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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

Real Grindhouse Does L.A.

So this is old news, the Grindhouse Festival at the great New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Programmed by Quentin Tarantino to celebrate the down-and-dirty cinema of his misspent youth — and of course coincide with his own Grindhouse release — the fest presents straight eight weeks of five dozen deliriously bad movies, including The Swinging Barmaids, Cry of a Prostitute and Yul Brynner’s Death Rage.

What’s (arguably) worth mentioning is that a couple weeks back I caught a double feature with a few friends, of  Rino Di Silvestro’s The Legend of the Wolf Woman and Derek Ford’s The Girl from Starship Venus (aka The Sexplorer). Tarantino and Eli Roth were in attendance as well, and enjoying the New Beverly’s exceedingly reasonably priced popcorn, as well as trailers between the movies that included Cat People, scream queen Barbara Steele‘s The She Beast, the clip for the original The Howling, and Galaxina, with Dorothy Stratten.

Of the two flicks, the latter was probably more fun — a sort of more deliciously stupid cross between Carmen Electra‘s The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human and Jesus knows what, starring the beautifully vapid Monika Ringwald. As the titular “surveyor,” Ringwald moved through modern-day London from one amusing situation to another, discovering sensory experience via lascivious pans up and down a wildly gyrating stripper (Tanya Ferova), a sex room full of balloons (explained by a comedically leering guy looking to close the deal as offering a “certain tactile pleasure”) and, eventually, a bubble bath with a dorky, helmet-haired chap. The backdrop for all of this is literal-minded, cautious and increasingly hilarious and pleading voiceover narration from Ringwald’s unseen mission commander, who mans a ship that is — in the best tradition of low-rent, filmic practicality — a silver ball bearing. It’s long gone from the New Beverly, but if you’re predisposed to kitschy T&A romps and you can track down a copy, The Girl from Starship Venus offers up a great audiovisual backdrop for your next party.

The festival wraps up soon, meanwhile; today through Tuesday it’s a double-feature of 1977’s Jailbait Babysitter, starring Therese Pare, and 1974’s Grave of the Vampire. Also knocking heads April 29 through May 1 is 1973’s ultra-rare The Real Bruce Lee, along with Lee Lives Within. Double-feature admission is $7, but a discount card for eight admissions is only $32. For more information, click here or, if you must, phone (323) 938-4038.

The Upside of Anger

The “Old Made New” designation
had its roots in the recommendation of catalogue titles, films that had
sort of slipped through the cracks or were a bit off the beaten path. One of the great things about “the Internets,” as our president would say, is of course that you can upend more traditional notions of archiving, and slot and re-post things as you see fit.

To that end, given my perhaps surprisingly strong regard for Reign Over Me, I thought it would be an interesting counterbalance to post my review of writer-director Mike Binder’s The Upside of Anger,
his last prior theatrical wide release, which bowed in March of 2005 to
just over $18.5 million domestically. Reading back over the piece, I
was struck by some of the overt thematic similarities — both movies find Binder exploring the post-Sept. 11 world tension in the air — I had forgotten, perhaps because of the more… not distasteful, really, but headache-inducing elements of The Upside of Anger. I have to say, I think Reign Over Me is much more judicious in its moments of pique and showcased frustration. It shows evidence of someone who’s grown leaps and bounds as director. To wit:

An awkward and generally off-putting amalgamation of
codependency and “zeitgeist” posturing written and directed by Mike Binder
(HBO’s The Mind of the Married Man), The Upside of Anger is a romantic
dramedy ostensibly about fury and resentment’s ability to transform, about the
corruptible power it has over not only those exercising it but those under its
umbrella
.

Joan Allen stars as harridan Terry Wolfmeyer, a woman whose
husband suddenly disappears — she thinks the result of an affair. Terry
presides over her four implausibly un-flummoxed teen and young adult daughters
(Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen and Evan Rachel Wood) and a large
suburban house where it’s loud even when no one is talking due to the forceful
stamp of her furrowed-brow personality
. The Wolfmeyers’ next-door neighbor is
the rumpled Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), an ex-jock turned Detroit
radio deejay who doesn’t want to talk about sports and his baseball career,
even as he signs crates of baseballs to anonymously auction off on eBay. As the
days turn into weeks and more, Terry and Denny engage in a clumsy, discomfited
mating dance, and Denny finds something transforming about all the new estrogen
in his life. Terry is crazy and unhinged, but for whatever reason she helps bring
Denny’s life into focus, and he hers.

The two best things going for The Upside of Anger are its clever casting inversions, which find
the genteel Allen tearing into her rich bitchery with full-hearted aplomb, and
Costner playing a rumpled scalawag who thinks he’s a charmer but no one’s
actually charmed by (at least until the Wolfmeyers come around to his
loose-tongued candor). That both Terry and Denny are functional alcoholics is
fertile (if familiar) comedic ground but a bit of an emotional cop-out. It unnecessarily
negates and blurs their motivations
. The main problem is one of tone, though. In
order for a character as bitter and abrasive as Terry to work, he or she really
has to be set against a more serene background, which the film pretends to have
in the loafing Denny. But The Upside of
Anger
is every bit as shrill and strident as its lead.

