Over at the Huffington Post, talented multi-hyphenate Brad Schreiber shares his top 10 films of the year. Some disagreements, but his list holds a special place in my heart, bookended as it is with Mother and The Art of the Steal.
Inspired by Biblical accounts of the massive, gold- and copper-flecked splendor of his temples and palaces, countless treasure-seekers (and more than a few Hollywood adventure story peddlers) have set off in search of King Solomon’s mines, trekking through burning deserts and scaling the forbidding mountains of Africa and the Levant. Yet the actual evidence supporting the existence of Solomon and other early kingdoms in the Bible has been highly controversial. In fact, there is so little physical evidence of the kings who ruled Israel and Edom that many contend that they are no more real than King Arthur. The PBS-fronted edu-doc Quest for Solomon’s Mines attempts to sort out some of this mystery.
Produced and directed by Graham Townsley through National Geographic Television, the hour-long Quest for Solomon’s Mines offers up a couple new clues buried in the pockmarked desert of Jordan, as it tries to pin down the source(s) of the great material wealth that shaped regional political might in the Dead Sea Valley, and helped empower the first mighty Biblical kingdoms. As with tele-news magazine reporting, this program blends speculative historic reenactments with some talking head footage, in this case from University of California-San Diego Levantine Archaeology Lab hands Mohammad Najjar, Thomas Levy and others. The carbon dating of new-ish archaeological excavations at Khirbet en Nahas bring up some interesting facts, illuminating an era and making a convincing case that slave labor — and with it probably all the attendant human rights abuses and faulty criminal convictions, to ensure a large enough workforce — powered a regional rise much earlier than previously known. It’s an interesting title, even if its conclusions are ultimately rather glancing.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Quest for Solomon’s Mines comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, with an English language stereo audio track, divided into seven chapters. There are unfortunately no supplemental features of note. To purchase the DVD, phone (800) PLAY-PBS, or click here; if it’s Amazon that’s your thing, meanwhile, click here. C+ (Movie) C- (Disc)
The lives and sordid actions of serial killers are so far beyond the pale that they rather understandably make rich fodder for movies, with Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and of course Aileen Wuornos — for which Charlize Theron won an Oscar in Monster — getting recent screen treatments. Next up is John Wayne Gacy, who serves as the imprisoned boogeyman in Dear Mr. Gacy, a film that puts a strange twist on the inside-the-mind-of-a-killer sub-genre.
Based on a curious but apparently true story, as chronicled in
the bestselling book The Last Victim, Dear Mr. Gacy recounts the experiences of a headstrong 18-year-old college student, Jason Moss (Jesse Moss), and his relationship with the notorious Gacy (William Forsythe), an Iowa businessman, short-order cook and community volunteer who got demented mileage out of frequently parading around in a clown costume. As part of a school assignment, Moss sends a letter to Gacy in prison, portraying himself as a vulnerable kid, and hoping to work his way into his psyche and get him to confess his crimes. (Gacy initially admitted to many murders, but later recanted, explaining away the more than two dozen bodies found in a crawl space in his house as part of a strange police conspiracy.)
Suspicious at first, Gacy subjects Moss to a series of tests, but is won over by some beefcake photos and collect-call telephone conversations, coming to eventually trust him, and value his friendship. Moss’ preoccupation with Gacy somewhat understandably confounds his
girlfriend Alyssa (Emma Lahana), and his younger brother is a bit creeped out too, when Gacy starts requesting letters from him. What follows is a bizarre game of psychological cat-and-mouse between two manipulators, in which Gacy alternately cajoles, rants, rages and urges the youngster who he believes is his new friend to engage in street hustling, while Moss finds his life turned upside down in unexpected ways. When it seems things couldn’t get even more unusual, Gacy’s death row appeal is denied, and he sends an invitation to Moss to visit him in prison for a private meeting.
