Old news by a couple days, but the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has stirred up a storm (perhaps quite purposefully) in disbanding its film program, the various travesties of which L.A. Observed’s Cari Beauchamp more than adequately and persuasively dissects here. The chief culprit is the same felling a lot of other industry programs, series and satellite businesses, according to LACMA CEO and Director Michael Govan (and it rhymes with honey, don’tcha know), but there is something particularly dispiriting about the prospect of film no longer having an anchored presence at the flagship art museum of the entertainment industry’s capital. To that end, there’s a blog site up to help save the program, as well as an online petition and even a Twitter page. Act accordingly, if so moved.
Sometimes failure is its own form of success. After all, take the case of writer-director Judd Apatow, who stuck out on the small screen with two critically beloved and cultishly embraced but ratings-challenged shows, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, before finding mainstream redemption on the big screen in 2005 with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and two years later with Knocked Up.
A foray into more emotionally rooted territory, Apatow’s new film, Funny People, is partially about the trappings of success, and if not failure outright then certainly the looming specter of it as a distinct possibility, in the form of friends and roommates passing you by and establishing professional beachheads. Of course, because it’s still an Apatow film, there are plenty of dick jokes too.
The story centers around George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a hugely successful comedic actor who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Alone and embittered, he starts venturing out to a Los Angeles comedy club, where he indulges in some self-destructive, Andy Kaufman-style stand-up. It’s here that George comes across Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling, would-be comedian who lives with his pals Leo (Jonah Hill), a fellow stand-up, and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), an actor on a successful but positively wretched kids’ sitcom. George hires Ira to help write some material for him, then stay on as his personal assistant; he soon confides the secret of his illness to Ira, and comes to rely on him both for emotional support and as a sounding board for his ideas on re-entering the world, personally and professionally, in a way that might bring him more happiness.
At around the movie’s one-hour mark, George starts trying to substantively reconnect with ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann), who’s now married to Australian businessman Clarke (Eric Bana), with whom she shares two daughters. News that the experimental drug treatment George has been undergoing has seemingly staved off his illness would seem to clear the way for a possible romantic rekindling with Laura, who still has deep feelings for George, but… well, things are complicated.
Whether scoring zeitgeist points off of modern technology (anything with kittens is a surefire YouTube sensation, Leo points out) or folding in cracks about Rogen’s real-life weight loss, Funny People succeeds as a comedy, just in terms of laugh count, even in the long-form first act that comprises the spine of George’s illness tale. This is because the film is honest about George’s self-loathing, and the insecurity and anger that informs a lot of the best comedic acting out, be it on stage or in real life. It feels real, just in terms of the background and setting, and so you settle into a nice groove with it.
Things stall out in its last couple reels, though, partially owing to a subplot that sees Ira finally making a love connection with fellow comedian Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), as well as some cameos (Eminem, Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano) that drag on a bit too long. The former narrative strand is almost entirely extraneous (Ira’s self-actualization isn’t something we care much about), while the latter tidbits are more typical products of Apatowian largesse.
Funny People‘s chief problem, though, is that Apatow fails to convincingly solve — or even entertainingly chew up and spit out — his main character’s most pressing dilemma. Decamping for nearly 40 minutes at Clarke and Laura’s house, the movie grinds to a halt. We’re meant to see George struggle with coming to terms with the fact that his recaptured fantasy life with Laura may not be possible after all, and Ira struggle with figuring out how to tactfully express this to George, and we do in the broadest sense see these things, but Apatow’s writing here — both in the overarching construction of the scenes, and the specifics — too often feels sludgy and uncertain, perhaps a byproduct of letting Clarke drive so much of the action. George (thankfully) retains his spitfire irascibility, but in these passages and its more elegiac wind-down, the film lacks the pathos of something like Sideways, which managed to locate in the sadsack both the painfully familiar and the quietly noble.
Another thing that Funny People is missing, honestly, is an actor. Rogen is, well, a funny guy, and an absolute great fit for a lot of material, but he seems to hold back in some of the movie’s more baldly cathartic moments, and not out of a dewey-eyed deference to George that would make sense for his character. A fresh face may have benefited the role, as much as Apatow would loathe that. Sandler, on the other hand, has done dispirited and/or emotionally isolated before, in everything from The Wedding Singer (yes, seriously) and Punch-Drunk Love to Spanglish and the superb Reign Over Me, and, as strange as it may sound to some, he has just the right tears-of-a-clown range to pull off George’s swallowed contempt for the world that’s made him a star. I can’t think of another actor of his generation who could so readily and believably encapsulate the character’s highs and lows.
