Saturday, July 25, 2009

On DVD: "The Soloist"

You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a major studio picture as badly handled by its distributors as Joe Wright’s The Soloist; one wonders if someone at Paramount had an axe to grind, or perhaps a bet to win. The film was originally slated for release in November of 2008—prime Oscar territory, the landing strip for intelligent, prestige projects such as this one. Then they inexplicably yanked it from the fall schedule and dumped it, unceremoniously, into the barren soil of late April. For both releases, the film was given an ad campaign that made it appear like yet another tale of a yuppie shaken from his comfort zone by a gifted but troubled genius (in fact, its particular construct—reporter meets once-great homeless guy—was in theaters a scant year earlier, under the title Resurrecting The Champ). So it wasn’t a surprise when it didn’t do any business—everyone assumed they’d already seen it.

But The Soloist isn’t nearly that cut-and-dried; in fact, it’s a challenging, thoughtful, thrillingly well-acted story with more complexity and darkness than you might expect. It’s based on the true story of Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a Los Angeles Times columnist who discovers a homeless musician named Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) playing a two-stringed violin in the park. When Ayers mentions that he attended Julliard, Lopez is intrigued; he ends up writing a column about Ayers, whose schizophrenia led him to drop out of Julliard (and society). That article turns into a series of pieces about Los Angeles’ homeless population, and the two men begin a difficult, tentative friendship.

The film’s first and perhaps most valuable asset is Robert Downey Jr., whose natural comic timing and inability to sound a false note help keep the story entertaining and grounded. He’s also well-served by the intelligent screenplay (by Susannah Grant, who did similar cliché-dodging duty on Erin Brockovich), which creates a believable newsroom of crass, overlapping witticisms—my only serious complaint, in fact, is that they bring in terrific character actors like Rachael Harris and Steven Root as his colleagues and then don’t use them enough.

Director Wright (Atonement) is clearly a detail-oriented director, and the film’s authenticity is admirable; I wasn’t surprised to read that many of the people in the shelter sequences are, in fact, real homeless people. His shots sometimes call undue attention to themselves, but that’s a minor complaint, and his sure hand with his actors does the movie great favors—the always-reliable Catherine Keener does a nicely nuanced turn, and Nelsan Ellis (familiar as “Layfayette” on True Blood) plays some difficult notes easily in his small role.

But this is, in many ways, a two-man show, and these fine actors are evenly matched. Downey has the less showy character, but he absolutely nails it; it’s a subtle piece of work, but the way it culminates in his sad confession that he’s “done trying” is close to astonishing. Foxx could have very well played his role as little more than a collection of tics, but he burrows deeper than that; given the scope of the character’s full history to play, he brings him to clear, tough life, and Wright inventively uses his entire filmmaking toolbox to put us inside Ayers’ head.

Grant’s script sounds a couple of false notes—the tripled-up timing of Lopez walking into a banquet mere moments before he receives an award for his work on the Ayers story while simultaneously on the phone with a wigging-out Ayers is a wee bit too contrived, and making Keener both Lopez’s ex-wife and his editor feels like a stretch (and come to find out, it is; Lopez was happily married throughout the entirety of the Ayers story). But considering how broadly and melodramatically this story could have been written, the screenplay is a model of efficiency and tastefulness. And there are scenes of tremendous power—particularly a moment towards the end that is so moving, it hits you like a sucker punch.

The funny thing about The Soloist is that although the broad strokes seem familiar, once you’re in the middle of this story, you’re not sure exactly where it’s going. There’s enormous complexity to it; Ayers isn’t rain man, and you can’t just trot him out to do his tricks and put him back in his box. More than most pictures of its kind, The Soloist deals in the messiness and loose ends of real life, and it’s in that emotional chaos that this film finds its greatness.

"The Soloist" hits on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 4th.

Friday, July 24, 2009

On DVD: "Taken"

I’ve rarely seen a movie tighten as quickly and completely as Pierre Morel’s Taken; it’s like someone flips a switch, and then it goes to work on you. The film’s first half-hour consists of set-up that could be charitably called labored; expositional dialogue is awkward as all-get-out, and the stacking of the deck against Liam Neeson’s estranged father character is shameless (he goes to her birthday party and her stepfather literally gives her a pony).

