might
sketch out on the fly in your mind
. It features a few moments of the same nice,
slow burn that Fischer puts to brilliant use on The Office in scenes of bickering between the two, or when James
tries to flirt with a volunteer, but there’s still an awful lot of unfocused
flab here, believe it or not. Owing to her pent-up small screen persona, it’s
great to see Fischer cut loose and curse, and cameos from Jason Segel, Linda
Cardellini and Judy Greer make for fun. Additional props are awarded for the
use of real homeless folks at film’s end, which serves as a rally point of
sorts. Too much of Lollilove, though,
is simply aimless; in the end you want
to like the movie a lot more than it earns on its own
.

Being a Troma DVD release, however, there’s plenty of
supplemental material
to go alongside the film’s full-screen presentation.
Eighteen deleted scenes, a clutch of outtakes from an earlier iteration and a
comprehensive 30-minute making-of featurette
give a robust picture of the movie’s
genesis and development, and confirm the notion that there’s an even fuller cut
of Lollilove lurking and as yet
unassembled, including a good bit of stuff that’s funnier than what made the
final version. With audio commentary from Fischer, Gunn, Alton
and producer Stephen Blackehart, exclusive footage from Troma president Lloyd
Kaufman’s trip to the set of Slither,
an interview on screenwriting with Gunn and much, much more, there’s a lot to
love about Lollilove’s extras. If
only the feature itself were just a bit sweeter. C+ (Movie) A- (Disc)

Grizzly Man

OK, it’s not that much of an older release, but I was talking to someone recently who had plowed through seemingly all of this year’s top-shelf documentaries, and yet somehow had missed Werner Herzog’s superb Grizzly Man, from 2005. Ergo, this re-up, originally published as part of a year-in-film retrospective for Now Playing Magazine on December 23, 2005:

Man,
nature and the beguiling grey area in between get a workout in Werner
Herzog’s mesmerizing, strangely affecting documentary Grizzly Man
, which focuses on the unusual life and violent death of a self-styled grizzly bear expert and amateur preservationist.

A
college washout and alcoholic would-be actor who in his 30s gave up
marijuana and drink cold turkey and reinvented himself with a Prince
Valiant bob and phony Australian accent (the latter eventually giving
way to a high-pitched, slightly effeminate surfer patois of indistinct
region), Timothy Treadwell lived unarmed in the Alaskan wilderness
among bears for 13 summers, and filmed his adventures in the wild
during his final five seasons. With himself as the central character,
Treadwell crafted strange, idiosyncratic narratives of high confession.
He would live alone for weeks and sometimes months, staging and
engaging in therapeutic soliloquies, rants and imagined conversations
with his animal “friends.” There’s a pained, natural beauty to this odd
and startling footage
— from which Herzog chiefly carves his narrative,
along with fantastic music of accompaniment from Richard Thompson.

Enigmatic, alluring, personable and infuriating in equal parts,
Treadwell fancied himself a fuzzy, New Age professional “protector” of
wildlife. It was in October 2003, though, that Treadwell’s mutilated
remains, along with those of his on-again/off-again, quasi-girlfriend
Amie Huguenard, would be discovered near their campsite in Alaska’s
Katmai National Park and Reserve. The pair had been mauled and devoured
by a grizzly (and the attack audio-recorded), perhaps one of the very
bears Treadwell so lovingly photographed.

Grizzly Man isn’t exacting as a biography of Treadwell (we
don’t meet his parents and get a glimpse of his formative years until
an hour into the affair, and the movie takes at face value the urban
legend — seemingly testable — that Treadwell finished runner-up to
Woody Harrelson for the role of Woody Boyd on Cheers), but that
will come neither as a surprise to Herzog fans nor an irritation to
those new to the director. In true Herzogian fashion, Grizzly Man
offers up not only ruminations on the mysteries of the wild that the
title and subject matter augur (in one ferocious fight, a bear even
releases his bowels), and its relationship to an Earth that is no
longer its domain, but also separate and distinct mysteries of human
nature
— what drove the flaky and yet heartbreakingly approachable
Treadwell, for instance, and who was Huguenard, briefly glimpsed only
once on tape?

Herzog “investigates” these questions only to the degree to which it
interests his thesis that the world is a place of sustained disarray
and unhappiness in which only untenable respite can be achieved
. He
also draws parallels — chaos, disorder and murder — between Grizzly Man and his own work, including the famously deranged production of Fitzcarraldo, and includes interviews with Treadwell’s pilot friend and the examining coroner, the latter of which may or may not be staged.