Finally, a note about all the dick, ball and masturbation jokes, which come to a head (no pun intended) with a stand-up rant from Ira in which he hypothesizes about Tom Cruise, David Beckham and Will Smith touching the heads of their cocks, just out of sheer masters-of-the-universe boredom, for novelty’s sake. The volume of this true-blue material is bound to be discussed, and pooh-poohed, by some reviewers, but it actually mostly makes sense; it’s just that the calculus overall is wrong, in my opinion. Some more clearly delineated lines between the senses of humor of Ira, George and even Leo (briefly glimpsed) would have been good, and made for some potentially rich contrast of uncomfortability. In Apatow’s world, though, everyone loves a dick joke. (Columbia, R, 146 minutes)
A Perfect Getaway is one of those early-August films that’s sneaked up on me, but the trailer reaffirms my affinity for Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich. Writer-director David Twohy has had his hand in some quality projects as a screenwriter (The Fugitive, G.I. Jane), and given good genre before with Pitch Black and I believe Below as well (though my memory is a bit fuzzier on that latter one), so this remote-set thriller, seemingly a blend of Turistas and The River Wild, trips a few wires in positive fashion even if it doesn’t really pop off the screen. More than anything it just seems smartly cast. If it’s well made, too, even without being groundbreaking, that’ll be enough to qualify as decent pre-autumnal big screen entertainment, considering some of its competition.
Paul Haggis’ Crash, of course, didn’t spawn sprawling ensembles centered around a single social issue or violent incident (this strain of American indie cinema owes a lot to Robert Altman, naturally), but its Best Picture Oscar victory did seemingly help jump-start a wave of self-deluded imitators who seem to feel that overt emotionalism ladled over a loosely connected narrative is a surefire sign of Important Filmmaking. That’s the case with Fragments, an achingly sincere slice of hooey in which those whose lives are touched by a random shooting react by acting out in different ways.
A gunman strolls into a diner in the small California town of Belmont and three minutes later, after shooting dead a handful of people, leaves a group of disparate survivors whose lives he’s changed forever. Single mom and waitress Carla Davenport (Kate Beckinsale, above left) starts neglecting her infant son, and latching onto the concern of a local doctor. After losing her father, Anne Hagen (Dakota Fanning) suddenly and aggressively finds religion, which freaks out both her mother (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and friend Jimmy Jaspersen (Josh Hutcherson), the latter of whom was with her at the diner. Gambling addicted, terminally ill driving instructor Charlie Archenault (Forest Whitaker, sporting a terrible wig), meanwhile, leaves town suddenly in search of a winning streak at a nearby casino. This leaves his single daughter Kathy (Jennifer Hudson) worried and unaware of his whereabouts.
Then there’s Dr. Bruce Laraby (Guy Pearce, above right), who wasn’t even at the scene, but stopped by for coffee on the way to work, and unknowingly held open the door for the gunman on his way out. Bruce reacts by taking a more hands-on approach with the migraine headaches of his wife, Joan (Embeth Davidtz), slipping her drugs to induce them so that he can swoop in and effectively “save” her by playing caregiver, thereby giving him an indubitable power that he cannot always statistically achieve in his hospital emergency room.
For the most part these stories unfold in discrete fashion, though Carla crushes on Dr. Laraby, and a silent Jimmy habitually avoids grief counselor Ron Abler (Troy Garity), whose services his parents (Jackie Earle Haley and Robin Weigert) are split over. Anne also counsels Jimmy — bullies him, really, via instant messenger, in one of the movie’s more cringe-inducing elements — to stay away from Ron. It’s this latter mystery, as much as anything else, that serves as the plot’s engine, driving it forward.
Directed by Rowan Woods (Little Fish), Fragments is preciously assured of its status as a shattered-soul drama. The performances in general bend toward the physically signifying, and
Fanning’s wayward, grating turn in particular is powered by faithful speechifying, and
not rooted in any realistic emotion. (Through it all, it’s Pearce alone who holds serve, trading in a smart, less-is-more style that makes one wish the movie ducked out and followed him alone.) Vast portions of Fragments are stillborn — everything having to do with Charlie and Kathy, for instance — and others, like the Anne-Jimmy subplot, not satisfyingly sketched. Roy Freirich’s screenplay, originally titled Winged Creatures, confuses abstruseness for psychological penetration; it’s like he wrote it while listening to Aimee Mann, and convinced himself that minimalist metaphor and simple parallelism (Jimmy’s dad coped with the loss of his eldest son by clamming up!) would in and of themselves automatically confer significance upon what is otherwise a pretty wan narrative. Fragments is actually a more telling and appropriate title, though, because it tips one off as to the unsatisfyingly fractured nature of this story. (Peace Arch, R, 96 minutes)
This could rightly be considered only half a review, and thus uninformed, as I unfortunately got separated from the concluding reels of Mark Hartley’s new documentary Not Quite Hollywood about halfway through a screening. But the first detailed examination and celebration of wild Australian genre cinema from the 1970s and early ’80s has more than enough re-tilled salaciousness, wit and good-natured reminiscence — even in its first 45 minutes or so — to merit a look from cinephiles looking to expand their frame of bawdy reference.