Moss (The Uninvited, Final Destination 3) does a capable job as… Moss (weird twist, that), in that he basically has to play a smart kid who’s way in over his head — who has a game plan, but not a back-up plan (or more deeply seated psychological mooring) for when Gacy starts to pull some really sick shit. In this regard, Moss ably communicates the overwhelmed nature and quiet interior panic of his character (or his acting shortcomings do the same thing). Forsythe (The Devil’s Rejects), meanwhile, has a Rolodex of sickos and weirdos to his credit, and while he’s obviously given the showier role, he seems to intuitively understand — even if the quality of the writing he’s given is sometimes lacking — that since he’s playing Gacy already incarcerated he’s not playing a “monster” so much as Gacy playing another character (aggrieved victim of justice and all that), lashing out in weird, distasteful ways.
The basic problems with Dear Mr. Gacy seem to stem from a sweetheart adherence to its source material — to not step outside of Moss’ life and his interactions with Gacy, and render judgment or at least deeper shading upon Gacy himself. The film ends on a strange note, too, with footage of the real-life Jason Moss appearing on a talk show, chatting about his motivations for writing the serial killer. Then a brief textual overlay informs us that he took his own life only several years later. This coda undercuts Dear Mr. Gacy, and makes its dramatic machinations seem entirely empty, because clearly there was something deeper going on with Moss — something that this film sidesteps entirely.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Dear Mr. Gacy comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track, and optional English and Spanish subtitles. Along with the teaser and theatrical preview trailers, the disc’s only other supplemental feature is a 22-minute making-of featurette, which looks into the production, and features interviews with cast and crew as well as one of Gacy’s childhood friends, Barry Boschelli, who walks and talks with Forsythe. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C+ (Movie) C+ (Disc)
Jack Black cycles almost entirely through his bag of lively, bug-eyed performer’s tricks in Gulliver’s Travels, a 3-D family comedy rendering of Jonathan Swift’s 18th century satire that delivers miniaturized laughs. Alternately yawningly obvious and under-sketched, the movie never settles on a consistent tone, or takes full comedic advantage of its big-man-in-a-small-land opportunity for steady physical comedy. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (20th Century Fox, PG, 87 minutes)
Every year, over a million visitors are drawn to the Salisbury Plain in southern England to gaze upon a mysterious circle of stones. Meanwhile, in grade and middle school classrooms across the United States, scores of bored, unchallenged kids steal away from their peers during library-mandated “study time” to thumb through picture-heavy texts of the same famous site, their imaginations fired by the extravagance of varied possibility.
Yes, Stonehenge may be the best-known and most mysterious relic of prehistory, which makes the new short-form, NOVA-stamped documentary Secrets of Stonehenge both wildly intriguing and more than a bit frustrating. First, a bit of history: excavations from the mid-20th century revealed that the structure — with some stones standing 20 feet tall, and ranging in weight from seven to 45 tons — was built in stages, and that it dates back some 5,000 years, to the late Stone Age. The greater meaning of the monument, however, was until recently anyone’s guess, spawning all sorts of fantastic theories, inclusive of astrological worship, human sacrifices or even extraterrestrial visitation.
Running just under an hour, Secrets of Stonehenge takes a scientific tack, following a team of researchers as they attempt to get to the bottom of how prehistoric people quarried, transported, sculpted and erected the giant stones — some of which came from Wales, over 150 miles away. Archeologists Mike Pitts and Mike Parker Pearson, of the University of Sheffield, are able to give interesting speculative on-site overview, even as they refine their theories a bit based on things they uncover in fresh excavations.
Most interesting is the inarguable linking of Stonehenge to fellow Neolithic settlement Durrington Walls, which with its henge and large timber circle likely served as a gateway touchstone to the living, while Stonehenge was a complementary spot for clan members moved on, since rock had stronger ancestral connotations. Less engaging are curiously inexact experiments in stone movement, along with funny pronunciations of the words “cosmos” and “skeletal.” Also, somewhat damningly for those with a more rooted anthropological curiosity, Secrets of Stonehenge doesn’t delve satisfyingly into the day-to-day lives of the people, spanning generations, who crafted this amazing structure. Either way, though, there’s at least some truth in the title here, if not a complete and definitive rewriting of the story of Stonehenge.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Secrets of Stonehenge comes to DVD with a static menu screen, split into seven chapters and presented in 1.33:1 full screen. Optional English SDH subtitles are included, but there are no other supplemental features. To purchase Secrets of Stonehenge, phone (800) PLAY-PBS, or click here. Or if Amazon is totally and irretrievably your thing, then click here, by all means. B- (Movie) C- (Disc)
Niche market fans of 1970s erotica have found a willing enabler in Impulse Pictures, which has done well cycling through a variety of softcore European titles, inclusive of the Schoolgirl Report series, which hails from Germany. Its latest release, the seventh volume in the series, again presents a triptych of unrelated segments, all characteristically involving some combination of voyeurism, burgeoning sexual curiosity and power imbalance.