The film provokes, sure, but not in a meaningful way. It
doesn’t rankle because it challenges
you, but rather because it’s so clamorous and insistent of its own ornamental,
idiosyncratic charms
. There are a few wild-eyed moments of comic delight — an
awkward dinner scene where the film cements its R rating with a wicked glimpse
into Terry’s mind’s eye — that succeed because you feel the movie isn’t running
along some carefully prescribed track; anything can happen. But overall The Upside of Anger merely comes off as
discordant. Additionally, it must be said that there’s no palpable sisterly
chemistry between the young actresses, and that Swimfan’s Christensen — all giant, blank-faced blinks and eyebrow
quirks — gives a jarringly awful, wince-inducing performance
. Each scene that
foregrounds her is amongst the worst of the movie.

Whatever your appraisal of Binder’s talents as a writer and
actor (he costars here as Adam “Shep” Goodman, Denny’s horndog producer and the
skeazy wooer of Christensen’s middle daughter, Andie), as a director he evinces
no clear sense of control, no ability to carefully mold a scene in order to
bring both the tension and comedy to full boil
— something, say, Sam Mendes
accomplished smashingly in American
Beauty
, a film of suburban dystopia which The Upside of Anger obviously wants to emulate. Setting the movie
several years ago, Binder tries to tie his thesis (that anger’s upside is… that
it’s the person you become?) to post-Sept. 11 world tension in the air. It
works to negligible effect; the screwiness feels patterned and arbitrary
.
There’s little Upside here. (New
Line, R, 116 minutes)

The Devil’s Rejects

As Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot gets further into the swing of production, I figured it would be time to get some stuff up and posted on his work; ergo this review of his last film, The Devil’s Rejects, redacted and tweaked from its original publication in Screen International.

A lot of horror movies self-profess to be brutal and out-there, but most modern genre pictures actually reveal themselves to be little more than communal vehicles of squeamish discomfort, because in the final analysis and in the pursuit of as many pan-demographic dollars as possible, they don’t really want to cross the line into flat-out perversion and wantonness.

Writer-director Rob Zombie’s wide-eyed, merrily depraved The Devil’s Rejects, on the other hand, has no such qualms. Refusing to cater or pander to a younger horror audience weaned on the teen-centric slasher flicks of the past half decade, the movie is unapologetically degenerate in just about every form and fashion. This means a film-going experience that is at times borderline unwatchable, but — and here’s the key — unwatchable on its own terms.



The Devil’s Rejects is a sequel of sorts to Zombie’s directorial debut House of 1,000 Corpses — though that 2003 film was such a bust and critical piñata that its ties are being smartly downplayed — in that it follows some of the same depraved characters as they escape a raid on their isolated country house and set off on the road, cutting a bloody swathe of scattershot retribution. Set in 1978 to a countrified soundtrack (including Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, Muddy Waters and Terry Reid), the film centers around a murderous clan of hillbillies who are chased from their torture-dungeon home and take hostages on their attempted flight to freedom. Demented matriarch Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is captured by Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) and his deputies in said raid, but Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, the director’s wife) and her white-haired brother Otis (Bill Moseley) escape and meet up with their equally psychotic father, the clown-makeup-smeared Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). While the Fireflys hole up with pimp and small-time drug peddler Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree), Wydell eventually enlists the assistance of two unsavory bounty hunters to deal with the murderers outside the official parameters of the law.

For all its lack of nuance, and the unpleasantness that its unnerving sadism conjures forth, The Devil’s Rejects is definitely of a piece with exploitation movies of the ilk and era for which it’s aiming. Wydell is an irascible figure, the type of lawman-pushed-too-far character you would expect to see Lee Marvin playing a couple generations ago, and Zombie brings a skeezy lasciviousness (freeze frames on violent beatings, macabre attempts at humor, psychological torture to match the physical brutality) to the entire affair. Overwrought performances and a maniacal B-movie energy cap off what is an artful and graphic if wholly unoriginal to-scale rendering of exploitation cinema.

Cinematographer Phil Parmet, too, brings a grubby effectiveness to the proceedings. Shot entirely on location in the California desert communities of Lancaster and Palmdale, The Devil’s Rejects exudes a dusty, bleak palette that is in mortal lock-step with the desolation and desperation of the narrative.

All in all, The Devil’s Rejects unnerves more than just about any other picture of the year, so pervasive is its sense of disgust and dread. These qualities mark it as certainly different from much of its modern cinematic brethren, though they won’t necessarily make it good for most audiences. (LionsGate, R, 108 minutes)

Catch a Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hiroshima No Pika

It’s ironic that “art” in the traditional sense (that is,
sculptures, paintings and the like) is so infrequently glimpsed through the
lens of today’s predominate mass art form, cinema. Hiroshima No Pika remedies that, tackling its serious subject
matter with a grace, sensitivity and beauty. Based on an award-winning
children’s book by Japanese artist Toshi Maruki and her husband Iri, and
narrated by Susan Sarandon, the short film uses arresting watercolor
illustrations to tell the story of a young girl and her family who survive
through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima
.

While the horrific reality of the events of August 6, 1945
serve as the backdrop, it’s Maruki’s eye for lyrical detail — both dark and
pained, and hopeful — that articulates the humanity of the event
, and makes a
stirring and even family-friendly case for its future avoidance at all costs.
Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” is a
good stylistic leaping off point of comparison, though Maruki’s compositions
exhibit a fluidity that exemplifies her training and familiarity with Western
oil painting. Director Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s camera ducks and pushes in on
Maruki’s art, and the narration — while not overly graphic — doesn’t pull many
punches. It paints a clear, succinct view of the city and its seven rivers, and
the terrible flash that pierced the morning sky upon impact; moving, too, are
images of children running to the water with their eyes fused shut. Clocking in
at 25 minutes, Hiroshima No Pika is a
mere morsel, but a powerful and affecting one
.