In contrast to Stateside grindhouse flicks or same-era exploitation fare from Brazil and other South American countries, unabashedly commercial Australian films were often less compartmentalized than their international peers. “Down under,” movies of the Carter and early Reagan years — which were readily available in America on big city arthouse screens, as part of a wave of foreign cinema that was predicated on sales of the exotic, no matter the narrative specifics — were basically divided into just two camps: austere fare like Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Getting of Wisdom, My Brilliant Career and Breaker Morant and then… well, everything else.
In 1971, with the introduction of the R certificate, Australia’s censorship regime went from repressive to very liberal-minded virtually overnight. This fact, combined with the commercial mindset of many nascent Australian filmmakers who savvily created works that reflected the “wild Aussie” personalities and natural landscapes that they believed international audiences most of all wanted to see (and/or bagged on the British, a rival dating back to the country’s founding), helped usher in a wild and woolly period of anything-goes native cinema, full of abundant gore, nudity, gross-out gags and the like.
Hartley loads up his Not Quite Hollywood with clips of other movies, which contributes to a dizzying pace, but he also does a good job of tying together all the personalities on both sides of the camera, and highlighting both individual breakouts (Tim Burstall’s wild 1971 comedy Stork, say) and overall trends. Interviewees include Felicity director John Lamond, along with other members of the raincoat brigade (Barry Humphries in particular gets in some saucy asides), as well as more “legit” (or at least mainstream recognizable) figures like Oscar winner George Miller. Of course, because he’s such a film geek, Quentin Tarantino even pops up.
The overall snapshot that comes into focus is one of unashamedly gleeful creation and experimentation — of a young, artistic aristocracy plugged into a surging wave of social change, and just making cinematic hay while the sun was out. It’s a lesson that a lot of navel-gazing American independent filmmakers — mired in achingly sincere apings of Hollywood convention, designed to catapult them to “the big leagues” — could actually stand to take to heart. For the film’s trailer and more information, click here. (Magnet, R, 103 minutes)
Magnolia has picked up North American theatrical and V-O-D distribution rights for Serious Moonlight, written by the late Adrienne Shelly and directed by Cheryl Hines, it was announced today. The darkly funny film — Hines’ directorial debut — stars Meg Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Kristen Bell and Justin Long, and will be released to 50 million households through Magnolia’s Ultra VOD program in November prior to its December theatrical bow.
In unrelated clip news, Bill Kristol more or less gets pwned on The Daily Show, from last night, while Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace tyke Jake Lloyd shows himself to be all growed up in this brief interview (under some high school gym bleachers?)… and
perhaps still holding on to some resentments, as well as pounds. Yes, the propensity to clench tightly is strong in that one…
With Adam Sandler’s Funny People looming on the horizon, what better time to revisit the original tonal detour of the most consistently successful big screen comedian of his era, away from the juvenilia that made him wildly rich and famous and into the waiting bosom of a more skewed cinematic sensibility? Ergo, this dug-up review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, first published in Entertainment Today upon the movie’s original theatrical release in October, 2002. To wit:
It seemed, from the outset, one of the more bizarre film collaborations of recent memory, the unlikely pairing of budding auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and box office goofus Adam Sandler. Throw in the fact that Anderson wrote the warped romantic comedy specifically for Sandler — and his equally unlikely love interest, Emily Watson — and you seem to have all the ingredients of a classic, drunken, late night laff-pitch session, or at the very least a bet at the expense of some glassy-eyed studio executive. But Punch-Drunk Love won Anderson acclaim and Best Director honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and so with its Stateside bow we’re about to find out whether audiences like chocolate in their peanut butter, if you will — whether they’re willing to accept seemingly disparate, at-odds sensibilities for the sake of new, skewed pop art.
The reality is that the film has character and loads of differentiating style, but is also a mixed bag. Anderson uses David Phillips, the Universal of California civil engineer who in real life stumbled upon a frequent flyer promotion from Healthy Choice and then exploited the offer’s loophole, purchasing $3,000 worth of pudding and racking up 1.25 frequent flyer miles, as a loose jumping-off point. Phillips here becomes Barry Egan (Sandler), a quiet, put-upon small businessman with seven sisters who harp on his (many) shortcomings and quirks. Sporting throughout the film a slightly too-tight blue suit that makes him look like the bastard offspring of Austin Powers and Wiry-Haired, Uptight Smurf, Sandler’s Barry is, as a result of this heckling and other circumstances, a beaten of a human being, a textbook case of depression and self-isolation.
Things start to change when, through one of his sisters, he meets Lena Leonard (Watson). Matters are complicated, however, by the fact that just prior to their first date, Barry phoned a sex line, and now finds himself on the receiving end of a campaign of extortion and harassment perpetrated by the operator, Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and her scuzzy boss, Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman). There… is that cookie-cutter friendly enough for you?
