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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

Catch a Fire

The conventional wisdom used to be that in polite company
one doesn’t talk about two matters — religion and politics
. There’s too much
chance of offending someone’s delicate sensibilities, so it’s best to avoid broaching
these subjects, at least in any substantive manner. Hollywood,
for the most part, has typically followed suit in decades past — after all, it
covets the green in the wallets of both Red Staters and Blue Staters.

But the massive success of both Michael Moore’s filmic
Molotov cocktail Fahrenheit 9/11 and
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ,
though, combined with a country riven by an unpopular war in Iraq and scandal, serial
incompetence and other turmoil at home, has created a populace where, no matter
their opinion, more people than ever seem to at least be engaged in some form
of discourse about politics, cultural values and faith
. Ergo, we’ve seen over
the last several years a number of movies which have examined, to varying degrees
and from various angles, the interrelatedness between American political policy
and/or international issues. Movies of this ilk have typically been somewhat
niche-aimed dramas — films like The Quiet
American
, Hotel Rwanda, The Constant Gardener, The Interpreter and The Last King of Scotland, with Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana being the biggest if also most
amorphous of the bunch.

A dramatically complex, terrifically involving allegory for
both the effects of modern day, draconian antiterrorism techniques and the
scorched-Earth war of cultural absolutes currently being waged between Iraq’s
Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations
, Catch
a Fire
tells the true story of a humble, apolitical man, wrongly accused of
terrorism, who eventually feels compelled into the very sort of disobedience
and armed uprising of which he was accused.

Set in apartheid-era South
Africa
, where for years 25 million native
Africans were ruled and brutally oppressed by less than three million white
colonial South Africans
, Catch a Fire
is based on the real-life story of Patrick Chamusso. Patrick (Antwone Fisher’s Derek Luke) is a simple
family man and part-time soccer coach who serves as a foreman at the local oil refinery
and loves his wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), and two daughters, ages 8 and 6.
An explosion at his plant, though, places Patrick and his friends under a cloud
of suspicion, and he’s arrested by anti-terror unit chief Nic Vos (Tim Robbins, above),
who’s tasked with rounding up the responsible members of the African National
Congress, or ANC — an expatriate South African rebel group that operates out of
neighboring Mozambique.

At first Nic’s questioning is cajoling, but he tacitly signs
off on harder measures that certainly border on torture
. Though innocent,
Patrick has a secret that serves as a mitigating circumstance; when he finally
tells the complete truth, Nic still views it as a ploy, and has Precious picked
up and beaten by a government-sanctioned squad. Eventually freed but
understandably shocked into action, Patrick finds his sense of self and purpose
irrevocably reoriented. He leaves his family and sneaks across the border in
order to become a political radical and rebel operative — fighting against the
apartheid regime of South Africa
for equality and the very future of his country.

The movie expounds upon and melds together some of the same
themes touched upon in director Phillip Noyce’s austere 2002 two-fer of the
Vietnam-set
The Quiet American and the
Australian-set
Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Each of those films are, in their own way, about the slippery slope of absolute
authority and the warped decisions that it leads those in control to make in an
effort to retain said power, and how government policy both official and
coercive can have equally damnable, socially devastating consequences. Still, to call Catch a
Fire
a “political thriller” is a bit misleading. It’s much more a straight
drama, with its politics kept at a polite arms’ length. That said, while not
driven by any sort of traditional action scenes, it does, as well, cultivate a certain amount of tension and dread as Patrick
morphs into a political revolutionary and fitfully grapples with the notion of violence
as an alluring form of expediency. Luke is flat-out excellent, in one of the
more under-recognized performances of the year.

Packaged in a single-disc Amray case with snap-shut hinges, Catch a Fire comes with an unfortunately
spare roster of supplemental extras
. Three deleted scenes tally just over two
minutes, and don’t provide much additional depth or characterization. One shows
Robbins’ character excavating a piece of evidence at the site of the oil
refinery blast, and another establishes the long hours and dedication of his
job, featuring him getting called away from a family gathering. The final scene
shows Precious receiving a piece of gifted furniture.