Any reflection of the film must begin with the fact that
both Toshi Maruki and her husband survived the bombing, and paint all their
work from firsthand memories of its effect and aftermath. Blended reds and
grays dance around the edges, invading the safety and sanctity of the thin
white canvases
on which they work and creating a deep sense of unease and a
disquieting rumination on mortality. It goes without saying that the magnitude
of human suffering in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and, two days
later, Nagasaki is inherently distressing, but Hiroshima No Pika creates its own powerfully sustainable expression
of universally relatable personal grief.

DVD release extras are considerable, starting with the inclusion of
the jointly billed, Academy Award-nominated 1986 documentary Hellfire, from director John Junkerman (Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times)
and executive producer John Dower. A 58-minute look at the Marukis and their
heralded Hiroshima murals, this is an invaluable companion piece to Hiroshima No Pika, offering as it does
intimate footage of the pair at work and them meeting with local press to
discuss their memories of the bombing and their lives’ work. Other supplemental
material includes a photo gallery which viewers can toggle through, biographies
of both subjects and filmmakers, and a list of activist-oriented web sites that
can point you in the right direction when you are suitably roused to action. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. B
(Movie) B (Disc)

ABC Africa

One Campaign recently, and it reminded me of Abbas Kiarostami’s ABC
Africa
. A documentary examination of the ravages of war, poverty and AIDS
in Uganda, ABC Africa is a film that
malingers and dawdles quite a good bit as it creates loose yet moving
impressions rather than a concrete arc. Yet it also reminds us that feeling is
indeed much stronger than thought; the at-odds sensations of joyfulness and
despair that it produces serve as a powerful exemplar that aid is not about some vague financial
hand-out, but a hand up for a people whom opportunity and modernity has largely
forgotten
.

Over the course of a 10-day visit to the country (his
first), Iranian director Kiarostami captures the faces of several hundred of
Uganda’s estimated 1.6 million orphans, the number a result of a mid-1980s
civil war and crippling battle with AIDS and malaria. He spends some time
delving into an International Fund for Agricultural Development program that
allows/mandates villagers to buy into a collective agenda that protects them,
not unlike insurance, against life’s valleys.

Mostly, though, Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, The
Wind Will Carry Us
) uses a very nonjudgmental lens, gently elucidating
greater meaning through context and only occasionally prodding his subjects
.
The film’s form is really quite loose — sometimes too much so, honestly. A lot of
the movie’s 84-minute running time is comprised of the simple, impressionistic,
non-narrated recording of everyday life — the wonderment with which kids behold
a camera, running after him like American suburbanites chasing an ice cream
truck — and a little of this goes a long way. When Kiarostami lingers at a
prophylactic billboard blacked out, presumably by staunchly Catholic
proponents of abstinence-only sex education, or, later in the movie, comes
across an Austrian couple adopting a little African girl, you wish the film
pursued these story strands with a little more dynamism
.

In the end, ABC Africa is shattering in its own
glancing way, but not necessarily philosophically profound
. There’s no
consensus or even, really, a finely honed inquisitiveness. Kiarostami documents
wholeheartedly, but without any sort of accompanying filter or prism; this
creates a deeply felt movie — and one still overall very worthwhile — but
also one that also doesn’t completely live up to your fullest expectations of what it
could be.

DVD bonus features include a theatrical trailer for the film and
a 55-minute mini-documentary from Pat Collins and Fergus Daly, entitled Abbas Kiarostami: The Art of Living,
which delves further into the director’s diverse interests (including poetry
and photography) as well as his filmography. A tri-fold booklet also excerpts
an interview between Scott Foundas and Kiarostami, the rest of which is
available via an included Web link. To purchase the film via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) B- (Disc)

Office Space

Ajay Naidu’s birthday, I thought I’d
repost a piece on Mike Judge’s brilliant Office
Space
, which saw special edition re-release on DVD at the tail end of 2005,
about nine months before 20th Century Fox would dump Judge’s latest film, Idiocracy, like a bullet-riddled corpse from fast-moving van.

Cast one’s mind back, though. Mmmm, yeah… 1999 was a special
year for cinema. There was just something in the pre-millennial air, and the
number of achingly memorable releases from that year — from The Insider, American Beauty, Election
and The Sixth Sense to Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project, The
Straight Story
and Magnolia — will
forever denote it as a true heavyweight’s period. An utter gem that slipped under
the radar, however, was Beavis & Butt-head
creator Judge’s live action directorial debut. Criminally underrated upon its
initial theatrical release, Office Space went on
to become a word-of-mouth smash, particularly on home video.

The story, of course, centers on Peter Gibbons (a fantastic
Ron Livingston, above left), a tech industry corporate drone sick and tired of his job at a
computer software firm that serves as a stand-in for every faceless white
collar workplace in America
.
His fellow partners-in-drudgery include friends Michael Bolton (David Herman, above middle)
and Samir Nagheenanajar (the aforementioned Naidu, above right), and they all hate their
boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole, friggin’ brilliant), whose smarmy sense of detached
entitlement comes across in everything from his used Porsche to his prodding
directives, all issued in a wheedling monotone
. Dumped by his girlfriend after
a trip to the hypno-therapist, Peter meets a nice new girl, waitress Joanna
(Jennifer Aniston), and finds happiness in a complete detachment from work,
even as corporate overseers circle with plans for layoffs. From there, Peter,
Michael and Samir hatch and enact a brazenly simple plot to skim compounded
interest from company bank transactions as a means of striking back at the
head-patting hand that has for so long held them down.