But then it hits the thirty-minute mark, and he’s on the phone with his daughter, who sees her friend getting kidnapped, and knows that she’s next. And suddenly the film pulls taut; from that point on, it’s a terrific thriller, sturdy and genuinely exciting. It comes from the screenwriting team of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, but it is thankfully in the grounded-in-at-least-a-modicum-of-reality mode of their Kiss of the Dragon and Besson’s Leon (as opposed to the physics-defying theatrics of their goofy Transporter scripts). These two know how to tee up a set piece, and director Morel knows how to execute one.

In the leading role, Liam Neeson is (to my surprise) perfectly cast; he’s steely and efficient, bringing genuine weight and gravitas to a role that could have probably been played by a lightweight. But he creates a real rooting interest, and though his acting beat at the conclusion of the big action climax is brief, he plays it for all it’s worth. Neeson is a totally credible action hero, and Taken is a surprisingly well-made and comparatively intelligent popcorn picture.

"Taken" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray

On DVD: "Bad Lieutenant"

I was working part-time as a video store clerk (for the first of many times) when Bad Lieutenant was released by LIVE Home Video in 1993, and because of that fact, it has always been, in my mind, inexorably linked to Reservoir Dogs. That one was a LIVE release as well, you see, so the two films’ trailers played back-to-back on the same in-store preview tape, and the VHS copies of Reservoir Dogs (which I rented several times) included a trailer for Harvey Keitel’s other new, low-budget indie. When I finally saw Bad Lieutenant, it was a disappointment; I was expecting the verbal and visual pyrotechnics of the Tarantino picture, not a stark, grim character study of a thoroughly repellant human being.

But that’s the funny thing about movies—you grow into them. At 17, I wasn’t ready for the assault of Abel Ferrara’s relentlessly downbeat drama, nor did I appreciate its deliberate pace and the maturity of its storytelling. Now, nearly 17 years later, I can see it for what it is: a sweaty, uncompromising, brilliant piece of work.

Keitel stars as the title character (he’s never referred to by name), whom we first meet driving his kids to school in the morning, delivering a profanity-laden tirade to the agreeable boys about how to deal with a mouthy aunt. The kids are barely out of the car before he toots up; we then follow him as he steals from murder scenes, hangs out with prostitutes, digs himself into a deep hole of gambling debt, and does about every drug he can get his hands on.

These opening scenes are like a checklist of bad behavior, and the audience could be forgiven for presuming that the entire picture will be as bleak and black and white as its title. This lieutenant is, without question, a bad, bad man. But he’s offered an opportunity for redemption, of sorts: at the altar of a church in Spanish Harlem, a pretty young nun is savagely raped by a pair of neighborhood thugs. In a lesser movie, his ability to track down the rapists and avenge the crime would perhaps soften his petty crimes. Bad Lieutenant is a little more complicated than that.

Bronx-born director Ferrara (whose previous film was the slick cult hit King of New York) and director of photography Ken Kelsch observe their grimy New York City locations with the precision and detail of a good documentary, and the grubby aesthetic is just right; the handheld camerawork pulses without distracting, and some of the individual shots (like Keitel wandering through a poorly lit apartment building in a drug-induced haze, gun in hand) are downright harrowing. But it’s not a flashy picture, either; Ferrara is a mature director and frequently keeps his distance from the subjects, allowing scenes to play out in long takes with an observational (rather than active) point of view, to great effect. This approach leads to a stagnant scene here or there, but when it works (as in the remarkably restrained final shot), it works wonders. Ferrara only really steps wrong once: in the rape scene, where the over-the-top, melodramatic neon reads and shock photography betray his exploitation film roots.

All of that would be for naught, however, were it not for Keitel’s no-apologies, take-no-prisoners performance, which is surely the finest work he’s ever done in a film. It’s not a humorless performance (as he smokes angel dust in a project apartment building hallway, he yells down to an approaching tenant, “Get back! Police activity!”), but it is at times uncomfortably intense—he goes to some deep, dark places. As we watch him being shot full of heroin in a dank, ugly apartment (by the film’s co-writer, the late Zoe Lund), we’re not sure what he’s doing, but it’s not acting—it’s too painfully personal for that. And the scene that follows, where he first confronts the forgiving nun and then (indirectly) his own demons, is a stunning, balls-out display. It’s a dirty bomb of a performance.

