Saturday, July 11, 2009

Loose Ends: "Big Fan" trailer, Ebert's epic rant, and more

So I've decided to start a new, semi-regular feature for a sort of general round-up of interesting movie stuff on the 'net, including new trailers that (up until now) have usually just gotten their own posts.

As I've stated more than once, here and in conversation, I think Patton Oswalt is one of the three or four best stand-ups working, period; pressed for the top five (which happens less often than you'd think), I'd say it's him, Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, and Lewis Black. So I was excited when I heard that he was teaming up with Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler, for a dark indie drama/comedy called Big Fan. It's out in August; the trailer hit this week.

Ebert, like about every critic working, panned Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and got the expected flack from the mouth-breathers. But here he's written a really sharp commentary about what he does, why he does it, and the entire process of become a savvy moviegoer. Choice quote: "So let's focus on those who seriously believe Transformers is one of the year's best films. Are these people wrong? Yes. They are wrong. I am fond of the story I tell about Gene Siskel. When a so-called film critic defended a questionable review by saying, 'after all, it's opinion,; Gene told him: 'There is a point when a personal opinion shades off into an error of fact. When you say The Valachi Papers is a better film than The Godfather, you are wrong.' Quite true. We should respect differing opinions up to certain point, and then it's time for the wise to blow the whistle."

Speaking of Ebert... the AV Club's "Inventory" feature is one of my favorites, and this week they've got a really good one on films and TV shows that poked fun at critics.

If you're interested in film editing and have twenty minutes to spare, check out this terrific video of one of the greats, Walter Murch. He cut Apocalypse Now, so what he says might be worth hearing.

Being so gay for Soderbergh, my heart sunk when news broke that his latest, a Brad Pitt starrer called Moneyball, got taken out behind the shed and shot in the head by Sony mere days before filming was to begin. Soderbergh's controversial rewrite sounded interesting, to me at least, based on several pieces I read about it. So I was all prepared to boycott the picture, if in fact it ever did get released, and then what do they do? They go and hire Aaron Sorkin to write the new draft. Fuck. Guess I'm seeing it anyway.

That's all for now...

Friday, July 10, 2009

On DVD: "The Mafia DVD Set"

What is it that fascinates us so about the Mafia? The personalities and business of organized crime have inspired some of our finest films (The Godfather, GoodFellas, Little Caesar, Public Enemy, Donnie Brasco, both versions of Scarface, The Departed, White Heat, Point Blank, Miller’s Crossing, The Untouchables) and arguably the greatest TV drama of all time (The Sopranos), to say nothing of a cottage industry of true-crime books and documentary films. But why are we so drawn to their stories? Why, so often, do we find ourselves rooting for what are, by all accounts, common criminals? Often, it’s about the background—since so many of those who rise to power in crime families come from the streets, clawing and scratching and working their way to the top, theirs are frequently the classic “American success stories.” There’s also something admirable about their old-world values and codes of honor and silence—even though those codes are seemingly broken as often as they are upheld (if they weren’t, we wouldn’t know a thing about these guys).

Whatever the case may be, we can’t get enough of gangsters in culture—on television, in books, in film, in music. To that end, A&E Home Video has collected over ten hours of related programming from their own network and their sister History Channel for The Mafia DVD Set. Spread out over four discs, the set includes the entire five-part American Justice series “Target: Mafia,” in addition to several stand-alone biography and crime programs.

“Target: Mafia” takes up the first two discs of the set; this 1993 show, hosted by Bill Kurtis, presents a fairly comprehensive history of the Mafia in America. Part one, The Prohibition Years, goes back to the turn of the century, tracing the roots of the organization to the immigration and urbanization of east coast cities, and showing how the tremendous opportunities for illicit income provided by the 18th Amendment helped transform these petty criminals into organized businessmen. We also witness “the beginning of the rise of the Italian Mafia” and the ascent of Al Capone. Much time is spent on Capone in part two, Birth of the American Mafia, and on Capone’s Chicago (which boasted an unbelievable 10,000 speakeasies), as well as the rise of the Young Turks and Murder, Inc. The links between gangsters and show business figures are also explored (with the help of some terrific vintage footage).

Joseph Kennedy is mentioned in the early episodes as one of the many who profited from the business of bootlegging, and that background comes into fuller focus in part three, The Kennedys and the Mob. This intriguing show investigates how Joe’s mob ties may have helped get JFK elected, and how organized crime figures were then irritated by John and Bobby’s aggressive investigation of them once he was in office. The show also discusses the alleged Mob plot to help wipe out Castro, the shady dealings of Carlos Marcello, and theories about possible Mafia involvement in the Kennedy assassination (particularly in relation to Oswald and Ruby’s Mob ties).

Disc two begins with part three, Unions and the Mob, delving into 1930s labor racketeering and the by-the-numbers business of intimidation. The episode includes an exhaustively detailed account of Murder, Inc.’s takeover of the New York docks, the Mob takeover of the stagehands’ union, and the shocking story of the Ford Motor Company’s union-busting hatchet man Harry Bennett. Empire of Crime focuses on Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel, and how they transformed the Cosa Nostra’s income source from bootlegging to gambling (first in Sarasota Springs, then in Cuba, and finally in Vegas). It also tells the peculiar story of the fire on the Normandie and how that led to “Operation: Underworld,” the odd collaboration between the Mob and the U.S. government during World War II.

