Anne Thompson updates the LACMA film program flap, in advance of tomorrow’s meeting with museum director and CEO Michael Govan, in which I’ll be taking part, and also assays the career of Renee Zellweger.
The brouhaha over the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s attempt to shutter its film program, since stalled a bit with the donation of $150,000 that will serve as a bridge through next summer, hits the East Coast, in the form of an interview/overview piece in the New York Times.
As Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others have so graciously continued to help prove, AM talk radio provides a valuable service — distracting the nutty, impressionable and obsessed enough to (mostly) keep them from violently acting out. Big Fan tests that hypothesis, though.
A sort of indie throwback to low-fidelity 1970s cinema, as well as a companion piece to the obsessive thriller One Hour Photo, debut director Robert Siegel’s exactingly sketched character study also shares much in common with his breakthrough screenwriting effort of last year, The Wrestler. One lead character is more proactive and engaged, the other a hermetic loafer who lives vicariously through a religious devotion to his beloved New York Giants, but both films center on broken-down, scruffy guys searching for human connection.
Thirty-five-year-old football fanatic Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) still lives at home in Staten Island with his mother, and spends his working hours as a parking garage attendant sketching out scripts for his sports talk radio calls, where he engages in long-distance wars of words with a Philadelphia Eagles fan (Michael Rapaport) he’s never met. Though he can’t afford season tickets, Paul nonetheless devotedly treks down to the stadium parking lot each weekend there’s a home game, tailgating and hanging around to watch the game on a TV hooked up to his car battery, as if somehow his mere proximity to the actual event will tip the scales in favor of his team. When Paul and his pal Sal (Kevin Corrigan, above center) get a glimpse of their favorite player (Jonathan Hamm) one night, they impulsively follow him back to Manhattan, then lurk nervously in the background for hours at a fancy strip club, trying to figure out a way to approach him. When they finally do — and let slip how long they’ve been following him — the situation becomes violent, and Paul is injured. Humiliated and, more pressingly, worried about the incident’s effect on his team, Paul becomes more and more irritable and isolated.
Comedian Oswalt gives a great, perhaps even career-altering performance, shading Paul’s embittered investment in only the things in life over which he has no control, and making him a sad-sack figure that’s not just some two-dimensional loser. It certainly helps that Siegel gets all the accompanying details right, from the assortment of plastic hangers in Paul’s closet and the fantasy magazines scattered across his nightstand to his hectoring mother and garish, surgically-enhanced, tan-in-a-can-sporting sister-in-law, who looks like a prime candidate for a spot on the next installment of VH-1’s Rock of Love. So when Paul puts on his football jersey and curls up on his bed, crying, you know his pain in a way that’s rooted in reality. You’ve laughed at him, and now you feel an awkward identification at the choking, claustrophobic introversion on display.
The quiet savvy of Big Fan‘s finale, and how it makes a stinging and yet insightful comment on the culture of obsessive fandom, lies in the manner in which Siegel deftly toys with thriller conventions. He’s enough of a movie fan to play off of audience expectation with the precision of a jujitsu master, and Big Fan benefits accordingly. (First Independent, 85 minutes, R)
Though it released in rolling fashion earlier in August, the gripping, emotionally devastating Sundance-minted documentary The Cove merits autumnal mention here because of the special timeliness of its narrative — the dolphin slaughter that it places under the microscope takes place annually in September.
Directed by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, The Cove tells the amazing true story of how Psihoyos, former Flipper trainer turned activist Richard O’Barry and an elite team of eco-warriors, filmmakers and free-divers embark on a covert mission to penetrate a tightly guarded fishing cove in Taiji, Japan. There, while being harassed by both local government officials and fishermen none too happy with the prospect of negative publicity, the Cove team shines a light on a dark and deadly secret that involves the capture and sale of thousands of dolphins, the annual slaughter of 23,000 more, the bureaucratic intrigue of industrial whaling international vote-trading, and mislabeled, mercury-spiked dolphin meat (beware, Jeremy Piven!) being packaged as part of compulsory Japanese elementary school lunches.
While it blends heartfelt reminiscences from O’Barry with a handful of interviews of people who will actually speak on camera, The Cove is, truth be told, mostly pieced together like a Steven Soderbergh heist flick, not some staid non-fiction film. Proving that some good actually came of the steaming pile of excrement that was Evan Almighty, the filmmakers tap one of that movie’s prop masters to help construct fake, hollowed-out rocks to house cameras. In clandestine fashion, the team then hides the cameras, along with underwater microphones, to capture the brutal carnage.