The stories here (a student, in love with her teacher, switches her identity to bed the unsuspecting older guy; a sexy hitchhiker lures men into sex in order to rob them) are fairly straightforward, and meant, in their own tongue-in-cheek fashion, to serve as warnings of surging adolescent libidinal impulses. This flick is from 1974, and the girls are certainly attractive, but the set-ups are laborious, and the acting of course terrible. Caveat emptor, and all that.
Housed in a regular Amaray case, Schoolgirl Report: Volume 7 comes to DVD presented in 1.66 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital 2.0 mono audio track. Its uncut German aural presentation comes complemented by a set of newly translated, removable English subtitles. There are unfortunately no bonus supplemental features, dinging both this title’s collectibility and its value for those wishing to merely dip a toe in the sexploitation genre. C+ (Movie) C- (Disc)
Attention filmmakers — LACMA Muse is now accepting submissions to its 10th annual Young Directors Night, which celebrates short films and the emerging artists behind them by showcasing up to eight films at a screening at LACMA. The 2011 edition of YDN will take place on Saturday, March 5. The chosen films will compete for the “Art of Film” award, given to the best entry in the contest, as decided by a host panel of industry luminaries and the audience. Past winners have received tickets to the Sundance Film Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival and Los Angeles Film Festival. Submissions are being accepted through January 15. For more information, click here.
Based on a Russian graphic novel of the same name by Vladimir
Nesterenko, Alien Girl exudes a wearying recombinant raison d’être. (Even its title, strangely enough, is a reference to Ridley Scott’s classic thriller,
shorthand for the dangerous, vixen-ish woman at its center.) It’s as if all the parts of a couple dozen American crime thrillers (and maybe some early Luc Besson as well) were distilled through a heavy sociocultural filter, reconstituted, and then aped in middling fashion.
The story unfolds in the Ukraine, amidst a violent clash between two rival gangs. Both have a vested interest in a woman named Angela (Natalia Romanycheva), the sister of a gang member who may or may not be about to cut a deal with the police. In order to exert influence over him before he testifies, his boss dispatches a quartet of his best hit men, who set off on a trip to Prague to find Angela and bring her back to the Ukraine. What starts off as a war between rival gang members and all those standing in their way soon becomes a game of manipulation, seduction and betrayal in which Angela cannily plays each member off against one other.
The film, unrated but certainly comparable to a “R,” exudes a certain crassness and openly revealed drama almost from that start (its thugs have names like Booger, Kid and Whiz). In his feature debut, director Anton Bormatov seems to be doing little more than paying eager homage to all sorts of C-grade American mafioso and underworld tales. Parts of the story hint at some sort of deeper or more interesting social commentary (the hit men stand out as sore-thumb cultural invaders in Prague, and detest the city), but the narrative seems arrested in inchoate form, and more invested in shouting and gun-waving than anything else. The eventual deeper revelations of Angela’s connection to the crime boss, and why she ran, don’t hold much emotional sway, unfortunately; this Alien doesn’t speak a universal language. (Paladin, unrated, 100 minutes)
A hyper-slick sequel to the heady 1982 man-versus-machine action-adventure Tron — which is remembered among a certain generational subset more for its ideas, images and namesake videogame than any huge commercial success or critical embrace at the time of its release — Tron: Legacy represents a souped-up chassis built around an engine that doesn’t
start. Imaginative production design, a great score from Daft Punk, the presence of Olivia Wilde and piecemeal excitement cannot
boost the film’s level of engagement above and beyond anything more than
superficial throwaway entertainment. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (Disney, PG, 125 minutes)
I previously touched on the wide variety of of musical sub-genres present in American life, and the fervent (albeit to-scale) embrace of said niche markets means there’s room for all sorts of CD and DVD compilations that celebrate that merged diversity and commingled ethnicity.