Overall, “Target: Mafia” lives up to the expected A&E/History Channel level of quality: it utilizes a treasure trove of terrific newsreel footage, still photos, radio recordings, and movie clips, while using a reliable assortment of interviews from authors, historians, law enforcement, and more. The music is monotonous and the series is a little dry in spots, while the Kennedy episode feels somewhat shoe-horned into the proceedings (it doesn’t flow in and out of the other episodes). But it is undeniably fascinating.

The trouble with The Mafia DVD Set is one shared with A&E’s The 60s Megaset--namely, they’ve thrown together several disparate programs, with little regard to repetition. If it were just the first two discs (the “Target: Mafia” series) it’d be fine, but the second pair of discs feature a number of programs that recycle the same information, stills, footage, and sometimes even the same interviewees. Disc three includes three biographical shows ( “Lucky Luciano: Chairman of the Mob,” “Meyer Lansky: Mob Tycoon,” and “Bugsy Siegel”), but all three men are covered generously in the Empire of Crime episode of “Target: Mafia”, to say nothing of the disc’s fourth special, “Genovese: Portrait of a Crime Family,” a Biography episode focusing on “the Ivy League of crime families,” of which the three men were members. However, this show does go into greater depth, particularly regarding the fate of the family after the Luciano era, including the stories of Frank Costello and Vito “The Oddfather” Gigante (who avoided persecution by claiming to be, and acting, mentally ill). But even this episode tells many of the same stories as the earlier show and the biographical hours, which themselves share a great deal of information (if I had to hear one more time about the formation of Murder, Inc. or about the connection of Lansky’s mentor to the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, I’d have screamed).

Much of the Capone material returns in “Al Capone and the Machine Gun Massacre,” a 2006 episode of the History Channel show Man Moment Machine detailing the 1929 “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” that brought Capone great power and notoriety. This is a newer, slicker show than the others in the set, and while the sharp editing and fast pace are welcome, it also includes some unfortunately cheeseball recreations—complete with bad dialogue (“I need you to take care of it, Al.” “Consider it done, boss.”) delivered in shaky Chicago accents. The format of this show is also a bit of a buzz-kill, dwelling particularly on the intricacies of the gun and including a silly demonstration of its power in the hands of the show’s smug host. Next up is the 2002 special “America and the Mob: Wartime Friends,” which delves into the strange story told in Empire of Crime, though this show has more of a military-history slant (which keeps it from seeming like too much of a retread).

Aside from “Target: Mafia,” the best doc of the set is probably “The Gambinos: First Family of Crime,” a longer look (it runs 90 minutes, compared to the 45-50 minutes of the other shows) at the kingpins of a later era. The show focuses on the famed New York family through the stories of its three primary bosses: Carlo Gambino, the soft-spoken but ruthless don responsible for the famous barber-shop hit on rival Albert Anastasia; his brother-in-law and successor, Paul Castellano, whose ineffectual and disastrous tenure led to unrest in the ranks; and John Gotti, the ambitious “Teflon Don” who put out the contract on Castellano to ensure his rise to power. This ambitious documentary utilizes a wealth of FBI surveillance videos, photos, and tapes, as well as testimonials from numerous reporters, attorneys, friends, and cops. Riveting and well-assembled, “The Gambinos” helps The Mafia DVD Set go out with a bang.

Viewers like me, who love documentaries and are fascinated by gangsters, will eat The Mafia DVD Set up with a spoon; in spite of the unfortunate recycling of material from one disconnected special to the other, there’s still a wealth of good stuff here. More casual viewers, however, will probably just want to fuggedaboutit.

"The Mafia DVD Set" hits DVD on Tuesday, July 28th.

Today's New in Theaters: 7/10/09

Brüno: There are huge laughs and plenty of squirms to be found in the latest from Sacha Baren Cohen and his Borat director Larry Charles. Its only real flaw is that it feels slightly stale; Borat was such a fresh, new hybrid of comedy and documentary that this one feels, in spots, like an imitation.

I Love You, Beth Cooper: Chris Columbus hasn't directed a watchable film since... let's see... yeah, I'm gonna have to go back to Nine Months. His latest, an awful-looking attempt to make a throwback John Hughes-style comedy, certainly doesn't appear in line to break that trend. Orndorf at DVD Talk posted a pretty good shredding of it.

Humpday: This low-budget comedy looks pretty good, and Movieline is just over the moon about it. It's only in New York and Seattle for the first week, though.