The film is presented
in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, which preserves the aspect ratio of its
original theatrical presentation. The colors are sharp and consistent, and there
are no problems whatsoever with artifacting or grain. The movie was shot on
location in Johannesburg, Cape
Town
and Mozambique,
and cinematographer Ron Fortunato’s work is both searing and wide-ranging,
capturing the jumbled sociopolitical backdrop that comprises Catch a Fire’s setting. Much use of
natural light is made, and it’s remarkable, the variety of textures and moods
that are conveyed — be it in the menacing blue-grey dusk of Nic’s outdoor water
torture of Patrick, or the vibrant sunshine of a group of children’s dusty
soccer match.

Parallel Dolby digital 5.1 mixes in English and French anchor
Catch a Fire’s audio options, and
each adequately captures the proceedings, with clear, consistent, discernible
dialogue. The material itself doesn’t require a grand, wall-to-wall aural
sweep, so the sound design places its emphasis on more restrained natural and
atmospheric noises
, all of which come through loud and clear. Rear channels,
meanwhile, get a nice, subtle workout in the few sequences where violence or
explosions spike. Especially notable is a slowly building scene where Patrick’s
coworkers voice their support for the aims of the ANC through a buoyant group
song as they’re patted down by white African security officers. Optional
English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles are also available.

Apart from the aforementioned deleted scenes, the only other bonus feature is an audio commentary track that
gathers thoughts from director Noyce, stars Luke, Robbins and Henna,
screenwriter Shawn Slovo, producer Robyn Slovo and the real-life Patrick
Chamusso
. These comments are frequently interesting, but don’t typically follow
the action on the screen. Noyce talks about the movie’s use of the
aforementioned freedom songs, advised by ex-ANC trainee David Embarta. He also
fascinatingly discusses the war in nearby Angola
and its relationship to South Africa’s
struggle for independence, as well as how the movie relates to problems of
reconciliation in his native Australia
and elsewhere, throughout the world. Luke, meanwhile, talks about the
difficulty inherent in preparing for his accent in the film, and bemusedly notes
that Chamusso asked him, upon their first meeting, “Do you know Beyoncé?”


Bottom line: while a tide of rhetoric painting the world in broad strokes
of black-and-white swirls around us, Catch
a Fire
reminds us that there are those who do “noble” service in the name
of misguided or otherwise perverted callings, and that they aren’t blind to the
contradictions and shortcomings of a given system
, or otherwise shuttered off
from inwardly channeled doubt. It’s a film about life’s grey areas — an
involving drama and psalm for a higher moral and ethical dialogue
. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) C+ (Disc)

Revenge of the Nerds

Escapist entertainment takes plenty of knocks, these days
and every generation. But what certainly the Hostels and 300s and even
the Grandma’s Boys and Benchwarmers of today are largely
missing is the tone of blithe naughtiness that went hand-in-hand with the
T&A comedies (and even lunk-headed actioners) of the 1980s
. Regardless of
the individual quality of these films, there was seemingly no real ill was
done, and malevolence didn’t seem part of the mainstream creative oxygen. Even in
action thrillers, it was more about the hero triumphing and getting over on
someone than the nasty villain’s downfall.

Perhaps apart from the original Porky’s, nothing embodies this trend more than 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, a happy-go-lucky
underdog comedy that provided the easy headline of least deliberation for every
profile of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs written in subsequent years. Its successive
sequels — including two made-for-TV projects — would reach a point of
diminishing return sooner rather than later, and quickly scrape the bottom of the
creative barrel, but this film remains an overachiever.

Its story centers around Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine)
and Gilbert Lowell (Anthony Edwards), two bookish, somewhat socially inept college
freshmen. Shortly after their arrival on campus at Adams
College
, members of jock fraternity
Alpha Beta accidentally burn down their own house in a prank gone wrong, and boot
the ineffectual freshmen out of their dorm, turning them into refugees living in
the gym.

Here Lewis and Gilbert meet up with a veritable smorgasbord of
social outcasts, including the fey Lamar (Larry Scott), under-aged Wormser
(Andrew Cassesse), freaky-haired, spectacled Poindexter (Timothy Busfield,
later to be name-checked by Young MC), Japanese exchange student Takashi (Brian
Tochi) and nose-picking Booger (Curtis Armstrong), who never lets mixed company
get in the way of a bodily function or impulse to scratch. These dweebs band
together to form their own fraternity and eventually coalesce under the banner
of the reluctant Lambda Lambda Lambda, a national African-American organization.
A series of prank wars ensues, with everything peaking at the climactic “Greek
Games.”