A spin-off/continuation of the previous quartet of releases from 20th Century Entertainment, this new batch of two-hour concert clip titles includes a separate break-out look at blues (a bit of a cheat/overlap with the rhythm and blues title of earlier this fall, but so be it), as well as DVDs spotlighting dixieland jazz, soul and folk music. Each is engaging in its own way, but the folk and blues discs are probably the standout efforts of this batch, focusing as they do on deeper cuts that chart the hybrid influences (and future influence) of these styles. The soul title, meanwhile, hosted by Leon Isaac Kennedy, is a groovy testament to the sway of secular testifying, with James Brown’s “Payback,” Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” all serving amongst the highlights.
Housed in regular plastic Amaray cases, each title in this collection is presented on a region-free disc in 1.33:1 full frame and Dolby stereo. Given the wide berth of sourcing, the video quality of the performances varies a bit, understandably, and while most are presented in color, black-and-white archival footage and photographic stills are also interspersed throughout. There exists no additional supplemental bonus material. For more information, click the individual hyperlinks above, or click here. B (Movies) C (Discs)
I sampled a slice of Icelandic survival horror recently, in the form of Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre. I wish I had remained on land.
The tale of a pleasure cruise gone deadly wrong, Harpoon unfolds on the cold waters off Iceland’s coast, as a boatload of international tourists set off on a (three-hour?) whale-watching expedition. When a freak accident leaves their captain mortally wounded, folks become stranded, and the ocean’s loveliness suddenly turns ominous. Help seemingly arrives in the form of a mysterious, bearded whaler (horror veteran Gunnar Hansen) who offers to take them back to shore, but instead leaves them on a decaying barge. At first the strandees believe they’re alone, until they discover that the barge is already occupied by a psychopathic family who likes to hunt humans. Bummer, dude!
Award-winning novelist (and occasional Bjork collaborator)
Sjon Sigurdsson penned the movie, and tries to sprinkle in some cultural differences amidst all the corpses-to-be, to differentiate between characters and give them something tangible to “overcome.” Unfortunately, director Julius Kemp doesn’t have the chops to deliver on this approach, and instead, after a first half that lags badly, gives in to stupid special effects (an animatronic killer whale pops up) and poorly staged gore.
Housed in a regular case, Harpoon comes to Blu-ray presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track, in a transfer that looks more than a bit underlit. An interview with Hansen complements a fairly run-of-the-mill making-of featurette, laden with behind-the-scenes footage and more interaction with cast and crew. The creative name makes Harpoon seem like it might be a wild romp that puts an electric spin on American horror conventions. It most certainly does not. Nonetheless, to purchase the Blu-ray via Amazon, click here. D+ (Movie) C+ (Disc)
So after an eight-year layoff from the big screen, Eminem is taking the advice of Guns ‘N’ Roses and getting in the ring, according to The Wrap’s Jeff Sneider. He’ll play a welterweight boxing champ in DreamWorks’ Southpaw, penned by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter. In much the same way that 8 Mile tapped into elements of the rapper’s life story without being a literal biography per se, the script will serve as a “metaphorical continuation” of his offscreen life — so he’ll be reclaiming past glory, winning back the affection of his daughter, etcetera, etcetera. Probably donning a skull cap, too. A win for all involved, if done right.
Before he was a jet-setting filmmaker and in-demand commercial director with his own inimitably florid style, Australian-born Baz Luhrmann was just another precocious, headstrong art school punk, with dreams of making the leap from aspirant cinematic craftsman to actual filmmaker. He did that with the wild, colorful Strictly Ballroom, his 1992 directorial debut. Inspired
in part by Luhrmann’s own childhood experiences with ballroom dance
classes and his mother’s career as a dance instructor, the movie
itself was based on a 20-minute 1986 stageplay that Luhrmann co-wrote
while in drama school, and its poster tagline (“A life lived in fear is a life half
lived…”) might as well serve as an unofficial motto for the rest of Luhrmann’s professional career.