Soul Power: The music, of course, is remarkable. Too bad there's so little of it in this documentary look at the Zaire '74 music festival, intended to lead up to the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle." It's worth checking out, but it will leave you wanting more, more, more.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

In Theaters: "Brüno"

Comedy sequels are a tricky business; ask the makers of Caddyshack II, Ghostbusters II, City Slickers II, Analyze That, Blues Brothers 2000, Arthur 2: On The Rocks, and many more. The difficulty is that much of what is funny is based on the element of surprise, the unexpected intermingling and incongruence of character and situation. “Been there, done that” is the antithesis of screen comedy, and unless comics can find a fresh spin, additional installments can feel like warmed-over sitcom episodes.

That trouble is compounded when you’re making a sequel to a comedy as unique and unexpected as Borat—and let’s be honest, that’s what star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles’ new film, Brüno, is. It may not feature the same character, but it does find the same star and director returning to that film’s style—a distinctive pastiche of scripted comedy, documentary, and gonzo performance art—with a new character, but hoping for similar results (a gotcha social satire, George Carlin by way of Andy Kaufman and Michael Moore). And that’s its only real weakness, the only way in which it comes up short comparatively—Borat was so fresh and bizarrely unprecedented, so willing to go anywhere and do anything, that it staked out its own comedic territory and made its own rules.

Which is not to imply that Brüno is in any way timid—quite the contrary. This is a movie that doesn’t just cross the line; it crosses the line, laughs at that line, makes a new line, and then crosses that. There are things in the film that I never thought I would see in a movie theater, from the jaw-droppingly graphic montage of Brüno and his boyfriend’s inventive sex life to a stomach-churning sequence where he visits a swinger’s party to the cheerfully bouncing genitalia on the American television show that he puts in front of a disgusted focus group. If the nude wrestling scene in Borat was too much for you, well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Brüno was the third character (and last to get a film) from Cohen’s breakthrough series, “Da Ali G Show”; a flamboyant gay Austrian fashionista who hosts a trend-spotting television show, he begins the feature by wrecking a fashion show that he tries to cover while wearing a Velcro suit (it’s a funny bit, even if Letterman did it twenty years ago). Blacklisted from the European fashion scene, he, in his words, decides instead “to go to Los Angeles and become a celebrity.”

That quest forms the narrative of the film, which is really just a loose skeleton from which to hang gags. A review of a thinly plotted vignette comedy like Brüno can easily turn into a lazy list of the funniest bits, which does little but spoil the film; suffice it to say that the comic sequences are cleverly built, frequently intersecting, reappearing, and bouncing off of each other, and the timing (of both Cohen and editors Scott M. Davids and James Thomas) is impeccable—a mid-film campfire scene has one of the greatest long, awkward pauses ever captured on film.

The film’s broad and aggressive (if somewhat intellectually sophisticated) parodying of socially acceptable homophobia couldn’t be more timely; his straight-faced consultations with a pair of fundamentalist “gay converters” are comic gold (though the vile bigots of Westboro Baptist Church, as big a bulls-eye as one could paint for Cohen, are used only for a quick sight gag—a missed opportunity if there ever was one). But the movie isn’t singular in its mockery—there are unexpected sideswipes at stage parents, terrorists, celebrity culture, and the armed forces. And I won’t blow what is (to this reviewer) the movie’s funniest sequence, but it begins with the line “Lutz, find me someone famous. We’re going to make a sex video,” and spins off from there.

Brüno has its share of problems; while it’s not as grubby and shoddy-looking as Borat, Charles’ preferred method of photography remains putting the gag smack-gob in front of your face, and some of the running jokes (like Brüno’s mangled mixing of German and English) don’t pay off. But its climactic scene, in which our newly “straight” hero hosts a cage-fighting event for a crowd of beer-swilling Arkansas hooligans, is one of the bravest, ballsiest (no pun intended) sequences I’ve seen in any recent film, comedy or otherwise. Of course, it’s wickedly funny as well. But, as with the best of Cohen’s material, it’s laughter that stings.

"Brüno" opens Friday, July 10th.

In Theaters: "Soul Power"

I was grinning from ear to ear as Soul Power began, throwing us right in to a thrilling rendition of the title song by James Brown with the able support of his backing band, the JBs. The performance is from the Zaire ’74 music festival, a three-day event intended to lead up to the “Rumble In The Jungle,” the Don King-promoted title fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Foreman ended up injuring himself in training mere days before the bout, but due to scheduling issues, the music festival had to go on as planned.

The fight—and some of the music—gets the full doc treatment in Leon Gast’s wonderful, Oscar-winning When We Were Kings; if you haven’t seen that film, close this window right now and go rent it. If you have, then some of these details will already be familiar. What we didn’t know was how much of the music (which is used intermittently, primarily for transitions and punctuation, in Kings) was itself filmed. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Soul Power is the story of that show.

It gives us exhaustive detail on how the festival was put together, using outside financing and local labor, with government cooperation that was tentative at best. The cameras catch the promoters in Zaire, constructing the stage and trying their best to get the elaborate show mounted with the help of their crew back in New York. Levy-Hinte spends too much time (over a third of the running time) on the run-up to the show, but we do see some terrific verité footage; there’s a fascinating breakfast conversation between Ali and his trainer “Bundini” Brown (played by Jamie Foxx in Ali), as well as a fun pre-flight dinner party with the performers in New York. We also catch glimpses of the pre-show details: focusing lights, running sound checks, painting numbers on the concrete risers of the stadium location. These scenes are interesting, but there’s too many of them; we’re antsy for them to get on with it already.