The brains-versus-brawn template and familiar social ladder shenanigans
give Revenge of the Nerds a lightweight
yet sustainable frame
, and while everyone might remember only Carradine’s
donkey-ish laugh (not improvised, as
frequently reported), the truth is that the joke-writing and dialogue in the
movie is reliably strong too
. The supporting cast is also a strong group, consisting
of, among others, Ted McGinley, as Stan Gable, president of the Greek Council; John
Goodman, as the goading Coach Harris, an ally of the jocks; James Cromwell, as
Mr. Skolnick, Lewis’ father; and David Wohl, as the railroaded Dean Ulich.
Everyone seems on the same page as to what type of movie is being made, and while
there are a few implausibilities here and there, the tone and pitch doesn’t veer
wildly, which is more than you can say for many modern comedies of this sort.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen to preserve the
aspect ratio of its original theatrical presentation, this special edition
version of Revenge of the Nerds comes
with English language stereo and mono audio tracks, optional subtitles in
English and Spanish, and Spanish and French mono audio tracks to boot. The
transfer is adequate, but only that — hardly a painstaking effort
. Grain and discoloration
are fairly steady, and just part and parcel with both the movie’s low-fi
concept and certainly the shrugging regard in which it was held by those
responsible for its archival.

Luckily, there’s a nice collection of extras to help bump up
this release’s collectibility, starting with a collective audio commentary track
from actors Carradine, Armstrong and Busfield and director Jeff Kanew
. This is
a relaxed and self-effacing chat, again benefiting from everyone’s appreciation
of the movie for what it is. A 40-minute making-of featurette includes sit-down
interviews with the aforementioned actors (no Anthony Edwards, alas!) and many
others from off camera, and it’s a great trip down memory lane, a well-produced
and nicely packaged little affair. McGinley gets more run in a grab-bag of a
half dozen deleted scenes,
while the movie’s theatrical trailer and a television
pilot
(fairly jaw-dropping in its awfulness) for the aborted, reconstituted series of the
same name round out the bonus material. B+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)

Wild Hogs

Wild Hogs is a curious movie. On the one hand, the comedy — about a quartet of friends who hit the
road in a rather vaguely defined attempt to reclaim their youthful,
masculine spirits — is driven by overly demonstrative sitcom-type
acting, anchored by a number of flat, desultory set pieces
, and set to
all the music cues (Foghat’s “Slow Ride,” George Thorogood & The
Destroyers’ “Who Do You Love,” AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” The Allman
Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider”) you wholly expect. For Chrissakes, it even has an
atrocious sequence in which
someone on a computer inadvertently stumbles across a deviant sex web
site only to then be unable to shut
it down
, despite their mad pressing of buttons and checking of cables.
(We’re just over two months into 2007, and, alongside Diane Keaton’s Because I Said So,
we’ve already had two such idiotic scenes unleashed upon audiences;
current Vegas over-under odds place the year’s cumulative,
sigh-inducing tally at seven.)

On the other hand, if a movie can ever be described as, say, a single notch greater than the expected sum of
its disingenuous parts
, that might be the best way to explain the
fleeting entertainment that Wild Hogs provides. There definitely isn’t much in the way of insight into the “weekend warrior” mentality that purportedly serves as Wild Hogs‘ narrative lynchpin, and the film certainly won’t provide memorable
laughs that will stick with you much beyond the day of viewing. Still,
through pure contrast of character, some nice contributions from bit
players (thank you, Marisa Tomei!), a very few unexpected avenues of brief exploration and a
couple of comedic showcases which allow Martin Lawrence and Tim Allen to flaunt their demonstrative, small screen-fed personas, Wild Hogs plays as a pleasingly broad diversion, provided one’s level of anticipation is properly adjusted a good bit downwards. For the full review, from FilmStew, click here.