Grizzly Man seems, I know, too small and exclusive to be
anything more than an ornamental pleasure, a cinematic postcard for a
few. But in its concluding moments, as Treadwell works himself up into
a sputtering, incandescent rage in an amazing, self-pitying and
paranoia-tinged rant against the national park service, you glimpse a
stranger in modern society, this world of asphalt and glass — and in
its basest, most distilled form, a piece of the innate humanity in all
of us
. Grizzly Man is a portrait of a cracked American original, but this one man’s brokenness proves oddly and profoundly moving. (Lions Gate, R, 103 mins.)

The Protector

Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior was a genuine cross-cultural sensation,
grossing a cumulative $10.5 million overseas and pulling in another $4.5
million via a solid spring 2005 release in the United
States
. Racking up a handful of awards —
including the Best Asian Film Award at the Sitges Fantastic Film Festival 2003
in Spain — the
movie was a hit with both audiences and critics all over the world, attracting
legions of fans and making star Tony Jaa an overnight sensation.

Released Stateside by the Weinstein Company, The Protector marks a return engagement
for Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew
, and after an opening that doesn’t skimp
on serene evocation, it’s a relentlessly paced, 82-minute dash that will
solidify the personable Jaa’s place within the stable of far Eastern action-hero
elite
, especially with Jet Li’s alleged impending retirement from such genre
fare and Jackie Chan — who cameos here in a wordless, non-action scene that
serves to pass the baton from one generation of martial arts screen star to the
next — turning 52 earlier this year.

Jaa stars as Kham, a devoted son whose life is turned upside
down when a notorious Asian gang steals his family’s prized elephants. As a
somewhat hokey prologue informs us, Thai kings have for centuries rode
elephants into battle, and — their revered status still culturally affirmed —
they remain protected by a proud legion of ancestral warriors who practice Muay
Thai martial arts. The pachyderms of Kham’s father (Sotorn Rungruaeng),
including Por Yai (an elephant named Sambat), were to be offered as a token of
devotion to His Majesty the King of Thailand, but they are stolen, and Kham’s
father murdered in the mayhem. Kham takes off in pursuit, and moments later
we’re in a muddy river, enjoying the exact sort of cathartic speedboat chase
that this summer’s somber Miami Vice
really should have had
.

After learning that the elephants have been smuggled to Australia,
Kham heads down under to unravel a conspiracy that leads him to gangster
restaurateur Madame Rose (Jin Xing) and her thuggish henchman Johnny (Johnny Tri
Nguyen). After promptly stepping into a stolen cab upon his arrival, Kham
learns that there are others, too, who do not wish the truth to get out, and with
the help of a disgraced, Thai-born police detective, he must battle almost
impossible odds if he is to reclaim his beloved animal.

From a story by Pinkaew, The
Protector
helps establish a new tradition of Thai action cinema
. While
infused with beats of humor both definitely intentional (particularly in some
of the witty martial arts choreography by Jaa and Panna Rittikrai) and less
suavely so (some of the accented televised news reportage within the movie is
derisible, and makes no sense within the context of the movie’s Australian
setting), the movie is, appropriately, so fleet of foot as to not unfashionably
wear the burdens of its improbabilities
. The Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA contributes
some original music, as does composer Howard Drossin, but the film is also
marked by the weird and incongruous insertion of R&B and soul music in a
few other passages — one supposes additions particular to the movie’s Stateside
release.

Thankfully, though, The
Protector
isn’t striving for acute realism, and it gets back to its bone-breaking
symposium fairly quickly. Muay Thai is a blend of pressure-point, hand-to-hand
martial arts and constant motion — the same principle upon which the emergent
discipline of parkour is based — and Jaa, while not as shaggily identifiable as
the aforementioned Chan, is a solid screen presence, and certainly nearly as
skilled.

One bravura scene in particular epitomizes the determination
and imagination that went into making the film, and rivals Oldboy’s infamous hallway sequence for sheer maniacal verve.
An
uninterrupted, four-minute take within The
Protector
shows off action movie artistry at its most elegant, finding
Kham, punching, kicking and jumping his way past and quite literally through
dozens of assailants (and furniture — perhaps part of Ikea’s Fall Breakaway
Collection
) as he makes his way up a four-story staircase to confront Johnny.