Psihoyos and editor Geoffrey Richman take a page from James Marsh’s Man on Wire, wringing drama from a foregrounded event; the bloody end result, even though you “know” what’s coming, packs more of a queasy punch than a dozen prefabricated Hollywood thrillers. The Cove is definitely, unapologetically subjective — a piece of social activist cinema all the way, complete with the call-to-action of David Bowie’s “Heroes” blasting over the end credits — but it’s also truly heartbreaking. You won’t feel good about feeling so wrapped up in the movie, sure to be short-listed for Academy Award documentary consideration, but you will feel. That much is certain. For more information, click here. (Roadside Attractions, 91 minutes, PG-13)
Adolf Hitler takes news about the new Avatar trailer pretty harshly…
Using its cross-platform marketing muscle to full advantage, the Disney Channel has done better than almost all of its corporate peers in both aggressively defined brand protection and identifying emerging trends, as with their zeitgeist-tapping, extremely lucrative High School Musical franchise and continued exploitation of all things Hannah Montana. Among its latest small screen hits is Sonny With a Chance, which centers on Sunny Munroe (Camp Rock‘s Demi Lovato, below, second from left), an enthusiastic young Wisconsin girl who, on the strength of her own series of wacky viral videos (?), nabs a spot as a cast member on So Random!, a hit sketch comedy show for tweens.
Introducing the main character and laying the groundwork for her wacky adventures, Sonny With a Chance: Sonny’s Big Break collects four episodes of the show. In the debut episode, life behind-the-scenes on a Hollywood set proves not quite as idyllic as Sonny imagined, especially because of one of her fellow performers — the self-absorbed Tawni (Tiffany Thornton, above left). While the rest of the cast — funnyman Grady (Doug Brochu), suave Nico (Brandon Mychal Smith) and quirky little Zora (Allisyn Ashley Arm), the flamboyantly costumed runt of the group — welcome Sonny, Tawni sees in her the potential for her own star being dimmed, and reacts with pettiness and jealousy.
Still, it’s all wildly pantomimed; slack-jawed sunniness is the dominant tone here, with subsequent episodes further sketching out Sonny’s not-too-secret crush on the dreamy Chad Dylan Cooper (Sterling Knight), star of the teen drama Mackenzie Falls, which films in the adjacent studio on the same lot. The inclusion of this vacuous pin-up character — and his simmering air-quote rivalry with select members of the So Random! cast — earns Sonny With a Chance a few degree-of-difficulty points on the adolescent entertainment meter, and allows it the chance to mine a few laughs from inter-industry joke targets. It’s not Get Shorty, or anything, but it helps the material play to a slightly older crowd, as well as young kids. As with 30 Rock, too, the sketch-show-within-the-show nature of the series allows writers to spin off quick, silly ideas with perhaps just a bit of naughty subtext (“Dolphin Boy,” for instance, in which Grady plays a kid who nervously shoots water out of his blowhole every time he tries to talk to a girl) without it interfering with the main plotlines, all of which are simplistic, hopelessly chipper, moralizing or some combination thereof.
Housed in a regular white Amaray case with snap-shut hinges in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover that offers up a cover-sticker coupon if the title is purchased in tandem with another Disney TV title, Sonny With a Chance: Sonny’s Big Break comes to DVD presented in 1.33:1 full screen, with English and Spanish Dolby digital stereo audio tracks and optional Spanish subtitles. The disc’s supplemental extras both extend the cross-promotional, show-within-a-show conceit (seven minutes of Mackenzie Falls‘ season-ending cliffhanger is included) worked so handily within Sonny, and extend its boundaries, breaking down the wall between performer and audience by including Lovato’s three-and-a-half-minute audition for the series from a casting session during the summer of 2007. Five minutes of footage spotlighting Disney kid icons Dylan and Cole Sprouse is included, as well as a bonus Sonny episode in which a well-meaning gift almost wrecks Nico and Grady’s friendship. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here; to view a trailer for the series, click here. C (Show) B (Disc)
So I for some reason watched the trailer for September’s I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, which is desperately in need of a red-band clip, and I don’t think I laughed once. Or even smiled knowingly. I mean, I’m all on board with the notion of politically incorrect, carousing-guys flicks, and as if it was in doubt, the mega-success of this summer’s The Hangover proved there’s an audience for R-rated movies with copious amounts of nudity and strong sexual content. But the trailer seemed to leave out actual punchlines, just in favor of simple plot explanation, and filler dialogue. It mostly just made me wonder why Jesse Bradford wasn’t a bigger star, honestly. Not because of any manifested talent, necessarily. Just that he really has the look of a star — the proper jawline, stubble, smoker’s voice, gift with a crooked grin, etcetera. If I was his agent, I’d get that kid in a movie with Colin Farrell, stat, as bad-boy brothers working some scam.