Hollywoodland

Director Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland
posits itself as a Hollywood murder mystery, and it’s
true that it has at its center, in the death of actor George Reeves, a doozy of
a high-profile homicide. But a straight historical whodunit this isn’t — Hollywoodland is instead very much a
film about the warped intersection of celebrity, ambition and regular life, and
the unique commingling of aspiration and desperation that its Tinseltown
setting produces
.

Gadfly private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) has a
wife and young son in the Valley, but he still has a single man’s irresponsibility
hardwired to his being, hustling tips for whatever jobs he can from a former
partner. When he’s advised that the distraught but somewhat estranged mother
(Lois Smith) of Superman TV star
George Reeves (Ben Affleck) isn’t buying the official police ruling of suicide
in the death of her son, Simo sees not only a lucrative payday, but also a high-profile
gig that will boost his shingle for years to come
, and get him out of the cheating-hearts
business of stringing along petty, paranoid husbands who’re convinced their
wives are cheating on them.

Simo dives into the case, and finds all sorts of
incongruities, including some strange bullet holes in the floor, and potential
signs of a struggle. The film, then, flashes back to show us Reeves’ long-term relationship
with older woman Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of film executive Eddie Mannix
(Bob Hoskins), a powerful and more than slightly menacing figure at MGM. Eddie knew
of the duo’s arrangement, and tacitly approved — after all, he had his own
mistress. But Reeves’ eventual shaking free from his “kept-boy” chains (while
Toni kept him living in comfort and style, he resented that she never did more
for his career), and subsequent engagement to money-hungry fiancée Leonore
Lemmon (a perfectly off-balance Robin Tunney), may have earned him enmity that could
have fueled a hasty, jealous attempt on his life — one that could then look
somewhat like suicide.

At least this is what Simo speculates, and the film
indulges. Hollywoodland cops a bit of
its moves from L.A. Confidential, there’s
no doubt, but the set and art design work is so superlative, that you find
yourself quickly immersed in its world, and giving in to its yarn of multi-layered,
overlapping motivations (a dilemma that the recently released, somewhat similar
The Black Dahlia never conquered). The
problem is that the flashback structure (we bounce around from 1951 to ’59) is somewhat
at odds with Simo’s present day investigation, and the film lacks a clear resolution.
Definitive “truth” need not be uncovered, but restiveness must be quelled by
some sense of finality
. Hollywoodland
doesn’t have that.

While there’s an admirable, very adult restraint in Hollywoodland’s refusal to offer up a
single, wildly conjectural opinion on the death (as well as, I’m sure, some
very compelling legal reasons not to do so), in the end the movie doesn’t quite fully gel and pull off the feat of
leaving you shaken, stunned or wowed by the canvas of conspiratorial hush-hush
it presents. What it does provide the
opportunity for is a nice display by its cast, particularly Brody and Lane, and a collection of ambitious, damaged characters more alike than they realize
. Even
casual film fans will be caught up enough by these performances to find more reward
than complaint in Hollywoodland.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen that preserves the
aspect ratio of its initial theatrical exhibition, Hollywoodland comes with matching English and French language Dolby
digital 5.1 surround sound audio tracks, as well as optional subtitles in
English, Spanish and French. An audio commentary track with Coulter kicks off
the slate of supplemental features
, and it’s a nice, relaxed chat in which he
discusses scene-to-scene directorial choices, and talks a lot about the
collaboration with various actors, including Brody, for whom he has much
praise. There’s also a five-minute collection of deleted scenes, which further
flesh out Simo’s investigations. A trio of short, comparative featurettes on
the recreating of old-time Hollywood
round things out, lending
more appreciation for the film’s behind-the-scenes players, since much of it
was filmed in Canada. B (Movie) B (Disc)

Rock Relief: Live in Concert

Responding to the brutal 2005 storms that caused billions of dollars worth of property damage (and untold psychological harm) to his home state of Florida, rocker Rick Derringer rounded up some of his old cohorts — friends that included some of classic rock’s biggest names — for a special one-night-only event. Dubbed “Musicians for Disaster Relief,” the concert at Orlando’s Universal Studios raised several hundred thousand dollars for charity, and now the show comes to DVD in the form of Rock Relief, where a portion of proceeds from its sale will benefit the same-named charitable trust.