While show-stopping long takes have emerged in
lower-budgeted, more intelligently staged genre fare as a sort of practical
antidote to CGI excess
, The Protector’s
effort is unique in its emphasis on harmony. The requisite viciousness is
intact, to be sure, but it also highlights (in at least slightly realistic
fashion) strategic retreat, and the advantages of picking both specific points
and moments of attack — something action movies very rarely attempt to convey,
and even less frequently get right. What makes this scene sing are its perfect
imperfections — sometimes Kham or a tossed baddie goes through glass or a door
or a vase, sometimes they bounce awkwardly off
.

Technically, The
Protector
’s pièce de résistance arrives after Kham has fought his way past
one comically gargantuan thug, T.K. (Nathan Jones, 6’11” and 360 pounds), only
to be set upon by three more and a
return engagement from Jones’ character in advance of a showdown with Madame
Rose. For my money, though, it might involve Kham’s showdown with a legion of
hard-charging, regular-sized henchman — in a scene that spins giddily into a
cracked, absurdist showcase of all manner of broken bones
, which literally have
to total in the three to four hundred range. (I hope the foley artists got paid
a bit extra for this gig…)

While I doubt, alas, any of Jaa’s moves will stick with me
in eidetic fashion
, The Protector did
leave me with at least one lasting fancy: that I could sound a foghorn and
unleash a wave of roguish BMX skate bandits. That would be almost as useful as
having Jaa as my wingman. Almost… (The Weinstein Company, R, 82 minutes)

Commander in Chief: Part 2


The
success of the small screen’s The
West Wing

has helped create an increase in public interest in the political
process, something stoked even more by our current morass in Iraq,
various corruption scandals and bitter partisan divides. So hey, if
things are so bad in real life, at least one can turn to something like
ABC’s staid Commander in Chief, which
stars Geena Davis as the first female chief executive of the
United States, for political diversion and entertainment.

Davis
is Mackenzie Allen, a political independent who is suddenly elevated from the
vice presidency to the presidency upon the natural death of her predecessor.
Hard-nosed Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland) tries to
box in and/or undercut Allen at every turn, but loyal chief of staff Jim
Gardner (Harry Lennix) helps effectuate Allen’s populist agenda. Sutherland is
fabulous and guest star Peter Coyote — as an ex-general and political rival
whom Allen wants to anoint as her vice presidential nominee — is likewise
excellent, but other casting for the series is weird; as press secretary Kelly
Ludlow, Ever Carradine always seems on the verge of bursting into tears. Commander in Chief is best
when churning through dialogue and various cloak-and-dagger political scenarios
, but the series is shot in an awfully boxy, staged fashion, which effectively
undercuts any true sense of momentum.

Series
creator Rod Lurie previously delved into the Washington backstabbing and other
political maneuvering that accompanied a woman’s rise to power in the film The Contender, but
Commander in Chief definitely
cops its moves more from Aaron Sorkin’s aforementioned NBC hit and… I don’t
know, 7th Heaven?
There’s a clear-cut attempt made to give parallel balance to the two narrative
rails, the personal and professional, but the show’s family stuff, with a
sad-sack Kyle Secor as the first First Gentleman, Rod Calloway, comes across,
variously, as awkward and inept
. Worst is a scenario in which daughter Rebecca
(Caitlin Wachs) loses her diary, which causes a stir amongst Secret Service

like there might be state secrets contained in a teenager’s frustrated rants against
a parent.

I’m
not quite sure why the inaugural, parceled out season of the series
is divvied up into two separate
volumes on DVD, except perhaps as some straw poll ballot initiative to see how
much fan support there is out there for this program, and whether its rumored
continuation in the form of either a series of telepics or serial resuscitation
is in fact economically viable. Certainly TV veteran Steven Bochco, brought in to oversee the show after Lurie was bounced mid-season, shook things up in an interesting manner. Episodes like “Ties That Bind” and “The Elephant in the Room” find Allen’s appendix bursting while on Air Force One, leading to a power grab by Templeton. I didn’t care as much for the earlier incarnation of the show, but this material
the chain of ascendancy to the presidency that’s always discussed in history books but has never actually played out — is fun to watch, so ripe is it in speculative back-stabbing. It’s like the 2000 presidential election debacle, without the real-life emotional investment one way or another, or the morning-after consequences.