Some great news for those interested and invested in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s film program, which was given its death notice roughly a month ago. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Time Warner Cable, in partnership with Ovation TV, have each committed $75,000 to help LACMA extend continuous film programming through next summer. Says museum director Michael Govan in a press release: “In a tight budget year when many programs were reduced, we suspended the weekend film series in order to rebuild its foundations. We’ve been incredibly impressed by the public outcry of support for film at LACMA, and thrilled that just a few weeks later, the first new sponsors have stepped forward. We’re grateful to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Time Warner Cable and Ovation TV for expressing their tangible support for the art of film at LACMA, and we’re very pleased that we can keep film rolling while we build for the future. Our goal is to create a field-leading film department that captures the ever-growing importance of film and moving images in the history of art.”
Over on LA Examiner.com, Marvin Miranda has an excellent interview with Enzo Castellari, the director of the original (correctly spelled) Inglorious Bastards, in which the filmmaker talks about exploitation flicks of years gone by, his cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, his own new movie and more.
A visually rich and exceedingly well ordered musical drama, Paris 36 tells the story of a group of unemployed French stage performers who form a sort of artistic collective and decide to reopen their neighborhood musical hall. With original, vintage-style songs from composer Reinhardt Wagner and lyricist Frank Thomas and plenty of top-shelf production design, the film successfully woos you with its surface charms long before one feels the effects of its sympathetic characters.
Written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christopher Barratier (The Chorus), Paris 36 unfolds in a grubby, somewhat bohemian suburb of northeast Paris between December 1935 and July 1936, during the “revolutionary” period of the Popular Front, which saw the first national introduction of paid holidays and a shorter working week. The film follows three unemployed performers — Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot, above right), a cuckolded veteran stage hand; Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a hot-tempered electrician; and jack-of-all-trades Jacky (Kad Merad) — who decide to reestablish their beloved music hall to its former glory. Business is slow and back-biting high until they audition and hire the beautiful Douce (Nora Arnezeder, above left), a young singer with a remarkable voice who holds the key to their collective success.
Paris 36 takes an obvious inspiration from Busby Berekeley musicals, as well as vaudeville and cabarets of yore, but it also recalls the heavily workshopped efforts of Mike Leigh, as well as Moulin Rouge — the latter not so much in terms of pop exuberance, but rather exacting construction. A study in well orchestrated, non-gloomy realism, the movie also benefits greatly from many of its cast members’ familiarity and obvious comfort with Barratier (Jugnot and Merad both costarred in The Chorus); the characters here are well sketched, and the acting so solid and of a piece that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles. If it’s a slight bit overlong at two hours (its introductory brushstrokes could have been shortened without much overall sacrifice), Paris 36 still connects as a sumptuous and emotionally substantive look at the triumph of artistic will in the face of difficult circumstances.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with a deep-set snap-in tray, Paris 36 comes to DVD with a heartening slate of special features that yet again showcases Sony’s admirable home video commitment to foreign language titles. Barratier dominates a feature-length audio commentary track with Arnezeder, waxing philosophic regarding his directorial opinions on playback, point-of-view shots and coverage. He also talks about the difficulty of communicating with the movie’s Czech extras, and his willful seduction of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby cinematographer, Tom Stern.
Twenty-three minutes of deleted scenes kick off the rest of the supplemental material, providing an even deeper portrayal of an artistically and economically tottering Paris. This material is less about discarded plot strands and more about around-the-edges color, and authenticity of setting. A special 10-minute featurette solely on Arnezeder has the potential to turn into hyperbolic fluff (it’s subtitled “The Young Revelation’s Beautiful Adventure”), but it actually comes across as an honest chronicling of a young starlet’s rise, in no small part due to the inclusion of insights and reminiscences from those both inside and outside the decision-making casting bubble. A hearty helping (a half hour’s worth) of subtitled interviews with the main actors gives an overview of the production from their perspective, while Thomas Lautner’s production design sketches anchor a 25-minute making-of featurette that looks at the all-important selection of Paris 36‘s locations. Trailers for Easy Virtue, It Might Get Loud, I’ve Loved You So Long and a quartet of other Sony DVD releases are also included. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) A (Disc)
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of This Is Spinal Tap, Shorts International and INgrooves have today released Spinal Tap’s new short film, Stonehenge: ‘Tis a Magical Place, exclusively to iTunes. The seven-minute short marks iTunes’ first original film, wherein Spinal
Tap, having put Stonehenge on the map in their legendary song about the
world heritage site, pay their first visit to the monument. As if drawn
by some primal, magnetic force, Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and
Derek Smalls set out on a pilgrimage to this ancient site, the silent
song of these mysterious lithic Sirens inspiring the distinguished
artistes to make a trans-generational house call. Laughs ensue, one presumes.
A SyFy Channel original production, Merlin and the Book of Beasts is a fairly low-budget adventure tale, executed in middle-of-the-road fashion, that puts a savage new spin on the saga of Excalibur. Only genre devotees need enter here.