Then, finally, the music starts, and it’s all you can hope for: joyous, exuberant, and passionate. The gentle tones of Bill Withers’ amazing voice is like a lullaby, while B.B. King does an electrifying rendition of “The Thrill Is Gone.” African performer Big Black does a bongo number that absolutely brings the house down. The Spinners are tremendous, the Crusaders are phenomenal, and the James Brown footage is simply extraordinary. At their best, Brown and his band put on the tightest, most thrilling live show in the business, and their driving, dynamic performances of hits like “The Payback” and (especially) “Cold Sweat” are sensational. The photography and cutting of them is fairly standard and straightforward (especially considering when they were shot), but they do find some interesting shots, and what you’re hearing is more important than what you’re seeing anyway. Soul Power is fueled by the tremendous energy of the performances—these sequences are frenetic and alive.

The trouble is, there just aren’t enough of them. Once the show starts, Levy-Hinte keeps cutting backstage, and while there are some good bits back there (the Spinners practicing their French greetings, B.B. King working out his set list), we’d rather see more of these folks on stage. The amount of actual performance footage in Soul Power is disappointing—we only get one song each from every performer but Brown, who does two in the film and one each during the opening and closing credits. That’s a dearth of music for a performance movie. I’m not sure why the film went so much heavier on the documentary than on the music, but it’s a lean mixture.

So that’s my complaint, and who knows, maybe there will be a wonderful cache of deleted scenes waiting for me on the DVD. As it is, Soul Power will make an excellent second half of a double bill with When We Were Kings, and the performances that did make the cut are worth the trouble of seeking it out. At the end of its closing credits, an “in memory of” list scrolls by, and it’s a long one; as we reflect on how many of these great talents we’ve lost, I’m thankful for this piece (tantalizingly brief though it may be) of what they left behind.

"Soul Power" opens in limited release on Friday, July 10th.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On DVD: "Midnight Express"

Alan Parker’s Midnight Express is a tough, troubling, difficult picture. It’s thoroughly unpleasant to watch, loaded as it is with brutal assaults and grisly torture and people losing their minds; it also includes some cringe-inducing xenophobic attitudes and dialogue (which screenwriter Oliver Stone later apologized for). It’s structurally wobbly, and full of odd interludes. But you can’t deny director Parker’s ability to work over an audience; his direction is tight and sometimes unbearably tense, and he manages to draw us in to a story with a serious shortage of sympathetic characters, primarily through the sheer brute force of his imagery.

The film is based on the true story (reportedly much exaggerated, however) of Billy Hays (Brad Davis). An American on vacation in Istanbul with his girlfriend in 1970, Hays tries to smuggle a couple of kilos of hash back to the States, only to get busted and sent, indefinitely, into a Turkish prison (the movie single-handedly made “Turkish prison” synonymous with “living hell”). With the help of his father (Mike Kellin, in a fine performance of deeply felt frustration) and an expensive lawyer, he gets a three-year sentence for possession, but fifty-three days from the conclusion of that term, a higher court overturns the sentence and instead finds him guilty of smuggling—a thirty-year bit. This is around the time he starts looking to escape, and by the time that fails, he has gone a little bit crazy.

The strength of Stone’s screenplay and Parker’s direction is in its portrayal of Hayes’ slow, steady descent into real madness; it’s that old saw about how, if you treat a man like an animal, he’ll turn into one. When Hayes makes the switch, Parker is ready with a full arsenal of stylistic tricks: slow-motion photography, scary music, abstract sound, and plenty of blood and gore. But it’s a slippery slope to get him there; the primary difficulty with telling this particular story is that you’re asking an audience to sympathize and identify with a protagonist who is, semantics and connotations aside, a drug smuggler. And at the time he commits that crime, that is literally all we know about him—Parker and Stone parachute into the action at the last possible moment, beginning the film with Hayes strapping the hash to his body and heading to the airport. There’s no denying how unnerving the customs sequence is to watch; it’s scored with heartbeat percussion and builds up some genuine tension (in spite of the fact that we know he’s not going to get away with it—if he did, there’d be no movie). But that speaks to the skill of Parker’s filmmaking; since we know nothing about this guy, we’ve got no good reason to want him to get away with it. In the scenes that follow, Stone’s best notion for getting us on the protagonist’s side seems to be making Hayes into a dumb, naïve kid, and letting us see how he is ruined by this corrupt, foreign, evil system (never mind that the good ol’ U.S. of A is not exactly renowned for the common sense proportionality of our drug sentencing).