A crooked nose of a character comedy, in both the best and worst sense of the phrase, Punch-Drunk Love is full of idiosyncrasies — the protracted phone sex call, with its litany of involved numbers and subsequent spiraling upwards (or downwards, depending on your point-of-view) out of control is particularly hilarious, both random and brilliantly interwoven. Yet it’s also this willful artistic bent — so dazzlingly, “appropriately” on display in Anderson’s two dramatic opuses of disaffected Los Angelenos — that to me bends and distorts the film’s purpose, meaning and clarity. I can appreciate the fact that Anderson wants to branch out, and no doubt saw this in some way as an opportunity to explore a new, much “lighter” genre; Punch-Drunk Love certainly seems his most facile and intuitive film to date. (Apart from its five principal characters, most of the rest of the roles are cast with non-actors.) Yet I’m not sure if Anderson’s methods always align with his final thematic intent; the film’s opening drags tremendously, and certain editorial choices — from simple narrative juxtaposition, cuts and Jon Brion’s far-too-intrusive score — do irrevocable harm.
Sometimes the film’s precious nattering leads to revelations both beautiful and cutting, as when a nervous Barry relates to Lena an utterly banal story about a disc jockey that concludes with, “DJ Justice, man… he cuts you down to size. I laugh and laugh, even when I’m alone.” Too often, however, we get fitful lurches drained of payoff, or even psychological incisiveness. I applaud wholeheartedly the film’s heart, verve and curiosity, and welcome wherever I can find them on the screen many of the qualities Punch-Drunk Love possesses in abundance. It just didn’t stick with me, on the whole. For most other film aficionados, an enjoyment of the quirky means here will easily match or counterbalance the end product. For more casual filmgoers, however, this, alas, won’t be the start of a beautiful new relationship. (Columbia, R, 95 minutes)
A trailer of a slightly different sort, for Mac Rogers’ new play Viral, which bows Saturday, August 15 at the SoHo Playhouse, and features four more performances through August 26 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, aka FringeNYC. A pitch black comedy, and absolute must-see for those in the Big Apple, or thereabouts. To purchase tickets, click here.
In the mid-1960s, stock broker turned financial honcho Bernard Madoff started scraping together money from prominent businessmen at
exclusive country clubs with the promise of steady returns on their
investments. He then set his sights on Europe and Latin America,
brokering deals with powerful hedge fund managers and feeder funds from
Buenos Aires to Geneva. Billions of dollars were channeled to Madoff’s
investment firm, and his bundlers became fabulously wealthy. The
competition wondered how Madoff could produce such steady returns in
times good and bad. The truth, of course, is that he couldn’t; he was in reality running a massive Ponzi scheme.
An hour-long Frontline investigatory title, The Madoff Affair unravels the story behind the world’s first truly global pyramid scam — a deception that lasted longer, reached wider and cut deeper than any other business scandal in history. Written and produced by Macela Gaviria and Martin Smith, the program features all sorts of talking head interview subjects, and makes sense of how one could perpetrate such an elongated criminal ruse. Less clearly delineated, however, are the failures in regulatory oversight by those tasked with policing the financial industry. There’s also a cool, analytical distance to the movie — in its obsession and preoccupation with numbers, it fails a bit to adequately highlight the human component of this tragedy, and just how innocent lives were deeply, deeply affected by Madoff’s rampant greed and criminal mischief.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with a deep-set disc tray, The Madoff Affair is presented in 16×9 widescreen, with an English stereo audio track that more than adequately handles the title’s meager aural requirements. There are no supplemental features, alas. To purchase the title via Amazon, click here; to purchase directly from PBS, and support their programming, click here. B (Movie) C+ (Disc)
Thomas Jane’s feature directorial debut, Dark Country, streets in October, but the trailer is out today. Early, glancing comparisons to Wild at Heart and Red Rock West, by way of young-lovers-on-the-road and other generally evoked feelings of Southwestern dustiness, melt away once the now familiar struck-hitchhiker device is introduced, but I’d still rate this moody preview a thumbs up, if only because it doesn’t explicitly spell out what directions it’s taking and moves it’s making, and it looks as if Jane — who also stars in the movie alongside Lauren German, one of Hostel: Part II‘s wayward party girls — and cinematographer Geoff Boyle shot the shit out of this thing.
Needing some of this, really…
I’ll just come out and say it — butterflies are awesome. And the hour-long Nova documentary The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies captures them in all their glory, and tells an interesting story.
Every year, 100 million monarch butterflies set off on an incredible journey across vast stretches of North America, crossing mountains, plains, highways and great lakes. These beautiful creatures fly 2,000 miles to reach their remote destination: a tiny area high in the mountains of Mexico. Yet scientists still puzzle over how the butterflies achieve this tremendous feat of endurance — and how, year after year, the monarchs navigate this path with such hair’s-breadth precision. Flying along with the monarchs, director Nick de Pencier oversees a visitation of the spectacular locations they call home, meeting the many dangers they encounter along the way. Shot in stunning detail, and narrated with an engaging solicitousness by Stockard Channing, The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies reveals the monarch butterfly as a scientific marvel locked in an inspiring struggle for survival.