Housed
in a regular Amray case,
Commander in Chief is presented in what is billed as “family-friendly”
1.78:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, along with a Dolby digital
5.1 surround sound audio track. There’s some very slight grain on the first couple episodes, but these problems abate. While the first release featured no supplemental bonus materials
, this release includes six minutes of interview footage with Davis, three minutes of bloopers, a pair of audio commentaries and 20 deleted scenes. That’s a platform of extras that TV fans of any political persuasion can get behind. C+ (Show) B
(Disc)

Inside the Mind of Frank Whaley

World Trade Center — and thinks, “Hey, remember that time I had Jennifer Connelly’s boobs balanced on the side of my head? Good times…” Because I know I would…

Unknown White Male

It’s out on DVD this week — which I don’t yet have a copy of, and likely won’t — but Unknown White Male is still a film with such inherently interesting subject matter that I thought I’d throw up this review, which originally ran in concert with the movie’s limited theatrical release late this February. To wit:

Directed by Rupert Murray, Unknown White Male
tells the remarkable, fascinating and true story of
Douglas Bruce, a
30-something New Yorker whose identity has been pieced together and
re-forged, sans a lifetime’s worth of comfortable reference points
. On
the evening of July 1, 2003, Bruce chatted with a friend by phone and
made informal plans for dinner. At 7 a.m. the next morning, he snapped
out of a fugue state and found himself alone on a subway headed for
Coney Island. He didn’t know how he’d got there, where he was going or
even who he was. All experiential memory was lost; he was without
identity
.

With no wallet or ID card, no sense of what door the
keys in his pocket might unlock, and only the random, sparse contents
of a small backpack on his person, Bruce wandered into a police station
and asked for help. For days he was a medical sideshow attraction — the
confused and panicked, but polite and slightly English-accented fellow
who bore no outside traces of drug abuse, significant physical trauma
or neurological illness.

Multiple MRIs and CAT scans reveal a small pituitary tumor in
Bruce’s brain, but one present probably since birth and in theory
unrelated to memory function
. An array of blood tests and all manner of
stringent psychological questioning goes nowhere, and a scrap of paper
with a name and phone number initially yields no clues. Stricken by
retrograde amnesia, there is absolutely nothing to connect
Bruce to anything in the outside world. It’s only when he’s being
committed, and asked to sign a piece of paper, that a flash occurs: his
purely instinctive, chicken-scratch signature clearly begins with the
letter “D.” Still, this leads nowhere fast.

That aforementioned phone number eventually does unlock his past, and
from there Bruce begins a journey through a still inexplicable maze.
There’s a cool detachment to Bruce that’s fascinating to witness. It’s
as if all the accrued baggage of adulthood — the acrimony, the petty
grievances, but also all the shared social fabric that tethers us
together in invisible but tangible ways — has been stripped away,
replaced by a confounding, impassive naiveté
. In casting off old
“friends” and habits alike, and retaining or rehabilitating some
elements of his former self, Bruce’s plight presents a parallel
challenge to his family and all those who knew him, for they too must
bury their memories of the man they once recognized.

Director Murray, a longtime friend of Bruce’s, walks us emphatically if not
ardently through Bruce’s quest
, cobbling together past video footage,
photographs, recreations, some astonishing footage Bruce himself shot
in the days and weeks after the incident, and, of course, plenty of
interviews. Yet to call Unknown White Male a collage or
pastiche imbues it with a certain handmade quiltedness that the movie
doesn’t really possess or embrace
. There’s far less detailed sit-down
sessions with Bruce than one might imagine about the frightened search
for emotional reference points — the panicky mental equivalent, one
imagines, of constantly feeling for furniture in the dark — and as the
movie wears on and Bruce becomes less and less worried about ever
regaining his memory, Murray’s inquisitiveness seems to somewhat mirror
this shrugging nonchalance
.

Still, Unknown White Male is a film whose subject matter is
so engrossing that it pulls you along
, and there are all sorts of
weird, emotional EKG spikes, as when Bruce wakes up in his old
apartment for the first time and asks the “friend” staying with him
where his mother is. She’s dead, several years on, but in that person
having to relate that to Bruce — and having it subsequently related to
us here — the movie charts and highlights in very affecting fashion
certain basic universalities of human experience that are apparently
engrained in all of us, memory be damned. (Wellspring, unrated, 87 mins.)