Some of Parker’s directorial choices are a little befuddling. The choice to eschew subtitles in the early passages is an understandable one; Hayes didn’t know what was going on, and in putting us in his shoes, we shouldn’t either. But by the second half of the picture, he not only understands Turkish, but is speaking it himself—why not let us in on those conversations? (It’s a frustrating situation that had this viewer reaching for the remote, in case I was supposed to have the subtitles on.) The film’s reliance on Hayes’ letters home is a pretty contrived piece of storytelling shorthand, and it also highlights the film’s strange trouble with time; it’s hard to know, through the first hour, exactly when everything is happening in relation to everything else, and when he writes, in one letter, “Two and a half years have now gone by,” all we can think is, “They have?”

Not long after that, Hayes finds himself in court, having his sentence upped. This is one of the more troublesome scenes in the picture; his big courtroom speech, which includes some of the most obviously anti-Turkish sentiments of the film, is full of the less-than-subtle dialogue and reckless hyperbole that have been a thorn in the side of Stone’s critics in the years to come. And I’m not sure if even the Oscar-winning screenwriter can explain the film’s sudden, peculiar dipping of its toe into the waters of homoerotica (or its goofy retreat from that subject matter).

For all of its problems, however, Midnight Express is unquestionably effective. Parker seems to see it, first and foremost, as an antsy, jittery mood piece—he doesn’t let a lot of sunshine in to his frames, and his handling of the story’s violence is demanding and relentless. The direction is particularly compact during a nervy escape attempt; he shoots and cuts the sequence with razor sharpness, made stronger by the choice to go without music. The score itself, by Giorgio Moroder, is a mixed bag; renowned at the time for its innovative use of synthesizers (it was the first all-synth score to win an Oscar), the dread-filled music works beautifully in the first act, but is alternately bombastic, syrupy, and button-pushy through the rest of the film. We’ve seen before how nothing can date a film quicker than an inappropriate score, and that’s often the case here (particularly in that unfortunate shower scene).

The performances are interesting, if not altogether successful. A young, thin Randy Quaid is a little over the top, but Paul Smith (later to play Bluto in Altman’s Popeye) is a terrifying presence, and John Hurt turns in a quiet, skillful performance (he nabbed a deserved Supporting Actor nomination). Davis’ performance mostly works—he does the turn from in-too-deep bonehead to slobbering, masturbating mess believably and smoothly. His only real fumble comes in the scene where he finds out about the change in his sentence and loses his cool; Davis, at least in this film, is better in reactive mode, and he can’t quite land this scene where he blusters and yells and must command the screen. But for the most part, he is a fine anchor for this graphic, vivid, forceful film.

Looking back over this review, it reads more negatively than it should; it’s easy to pinpoint what’s wrong with Midnight Express, and harder to express how, in spite of those flaws, it’s still an impressive and important film. It is, for all intents and purposes, a sensationalized melodrama, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, at least on that level—it gets a rise out of us, it shakes us up and beats us down. Pauline Kael deemed it “movie yellow journalism” and called it “a crude rabble-rouser”; she’s right, of course, but what of it? Parker and Stone have applied their considerable skill and technique to tell a story that is harsh and potent, and their film gets, presumably, the reaction they were going for. Whether their accomplishment is an admirable one is up to each viewer to decide.

"Midnight Express" makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, July 21st.

Kael of the Week: Why movies work

“No doubt movies attract us from earliest childhood because they excite us and work on us, and perhaps movies came to the fore in the sixties because, unlike books but like rock music, movies could be experienced tribally, yet they also provide aesthetic experiences of a sensual complexity that it’s merely priggish to deny. People bred on TV and weaned on movies often feel sensually starved at a play—and they experience that starvation as boredom. When they are used to movies, live theater no longer works from them on a fantasy level. There aren’t enough elements going for them in a ply; they miss the constant flow of imagery, the quick shifts of pace, the sudden rush of feeling. They miss all the compensatory elements which can sustain them during even a bad movie. There’s a reason for that ‘Wow!’ which often seems all that a person can say after coming out of a movie house. So many images, sounds, and awakened memories may contribute to the film’s effect on us that often we can’t quite sort out what we think about the way we’ve been moved. We’re not even sure sometimes if we liked it, but we certainly felt it.”

-From the foreword to Reeling
Published 1976

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Trailer: "The Informant!"

So when I heard about Soderbergh's The Informant!--this was before the title had the slammer in it--I presumed that it was going to be a fairly straight-forward tale of corporate whistle-blowing (his version of The Insider, if you will).

The I saw this trailer, and apparently I made the wrong call on that. Maybe he's making a parody of The Insider?

Either way it goes, I'm in. I mean, c'mon, you got a fat Damon in a porno 'stache, Buster from Arrested Development, and Bakula? What's not to like?

Plus--two Soderbergh pictures in one year? The same year as a new Scorsese? WHAT GOD HAVE I PLEASED?

Today's New DVDs- 7/7/09

Knowing: Alex Proyas' end-of-the-world thriller has got some interesting ideas and a couple of great set pieces. But the weak screenplay and Nicolas Cage's jaw-droppingly incompetant performance manage to derail most of its considerable momentum.

Mystery Science Theater 3000- Volume XV: More good stuff from the Satellite of Love. My review has gotten some ire from the MST fan community for daring to mention that they should stop putting out so many episodes from the far-weaker first season, but three of these four episodes are really very funny (and one of them, "Zombie Nightmare," was one of their all-time best).