Housed in a regular translucent Blu-ray snap-shut case, The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies comes presented in a stunning 1080i high definition video transfer, with English language 5.1 Dolby digital and stereo audio tracks and optional English SDH subtitles. There are unfortunately no supplemental extras, which would be a nice inclusion, but the Blu-ray presentation really makes the best use possible of this always amazing, often macro-photography. To order this title or any DVD release from WGBH Boston Video, phone (800) 949-8670 or click here. B (Movie) B- (Disc)
Just as a heads up, Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic The Hurt Locker expands by about another 200 venues this weekend, pressing into the heartland…
Solid lead performances and sustained levels of moderate engagement mark Orphan, a slightly above average evil-tyke movie with an infusion of Electra complex and a good narrative twist only half-heartedly rendered. “Tweener” status may relegate what is in many ways an admirable effort to a shortened theatrical shelf life; Orphan is too dramatically involved and tony for gorehounds or impatient horror fans, and marketed in too base a fashion to lure the same adult crowd that made 2005’s Hide and Seek, a passably similar tale of shattered domesticity built around a little girl, into a $120 million worldwide hit.
After a miscarriage of their third child, John and Kate Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) look to fill the void by adopting, expanding a family that already includes their 12-year-old son Danny (Jimmy Bennett) and much younger, deaf-mute daughter Max (Aryana Engineer). Visiting an orphanage, they settle on nine-year-old, artistically inclined Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, above right), whose lilting Russian accent and proper dress and demeanor give her additional strikes of “otherness” with Danny and her new schoolmates.
As accidents and other narrowly avoided disasters with Esther at the scene mount, Kate grows panicked, and more suspicious of her new daughter’s true background. But John doubts Kate’s distrust, which in turn creates a rift that exacerbates old tensions and rekindles old arguments between the two of them. Esther picks up sign language quite readily, and uses this to manipulate Max to her advantage as she takes increasingly radical steps to seal off Kate and ingratiate herself with John. Things finally come to a head after Danny is seriously injured in a fire.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax) gets a lot of mileage out of the snowy Connecticut environs, but screenwriter David Johnson’s yawningly conventional, thrill-infused ending — unfolding on a frozen lake that figures prominently in Kate’s fractured, addiction-addled past — bends too much toward parallel narrative cleverness. It’s true, too, that the third act twist necessary to explain the physical extremities of some of Esther’s actions could, and should, be explored in deeper and more satisfying ways than the exposition-laden phone call that sets off the penultimate gallop of the movie’s closing reel. Yet there’s also a satisfying humanistic component to the movie, many moments of uncommon tenderness for such a genre piece, and a solid performance from especially Farmiga, who nicely sketches Kate’s pain, sadness and self-loathing. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (Warner Bros., R, 123 minutes)
I’m a sucker for the behind-the-scenes machinations of almost all things political, so the trailer for Jason Pollock’s The Youngest Candidate, a documentary focusing on a quartet of teens/early twentysomethings running for public office, is, topically, right in my wheelhouse. (Not to nag, but shouldn’t the title then be candidates, plural?) Good that it works as a piece of legitimate, intrigue-stimulating short-form non-fiction, then, no matter how the feature-length version might play out.
There are flashes of pure entertainment value in the trailer, and the life stories of the subjects seem diverse and interesting, too. Still, even as someone who recognizes that ageism exists, and is distasteful, I’m perhaps most heartened that Pollock doesn’t seem to give these kids a free pass; the movie appears to capture and embrace the headstrong obstinateness of youth, and craft an implicit narrative track that underscores the counterbalancing value and significance of experience and discretion — the latter one of the most difficult learned traits of adolescence. I missed The Youngest Candidate‘s special “Donkaphant” festival screening about a month back, pegged to coincide with the Los Angeles Film Festival, but look forward to seeing it hopefully gain some traction elsewhere, either on the festival circuit or with an eventual boutique release.
Giving new meaning to the phrase lip hair. And comb-over, for that matter, I guess…
Sure The Ugly Truth, Orphan and G-Force all hit theaters this weekend, but also expanding into many markets is The Answer Man, starring Jeff Daniels as the hermetic, bestselling author of a culturally defining religious tome who finds his crabby worldview challenged by both a bookstore owner (Lou Taylor Pucci) fresh out of rehab and a massage therapist and single mom (Lauren Graham) who puts up a facade of progressive properness for her 7-year-old son even as his behavior at school indicates he’s starting to feel the effects of his absentee father. Well worth checking out if you have a soft spot for show-up-wounded-type adult love stories.