Happy Birthday, Rose McGowan

A happy birthday shout-out to Rose McGowan, who turns 31 today. How can we ever forget that dress, Rose, and where are today’s stars brassy enough to sport one in similar fashion? Oh, nevermind. I guess the complete lack of panties is the new “risque dress” for femme Hollywood’s ruling elite…

UPDATE 10/17/2011: A clucking, sighing, backhand pimp-slap to my face for somehow neglecting to remember to ask McGowan about this dress during my interview with her earlier this year. Hey, no one is more disappointed in me than I am…

The Sting

The
1970s was a time of auteurism and existentialism, with many mainstream
movies dipping into a seriousness heretofore unfound in American
cinema
. But sandwiched in between purposefully heavy films like The Godfather and Scarecrow, Deliverance and Chinatown, The Parallax View and The Conversation, was screenwriter David Ward and director George Roy Hill’s The Sting,
which reunited Paul Newman and Robert Redford
as two con artists in
1930s-era Chicago and racked up seven Academy Awards, including the
Oscar for Best Picture, along the way. Though hardly a trifle, the 1973
film was characterized by a sprightliness that stood in stark contrast
to much of its dramatic genre brethren of the time — think of it as its
year’s Forrest Gump, in some ways
. To wit, this brief reflection, from a review of Universal’s “Legacy Series” release of the movie on DVD late last year.

Redford stars as
up-and-coming grifter Johnny Hooker, whom Henry Gondorff (Newman) takes
under his wing when the former’s mentor is murdered by the Mob.
Together they set out to extract their revenge by fleecing big-time
racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), though as they set up their
“long-form” con, the rakish Hooker tries to keep Gondorff in the dark
about a crooked cop (Charles Durning) that could spoil the whole scam,
and other mitigating details that linger in the background like dark
clouds. The rapport of the stars is topnotch, and it’s not for nothing
that this film did extremely well at the box office
. Director Hill’s familiarity with his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
charges is evident in almost every frame, and together with
cinematographer Robert Surtees and composer Marvin Hamlisch — who
nicely adapts Scott Joplin’s ragtime music — he creates a backdrop that
is so of a piece that you almost don’t notice the film’s
professionalism when stacked up against its beguiling sheen
.

Universal’s new “Legacy Series” release of the film gives it a
handsome presentation in a hard-shell, book-style two-disc set.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the film also offers up
Dolby digital 5.1, Dolby digital 2.0 and English DTS 5.1 sound mixes.
Apart from these admittedly noteworthy qualitative up-ticks, though,
the release is rather concise, if not exactly lacking, in supplemental
material. Alongside a reissue trailer is The Art of the Sting,
an engaging, hour-long making-of documentary that includes interviews
with the film’s two legendary stars
, as well as Durning, Ray Walston,
writer Ward and more. While director Hill and others have passed away,
there are more than enough reminiscences from others to nicely fill out
this recollection, though it should definitely be watched following a
(re-)viewing of the film, as there are dissections of plot that could
easily sully a more virginal viewing experience. While more DVD bonus materials
certainly would have been nice — particularly something further
breaking out and spotlighting the music — The Sting remains an eminently watchable filmic treat, a movie well worth exploring for younger movie fans. (Universal, PG, 129 mins.)

Not Fade Away

So this is actually less about an irritation than the release of an irritation. Is there anything really better, you ask, than being able to take a thick packet of press notes to a marginal film (like, say, Crossover), for which you conducted too many interviews and on which you’ve already expended too much thought, and toss it away after opening weekend, knowing that you’re never going to have to once think about that movie ever again? No, no there really isn’t.

Oh wait, the DVD release! Crap…

Led Zeppelin: The Origin of the Species

Clocking in at just over 70 minutes, music doc Led Zeppelin: The Origin of the Species recounts the events leading
up to the formation of the famous titular group
, from Jimmy Page’s session work
with Dave Berry and the like to the modest success of ’60s outfits The
Yardbirds and Band of Joy, which helped give he and other members their starts.
For hardcore devotees of the group as well as casual music fans who enjoy VH-1’s Behind the Music-type specials, this
title is an utter gem
.

Deftly mixing together rare, vintage performance footage
with discerning commentary and criticism, The
Origin of the Species
charts the details of the group’s legendary first two
albums — the first recorded in under 30 hours, the second released a mere nine
months after the January 1969 bow of their debut — but also shines a light on
the bluesy inspiration for many of the songs. “Whole Lotta Love,” for instance,
finds its roots in the Small Faces’ own spin-off of Willie Dixon’s “You Need
Love,” while “Black Mountain Side” can be traced to Anne Briggs’ interpretation
of the folk tune “Black Water Side.” These revelations don’t tear down the accomplishment
of the music, however, but rather show how Led Zeppelin, like many bands
before them and since, drew heartily upon their inspirations and fused it with an
inimitable style to form a sound inarguably their own.