The dialogue is rich, the details spot-on and the
laugh-out-loud factor as high as in just about any comedy of the past decade. For
all its surface thrill, though, Office
Space
isn’t a comedy just about the regurgitation of accumulated
mundanities, it’s a comedy about authority and the searing resentment that its
lazy application engenders
(think Lumbergh’s passive-aggressive “yeeeeaaaaaah,”
all translated, really, as “no”). Livingston is pitch-perfect as Peter, as are
Herman, Naidu and a fine assortment of bit players, including Diedrich Bader,
John C. McGinley, Richard Riehle, Orlando Jones and, of course, Stephen Root as
the mumbling, thick-spectacled Milton.

Office Space’s
zeitgeist-capturing brilliance as a film, though, doesn’t give it automatic
sacred cow status on DVD, and truth be told this “special edition with flair” disappoints a
bit. There’s a collection of eight deleted scenes; mostly short bits and ends
from sequences already in the movie
, these include an extended conversation
between Peter and Michael prior to his first meeting with the Bobs, and two
snippets that reveal the fate of Lumbergh and introduce a construction foreman
doppelganger, the latter of which was smartly excised. A half-hour
retrospective includes interviews with Judge that highlight his observational
prowess, as well as newer material with all the other primary cast members

(yes, including Aniston). This stuff is great, but it’s all presented in such
choppy fashion that, while often amusing, it doesn’t shine as much light on the
creative process as possible. If Giant
magazine can gather most of the cast for an extensive retrospective interview,
as they did earlier this year, why can’t Fox do the same for this DVD?

Other than the theatrical trailer and DVD-ROM content, too,
that’s it as far as the extras. Why announced plans for other supplemental
material — including an audio commentary track from Judge, and the Saturday Night Live animated shorts that
first introduced the character of Milton

— were scrapped is anyone’s guess, but one needn’t have been directly
anticipating their inclusion to feel like something’s missing from this
reunion. It summons to mind Judge’s in-character admonition as Joanna’s boss:
“If you wanna be known as someone who’s OK with just the bare minimum, I
suppose that’s fine…” A (Movie) C+ (Disc)

Killer of Sheep Set for Theatrical Release

It’s great news for cinephiles, as after more than six years of toiling, Charles Burnett’s fantastic Killer of Sheep will enjoy its first-ever proper theatrical distribution this spring, from Milestone Films. One of the more acclaimed and influential movies by an African-American filmmaker, Killer of Sheep
was one of the first 50 films to be selected for the Library of Congress’
National Film Registry, and was chosen by the National Society of Film Critics
as one of its 100 Essential Films. But, chiefly due to music licensing problems and rights issues, the
film has very rarely been publically screened, and then only typically in film school settings and occasional retrospective presentations.

On occasion of the movie’s 30th anniversary, Milestone cleared all the rights, and will
present the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s dazzling 35mm restoration of
this landmark film. Killer of Sheep will first screen at the
2007 Berlin Film Festival, and then premiere in New York at the IFC Center on March 30, and in Los
Angeles
at the Nuart Theatre on April 6. Set in Watts in the mid-1970s, the movie centers on a sensitive, blue-collar dreamer (Henry Gayle Sanders) haunted by his work at a slaughterhouse, and his struggles to keep his family together, and keep from becoming detached and numb. For more information, click here.

Four Weddings and a Funeral

I had the unfortunate distinction of first seeing director Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral on the big screen with a fellow heterosexual upon its release. I say “unfortunate” not because of the quality of the movie itself, but because of the missed opportunity we each felt in seeing it together — after we walked out of its afternoon screening we turned to one another and jointly concluded, Damn, that movie is made to get you laid!” (Empirical research in the form of subsequent screenings has confirmed this.)

Rolling Stones-versus-Beatles argument), but Four Weddings and a Funeral stands rightly alongside fellow nominee The Shawshank Redemption as an under-heralded star of the evening, and a movie that certainly holds up every bit as much today as it did upon release more than a decade ago.

The film stars the aforementioned Grant as Charles, an inveterate bachelor but serial monogamist who is forever nervously swinging from one relationship to the next. The vast ensemble of his extended familial support group includes Simon Callow, John Hannah and Kristin Scott Thomas, the latter of whom stars as the fidgety Fiona, who harbors a secret crush on Charles. That the movie spun off each of these actors into larger profile work (Shakespeare in Love, Sliding Doors and The English Patient, respectively) is a testament to their talent, but also to the witty, pitch-perfect script and superb direction here.

To put it another, even blunter way, Four Weddings and a Funeral is such a wonderfully funny movie that even Andie MacDowell — the sole American interloper in the production, as Charles’ crush Carrie — can’t ruin it. Grant’s eye-batting may have reached a point of critical mass in other, subsequent films (Nine Months, anyone?) but here he’s perfectly in his element.

The deluxe edition of Four Weddings and a Funeral comes housed in a single-disc Amaray case with a partially see-through, plasticine slipcover. The film comes to DVD in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is clear and consistent, with no discoloration or edge enhancement. The movie’s color palette naturally bends generously toward pastels, creams and other lighter shades, all of which are richly and properly contrasted with a few scenes featuring dark, cherry oak church interiors. Anchored by an English language Dolby digital 5.1 track, Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s dialogue is crisp and clear. That the written word is of paramount importance here is undeniable, but the movie also does a good job of smoothly blending in appropriate background elements, such as the low-key splish-splosh of rain at film’s end and the banter of various party guests. A French language Dolby digital 5.1 track and a Spanish language Dolby digital surround sound track are also available, alongside optional subtitles in English, Spanish and French.