A hyper-stylized and wildly offbeat comedy about a male dancer, Scott (Paul Mercurio), who bursts free from the restraints of convention and exuberantly charts his own destiny, Strictly Ballroom is a movie bristling with verve and youthful energy, and it clearly serves as a narrative marker for Luhrmann’s own outsized artistic ambitions. Just before he’s scheduled to compete in the big Pan-Pacific ballroom
championships, Scott — who refuses to follow the accepted rules of ballroom dancing, and creates his
own style of choreography, which infuriates the ballroom dancing
establishment — loses his longtime partner Liz (Gia Carides), who leaves him for another dancer. Undeterred, Scott takes up a new partner, Fran (Tara Morice), a beginner who initially seems without promise. After a rocky start, however, things come together for the odd couple, paving the way for a finale at once unlikely and heartwarmingly familiar and reassuring.
Even before it was released theatrically in 1992, the film quickly emerged as an unusual hybrid — an unabashed crowd-pleaser that also racked up praise and awards from critics. After garnering the Cannes Film Festival’s Prix de Jeunesse (“Award of the Youth”) in 1992, it was snapped up for Stateside distribution by Miramax’s Harvey and Bob Weinstein. A rapturous embrace at the Toronto Film Festival later that fall, followed by a cool dozen Australian Film Academy awards, paved the way for an early 1993 Stateside release, where Miramax smartly played up the movie’s dizzying pace, arresting style and beautiful choreography, selling it as an exotic (but English language!) bauble.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, the new DVD special edition of Strictly Ballroom comes to retailers presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, which preserves the aspect ratio of its theatrical presentation. A solid Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track complements the superb video transfer, and optional French and Spanish subtitles are also included, along with a nice new menu screen. All of the special features from the movie’s original DVD release are imported here, including an audio commentary track with Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin and choreographer-actor John O’Connell, as well as a two-minute deleted scene in which Scott rebuffs a late attempt to replace Fran with Liz. A 3-D gallery with a robust slate of images from the movie and its pre-production is also included, and an amusing sort of time-capsule featurette, “Samba to Slow Fox,” that includes period piece interview footage with real dancers and special competition material.
The most attractive bonus feature, though, is the addition of a new, 23-minute featurette built around recent interviews with Luhrmann and the film’s creative team, which charts the project’s inception, from its stageplay roots and the fitful securing of financing to its eventual whirlwind international reception. Luhrmann speaks, with great passion and clarity, about his view of the material’s connection to Joseph Campbell’s universal mythology, and Martin (Luhrmann’s offscreen partner as well) has some cherished anecdotal memories of the sort which only flow from the foolhardy effort of youth. Huzzah to this beautiful reflection. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) A- (Disc)
Atypical genre plotting and some absolutely delicious twists feed British kidnapping thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed, the solid and engaging feature directorial debut of J Blakeson. Plenty of movies have covered this narrative terrain before, but few in recent memory with as streamlined a sense of tension-soaked purpose.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a tightly drawn “three-hander,” with a deceptively simple plot. Planning to make a mint on a ransom-and-exchange scheme, ex-con kidnappers Vic (Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Martin Compston) snatch Alice (Gemma Arterton), a young woman estranged from her wealthy businessman father. Despite having set up a secluded safe house and seemingly left nothing to chance, Vic and Danny — the latter the younger and more nervous of the two, the former powered by a snarling, steely conviction — soon find their plans upended. Though scared witless, Alice isn’t about to let her captors just use her as capital, but neither is the film merely some prodding feminist revenge tract.
From the outset, it’s clear that Blakeson’s film won’t kowtow to genre convention. The movie opens with an intriguing, dialogue-free, five-minute prep sequence in which Danny and Vic methodically set up shop — buying a drill, a mattress and other supplies; lining the inside of a windowless van with plastic; assembling a bed for the mattress; and stapling foam insulation and plywood board to the walls and windows of the bedroom that will serve as Alice’s quarters of confinement. When the actual kidnapping takes place, it’s similarly presented in dispassionate, matter-of-fact fashion, despite Alice’s kicks and screams. In fact, it’s 10 minutes into the film before either party utters a line, really.