Interviewees include the aforementioned Berry,
authors Alan Clayson and Phil Sutcliffe, former Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch, ex-NME editor Keith Altham, Yardbirds guitarist Chris Dreja and era session
players like Clem Cattani. The result of such an intimately knowledgeable but often
less-than-famous roster is a fascinating tapestry, full of behind-the-scenes
minutiae
that paints a fuller picture of the times and setting that helped
birth the band. (Sample nugget: it was Scotty Moore’s guitar playing on Elvis Presley’s “My Baby Left Me” that initially inspired Page to pick up the axe.) It doesn’t hurt, either, the superlative featured recordings — both
live and of the studio variety — of “Dazed and Confused,” “Communication
Breakdown,” “Rock and Roll,” “Good Times Bad Times” and “Whole Lotta Love.”
This would be a great document merely for some of these segments, but the stories
only further enrich the performances.

Presented on an all-regions disc, the program comes in
widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, with a solid, hiccup-free stereo
sound mix. Bonus features include a separate, 20-minute history of the Yardbirds,
obviously dominated by the insights and anecdotes of former member Dreja
, whose
recollections of Page and Jeff Beck’s sometimes contentious guitar battles are
involving and amusing. There are also text biographies of the contributors herein, as well
as an interactive slate of questions billed as “the hardest Led Zeppelin quiz
in the world ever.” A (Movie) B- (Disc)

Saving Shiloh

Shiloh debuted on the big screen in 1997, and Shiloh Season followed two years later. The third film based on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s award-winning book series drops this year, and it continues in fine fashion the phenomenon of the Newberry Medal-winning series.

The story centers around young Marty Preston (Jason Dolley), his beloved, titular beagle and Marty’s neighbor (as well as Shiloh’s previous abusive owner) Judd Travers (Scott Wilson), an outsider who’s shunned by much of the otherwise close-knit rural community. Marty and his parents (Gerald McRaney and Ann Dowd), though, have believed Judd could change his ways. Their belief is tested, however, when Judd becomes the prime suspect in a local murder, leading Marty to believe that both he and Shiloh could be in danger.

The peril herein is all of the PG variety, mixing junior-level investigative titillation with animal pic bon homie, family flick meat-and-potatoes tropes and a pinch of domestic drama. Saving Shiloh isn’t really eye-opening on any level, but it falls solidly within the parameters of both expectation and skilled execution previously established by films like Lassie, Black Stallion, My Dog Skip, Flicka and the like. There’s a consistency, too, that benefits the series; writer-producer Dale “Chip” Rosenbloom is
back for his third tour of duty, and director Sandy Tung, back from Shiloh Season after picking up for Rosenbloom, knows the tone
and pitch of the material. Wilson, Dolley, Dowd et al also all do a good job of bringing a proper amount of reflection and built up thoughtfulness to their characters; when they act, you can see (or feel, if you haven’t seen) the weight of past considerations, both right and wrong. McRaney, meanwhile, steps in nicely for Michael Moriarty, who played Marty’s father in the first two films.

That’s all to say that though an extremely detailed familiarity with the Shiloh franchise isn’t necessary, it certainly doesn’t hurt; the fact that they’re all now available on video and DVD enables this chronological viewing. (In addition to solo discs, The Complete Shiloh Film Collection is available from Warner Bros. for a SRP of $28.98.) DVD bonus features on this dual-sided disc — which includes both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and full screen presentations — consist of the music video for Dayna Lane’s “Open Your Heart,” a 17-minute featurette driven by interviews with the cast and behind-camera players, a trailer gallery, and an amusing, three-minute discussion with the canine star of the film, in which she “talks” (with the help of a little girl’s voiceover) about how she came to be involved in the movie. B (Movie) B- (Disc)

Famous: Best Actors, Best Actresses

The
delineation between actor and movie star is one often lost on general
audiences
who maybe only trip to actual, honest-to-goodness theaters
for six or eight movies a year. To wit: Arnold Schwarzenegger, despite
the (arguable) ability to carry both brawny action flicks and comedies,
is a screen personality. Ditto Woody Allen, even though his persona is
actually even more narrowly defined. See also: movie star Harrison
Ford, Julia Roberts, et al. Actors, on the other hand, are typically a
bit more chameleonic and adventurous in their choices
. In you
concentrate, you’re able to erase your public recognition of them and
truly see them as the character they’re portraying.