As part of his advocacy work for clean water and sanitation around the world, actor Matt Damon recently visited new water projects in India, and also took part in some cultural activities (thus the Bindhi mark on his forehead). While there, he took a few minutes to thank the more than 100,000 ONE members who signed a petition to United States senators asking them to cosponsor the Durbin-Corker Water for the World Act, and show an example of the kind of projects the bill will support.
The Marquis de Sade was a Frenchman, but his erotic, boundary-pushing written works have traveled far and wide, as this 1988 Japanese film from director Akio Jissoji amply demonstrates.
The play-within-a-play structure of Prosperities of Vice — more a thematic exploration than a straight-arrow narrative — is reminiscent of Peter Brooks’ production of Marat Sade, where the Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in an asylum, directs inmates in a performance of his play based on the life, and gruesome death, of the French revolutionary of the title. The plot, as it were, centers around a decadent count in 1920s Japan who becomes obsessed with the life and works of the Marquis de Sade, and creates a theater to showcase plays adapted from the notorious writer’s novels. Recruiting a variety of thieves, prostitutes and low-lifes to act out his increasingly outlandish fantasies on stage for the delectation of his rich and jaded friends, the nobleman (Koji Shimizu) trips a wire when he forces one of the actors (Renji Ishibashi), under threat of death, to make love to his wife (Seiran Li) while he watches. Naturally, this collision of fantasy and real life has dire, outwardly expanding consequences.
It’s somewhat striking to see Eastern actresses in this sort of material, no matter the recent influx of nervy erotic fantasies like Man, Woman and the Wall or the wild, raunchy, slapstick comedy of South Korean import Sex is Zero. That mild shock factor, though, rates second to the movie’s rich visual style as the reason for whatever hold it achieves. While eschewing true explicitness, director Jissoji, who just passed away a few years ago, at 69 years old, works in an aggressive and confrontational manner, pushing in on his actors to underscore emotion and intensity, and shooting from unusual, sometimes highly canted angles throughout. He layers and overlaps “reality” and performed stand-alone scenes with little regard for narrative congruity, instead opting to let the viewer sort out the fractured meaning of his narrative. All the while, he trades in a weird mixture of Eisensteinian and even occasionally Dadaist imagery, contrasted with spare, flower petal-laden sets to represent the Eastern restagings of the Marquis de Sade’s works. This isn’t familiar exploitation camerawork by any stretch of the imagination, no matter the cultural differences.
Housed in a bright red plastic Amaray case, Prosperities of Vice comes to DVD on a region-free disc, presented with a Japanese language Dolby digital stereo soundtrack. The brand new anamorphic transfer itself is certainly quite adequate, and nicely free of grain, but the colors themselves are a bit washed out in some sequences, and overall low on contrast. As long as we’re quibbling, and for what it’s worth, the English subtitle translations are also at times a bit dubious. Along with the film’s theatrical trailer and seven minutes worth of previews for other Mondo Macabro DVD releases, supplemental features consist of a pair of textual histories of both director Akio Jissoji and Nikkatsu Studios, and a solid, seven-minute introduction to the movie by film critic Jasper Sharp.
Most involving, though, is a 24-minute documentary on the Japanese sub-genre of so-called “roman-porno” (shorthand for romantic pornography), a category into which Prosperities of Vice decidedly falls. Featuring interview material with Sharp, filmmaker Romain Slocombe and actress Kazuko Shirakawa, among others, this engaging, briskly paced featurette gives a great overview of Nikkatsu’s erotic “Ropponica” line, various directors working in the field, and how such movies fill a socio-cultural vacuum. Footage from a 2001 roman-porno convention in Tokyo is also included, and the female fans there speak convincingly to the sub-genre’s surprising emotional connection. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. For more information on the film, and other Mondo Macabro titles, click here. C+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)
The post-Oscar career trajectory of Cuba Gooding, Jr. has been a subject of some fascination/discussion here, as have many of his straight-to-video projects (some of which have actually been pretty good, some not so much). Those threads get picked back up with the release of The Devil’s Tomb, Gooding’s latest film, in which he stars as the leader of an elite military squad that encounters an ancient evil lurking beneath the desert sands. Questionable special effects ensue.
The Devil’s Tomb is cast with recognizable names all around — Taryn Manning, Ron Perlman, Ray Winstone, Valeria Cruz, Jason London and even Henry Rollins — but it’s Gooding who stars as Mack, the point man on an Army rescue team that wages into
the fringes of Palm Springs a nameless Middle Eastern desert on a mission to extract the scientist father (Perlman) of one of their tag-along crew, a man who was leading the research at a top secret archeological site before all communications with him were cut off. Almost immediately upon their arrival, the crew finds Alfeo Jacoby (Weston Blakesley), a Vatican priest stricken mute with mysterious boils.