The age of knights was one of chivalry and honor, magic and mystery, passion and betrayal — qualities all that have long made it a rich setting for heightened-stakes drama on both screens big and small. Merlin and the Book of Beasts, however, unfolds at the tattered edges of that era; what remains is a shadowy world of fear and habitual unrest. Welcome to the dark side of Camelot. King Arthur is dead, the hallowed Round Table is in ruins, and a rogue sorcerer has unleashed a reign of monstrous terror upon the land. For the court’s last remaining knights, their only hopes lay in the powers of the now-bitter and broken wizard Merlin (Battlestar Galactica‘s James Callis, affecting an overly dramatic cadence). Can this once-great man of magic defeat a legion of creatures that includes Dragon Soldiers, Death Hawks and Gorgons, and reclaim the land? Merlin’s daughter Avlynn (Laura Harris, sporting a strange wig) is up for the challenge, and she’s joined in action by Sir Galahad (Donald Adams), the last remaining Arthurian knight; Lysanor (Jesse Moss), Galahad’s son; and Tristan (Patrick Sabongui), the son
of another legendary couple, Tristan and Isolde.
Director Warren Sonoda (Sleeptalkers, Coopers’ Camera) obviously isn’t given a huge amount of money with which to work, but neither does he distinguish himself via his choices in editing and staging. Likewise, screenwriter Brook Durham has an interesting backdrop for the movie, but has a leaden ear for dialogue and seems unable to craft characters that pop off the screen a bit and stand apart from their function. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that the movie is so aggressively cued and forcefully acted that it feels at times like an incidentally screen-captured dinner theater performance.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover with slightly raised cover art, Merlin and the Book of Beasts is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional English subtitles. Apart from a trailer for Dead Space: Downfall that auto-plays upon disc insertion, the only supplemental feature is an 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that intercuts on-set footage with brief interview clips. Some sort of exploration of the material’s historical roots, however perfunctory and hokey, would have been a welcome inclusion. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C- (Movie) C (Disc)
Super-condensed, coming-of-age, military-threaded love story American Son is a sort of karmic prequel to something like Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss, which detailed the shattering effects of the Iraq War on modern American masculinity. American Son isn’t a Coming Home-type drama, though; it’s a shipping-out drama, detailing the stomach-churning angst leading up to a tour of duty.
After completing his basic training at Camp Pendleton, 19-year-old Marine and California native Mike Holland (Nick Cannon) spends a four-day Thanksgiving leave back home with his friends and family, unable to admit to them that he’s preparing to ship out for his first tour of Iraq. Mike tries to reconnect with his mother (April Grace), stepfather (Tom Sizemore), sister (Erica Gluck) and father (Chi McBride), but the more time he spends around troubled best pal Jake (Matt O’Leary, breathing some life into a tough role, The Friend Left Behind), the more Mike becomes aware of the precarious future he faces. The girl both pleasantly distracting him from his impending order to report and making it loom in even starker dramatic relief is Cristina (Melonie Diaz), an unassuming young woman set to head off to college in the fall.
Director Neil Abramson — whose most notable credit, strangely, is the 1998 Jerry Springer flick Ringmaster — isn’t totally able to wean Cannon from his tendency to embrace glowering emotion, which dings a couple scenes. But Cannon and Diaz have a sincere, easygoing rapport and chemistry, and the banter in Eric Schmid’s script — discussing their personal travel
histories and brushes with fame, Mike notes that he once saw Clint Eastwood purchasing cheese — feels just off-kilter and esoteric enough to be real, in the way that awkward teenage romantic connection so often is. If the herky-jerky nature of Mike’s run-ins with Jake — who’s turned to selling drugs, and has to go from back-slapping to accusatory and back again, several times over — doesn’t really play, and the requisite physical flip-out moment seems a bit forced, Schmid also locates some tender moments. And apart from a few thumping party sequences, meanwhile, Abramson thankfully doesn’t try to amp up the story’s settings and interactions. He lets the drama develop slowly, naturally.