DVD extras include a collegial and sometimes quite droll audio commentary track with Newell, Curtis and the film’s producers, in which they offer forth stories of warm reminiscence. Among the information they reveal is that American co-financiers of the picture, in advance of its production, didn’t think they had a title to which audiences would be receptive enough; ergo, producers were put through the surely enviable task of coming up with alternate monikers, some of which have a pleasant if equally roundabout cadence to them (A Tale of Rings and Other Things), some of which are just god-awful (Tailcoats and Confetti, Girls in Big White Dresses) and some of which are simply perplexing (Toffs on Heat). Alongside this commentary track, there is also a collection of a handful of deleted scenes, a brief making-of featurette consisting entirely of period-piece EPK material and a newer character-based featurette clip-fest — all things that are worth a one-time dip, but hardly necessitate repeat interactions. Bottom line: If you’ve screwed up and are looking to make it up on the cheap with a cooked-in dinner and movie night, there’s hardly a better bet than Four Weddings and a Funeral. Trust me. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click hereA (Movie) B+ (Disc)

Van Wilder

Its sequel, Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, is set to invade theaters later this month, so naturally there’s a double-dip, double-disc version of the original Van Wilder hitting DVD too. Released under the moniker of the “Gone Wilder Edition,” it might as well be
called the “Boobies Edition,” given its special, puffy plasticine slipcover of
a bulging female chest.

Though a bit late to the teen-boom party, the silly and
shaggy but still somewhat fun
Van Wilder
attempts — if not entirely successfully — to resurrect the National Lampoon’s
banner. The movie’s premise is that the fictional Coolidge
College
’s reigning BMOC,
seventh-year senior Van (Ryan Reynolds), has to turn his avocational
party-planning skills into a vocation in an effort to stay in school when his
father (Tim Matheson) finally makes a move to cut off tuition support. In the
midst of all the craziness is uptown girl Gwen Pearson (Tara Reid, kinda awful),
a reporter for the school paper who’s out for a crucial, portfolio-making clip
— namely, the big scoop on what really makes Van tick.

OK, let’s dispense with a few notions right off the bat. Van Wilder’s plot matters not one iota.
I could tell you more, but it wouldn’t matter
. I could tell you about the scene
where Van and his best friend Hutch (forgotten The Real World vet Teck Holmes, above, second from left) manually stimulate a bulldog as
part of a complex revenge scheme, but it wouldn’t matter. I could attempt to
contextualize the bizarre cameos of Erik Estrada and several Los Angeles
Clippers basketball players, but it wouldn’t matter. I could attempt to explain
Van’s “Topless Tutors” program, but… well, actually, that one pretty much
explains itself
. The point is, the set pieces are stupefyingly contrived and
too stylized by just about half. But it
doesn’t matter.

No, the undeniable appeal of Van Wilder lies solely with star Reynolds, who has a comedic flair
that often plays outside the box
. For all the largely deserved ridicule heaped
upon his old sitcom Two Guys and a Girl,
there Reynolds infused every line reading with a certain gleaming, frat boy
mania. In making the leap to features, Reynolds retains much of that breezy,
high-above-the-clouds mentality, similar to the working styles of fellow
Canadians Jim Carrey and Norm MacDonald. Yet where former Saturday Night Live vet MacDonald always seems to have snarky
contempt for both his material and his audience, Reynolds falls into the former
camp of flamboyant, high-wire comedic interpretation. If he’s ever uncertain of
a line reading or situation, you’d never know it. While he’s gone on to work
the buff, goateed look to his advantage in genre fare like Blade Trinity and The Amityville Horror, it’s comedy that remains his strength. He
makes it look effortless and natural, even in something as contrived as this.

So is Van Wilder a
classic? No, not really. But Reynolds really
recommends this, and in revisiting the movie on DVD four years after its
theatrical release, I was struck less by its gross-out gags and colorful set
pieces than how it plays as a sort of sleepy, Sunday afternoon diamond in the
rough
, with bit roles for Curtis Armstrong (Revenge of the Nerds) and Paul Gleason (The
Breakfast Club
), as well as the aforementioned Matheson. Clearly, its
makers envision the movie as belonging to the long, proud tradition of
willfully gross, youth-skewing college comedies, and there’s a charm to be
found in this unapologetically streamlined, singular vision. For what it aims
to be, Van Wilder succeeds fairly
smashingly.

As previously mentioned, this special two-disc Van Wilder: Gone Wilder edition release
comes in an Amray case with a plastic-hinged tray that is in turn stored in a plasticine
slipcase. The kitsch value is enhanced by the fact that the chest of the
faceless cover girl — whose wife-beater T-shirt sports the movie’s title and
logo — is raised, allowing you to touch three-dimensional plastic boob without
having to actually date a would-be Hollywood starlet
.

Van Wilder is
presented here in both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full screen transfers
,
the former preserving the aspect ratio of its original theatrical presentation.
The transfers are solid though not spectacular, and seem likely to be imported
from the movie’s previous DVD release. Free from any obvious digital artifacts,
the movie’s color levels are crisp and bright, though there are some occasional
problems with a bit of grain, most notably in a few montage sequences. The movie’s dialogue is cleanly and clearly captured in a
fairly straightforward and unchallenging English language Dolby digital 5.1
audio track. Atmospherics are integrated quite sparsely throughout, and
surround is only really put to the test in a few blandly mixed party sequences
.
From a technical/functional level, this is fine, but in my book the audio mix
grades out as uninspiring in its imagination. English and Spanish subtitles are
also included.