Four new titles from the Famous
series, as seen on the Biography Channel, capture this distinction with
acuity and aplomb, if not necessarily much in the way of new material.
Among the 90-minute, individually released compendiums are Best Actors, Best Actresses, Hollywood’s Leading Ladies and America’s Finest Comedians. Each disc then focuses in on a quartet of talents, serving as celebratory mini-biographies of their subjects.

In an arena and era with such a seemingly voracious appetite for
celebrity news, gossip and minutiae, these titles would seem to be
perfect fodder for entertainment junkies. But they’re awfully heavy on
repackaged tidbits, and light on the sort of canted perspective that
makes a small screen hit out of something as fluffy as VH-1’s Best Week Ever
.
It’s a catch-22; if you’re a slavishly devoted fan of one particular
actor — or screen personality — you probably already know everything
contained herein, and if you’re looking for an in-depth examination of
said talent, the division here accommodates only 20-odd minutes, far
less than a regular Biography episode or sit-down chat with James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio.

For the record, Best Actors focuses on Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro and Kevin Spacey; Best Actresses
zeroes in on Jodie Foster
, Nicole Kidman, Hilary Swank and Charlize Theron, who’s still struggling somewhat to define herself in the public
eye as something more than a one-hit critical wonder. On the latter
disc, a case could made — not by me, but surely someone — for the
inclusion of Renee Zellweger, who instead turns up on Hollywood’s Leading Ladies alongside rightful focuses Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan and girl-next-door-emeritus Sandra Bullock. America’s Finest Comedians,
meanwhile, ignores hotter and/or ascendant talents like Jim Carrey, Ben
Stiller, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn (perhaps the “Frat Pack” dropped
a media blackout) in favor of old hands Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin.

Available separately in their own Amray cases, each 90-minute flick is available at www.mpihomevideo.com. While neither authoritative nor vital in any sense of the words, their $10 price tags do make these releases attractive options as stocking stuffers or complementary birthday gifts alongside a larger care package. C (Movies) C- (Discs)

Studios Wage War on Critics

In the wake of New Line’s ill-fated decision not to hold any advance critics’ screenings of its web fire-stoked Snakes on a Planedefinitive proof that, with tongue-in-cheek apologies to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the passions of the blogosphere are neither a dump truck nor “a series of tubes” leading directly to lasting zeitgeist relevance and/or commercial lucre — there is the fact that this week’s two widest film releases were not screened for reviewers. That’s right: no advance word on Jason Statham’s streamlined, head-cracking action flick Crank (above), from Lionsgate, or Warner Bros.’ The Wicker Man, a remake of the 1973 film of the same name starring Nicolas Cage and directed by respected indie auteur Neil LaBute.

So what does that mean? Don’t write the obituary for critics just yet. So Hollywood collectively doesn’t really respect us all that much. Big whoop. Did they really ever? And do they respect anyone or anything except their own congratulatory awards shows and bottom lines? (If you said “audiences,” please take two steps back… and punch yourself in the groin.) This latest bout of advanced screening aversion only speaks to their desire to exert more control over their product and its reception, and framed within this context it should be entirely expected. The next battle will be fought when studios start to realize that traditionally more pliable and coercible Internet press are less and less beholden to either conventional notions of “run dates” or fully fleshed-out critical appraisals. Instead of a handful of critics groups screening a film in long-lead fashion, it only takes a hard-blogging friend of a studio projectionist to go online and tap out a few poorly constructed sentences about how Film X “totally sucks.” For more on this phenomenon, click here, for my feature piece explication from FilmStew.

Queer Duck

In
one of the alternate realities I occasionally construct in my head

their shared commonality always being both an abundance of free time
and the unlimited resources to devote to such pranks — I obtain the
mailing lists of all of James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell’s
umbrella organizations and send everyone contained therein a copy of Queer Duck for Christmas. Or, strike that, for Hanukah
.