Night Train: An interesting failure, this one; it starts well, with a Shallow-Grave-on-a-moving-train construct and Steve Zahn being agreeable and Leelee Sobieski being sexy, but it spins out into some weird and unsuccessful supernatural stuff in the third act. Worth a rental, though.

Young and Handsome- A Night with Jeff Garlin: Garlin, best known as Larry David's manager on Curb Your Enthusiasm (or as the voice of the space station captain in WALL-E), has a loose, rambling, enjoyable stand-up style; his meandering stories and funny insights are well-showcased in this unusual special.

Matlock- The Third Season: Something you might not know about me: from the time I was ten until I was 13 or so, I literally never missed an episode of Matlock. I was insane about that show. It made me want, briefly, to be a lawyer when I grew up. This never fails to make people laugh now, since at the time, I was about fifty years below their regualar demographic.

Feedback from somebody cool!

Now, this is cool: I got an email from Jeff Garlin about my review of his new stand-up disc, which went up over at DVD Talk early this morning:

"I read your review of 'Young and Handsome: A Night with Jeff Garlin' and...I thought it was excellent. Here's a little piece of info about why it's the way it is. Usually when you shoot a special you film two shows (we were all set to shoot on 35). However on the day of the shoot I lost my voice. Truly the first time I had to cancel a show in 27 years of doing stand up. Without going into to great detail we shot another night, but we could only afford to shoot one performance and not on film but high def. So with only one performance Bob and I chose to cut it that way. It still would have been very loose but much funnier if I had two shows to cut together. Oh well, moving on. Thanks for your well written, thoughtful and kind review.

I'm genuinely a fan of this guy, so this was a real thrill for me.

On DVD: "Phoebe in Wonderland"

Daniel Barnz’s Phoebe in Wonderland is such a melancholy wisp of a movie that you might not realize how quietly effective it is. The picture has an odd, unique, delicate tone; it doesn’t push for effects and seldom raises its voice. Moody and subtle, it is certainly more understated than you would expect from a film that includes, in its opening credits, the words “A Lifetime Pictures presentation.”

Elle Fanning (yes, Dakota’s little sister) stars as Phoebe Lichten, a nine-year-old girl with a seemingly idyllic life; she inhabits a comfortable rustic home with her sister and her parents (Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman), intellectual writers who dote on their little girls. But something’s not quite right with little Phoebe; she reacts badly to rules and authority, and seems to have early symptoms of OCD. However, she is fascinated by her school’s new drama teacher, Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson); Phoebe auditions for the class production of “Alice in Wonderland” and finds her neurosis intertwining with the themes and ideas of the Carroll classic.

Like other modern takes on the Alice story (such as Terry Gilliam’s problematic, challenging Tideland), Phoebe in Wonderland seems pitched to an indeterminate audience—it is, seemingly, too sad and disturbing for kids, but teens and adults are seldom drawn to films focused on children. Its inability to connect to the public-at-large during its brief, limited theatrical run last March will hopefully rectify itself on video, where hard-to-buttonhole pictures like this one tend to eventually make their way to appreciative audiences. In spite of its Lifetime pedigree and disease-of-the-week subject matter, its young protagonist and its female-heavy cast, this is neither an issue-tackling TV movie nor a “chick flick” nor a “kid’s movie.” It is an observant, thoughtful film about a real girl with real problems.

Which is not to imply that it’s a downer, either; there is a quiet magic, for example, in the theatrical scenes, which are given a considerable lift by Clarkson’s slyly understated performance. It’s kind of daring, how little “acting” she does here; it’s a turn that is more about her presence and the indefinably hardy way that she carries herself and delivers her dialogue. Felicity Huffman doesn’t fare quite as well; she occasionally falls back on shrillness (one of the few ineffective weapons in her acting arsenal), and her big speech to Phoebe’s shrink feels too much like a big speech—there’s no lead-in and no run-up to it, and the slow, dramatically dollying camera is one of the few instances where Barnz tips his directorial hand too obviously.

However, Huffman is exceptional in the family scenes, and she is well-matched by Pullman as the pained, ineffective father (the tender scene in which he apologizes to Phoebe is one of the finest pieces of acting he’s yet done). Their marriage is believably lived-in, their exasperations with each other barely concealed, though Barnz muffs their big confrontation scene by not seeming to know where to put the camera (and therefore falling back on the unfortunately standard first-time director solution: going handheld). That complaint aside, the vitally important family scenes work well because the parents and daughters look, act, and feel like a real family.

And Fanning’s work, which is the centerpiece of the film (in spite of Huffman’s top billing), is somewhere in the vicinity of brilliant. Her tremendous, open face always lets you see her mind working, and there’s a naturalism to her line readings that is quite good. Her showcase sequence comes up out of nowhere, a difficult, raw scene in which she cries and screams to her mother in the middle of the night; it’s a tough, heartbreaking piece of work, but grows organically from her remarkable performance.