Consequently, the most arguably affecting parts of American Son are actually some of the least essential to the main Mike-Cristina storyline — Mike’s sister begging him to read her a storybook she’s long since outgrown, just so she can listen to him do the different character voices, or Mike visiting a gravely wounded Marine (Jay Hernandez) whom he doesn’t know at the behest of Cristina’s family, just to offer some brothers-in-arms support. It’s tough to balance, these senses of tenderness, grace and respect of roots, but Abramson communicates them with clear-eyed, non-judgmental precision, and nicely interweaves them with scenes showcasing Mike’s increasingly nervous jitters. For soldiers, one sees, the effects of war begin before it even starts, and of course last long after. I only wish the movie’s ending had a bit more punch, in either one way or another. I typically don’t mind narrative open-endedness, but here it feels a bit too removed, and free-floating.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with snap-shut hinges, American Son comes to DVD presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track, optional English and Spanish subtitles and a motion-animated main menu screen. A 12-minute making-of featurette delves into the movie’s 20-day location shoot in the California town of Bakersfield in April of 2007, though a good bit of this footage represents set-captured mayhem (weapons training, shot set-up, gun firing), complete with shoddy source sound. More interesting is a feature-length audio commentary track with director Abramson and producers Danielle Renfrew and Michael Roiff, in which the trio dissect the movie’s journey from script to screen, and ladle praise on cast and crew alike. There are also two excised scenes included, with optional commentary from the same group above: an extended beach chat between Mike and Cristina in which he more explicitly details his reasons for joining the military, and a one-minute goodbye sequence in which Mike drops Cristina off at her house. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) B- (Disc)
I think since this is a film blog, I’m contractually obligated to post something about the trailer for Avatar, James Cameron’s first non-underwater film in, what, 15 or 20 years or something? I’ve watched the mostly wordless, two-minute clip twice, and… what? It’s fine. Totally fine, I guess. I just don’t have a strong geek impulse. But it works, beat by beat: eyes opening, some cool/bad-ass facial scarring, gun-toting robots, a solid musical selection, grand-scale action stuff. I just don’t know about the rastafarian, Manute Bol-esque Smurf elves. We’ll see: the jury is still out with regards to movement and emoting. But please, stop with all the Delgo comparisons. There have been more of those made than people who actually saw Delgo, which grossed under $512,000 on 2,160 screens in its first weekend of release.
The early to mid-1980s was awash in farcical, lowball comedic fare designed chiefly to deliver bared breasts to a keyed-up young male demographic, particularly after the smash success of 1982’s Porky’s, and two more putative classics of this sub-genre — full of hot, teased-haired, scantily clad chicks playing cardboard-thin characters — hit DVD for the first time ever this week, in the form of a two-fer release from distributor Anchor Bay.
Co-writer-director Mark Griffiths’ Hardbodies, from 1984, is a quintessential bikini bimbo flick. Its beach-set credits — including a sequence in which girls play keep-away with the bathing suit top of one of their friends — unfold under a goofy pop tune that talks about “caressing the places unknown,” and before long we’re enjoying boobs (and just a glimpse of wang, if you want to go DVD slow-mo) during a post-coital embrace. For God’s sake, the movie even briefly features a biker gang called the Gonads! Apart from the bathing suits, all the costumes on the ladies look like they were nicked from the set of the music video shoot for Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical,”and the acting is certainly sometimes… oh, let’s say demonstrative. But Hardbodies‘ dialogue has a bit of unexpected snap, and it’s all executed with the sunny aplomb of a puppy golden retriever bounding thoughtlessly into the ocean after a Frisbee. This is a movie with streamlined purpose and clarity of vision, and it hits all its beats with charm and even some slickness, including a conversation in which girls (standing in front of a mirror, naturally) wonder why guys are so fascinated with boobs.
The story follows three middle-aged, fuddy-duddy single guys (Gary Wood, Sorrells Pickard and Michael Rapport) who rent a beach house as part of a vacation scheme to recapture their youth, then find themselves striking out with all the ladies. So they hire Scotty (Grant Cramer), a young stud in need of some cash for rent, to teach them how to score with the local beauties. Scotty drafts his goofball ginger pal Rag (Courtney Gains) to help him with his scheme, which eventually turns off Scotty’s most recent one-night conquest turned girlfriend, Kristi (Teal Roberts), since, you know, these three guys are so much more degrading toward women. No matter. Scotty rallies and wins Kristi back over, and even Rag finally gets some ass, courtesy of Kristi’s pal Kimberly (Cindy Silver). Further lending support are Darcy DeMoss (Reform School Girls), ’80s band Vixen and probably hundreds of Southern California’s hottest swimsuit models.
The 1986 follow-up to Hardbodies, on the other hand, is a dreadful misfire that seems hamstrung from the very start. Griffiths is back as director, but tries to use a film-within-a-film framing device that’s ill conceived to begin with and even more poorly executed than it is thought out. The characters of Scotty and Rags return, but they’re portrayed by different actors (Brad Zutaut and Sam Temples, respectively, the former letting his eyebrows and Flock-of-Seagulls-‘do do most of the acting). For no reason at all, they’re now successful actors (fatally undermining the boneheaded-kids-make-good vibe of the first flick), heading to Greece to shoot a teen comedy in which they smoke weed and get into various hijinks. To make matters worse, Griffiths brings back two supporting characters from the first film (the aforementioned Pickard and Roberta Collins), which only further underscores everything that’s jarring and problematic about this narrative choice. Once things get rolling, Scotty finds himself in a pinch, caught between his money-grubbing fiancee Morgan (Brenda Bakke, above left) and new gal Cleo (Fabiana Udenio), an acting neophyte drafted to play Scotty’s leading lady. Hmmm… I wonder who he’ll choose. In short, while nothing about Hardbodies 2 works as well as its predecessor, kudos at least go out to cinematographer Tom Richmond (who shot both movies, actually), for making both the locations and ladies look good.