Spread out over two discs, the release’s slate of bonus
material is expansive, so much so that the DVD’s interface is
very slow-moving. Imported from the
previous DVD release are nine deleted scenes, the funniest of which involve
Van’s meeting with the campus Black Caucus, a forward-looking fantasy scene
with a cameo from Joyce Brothers and, painfully, a masculinized spin on the
“Topless Tutors” scheme. Also holdovers are a dozen separately presented
outtakes, a 21-minute Comedy Central special promotion of the movie and Sugarcult’s
“Bouncing of the Walls” music video.

As for the new material, an appropriately billed “drunken
idiot” feature-length audio commentary track gathers a few fans of the film,
and costar Jason Winer hosts the five-minute “Ultimate College Party Guide,” which
provides roughly the same amount of laughs
. On the second disc, the 16-minute
making-of featurette “Party Legends, Pledges and Bullies” is full of pretty
amusing behind-the-scenes footage, and several of the filmmakers assert Holmes
had to engage in some real canine jack-off action (an allegation Holmes himself
denies). “Testicles of the Animal Kingdom” is an interactive quiz about exactly
what it sounds like, while the text-based “Write That Down” spotlights most of
Van’s quotable moments. “Gwen-ezuma’s Revenge,” meanwhile, provides a
seven-minute at the work of a sound effects foleyman, who in this case works up
the lurid after-effects of ingesting a “Mega Colon Blow.” The breadth of material here makes for a lot of extra fun,
but without more wry, retrospective love from Reynolds, it’s not truly
complete
. A collection of assorted previews rounds out the release.

Bottom line, though: Van Wilder
delivers on its goals. Reynolds’ performance embodies the super-confident, wildly
popular college slackmaster we all wish we could have been. He’s not quite a
Ferris Bueller for the 21st century, but he’s close enough. What’s that I hear?
Chug, chug, chug… To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) B (Disc)

Revisiting Short Cuts

Altman’s career was
somewhat on the wane before the one-two punch of The Player and Short Cuts
re-established his critical integrity and reintroduced him to another
generation of film school dramatists eager to impress their own brand of
ensemble dramaturgy upon the silver screen
. The latter movie in particular — available in a sterling
two-disc set from Criterion that also
includes a small bound copy of the Raymond Carver writings upon which it is based — remains one of my favorites of the director’s canon.

Short Cuts’ setting is the dreary, dystopian,
pesticide-drenched Los Angeles of the early 1990s, and it concentrates on the
interconnected lives of 10 scattered and very different families and individuals
,
including Matthew Modine’s doctor and his self-centered artist wife Julianne
Moore (above, in a rightfully acclaimed performance); Moore’s screen sister Madeleine
Stowe and her philandering cop husband, played by Tim Robbins; alcoholic limo
driver Tom Waits; pesticide pilot Peter Gallagher (The OC); children’s party clown Anne Archer; and a trio of bonding
fishermen played by Fred Ward, Buck Henry and Huey Lewis. Any further
distillation of the myriad connections between characters or even the fashion
in which their relationships play out is secondary to the cumulative effect.

A
cinematic collagist at heart
(making this movie’s slivered heart teaser poster, later replicated for its DVD release, especially
appropriate), Altman has always had a deft touch crafting thematic tone poems
from multiple, digressive narratives. Short
Cuts
, however, is his crowning achievement in this arena. The overarching
subject under the microscope is the innately human frailty of trust, honesty
and fidelity
. The resultant portrait that emerges may certainly not be one of uplift — like
Los Angeles’ sun, it somehow feels
both warm and unforgiving at the same time, often within the same scene
— but it
is absolutely, unflinchingly real and affecting.

With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right

I’ll periodically here be reaching into the proverbial back catalogue and taking a look at some worthwhile off-the-beaten-path cinema in a section called Old Made New, and with the Mark Foley Congressional Page scandal exploding all around and the Republican Party’s long-held grip on morality as a political billy club seemingly waning, what better time than now to delve into With God
on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right
?

Those seeking a clear-eyed portrait of what’s been pegged as the inexorable rise
of evangelical influence on the American political machine would do well to
spend some time in the company of this utterly engrossing documentary. A
fascinating portrait of the dance between Big Religion and politics
, With God
on Our Side
sheds interesting light on the two big supposed dinner party topic no-nos, and
tangentially raises questions that independent thinkers of all persuasions
should be considering.

Despite its name-dropping, somewhat baiting title and opening credit
sequence, With God on Our Side is less filtered through the prism of one
man than one might expect. Its 100 minutes, in fact, are roughly evenly divided
between a chronology of the evangelical movement’s ascendancy in modern day
politics
— dating back to Barry Goldwater’s resounding defeat at the hands of
LBJ in 1964, intensifying the at-that-time “moral minority’s” sense of loss, and
of the country somehow slipping away — and a look at what many insiders view as
their prodigal son, current President George W. Bush
. The former portion is
actually just as fascinating, if not even more so, perhaps because its bird’s
eye view comes with some divorced distance from the sort of white hot emotional
response the current administration often provokes.