Interestingly and admirably, Blakeson isn’t concerned with or particularly invested in repeatedly using Alice’s vulnerability to wring tension and unease from his audience. Yet neither does he shy away from it, as when a hooded Alice is stripped, given new clothes and handcuffed in spread-eagle fashion; Arterton arches her back in wild anxiety, which is a visceral and realistic depiction of primitive fear. Once some measure of chatting and an explication of the chain of events yet to unfold begins, though, the movie really hits its stride, fed in large part by the differences in age and gender, and the underlying but ever-shifting power dynamics therein. Without giving away the movie’s twists, it suffices to say that — both before the ransom money arrives, and after — Blakeson does a fantastic job of screwing with both his audience’s expectations and senses of identification, though always in ways rooted in character, and never in a manner that feels tawdry or false.
Given the quiet, steely verve of its set-up, it’s somewhat to be expected that the film’s energy eventually starts to flag a bit. And it would have been interesting — once the film opens up a bit from its quite theatrical staging, and gets to stretch its legs some in its final act — for an outside character or two to force the hand of those grappling for control. But the performances here are gripping, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed‘s commitment to character-driven minimalism makes it a standout genre entry, and well worth adding to one’s Netflix queue.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, The Disappearance of Alice Creed comes to DVD presented 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, which preserves the aspect ratio of its original theatrical presentation. Optional Spanish and English SDH subtitles complement its Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track. In his engaging feature-length audio commentary track, Blakeson talks both about wanting to get into the psychology and intimacy of kidnapping (in which the criminal aggressor plays an unusual care-giving role), as well as his desire to have the audience spin forward in their own minds stories regarding the characters. He also notes the difficulty of shooting the movie’s first nude scene, which was of course the first day of production (a safe word was established for Arterton). Finally, Blakeson gives ample credit to the rest of his creative team, including his production designer Ricky Eyres, who added false doors and archways to the interior set to break up the dead space.
Other bonus features consist of five-and-a-half minutes of storyboard material, two deleted/extended scenes with optional audio commentary from Blakeson, and four-and-a-half minutes’ worth of outtakes, which feature some romantic awkwardness, a gun repeatedly failing to fire and, yes, Arterton breaking it down at one point, dance-club style. Only some interviews or other contributions from the actors would have further bumped up this solid little no-wild-frills package. To purchase the movie’s DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) B (Disc)
A Sundance 2009 entry, You Won’t Miss Me is a quasi-experimental travelogue through twentysomething malaise, opening this week in New York and just before Christmas in Los Angeles, to be followed by a (limited, one presumes) big-city national roll-out. Starring Stella Schnabel, the impressionable daughter of talented filmmaker father Julian, the film exudes a woozy hold — in equal measure because of and despite its wounded aimlessness — that a lot of its like-minded indie brethren fail to convincingly emanate.
Co-written by Ry Russo-Young (Orphans) and Schnabel, the movie centers on Shelly Brown, a 23-year-old urbanite who cycles through a series of unhappy hook-ups; takes a trip to Atlantic City with a friend that ends in a sniping fallout; and hits the acting audition circuit, in less than enthused fashion. Interspersed with this loose narrative are flippant response segments from a presumed therapy session, along with short, time-nonspecific montages depicting Shelly in life and love.
Schnabel has the ability to project a simultaneous vulnerability and masked cattiness, and her turn is more than one without vanity — it is without care or regard for audience perception one way or another. With neither affect nor guile, she casually owns scenes and anchors the movie, an utterly natural screen presence. Watching her performance, one is reminded of Marlon Brando’s line from The Wild One, when asked what he was rebelling against: “Whaddya got?” Shelly is neither to the manor born nor outwardly beset with more conventionally prescribed traumas. She is a character of recondite desire and inwardly reflected nervous energy, and so her quiet unhappiness and small examples of acting out elicit a sort of puzzlebox pleasure in trying to unravel and figure out her larger issues.