Housed in a regular, white plastic Amaray case, the Hardbodies Collection comes to DVD with no supplemental extras, alas, which really dings its purchase value. The films themselves are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with English mono audio tracks and optional subtitles. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B/D (Movies, respectively) D (Disc)
For many years, throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Screw Magazine impresario Al Goldstein hosted a late-night public access New York City cable show, Midnight Blue, where he documented the smut business in cigar-chomping, larger-than-life fashion. Porn Stars of the ’90s, the informal seventh volume in a DVD series from Blue Underground that has chronicled the occupational insights of porn stars of previous decades as well as served as a digital-era cultural repository for its host’s frequent rants on all manner of free speech and sexuality, collects two hours of Goldstein’s interviews with various adult performers, slapped in between escort ads, phone sex promos and ball-busting celebrity endorsements (yep, that’s Gilbert Gottfried and Al Lewis, of The Munsters) that originally ran along with his program.
The surprising thing is how well all this holds up. The roster of interviewees here includes Teri Weigel, Veronica Vera, Christy Canyon (above), Jeanna Fine, Tom Byron, Sharon Kane, Randy West, Ashlyn Gere, Tami Monroe, Holly Ryder, Nikki Dial and more. Goldstein is unabashedly crude, and sometimes a little cruel — he gives Weigel’s husband, Murrill Muglio, all sorts of shit for his Cro-Magnon surfer look — but his interview technique is also laced with hearty self-deprecation, so he gets a pass on his coarseness because he so frequently makes himself the butt of the joke.
As for the interviews, Weigel talks about transitioning from Playboy and Penthouse to hardcore films; Ryder discusses the size of her clitoris (it’s large, don’tcha know); and Vera talks about her testimony at Arlen Specter’s 1983 Senate hearings, where she and Goldstein met. Meanwhile, Fine reminisces about doing it with Larry Flynt, talks about enjoying anal sex and gives detailed oral sex tips, saying that she likes “rompers,” which she describes as seven inches or less, “because you can do so much more with them.” There’s a lot of this sort of frank sexual discussion, naturally, but equal time and measure is given to letting the interview subjects showcase their off-screen personalities. Ryder’s segment is additionally entertaining since it turns out Goldstein went to school with her husband.
While it’s certainly the main sell-through appeal of the title, those thinking Porn Stars of the ’90s is all about cheap nostalgic titillation would be wrong. While film clips are interspersed throughout, they’re scrupulously edited to avoid hardcore material. Goldstein is also notable in that he provided one of the first outlets for some of the more articulate adult performers to take on critics of their industry. Ergo, Gloria Steinem comes up in several chats, and Canyon and Vera both speak intelligently and fairly persuasively in making the case that they’re the masters of their own situations. In this vein, Porn Stars of the ’90s has a weirdly academic value, serving as it does as a primary document.
Naturally, there are corresponding moments of queasy, jaw-clenching disbelief (as when Dial blithely denies any sexual history of sexual abuse, only in the same breath to talk about her first sexual experience being with another girl… in kindergarten), or those that are simply jarring, as when Ryder’s interview is then followed by an E! news segment detailing her later anti-pornography crusading. All in all, though, Porn Stars of the ’90s does a good job of simply presenting its archived material in straightforward fashion while adding a few tiny grace notes of contextualization via text updates. The inclusion of the period-piece ads — some of which are sex-related, some of which, as with commercials touting Goldstein’s barber, were probably run merely to help him score free swag, and services — helps further root this curious release, an indispensable time capsule of the adult industry at the tail end of the video age, pre-internet boom.
Housed in a sort of light blue, opalescent plastic Amaray case, Porn Stars of the ’90s comes presented in 1.33:1 full frame, divided into two dozen chapters, with a Dolby digital audio track that doesn’t sound like it provides much of a brush-up. The picture, too, is a bit shoddy, though the manufacturers at least score points for brutal honesty when, in a pre-program text crawl, they explain the image graininess — most notably featured in the title’s interstitial advertisements — by way of saying that “while the DVD features digital transfers from the original 3/4-inch master tapes, you can’t shine shit.”
The DVD’s most notable supplemental feature is a pop-up-style commentary track that provides the title with its own snarky, built-in self-critique, as well as all sorts of bizarre trivia and gossip, from Canyon’s dalliances a coke-fueled, limp-membered Robin Williams to Hyapatia Lee faking her own death. Points, too, for an imaginative, sort of purposefully crude menu screen that puts all the content options on a computer screen, with a bottle of hand lotion lurking nearby. Other bonus material consists of a four-minute guide to cunnilingus by ubiquitous porn star Ron Jeremy; a silly five-minute studio segment where Annie Sprinkles smears her breasts with eggs, flour and other cooking ingredients; and a four-minute, bitter, profane jeremiad by Goldstein against Jenna Jameson. Apparently Goldstein was angry that Jameson stood him up for a scheduled interview and post-chat dinner date with her manager, without ever calling. So he calls her a cunt, and gets even more explicit and offensive from there. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Show) B- (Disc)
For those on the East Coast or with the means to get there quickly, Mac Rogers’ Viral has two performances left at the New York International Fringe Festival, aka FringeNYC; tomorrow, Sunday, August 23; and Wednesday, August 26. Reviews are cracking; for tickets and more information, click here, or here.