In tracking the presidential elections since 1964, and the partiality of what
was up until that time the largest tract of virgin timber on the American
political landscape, interesting patterns emerge and battle lines come into
focus — especially in the wake of Jerry Falwell’s creation of Moral Majority, a
non-denominational, politically motivated group. Particularly interesting is the
manner in which evangelicals grapple with their personal joy over Jimmy Carter’s
self-described status as a born-again Christian and the realization that, for
some perhaps, his political sensibilities were more liberal than their own.

The Carter presidency actually comes across as among the least, shall we say,
calculating or self-serving administrations to court or embrace the evangelical
bloc. Taking a realistic look at the evidence here, it’s interesting that the
evangelical Christian movement is so closely identified with the Republican
party
, because time and time again there is a clear pattern of candidates and
those in governance paying a certain lip service on culturally conservative
issues only to then “abandon” or sell out (the common mass mailing rallying
cries) the stated goals and visions of those to the far right. From the
championing of voluntary school prayer — which President Reagan half-heartedly
touted exactly once before letting it be stillborn in Congress — to the cyclical
rumblings about sanctity-of-human-life or anti-gay marriage constitutional
amendments (cough, cough, Dubya?), the bait somehow remains ever fresh.

As With God on Our Side segues into its second half, then, one could
reasonably raise questions about the motivations of George W. Bush’s religious
conversion
. After all, as a failed businessman and professionally adrift
man-child of entitlement, he oversaw outreach toward evangelicals in his
father’s presidential campaign of 1988, which included a bruising primary slate
against televangelist Pat Robertson. Could “#43” be nothing more than a
charlatan, a poser using religious contrition and identification as a
springboard to power? Ultimately probably not, but the movie does — almost
subtly and subliminally — present Bush as someone for whom a unique fusion of
faith and ambition occurred
.

Regardless of political stripe or religious affiliation, one thing viewers are guaranteeed to come away with after watching With God on Our Side is an adjusted sense
of perspective. Current reportage may dote on a perceived evangelical rise, but
co-directors Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor (A Perfect Candidate)
show how it has been a consistently upward-trending force in American politics
for at least four decades now
. The only thing that’s changed is an increasing sophistication and the success of the evangelical movement’s
grassroots campaign to turn out the vote in substantive blocks and affect public
discourse (if not policy) through political advocacy. Of course, they may be staging their version of a sit-in come this Election Day.

Alone in the Dark

director Uwe Boll’s Alone
in the Dark
, in a slightly redacted reworking of my original theatrical review. You will desperately need, in
my estimation, the following items for survival:

  • One or more friends with barbed wit and a proclivity for
    awful genre tripe
  • Cash for anonymous purchase, plus hats and/or sunglasses to disguise identity (you won’t want to have this rental credited to your account)
  • A considerable amount of alcohol
  • Kleenex to wipe away tears of laughter
  • The gene blocking the impulse of shame

From frame one, Alone in the Dark announces itself as awful with such a manic, drunken
fervor that you have to on some level
step back and tip your hat in awe to its audacity
. Helmed by Boll (Blackwoods,
The House of the Dead), there is no
subtext in Alone in the Dark, only
capital-T text — writ large, bold and obvious. Every line, every moment seethes
with a brazen stupidness
, from the nonsensically edited action and on-screen
flubs (I’ll give them a stay of execution on the spelling of “analysing,”
though I don’t think this is a British production and it doesn’t jibe with the
American characters) to the body armor apparently picked up at a Starship Troopers 2 yard sale and the
riotously appalling dialogue (one suggested drinking game: a swig for every
time a character says, “The readings are off the charts!”). The film is a
masterwork of awfulness, a literal and veritable bad movie blueprint
, from
start (which features a comically long narrated preamble) to merciful conclusion.

The plot, as it were, details a bunch of folks as they try
to rustle up the last of a few artifacts relating to the ancient Abkani tribe.
Of course, a shampoo-needing knucklehead at the beginning of the film has
opened a precious golden arc, meaning… aw, crap, who really knows or cares?
There’s monsters. And zombie-esque human marauders. On the other side,
Christian Slater squints and shoots as Edward Carnby, a paranormal investigator
and erstwhile orphan who used to run with a shadowy government organization
known as 713, but now wears a swashbuckling leather duster and plays by his own
rules. That leaves Stephen Dorff’s equally stubbled and glowering Burke
Richards in charge of the 713 posse; along to fulfill the cleavage quota is
Aline Cedrac (Tara Reid). Pow! Bam! Zing!

Adapted from an Atari videogame by two debut screenwriters
and the writer of MVP2: Most Vertical
Primate
, Alone in the Dark makes
many choices, every single one of them poor, but chief amongst the blunders is
trying to sell us a bespectacled Reid as a brilliant anthropologist. She is the
most utterly lost of a cast that phones in every crappy line with an
automaton-like indifference. They say that even ugly babies have faces their
mothers love, but this is truly a film that not even hardcore, braindead genre fans could
appreciate in straightforward fashion. As a slice of camp comedy, on the other hand…

The Brown Bunny

He’s flippin’ crazy, that irascible Vincent Gallo (sample rant from his eponymous web site: “The only impact Harmony Korine will have will be on the lives of the girls he slipped drugs to, got stoned and raped while they were passed out — an autobiographical scenario he chose to include in his average screenplay Kids…”), but one thing’s for certain: he’s committed to following his own myriad artistic instincts, down whatever rabbit holes they may lead him. I was thinking about this again when I was talking with a friend about Gallo’s uncommonly tender The Brown Bunny, so I thought I’d re-post elements of my original theatrical review.