Lots of bickering follows, but it’s not long before Mack is told that the research being conducted centers around nephilim — fallen angel-type figures who may be either good or bad, depending on your belief set. In fact, there’s at least one on site, suspended in some sort of ether. A Bible-quoting undead professor (Bill Moseley), other zombie-type figures and all sorts of apparitions who seem to know an awful lot of specifics about Mack’s crew also pop up, and the body count beings to mount, predictably.
The Devil’s Tomb is directed by Jason Connery (above right), son of bearded screen legend and inside-out sock wearer Sean, who does not cameo, alas. Screenwriter Keith Kjornes (Broken) sets things up decently and, early on, pulls all the levers of snippy back-biting one has come to expect from gung-ho military ensembles of this sort. The obvious (and cited) antecedents here are The Thing and Alien, the latter more for its isolation than any skulking alien presence. But there’s a pinch, too, of the woozy free-form menace of something like Silent Hill, which was itself part Alice in Wonderland and part Dante’s Inferno. A shame, then, that the potential for tangential unease is never realized. One problem is that scope and space are hopelessly cramped. There are ways to get around this — or even embrace it, with claustrophobia as an extra character — but Connery opts to try to basically make an underground, Doom-type thriller, which just underscores the movie’s cheapness at almost every turn.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, The Devil’s Tomb comes to DVD presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with English and French language Dolby digital 5.1 audio tracks, and optional subtitles in each language as well. The film’s special features are anchored by a feature-length audio commentary track with Gooding and director Connery, in which the pair discuss the many challenges of the film’s 23-day shoot, from the asbestos in the downtown Los Angeles location of Linda Vista to the various cheat methodologies used to change up spaces or trick the human eye, from having an actor bend at the knees to convey a lowering elevator to using mocked-up plywood to narrow walls into corridors.
Other special features include a 17-minute making-of featurette with intercut cast and crew interviews, in which Gooding talks about his character’s authority being an attractive element and Rollins describes the process of acting in the movie as being “really serious about something that’s incomprehensibly impossible.” There are also a half dozen alternate scenes running eight-and-a-half minutes, 90 seconds of outtakes (flubbed lines and missed cues, plus Perlman painfully smacking his head on a beam) and a collection of preview trailers for Against the Dark and a dozen other Sony home video releases. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. D+ (Movie) B- (Disc)
Ducking out for the weekend, but I’m seeding a couple entries in lieu of any groundbreaking commentary about the assload of money the newest Harry Potter flick continues to gross, including another pick-up from the way-back Internet archives — this 2002 review of one of the best-named documentaries of the past decade. Does not liking it make me a Nazi sympathizer, though? To wit:
It’s scary but also instructive to witness the way we deify our heroes and demonize and dehumanize our greatest villains. Less than six decades out, it’s quite easy to think of Adolf Hitler as a monster. But when you contemplate the human side of him — as the film Max, a portrait of Hitler’s post-World War I time as a struggling artist and young politico, at least attempted to do, with mixed results — the effect is often mind-boggling, if not downright surreal. Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary has a title that hits you over the head and demands your attention, if only because it makes you stop and weigh the absurd notion of someone taking dictation and chatting amiably with the 20th century’s most murderous, fanatically unhinged totalitarian.
If it’s hard to identify with the point-of-view being offered up here, this 85-minute documentary at least offers some fantastic firsthand insight. In the many years following World War II, Traudl Junge refused to discuss her story, spurning journalists who approached her for interviews and often denying — many times successfully — her role altogether. It was too taxing on her psyche, she explained, and she couldn’t understand “that young, stupid girl” she once was. Almost 60 years later, the octogenarian finally sat for a series of straightforward conversations, resulting in this collaborative project between filmmakers André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer. “I have finally let go of my story, and now I feel the world is letting go of me,” she says at one point, and indeed, Junge passed away one day after the film’s premiere at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.
What we’re left with in Blind Spot, though, is a fascinating opportunity shoddily explored. Comprised of two interview sessions and shot in extreme close-up throughout, the film is static and shapeless; there’s little sense of continuity, and only occasionally do we get a snippet of a question, or any semblance of a shaping hand. So Junge continually professes her naiveté — not an unreasonable assertion, given that she was a provincial girl barely in her 20s when she started working for Hitler and, strangely enough, never even a member of the Nazi party — and offers anecdotal but hardly probing stories of how Hitler and the rest of his cadre, including Eva Braun, spent their time in underground German bunkers.
It’s here that you quickly realize Blind Spot isn’t a true documentary examination of its nominal subject’s infamous boss, or even Junge herself for that matter. Its complete lack of supporting or achived materials to give Junge’s memories a sense of either scope or specificity is egregious. The film — a monologue, really — might as well be a book or a magazine article, for it would serve exactly the same purpose, and likely fare much better in those mediums. What does emerge from Blind Spot, however, almost in spite of itself, is a sense of Hitler’s cracked twilight welfare. Scared, broken, depressed and paranoid (convinced the cyanide capsules given to him by a general were a part of an elaborate ruse of betrayal, he tested several on his dog, Blondie, who died and, in Junge’s words, left the bunker smelling like “bitter almonds”), Hitler had a pathological aversion to being taken alive.