Phoebe in Wonderland has some structural difficulties and a few unfortunately thin characters (like Campbell Scott’s school principal), while the film’s deliberate pace and subdued style won’t endear it to all audiences. But for a debut feature film, it shows a markedly confident sense of tone and texture, and some of these performances are just astonishing. Don’t let the film’s low profile and peculiar storyline deter you; when it’s working, it’s doing something really special.

"Phoebe in Wonderland" is currently available on DVD.

Monday, July 6, 2009

On DVD: "Young and Handsome: A Night with Jeff Garlin"

As far as this fan is concerned, Jeff Garlin is the unsung hero of Curb Your Enthusiasm. While the considerable comic energy and deftly cultivated persona of star/creator Larry David is undoubtedly the fuel for that terrific program, its uproariously funny semi-improvisational scenes would go nowhere if David didn’t have the right performers to bounce off of and riff with. As Larry’s manager, Jeff Garlin has clearly proven the man for that job (his comic timing and quick wit are among the show’s greatest assets), and his influence on the distinctive style of that show can be easily seen in his (unfortunately underseen) feature film I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, a breezy, off-the-cuff Curb-flavored picture which he wrote, directed, and starred in.

Garlin’s ease with David’s barely-scripted show is presumably due to his years at Chicago’s world-famous Second City, the improv-heavy comedy theater that launched talents ranging from Fred Willard and Alan Arkin to John Belushi and Bill Murray to Tina Fey and Steve Carell. That improvisational background also altered and influenced his style as a stand-up; he was a nightclub comic before working at Second City, but his experiments as an improv actor gave him the confidence to throw out the tight bits that pleased comedy club crowds and work toward something looser and more interesting.

Young and Handsome: A Night with Jeff Garlin captures his stand-up persona, which traffics in an offbeat, shambling storytelling style that couldn’t care less about obvious constructs and easy punch lines. Filmed at Second City in July of 2008, Young and Handsome is directed by Mr. Show vet (and fellow Second City alum) Bob Odenkirk, who attempts some minor variations on the boilerplate stand-up special; he starts with Garlin in mid-story and includes a few opening jokes before giving us an odd but funny opening credit sequence. Each section begins with an on-screen title (“a fat man falling,” “a.d.d.,” “fuck you, old man”), and Garlin proceeds to talk about married life, his unfortunate eating habits and being a minor celebrity.

Perhaps the most interesting element of this particular act (and Odenkirk’s shooting of it) is how much is left in that most comics (and directors) would take out. Garlin’s stream-of-consciousness, conversational style is prone to sidebars and tangents; he has no problem pursuing them and then returning to the original story with an offhand “Okay, back to the thing” or “Ah, we’ll cut it out, fuck it.” He even references that the offhand line or chunk will surely not make the cut, noting “It’s all right, because I don’t move, it’ll all cut together,” which is a funny line anyway, but it’s funnier because it all stayed in.

So it’s not the tightest set of comedy you’ll ever see, but that’s clearly none too bothersome for Garlin; at one point, he even does a bit of stand-alone pieces, which he introduces by saying, “I can’t cleanly tie them into anything, and I’m okay with that.” Considering how tenuous some of the connections before that are, it’s both amusing and ridiculous, as if he’d suddenly come down with a case of structural discipline. There are other enjoyable pieces of meta-comedy as well, like his running joke about how all of his female voices sound like an “elderly gay man.”

But make no mistake, this isn’t just an inside-comedy set by a fringe comic. There are plenty of good old-fashioned belly laughs to be found, such as an uproarious story about his afternoon babysitting Kid Rock at a Cubs game or the perfectly logical rules about when and in what volume he will consume Krispy Kreme donuts. In spite of his comment about never moving, he makes excellent use of the small stage space and the center stage microphone in a funny piece about goofing off as a security guard. And some of those unconnected bits have some great lines—my favorite: “Some people say the first year of marriage is the toughest… I say the last year probably is.”

Young and Handsome: A Night with Jeff Garlin may sport fewer quotable lines and less laughs-per-minute than other recent stand-up discs. But Garlin’s affable, conversational style creates a loose, enjoyable vibe, and the intimate setting at his home base certainly seems to put the comic at ease. It’s not a must-own show, but it’s certainly a relaxed, genial, satisfying hour of comedy.

"Young and Handsome: A Night with Jeff Garlin" hits DVD on Tuesday, July 7th.

On DVD: "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"

About the nicest thing that can be said about Adam Sandler’s 2007 vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is that it is a better film than his previous picture, the execrable would-be tearjerker Click. That film, with its layers of gloppy sentimentality and bullshit trick ending slathered atop the half-assed writing and production elements that have become a hallmark of the Sandler factory, marked a new low for the charismatic but lazy comic; Chuck & Larry is, in all honesty, a better film. But choosing between the two is akin to selecting SARS or swine flu. Either way you go, you’re in for some pain.

Let me be clear on one point: I’m no Sandler hater. He is without question a skilled actor, and has proven as much in Punch Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and even the flawed Spanglish. The problem is that he is a terrible producer; the films that come out of his Happy Madison production house, whether for him (Click, Anger Management, Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky) or others (Grandma’s Boy, The Benchwarmers, Dickie Roberts, Joe Dirt, The Master of Disguise, The Hot Chick, and of course, the Deuce Bigelow atrocities) are all painfully bad comedies—in many of the same ways.