Despite
the assured proclamations of Bill O’Reilly that the title is a
correlative sign of the Devil’s rise — along with the Israeli-Lebanese
war, Brokeback Mountain, all California ballot initiatives, the
Tele-tubbies, mint-flavored Oreos and everything George Soros says —
and thus part of the impending apocalypse, Queer Duck actually
charts its roots all the way back to 1999, as a cult smash short on
Icebox.com. The moniker, though, is entirely apt, as the cheeky
animated movie does detail the over-the-top adventures of the
world’s most popular homosexual duck and all his fabulous friends — a
collection that includes hard-partying leather enthusiast Bi-Polar Bear
(voiced by Billy West), Openly Gator (voiced by Kevin Michael
Richardson) and Oscar Wildcat (voiced by Maurice La March).

Directed by Xeth (sigh… yes, Xeth) Feinberg, this sort of elongation of Queer Duck’s
wafer-thin conceit to a feature-length project wouldn’t work were it
not for the fact that it was written by four-time Emmy-winning The Simpsons
scribe Mike Reiss
, who’s also a co-producer here. If it’s all a bit
slapdash, Reiss peppers the brisk, 72-minute romp with more than a
dozen winning musical numbers, including celebratory showstoppers like
“Gay Day in Happyland” and “Let’s Play Gay Baseball,” and Jim J.
Bullock pithily delivers the abundant quips as Queer Duck. These bits
are all spot-on in their attention to detail, and will delight and
remind fans of similar irreverent fare like South Park and The Simpsons, which each have their own storied history of tuneful send-ups.

Queer Duck is presented in a regular Amray case, with a Dolby
digital stereo audio track that ably handles the program’s musical
numbers. It’s presented in widescreen enhanced for 16×9 televisions,
and there’s an additional 5.1 surround sound track as well as optional
English subtitles. A clutch of featurettes highlighting the voice
personalities, animation and other elements of production are included,
as are five of the original Queer Duck Web shorts
— including
the classic “Fiddler on the Roofie” and “Bi-Polar Bear and the Glorious
Hole” — and more behind-the-scenes footage. Queer Duck
certainly may not be for everyone, but it’s a smart niche comedy, well
done
. In its own absurdist way, too, the film and show subtly attack
entrenched homophobic attitudes, undermining them by re-contextualizing
them in such a ridiculous arena. B- (Movie) B- (Disc)

Broken Trail


Westerns
may seem staid and played-out as a film genre for some modern audiences —
particularly those whose closest interaction with a horse has been, say,
reading about busted-up Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro in the New York Times
— but all it takes, as Broken Trail proves, is the right cast,
story and level of commitment to make it wholly fresh and engaging.

Lovingly
sculpted by writer Alan Geoffrion from an idea fertilized and nurtured by
Robert Duvall, and produced and directed by Walter Hill, the film is set in
Oregon at the close of the 19th century, when old cowhand Print Ritter (Duvall)
and his estranged nephew, Tom Harte (Thomas Hayden Church), become the
reluctant guardians of five abused and abandoned Chinese girls who are on the
verge of being sold into prostitution. As they make their way across a rustic
swath of land on a horse drive, the duo keep kidnappers (including an excellent
James Russo) at bay, but also develop a deeper understanding and appreciation
of one another.

Gorgeously
shot, the film — a two-part miniseries which bowed this summer and premiered as
cable net AMC’s entry into such production — benefits from cinematographer Lloyd
Ahern’s previous work within the genre
(he’s shot some of HBO’s Deadwood) and with Hill — a hearty list
of collaborations which includes Wild
Bill
, Last Man Standing and Geronimo: An American Legend. Duvall, of
course, has previously explored the genre in the award-winning Lonesome Dove miniseries and Kevin
Costner’s Open Range (and he also
worked with Hill on Geronimo), but
has, at 75, even further mellowed in a fashion that makes his offhand approach
and delivery seem all the more mesmerizing. Church, who owns and works ranch
property in
Texas and was in acting
semi-retirement until Sideways helped
propel him back into roles, is likewise excellent. All in all, something as
meticulous and well constructed as Broken
Trail
makes just over three hours seem substantial and perfectly
fleshed-out, contrasted with the 140-minute indulgence of something like, say, The Guardian.

Housed
in a regular Amray case, Broken Trail
is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language Dolby
digital 5.1 audio track and optional English subtitles. Supplemental extras
include a perfunctory sneak peak at AMC’s Hustle,
as well as a 23-minute making-of featurette
that includes interviews with an
admirably broad cross-section of Broken
Trail
’s cast and crew. B+ (Movie) C+ (Disc)