I’ve watched the trailer for Capitalism: A Love Story, documentarian Michael Moore‘s new film about the American financial collapse and ensuing bailout, twice now, and it feels like a meh type of thing, a shrug. The film may be a bit more pointed, barbed, focused, but this plays like Moore lite, to be honest. M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” is a good musical choice, if only to match the gun-cocking blurb from one of the interviewees, but the use of clips of a smirking President Bush — three times — feels like a bit of an emotional cheat, like trading on the (deserved) ill will of his cronyism and bluster, the phony excuses for war in Iraq, the botched Hurricane Katrina relief, etcetera. Sure, the guy was asleep at the wheel, and/or suffering from a case of senior-itis certainly the last year-plus of his presidency, but he didn’t actually engineer the economic downfall, did he?
Wait… so Lindsay Lohan has seriously joined the cast of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, the Grindhouse trailer turned actual apeshit-revenge flick, which already includes Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Cheech Marin, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson and Jeff Fahey, opposite star Danny Trejo? Faaaan-tastic. Someone call Don “The Dragon” Wilson, just to complete the ecstasy-fueled fever dream.
Fresh off helping deliver a hit with Superbad, writer-director Greg Mottola returns to the big screen with his first original script since his 1997 debut, The Daytrippers. Adventureland is rooted in autobiographical torture (Mottola worked at a Long Island amusement park while attending Columbia University), a fact that comes through in the winning construction of the movie’s idiosyncratic, slightly off-kilter tone. Even if he’s unable to wrangle the otherwise lovely and charming Kristen Stewart‘s eyes-askance lip-nibbling, or bring Jesse Eisenberg’s mannered tics fully under control, Mottola has a keen sense of detail, a deft touch with dialogue and smart taste in the casting of myriad supporting players, and these make for a mostly winning film.
It’s the summer of 1987, and James Brennan (Eisenberg, above left), an uptight comparative literature grad from Oberlin, can’t wait to embark on his dream tour of Europe with his best friend. But when his parents renege on the trip’s subsidization, James has little choice but to get a job, and spend his last summer before grad school at a seasonal amusement park operated by a loopy young married couple (Saturday Night Live‘s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig).
Forget about German beer and reefer-infused philosophical discussions, museum wanderings and pliable French girls — James’ summer will now be defined by screaming kids high on cotton candy, soused patrons scheming to score giant stuffed pandas and an old elementary school acquaintance, Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), who’s always running around trying to punch him in the balls. Lucky for James, he makes a quick friend in Joel Schiffman (Martin Starr), a droll, pipe-smoking game booth worker who helps initiate James into the absurd conventions and rituals of theme park life, and also gets off the movie’s best line, checking out the sway of a girl’s hips from afar: “Her ass is the platonic ideal — a higher truth. I’m telling you, I’ve had dreams about that diamond-shaped portal.”
James also finds an older mentor — and, more complicatedly, a potential romantic rival — in the park’s maintenance guy, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a local heartthrob due to the rumor that he once jammed with Lou Reed. And yes, James even inches closer to losing his virginity, discovering love — or at least highly concentrated lust — in the form of two co-workers, the captivating if slightly withdrawn Em Lewin (Stewart, above right) and dance-happy, carefree Lisa P (The Invisible‘s Margarita Levieva).
One of the more intriguing elements of the film — something hinted at and flirted with in the script, but never fully and explicitly embraced, especially by the actors — is the sense that it’s an exploration of Ms. Right Now vs. Ms. Right Right Now, if that makes sense. As appealing and largely engaging as it is on the surface, Adventureland could have struck an even deeper and more thrillingly subversive chord by tapping into the idea of one (smart) kid’s randy summer in heat — the notion of a young, sensitive guy’s quest to unburden himself of his virginity while still sealing the deal with someone who he can hold a conversation with after the fact.