Detractors will hammer the proper narrative of You Won’t Miss Me (not entirely without justification) for some of its mumblecore ramblings, but to dismiss it out of hand in this regard is to ignore the manner in which the film’s kaleidoscopic style — inclusive of various formats, and looks — smartly dovetails with its protagonist’s flitting psyche. The movie may not arrive at a comfortable end point so much as finish, but Russo-Young proves herself to be a shrewdly perceptive chronicler of the damages young people often self-inflict despite better judgments, and her engagingly unassertive and evocative sophomore feature recalls the work of an early John Cassavettes, marking her as a filmmaker to watch. (Factory 25/Meese Productions, unrated, 81 minutes)
So it seems Alicia Silverstone has a new set of cosmetic bags — three brand-new additions and three revised sets, actually — ready to bow in April 2011, via EcoTools, a leader in eco-conscious bath and beauty products. The company’s entire collection of cosmetic brushes, bath, brow and nail accessories, as well as bath and body products features innovative, Earth-friendly materials, such as bamboo, recycled plastic, recycled steel, recycled aluminum, soybean oil and, yes, crushed walnuts. Smart play, I guess, the whole transition into beauty products, clothing and the like. This is the sort of shelf-life-expanding brand extension on which
non-cigar-smoking, non-rapping male celebrities miss out.
A visually rich but lumbering, narratively confused genre hybrid, The Warrior’s Way feels like a wildly missed opportunity for East-meets-West action mayhem. Lackluster pacing and ill-defined dramatic stakes make this movie — about a reticent swordsman (Jang Dong-Gun) who absconds with a baby and
takes up residence in a dusty American town full of transplanted circus
freaks, including Kate Bosworth and Geoffrey Rush — a tough sell for even its target audience. In his feature debut, writer-director Sngmoo Lee works up a film that, thematically, serves as able homage to its various touchstones, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns among them. But Lee doesn’t seem to know where to take his story. For the full original review, from Screen International, click here. (Relativity Media, R, 100 minutes)
Brian Wilson has always been a figure of much scrutiny and curiosity — one of the first big rock or pop stars to shun the promotional spotlight. While the Beach Boys were for much of their career regarded as little more than a silly surf-pop hit factory, Wilson’s stature has only grown with time, as his creative and sensitive compositions have inspired and taken hold of a new generation of musicians. That fact gets studied and celebrated in the fascinating new musical documentary Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969.
Running over three hours, this superlative title assays the vast amount of material Wilson wrote for and recorded with the Beach Boys during their 1960s heyday, digging into the craftsmanship of the music itself but also smartly framing the material as it relates to the familial group’s career arc and Wilson’s own delicate psyche. All sorts of talking head experts weigh in, but the major difference maker is access to those who matter and are in the know — a group that includes fellow Beach Boys Bruce Johnston and David Marks, former manager and promoter Fred Vail, biographers Peter Ames Carlin and Domenic Priore, and many other family friends.
Snippets of rare and classic recordings stud this release, along with lots of other obscure footage and solid archive interviews, making this the rare biographically-inflected title that doesn’t feature much direct cooperation or reflection from its subject and yet nonetheless feels comprehensive. By far the most interesting portion of the title focuses on the recording and 1966 release of the groundbreaking Pet Sounds, which was a notable departure from what the Beach Boys had recorded up until then. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” (which never really stabilizes on a particular key) are illuminated in interesting fashion, and Johnston and others talk about how “Sloop John B,” a leftover from the previous year’s Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) sessions, fits into the album. The latter also talks about Capitol Records’ relative disdain for the album at the time — evident in their indifferent promotion, and quickie release of a greatest hits package — and how the release of “Caroline, No” as a single was “a shot across the bow,” in his opinion.
Spread across two discs and housed in a nice, quasi-hard-shell case with plastic snap-in trays, Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969 comes to DVD presented in anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital 2.0 stereo track. Supplemental bonus features include contributor biographies, a small clutch of extended interview clips, and a mini-featurette in which Johnston recalls John Lennon and Paul McCartney getting an early preview listen to Pet Sounds. To purchase the DVD, click here; or, if Amazon is totally and irretrievably your thing, click here. A- (Movie) B- (Disc)
Another slick, engaging title in the solid Rare and Unseen series, this briskly paced hour-long doc looks at the iconic British musician, actor, producer and voracious reader of going on five decades now, David Bowie. Most famous for his ostentatious, androgynous “Ziggy Stardust” alter-ego during the glam-rock era of the early 1970s, Bowie has continually reinvented his music and personal image, and is regarded as an influential innovator in both rock music and the intersection of a peddled, constructed public persona.