Sandler stars as Chuck Levine, a Brooklyn firefighter and near-legendary cocksman (because subtlety and believability is the enemy of a Sandler picture, they can’t stop at the scene where we find that he’s slept with two ridiculously hot twins; nope, they have to give us a scene where he appears to have taken on six or seven women at once). His best buddy on the ladder is Larry Valentine (Kevin James), a widower and father of two who has somehow bungled his insurance and is afraid that his dangerous job could leave his kids not only parentless, but penniless. Then he finds out that domestic partners are eligible for pension benefits, and he (improbably) talks Chuck into a quiet marriage that soon gets way out into the open. Of course, seeing homophobia firsthand turns both men into better people, lessons are learned, blah blah blah.

Chuck & Larry has a better pedigree than most Happy Madison films—it sports a screenwriting credit by Oscar-nominated Sideways scribes Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Alas, most of their input reportedly (and, for them, thankfully) disappeared, and instead we have a dull, rudderless comedy that runs right through the standard Sandler playbook. The direction, by Happy Madison regular Dennis Dugan (whose terrifying filmography also includes Beverly Hills Ninja and National Security), is flat and uninspired; the script doesn’t have any comic momentum, and his by-the-numbers shooting doesn’t help. Oh, it’s got comic situations aplenty; they trouble is, they don’t build—the gags have no payoffs. They just sit, limply on the screen, and Dugan then fades to something else.

As usual, there is plenty of time (although the film runs an endless 115 minutes) for cameos by Sandler’s many less-than-talented friends (the usual suspects--Rob Schneider, David Spade, Allen Covert, Jonathan Loughran, Peter Dante—all show up), and they are as unfunny as ever. Some of them inhabit a particular standby of the Sandler comedy: the broad, dumb caricature that shows up, doesn’t get a laugh, and then keeps returning. The cutaway to somebody you remember from earlier is supposed to immediately warrant another laugh (let’s call this the “You can do it!” syndrome), but that’s inert writing; you have to give them something funny to do or say or something. But in Chuck & Larry, these characters (like Spade’s transvestite or Mary Pat Gleason’s cleaning woman or Blake Clark’s crazy homeless guy) aren’t even amusing to begin with, to say nothing of when they reappear—they’re one-joke characters where the one joke isn’t even funny.

And they don’t bother to make Jessica Biehl’s character amusing or even interesting; she’s not required to do much but look great in a catsuit and, later, in her underwear. We’re supposed to believe that jerky misogynist Chuck is made into a good guy by falling for this perfect gal, but there’s nothing remarkable about her character or their relationship, and most of their scenes grab for easy, obvious laughs by having her engage him in credibility-stretching sexual situations that test his fake-gay mettle (as when she has him touch her boobs—“these boys are real, feel ‘em!” or give foreplay advice—“I don’t even know what I’m doing… show me some of your moves”). Their scenes are neither funny nor touching; they’re just marking time with boilerplate complications.

The picture’s vulgar streak is particularly loathsome. In one early scene (which effectively sets the film’s very low bar), Chuck and Larry rescue a morbidly obese man from a fire and tumble down the stairs with him. When they land—wait for it—he’s on top of poor Chuck—in the 69 position! Ho, ho. But wait, that’s not the end of this gut-busting sequence, and if you don’t think the big payoff involves flatulence, you’re giving these folks too much credit. Once the homosexual marriage subplot comes into play, the film tries to have it both ways by making Chuck the voice of gay panic and casual homophobia, but then having him mouth the bulk of the third act’s “After School Special”-style platitudes.

To rebut that, however, mention must be made of Rob Schneider’s appearance as the Asian minister of Chuck and Larry’s Canadian wedding. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s a horrifyingly racist turn—Schneider does the most startlingly clichéd Asian stereotype this side of Mickey Rooney (complete with switched-up “r”s and “l”s), and we’re supposed to… what? Laugh? The fact that this performance made it into a major, studio-released motion picture in 2007 is stunning; that it plays so prominently into a film that claims to preach tolerance, and that the character comes back (this being a Happy Madison film, where every unfunny character returns at the end) immediately following the heartfelt courtroom scenes at the picture’s end, is hypocrisy of the highest order. Apparently homophobia is bad, but xenophobia’s just fine. Did that incongruence bother anyone involved? Probably not, since based on the resulting film, there wasn’t a lot of reasoned thinking going on during the making of I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.

In spite of its slight topicality, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry follows the Sandler checklist down to the letter. Countless cameos and supporting roles for hangers-on and also-rans? Check. Banal, humdrum direction? Check. Cheap, easy punch lines rooted in lazy vulgarity and jaw-dropping hypocrisy? Check. Unfunny one-joke supporting characters and half-baked comic sequences? Check. Two hours wasted? Check, check, and checkmate.

"I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" has long been available on DVD; it makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, July 21st.