And maybe that’s a good thing, knowing that Hitler was a big coward, and in his final weeks lived a desolate, darkly reflective existence, apprehending that virtually the entire world was closing in on him, and his grand schemes of a dominant motherland were now nothing more than pipe dreams. But take me at my word: you needn’t sit through Blind Spot to discover it for yourself. For once, in this instance, secondhand catharsis is just as good as the real thing. (Sony Pictures Classics, PG, 85 minutes)
Hella busy week, with some magazine interviews, DVD liner notes work, and loads of long-lead screenings, including Lars von Trier’s characteristically divisive Antichrist and the fashion documentary The September Issue, about Anna Wintour (the loose inspiration for Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada) and the creation of Vogue’s annually bloated, big-deal September volume, the 2008 version of which featured capricious cover gal Sienna Miller. I need to lay down some thoughts regarding Lone Scherfig’s An Education, too, and the ascendant star of Carey Mulligan, who does deliver on the hype.
Yes, I still need to see Sundance sensation The Cove, about which I’ve heard great things; that should be next Thursday, after screenings earlier in the week for Orphan, Oz-ploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood, Scott Hicks’ The Boys Are Back, Richard Loncraine’s My One and Only and more. Looks like I
dodged the bullet got pulled off of an assignment on G-Force, alas. So you’ll have to get your animated talking guinea pig fix elsewhere, it seems.
They say that after high school you can’t truly go home again, and that old expression holds especially true if you have a psycho hose beast for an ex-girlfriend, and you’re traveling with your hot new arm candy. That’s the basic re-tilled lesson learned in the moderately engaging new thriller Homecoming, a sort of junior varsity level Misery that earns some begrudging respect for embracing its streamlined agenda of entertainment, and not trying too hard to be something it has neither the scope nor nuance to be.
The story centers around jock Mike (Matt Long, of The Deep End), the star athlete/prodigal son of a small Northeastern town who’s now buried on the quarterback depth chart during his first semester at college. Returning home during a bye week to have his high school jersey honored/retired, Mike brings along Elizabeth (Jessica Stroup, above), a pretty city girl whom he’s recently started dating. Mike’s genial cousin Billy (Michael Landes), a local cop, tips him off that Mike’s ex-girlfriend Shelby (Mischa Barton), now the sole owner/operator of an inherited family restaurant, seems to think they’re still dating. Mike’s instinct is to steer clear, but Elizabeth wants to try to play nice, so they head straight to Shelby’s place for some local color and drinks. Elizabeth ends up getting a bit tipsy and, not wanting to make a poor first impression on Mike’s parents, convinces him to let her grab a hotel room for the night. One unfortunate mishap later, Elizabeth is hit by a car, and Shelby takes her into her house, under the twisted guise of nursing her back to health.
Directed by Morgan J. Freeman (no, not this Morgan Freeman), Homecoming is attractively cast, and helped immeasurably by being rooted in an honest sense of place. I suppose news of Barton’s recent involuntary psychiatric hold could color one’s opinion of the movie, or make for an easy set for of smashing critical derision, but I found her performance here to be of a piece with the rest of the film, even if weighed down somewhat by a weird, generically provincial accent. She’s certainly aided by a screenplay that doesn’t dawdle with split narrative focus, preciously over-sketched detail or coy ambiguity. The movie makes no bones about Shelby’s psychosis; she wields an axe (indoors!) and tries to needle a drugged-up Elizabeth by trying on lingerie and announcing her coital intentions for the forthcoming evening.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Homecoming is written by a female (Method screenwriter Katie Fettig), or maybe it’s just the basic gender-based inversion of the narrative, in which both captor and captive sport extra X chromosomes, but there seems to be at least an attempt to keep the film from going too over the top in its violence — to make it tilt more toward realism than fancifulness. Well, until Shelby takes a ceramic toilet bowl tank top to the head, and then covers up the gash with some remarkably quick-concealing pancake make-up.
The other strikes against Homecoming, though, are for the most part only mid-grade irritants (Mike agreeing to see Shelby for a private lunch even though Elizabeth is missing and he hasn’t heard from her, for instance, or one character refusing to act definitively in self-defense once they finally gain advantage in a brawl), contrivances that come with the genre. These story problems aren’t ever expected to be solved, though, because the core audience for whom Homecoming was made has absolutely no interest in an extra 15 or 20 minutes in which conflict is more diffuse and parceled out, less physical. Much like its real life namesake, Homecoming isn’t age-appropriate for everyone, then — maybe just those in high school, or barely removed. Others will likely find the familiarity more humdrum than effectively nostalgic. To visit the film’s web site, click here. (Paper Street/Animus Films, R, 88 minutes)
Because someone has to at least note the 44th birthday of Bill S. Preston, Esquire…