The film is a rarity in modern American cinema — a movie about masculine neediness. This isn’t to say that the movie is an easy, pleasurable watch. Far from it, in fact. The Brown Bunny‘s pace is punishingly, defiantly slow, and it’s still generally the kind of thing that you admire more than actively enjoy, so modest are its at-arm’s-length rewards. The film stars producer-editor-director-cinematographer Gallo (who else?) as Bud Clay, a haunted shell of a man who, after a motocross race, winds his way slowly west toward Los Angeles and a damaged relationship with his waiting girlfriend, Daisy (Chloë Sevigny). Along the way he grapples, in often abstract ways, with both fidelity and loneliness.

Caring as little as Gallo does for conventional structure and pacing, The Brown Bunny is designed as much to elicit mood as anything else; de facto mini-musical videos of open road (Gordon Lightfoot, Jackson Frank) alternate and share the screen with a few loose story strands that find Bud awkwardly, casually and/or silently picking up a trio of women (Anna Vareschi, Cheryl Tiegs and Elizabeth Blake), all named for flowers, only to then just as quickly abandon them.

Much of the movie’s notoriety stems from its sexually explicit ending, and for the life of me I can’t decide whether this is bold, envelope-pushing, exhibitionistic folly or Gallo’s radical, deadpan, completely unspoken attempt to give The Brown Bunny — inarguably one of the most baldly uncommercial American movies of the past five years — an overtly sensational “hook” or selling point. The scene in question is shocking, yes, and even titillating, but also wholly inessential to the movie’s basic twist and, more importantly, emotional validation. As such it comes off as tangential sensationalism at a point when the characters’ raw emotionalism (“I wish you liked me again, like before… when you liked me the most,” says one, heartrendingly) should be ripping you in half.

Gallo, who previously directed Buffalo ’66, places a fetishistic premium on setting and place that touches rewarding and then frequently sprints right past it into tedium’s waiting bosom. With long, loooooong establishing shots and a good many passages that lack disciplined pruning, the look of the movie summons comparisons of an even fuzzier, further off-center Miller High Life commercial. Taken in sum, the preceding are evidence of Gallo’s brutal — and, in some respects, dazzlingly audacious — disregard for audience sympathy or even reaction. I’d be intrigued to see this material paired with a like-minded yet stronger directorial hand; as is, The Brown Bunny too frequently comes across as a series of accumulated mundanities rather than the racked-focus character portrait it should be. And yet there’s still a quiet, unassuming integrity and untainted throughline to the picture. The Brown Bunny certainly isn’t for the casual moviegoer, and maybe not even for most devoted film fans. Its sad, lonely portrayal of romantic resignation and arrested development, though — most hauntingly captured in Bud’s keening, high-pitched mutterings at film’s end — is something that clings to your memory like a form-fitting psychological trauma. (Wellspring, unrated, 93 minutes)

Lollilove

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

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

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

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

Grizzly Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown White Male

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sting

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

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

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

Inside Deep Throat

I reviewed this film elsewhere last year, both theatrically and on DVD,
and it’s still a quite recent release, but I thought I’d revisit it
again since this non-fiction flick about the most financially
successful independent movie of all time (if
you want to really get down to it) is a transformative, engrossing
overview of both a “dirty,” singular phenomenon and an entire era
.
Co-directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato — the team behind the
equally revelatory The Eyes of Tammy FayeInside Deep Throat takes a
look at the sexually explicit film that dragged pornography out into
the light of day, and made both celebrities and then, in an instant,
social pariahs of its two stars, Harry Reems and Linda Lovelace, né
Linda Borman.

When it released in the summer of 1972 (back
then, before VHS or DVD, adult movies still actually unspooled in seedy
movie houses) Deep Throat touched off a public frenzy, largely
because it was the first such mainstream depiction of its titular sex
act
. Downtown met uptown (Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and others) at
screenings, and in a time when word-of-mouth (not a word, folks) could
actually trump the niche-marketed dollars of Big Advertising, Deep Throat
became a cross-cultural smash, at the same time unintentionally
jumpstarting porn’s headlong dash from the alleys of art to the highway
of money
, much in the way that the success of Jaws and Star Wars refined conventional Hollywood release strategy.

Narrated in gravelly tones by Dennis Hopper and studded with
interview clips from Norman Mailer, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Peter
Bart, Erica Jong, Bill Maher, Wes Craven, Dr. Ruth, Camille Paglia,
Dick Cavett and many others, Inside Deep Throat is on one hand
an examination of the politics of suppression and reactionism
. While
neither Reems nor director Gerard Damiano fit the bill of someone who
can nobly wrap themselves in the Bill of Rights, that is of course the
very point of the protections that document provides, and it’s hard to
believe — and scary to think about — the fact that both faced the
possibility of serious jail time not more than a couple of decades ago
for doing (and watching) things that consenting adults across the
United States do on a daily basis. While not artistically
uncompromising First Amendment revolutionaries, they win our sympathy
because of their sins, not in spite of them.

The film is also funny and at times darkly foreboding, though, as it
details where the money from the film went (the Mob) and the sad
postscript of Lovelace, who became an anti-porn crusader and rape
activist before dipping into drug abuse. Also featured is a digressive
sequence where a cuckolded old exhibitor’s wife repeatedly berates him
for sharing too much information. It’s nothing more than a side
serving, but certainly a glancingly hilarious one.