Kicking off things nicely is Loverboy. If you’re like me, when you think Loverboy, you think of three things: “Workin’ for the Weekend,” Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze. Their sketch about an audition for a final slot at Chippendale’s remains a Saturday Night Live classic, and has left an indeliable visual marker on that tune for me. “Turn Me Loose” (which I oddly heard on the radio three times in one day recently) is an underrated era gem, and solidly performed here; “Hot Girls in Love” and “Lovin’ Every Minute of It” are also included.

Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider (“The Price”) and Derringer himself follow suit, the latter with a loose-limbed version of “Hang on Sloopy” and a more feel-good, less sneering “Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo.” Allman Brother Dickie Betts contributes “Ramblin’ Man” and “Southbound,” but the show highlight may be 1980s pin-up Eddie Money, whose “Two Tickets to Paradise,” “Take Me Home Tonight,” “Wanna Go Back” and “Baby Hold On” deliver a sort of goofy, joyful catharsis. The hooks on those songs are much stronger than one might remember.

The odd man out here is Michael Bolton, creepily shorn just as he was creepily long-locked back in his stronger days of FM suckitude. Contributing “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Rock Me Baby” and a cover of the Otis Redding staple “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” Bolton’s set, though short, still feels like an unwelcome change-up coming as it does amidst all of the up-tempo rockers presented here.

There are unfortunately no supplemental extras on this 90-minute disc (even a brief interview with Derringer on the impetus for his involvement would have been nice), but the well-captured tunes offer up a lot of reminiscence, and it’s all for a good cause. B (Concert) C- (Disc)

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

An honest, unflinching account of bittersweet relationships
that can never be what they once were, writer-director Dito Montiel’s candidly autobiographical
debut, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,
is a poignant look at untangling misplaced love and idle idol worship, reconciling with family and
embracing the ghosts of your past.

Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) is a successful writer who, after a
15-year absence, is summoned home to Astoria
from Los Angeles by his mother
(Dianne Wiest) when his father (Chazz Palminteri) becomes seriously ill. Memories
of Dito’s misbegotten youth come flooding back as he revisits the old
neighborhood, attempts to rebuild a fractured relationship with his father and
encounters his “saints” — Dito’s few childhood friends who aren’t in prison or
dead. As Dito finds himself whisked back into the youthful events that shaped him
(Shia LaBeouf plays him in these flashbacks), an unforgettable cast of
characters unfolds to the sweltering heat of the summer of 1986. These include
Laurie (Melonie Diaz), Dito’s childhood sweetheart; Mike O’Shea (Martin
Compston), a transplanted Scot with an Irish name who dreams of becoming a punk
rock musician; Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo), a reckless, destructive and possibly
insane member of Dito’s street posse; and the unforgettable Antonio (Step Up‘s Channing Tatum),
Dito’s cocky and volatile best friend, who grapples with an abusive father.

Montiel’s film is a halfway compelling, muggy-summer snapshot
of angsty youth gone wild. The film premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film
Festival, taking home awards in the Best Ensemble and Best Director categories;
it also picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations, for Montiel’s
screenplay, and Diaz and Tatum’s respective supporting turns. If some of the
moves here feel somewhat copped
(some of the jump cuts to me feel like nervous affectation
more than a solidly reasoned artistic choice), the investment of the cast definitely
elevates the material
, and makes for a mostly pleasurable viewing experience.

Presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and solid transfer that
beautifully preserves Eric Gautier’s evocative cinematography, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints’ DVD comes
with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track, optional subtitles and a very healthy complement of supplemental
extras
. Montiel and editor Jake Pushinsky sit for a full-length audio commentary track,
and since everything is a first for the effusive writer-director, his
enthusiasm and sense of appreciation is palpable throughout. A quite solid 20-minute,
making-of documentary includes interviews with cast and crew
. There’s also audition
footage and a six-minute, Sundance Lab workshop version of a rooftop scene in the
final movie in which Montiel acts opposite Helen Dallas. This is intriguing
chiefly in comparison to the finished product. An alternate opening and four varying
endings stack up alongside 11 more deleted scenes, all of which come with
optional audio commentary from Montiel
, who cops to learning a lot about writing
in the process of editing the movie; he says he overwrote the film by about 15
or 20 percent. C+ (Movie) A- (Disc)