The product of a warped home life with a recently deceased mother and an even more recently remarried dad, Em is a hot, vulnerable mess, which comes through in her serial acting out with Connell. Other than the fact that they both seem to be generationally restless, pointed toward New York City and of above-average intelligence, though, there’s little that realistically binds together James and Em. Even Mottola seems bored with their interactions, sticking them together and pulling them apart in a somewhat arbitrary fashion that gives the movie a fitful rhythm. These two don’t seem like a match made forever, basically. Unfortunately, Adventureland never wholly digs into that potentially provocative mutual-use premise, and Eisenberg’s Woody Allen-lite shtick isn’t hormonally charged enough to match James’ predicament. In the end, though, all this criticism is relative to what Adventureland gets right, which is a lot. With its easygoing, lived-in charms and nice supporting performances, certainly there’s a lot more good than not in the movie. It’d be an entirely suitable flick to lose your teen/twentysomething coming-of-age cherry to, in other words.
On DVD, the single-disc version of the film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and comes with motion-animated menus and a so-so slate of supplemental material. Kicking things off is a 16-minute making-of featurette in which producers Ted Hope and Anne Carey speak with effusive praise of Kennywood, the site of the production’s on-location shooting, and one of two amusement parks on the National Registry of Historic Places. Other cast and crew sit for interviews as well, and Starr, paired with Stewart, talks with a true wallflower’s painful lack of self-regard about feeling sorry for the actress who had to make out with him in the movie. There’s also a feature-length audio commentary track with Mottola and Eisenberg, and three deleted scenes , which spotlight drunken mother and angry grandfather park patrons, and showcase Wiig’s gift with deadpan delivery in such scene-capping dialogue tidbits as, “It’s Sunday — I don’t think the police are open.” Previews for Mike Judge’s forthcoming Extract and other movies round out the material. There’s also apparently a double-disc version of the movie available, on Blu-ray as well as regular DVD, so presumably the slate of bonus material on those is a bit more substantive. B+ (Movie) C+ (Disc)
In a personal and exceedingly well reasoned piece, Time‘s Joe Klein nails the prevailing cravenness, hypocrisy and nihilism of the modern GOP’s fact-free fight against health care reform, asserting, among other things, that the Republican party’s putative intellectuals — people like the Weekly Standard‘s William Kristol — are “prosaic tacticians who make precious few substantive arguments but oppose health care reform mostly because passage would help Barack Obama’s political prospects.” He also reminds readers that the same people who help stoke fears of an air-quote government takeover of health care previously tried to enforce a government takeover of Terri Schiavo’s end-of-life decisions, and that when Sarah Palin floated the “death panel” canard, the number of prominent Republicans who rose up to call her out could be counted on one hand.
Not dissimilar from something like the terrible Live Feed, another sadistic, low-grade rip-off of Hostel and the Saw flicks, Hollywood Kills is an unartful, improbably plotted and dismally executed direct-to-DVD slasher programmer which mainly serves as quiet, leave-it-off-your-reel paycheck experience for all those involved, especially some special effects and gore peddlers.
Back-slapping Texas cousins James (Happy Mahaney) and Vaughn (Matthew Scollon) hit Los Angeles, ostensibly to visit Sarah (Angela DiMarco), the former’s sister. Especially Vaughn, though, has sex on his mind. So when Sarah’s leggy, would-be actress roommate Chantelle (Gillian Shure) appears, he’s dutifully smitten. After heading out for a night on the town, the four attractive young loafers cross paths with two Hollywood players (Zack Ward, Todd Duffy) who promise them entrance into a secret “power club.” Foolishly believing their dreams of stardom only a couple cocktails away, the quartet are in for a rude awakening when the club’s director, washed-up, quietly deranged movie producer Francis Fenway (Dominic Keating), casts them in his next brutal reality horror production.
Shot on digital video, Hollywood Kills doesn’t evidence much in the way of production value, but director Sven Pape is also far too eager to prove his directorial chops, indulging in frame-manipulation and an overload of other stylistic gimmicks in an effort to paper over the incongruities and implausibilities of Nicholas David Brandt’s screenplay. Some of the script’s pre-bloodletting banter is convincingly loose-limbed, and emblematic of geographical/cultural divides that a more self-assured movie would have tried to plumb a bit more for pre-slaying tension (“You want limes?” Sarah asks, grabbing a couple beers. “For what?” James responds, confused). But Hollywood Kills is all about the stalking and slashing, which means Jigsaw-type murders (a phone that shoots a nail from its receiver into the ear of the person who answers) and a pair of Japanese twins dressed up as schoolgirls, wandering around and filming the action. It’s never convincingly explained how and why someone like Fenway would turn to such extreme measures, the acting is completely scattershot (DiMarco and a smirking Ward more or less escape with some modicum of dignity, Shure does not) and the delivery of gore not really that compelling or interesting.
Presumably commercially packaged in a regular Amray case, Hollywood Kills is presented in16x9 widescreen, with a Dolby digital stereo audio track. Though not on the clam-shell-housed review copy with which we were serviced, the final release supposedly includes the movie’s trailer, EPK interviews, a photo gallery, a (CD-ROM?) copy of the script and close-captioned subtitles. For more information, click here. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, meanwhile, click here. D- (Movie) C- (Disc, speculatively)