Told through missing archive interviews and rare and unseen footage, this insightful DVD is a worthy addition to any hardcore Bowie fan’s home video collection. Bowie’s skill as a multi-instrumentalist — in addition to singing vocals he plays electric, acoustic and twelve-string guitar, plus keyboards, alto, tenor, piano, harmonica, xylophone, tambourine, drums and many other instruments — shines through, and the timeless quality of his music is strikingly highlighted. Listening to bits of or ruminating on any of his numerous top 10 hits, including everything from “China Girl,” “Modern Love” and “Starman” to “Space Oddity,” “Under Pressure” and “Let’s Dance,” one is repeatedly struck by the freshness of their composition and arrangement.
Items genuinely unseen and never previously released on DVD stud this somewhat haphazardly pieced together title, including presumed lost but now restored TV interviews with Russell Harty in which Bowie speaks candidly about his drug use and the haze of his famously creative Berlin days. There is also rehearsal and backstage footage, some press conference material and a couple yawning Bowie impersonations by Stevie Riks. In aggregate, it’s a bit like opening an old box of stashed away high school and college mementos (“Why exactly did I keep this?” you wonder, before a splinter of recognition answers your puzzlement), but David Bowie: Rare and Unseen is undeniably a treat for fans of the chameleonic, one-of-a-kind performer.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, David Bowie: Rare and Unseen comes to DVD on a region-free disc, presented in 16×9 widescreen, with an English language Dolby digital 2.0 stereo audio track. There are no supplemental bonus materials of which to speak. To purchase the DVD, click here. B- (Movie) C- (Disc)
Inspired by one of the more infamous missing person’s cases in recent New York history, All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, angles to be both a character portrait of psychological unease and rot, as well as a true-crime thriller loosely in the vein of Changeling, The Black Dahlia and Hollywoodland. Beset with a series of miscalculated dramatic misfires, it is instead a melodramatic adaptation of a tabloid-style telenews-magazine murder-mystery, wearyingly overstuffed with baroque detail in an effort to prop up its legitimacy.
Director Andrew Jarecki made a splash with the Oscar-nominated documentary Capturing the Friedmans, but in his dramatic feature debut he evinces little comfort for and skill with working with actors, and makes liberal use of tired dramatic markers more commonly associated with time-compressed television, like a whistling tea kettle to signify mounting tension. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (Magnolia, R, 101 minutes)
Had he ever lived to see fame and fortune through his art — let alone the iconic embrace of his works via college room dorm walls across the United States — Vincent Van Gogh would almost certainly shake his head in disbelief. His was a hard life, full of turbulence and disappointment. The warmth of embrace — either critically or commercially — would likely be discombobulating to him. All of which makes Van Gogh: Brush with Genius, a short-form documentary originally created for exhibition in IMAX theaters, an even more telling glimpse into his life and work.
Though it runs only a relatively scant 40 minutes, Van Gogh: Brush with Genius delivers a superlative, condensed
biography of the famed artist, providing viewers with a dazzling, visually sumptuous tour of his works, while also retracing his life through his letters and other writings, and showcasing some of the wondrous locations that inspired him. Given its IMAX roots, of course, there’s plenty of edu-tainment pop and a touch of gloss (I’m sure this played in heavy rotation for visiting school audiences), but the slurry beauty of Van Gogh’s feverish brushstrokes are highlighted in engaging fashion too. This is a short-form title that strikes the right balance between glorification and explication of its subject.
Housed in a regular Blu-ray case, Van Gogh: Brush with Genius comes to Blu-ray presented in 1080p high definition, in a beautiful 1.78:1 widescreen transfer, with DTS-HD master audio 5.1 tracks in English, French, Spanish and Japanese. The review copy with which I was serviced came, amusingly enough, with a miniature foam severed ear, but thankfully that’s not the only supplemental feature; a brief slide show and a HD-shot making-of documentary, running just under 20 minutes, are also included here, making for a total package that feels robust, but is still condensed. To purchase the Blu-ray via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) B- (Disc)