Bad Lieutenant is not exactly fun to watch—it’s glum, relentless, sometimes cringe-worthy viewing, and some viewers just prefer sunny romances and fart-joke comedies. But those who can take a film this potent will find that Ferrara does his job with undeniable skill, and that Keitel’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary.

(Two sidebars: First, it should be noted that “Bad Lieutenant” was subjected to a notorious case of music replacement, due to its numerous uses of the Schooly D song “Signifying Rapper,” which used an unauthorized sample of the guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” The song had to be removed and replaced by a Ferrara original composition for all releases subsequent to 1994, including this one. For what it’s worth, this viewer didn’t notice the loss—though, strangely, the song can still be heard in the included theatrical trailer. Second, the original LIVE release used this perfect tagline: “Gambler. Thief. Junkie. Killer. Cop.” Inexplicably, this release includes the same tag, but removes the word “junkie.” Is a junkie cop no longer shocking?)

"Bad Lieutenant"'s new Special Edition DVD (presumably being released now to tie in with the upcoming release of Werner Herzog’s bizarre-looking remake/reboot/sequel/who-knows-what, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans", starring Nicolas Cage), hits stores on Tuesday, July 28th.

Today's New in Theaters: 7/24/09

The Ugly Truth: The ugly truth is, you'd have to pay me six figures to get me into a theater to see this trash. Orndorf's review pretty much confirms my gut reaction to the trailers--plus, he wisely calls out its star/producer, loathsome ol' Katherine Heigl, for her now-hypocritical critique of Knocked Up.

I've got nothing against a good evil kid movie, but this one looks too broad and obvious for me-- really, that's her costume? That's her hair? Really? Besides, star Vera Fermiga already made a great evil kid movie: the underseen Joshua. From what I've read about this film, she's basically doing the same role again. Ah well. Ebert liked it.

G-Force: I realize I'm not the audience for this, but Christ does it look stupid--and according to AV Club, it's got a pretty shameful pedigree. And why, Zach, why?

In The Loop: The pick of the week is this crazy smart, laugh-out-loud British comedy about the run-up to a war suspiciously similar to Iraq. Great performances and huge laughs all around; if you're in one of this picture's "selected cities," knock yourself out.

On DVD: "Explicit Ills"

I don’t know about you, but I’m about through with the interconnected multiple storyline structure. The only directors who’ve shown the ability to pull it off were Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, and Altman’s dead; so, clearly, is the “Altmanesque” multi-character drama. They’ve been an inescapable indie chestnut since Anderson’s Magnolia—a film which basically did it as well as it could be done, not that that’s discouraged countless pale imitators. Crash certainly wasn’t the worst of the bunch, but its Best Picture win (an honor that escaped Nashville, Short Cuts, and Magnolia) seemed to open the floodgates to the likes of Even Money, The Air I Breathe, Love Actually, Bobby, and Powder Blue, each one straining to tie together an increasingly disparate group of stories that seem to share the sole characteristic of not being interesting enough to carry their own film.

Now we have Mark Webber’s Explicit Ills, a look at the woes of poverty as seen by several (seemingly!) unconnected Philadelphians. A single mother (Rosario Dawson) struggles to pay for the medicine of her asthmatic son Babo (Francisco Burgos). A teenage boy (Martin Cepeda) longs for the love of an around-the-way girl. An upscale couple (Naomie Harries and Tariq Trotter) tries to start a business and raise their son right. And a drug dealer (Lou Taylor Pucci) and a young artist (Frankie Shaw) meet during a deal and embark on an intense, whirlwind romance.

Writer/director Webber has good film sense; his compositions are well-organized and his sparing use of the moving camera is effective (as with that slow dolley during the scene where Dawson is getting ready to go out). Some of the filmmaking is sloppy (watch the other customer at the counter during the pharmacy scene), but it’s all heartfelt.

The trouble is that his screenplay is disorganized and wildly uneven; it doesn’t have a motor powering it, so the stories don’t really fit together. Some of the individual pieces are intriguing, while others are dull and self-indulgent, and several scenes are just plain inexplicable (in retrospect, I can’t even begin to guess why Paul Dano’s character exists). Dialogue is often strained and awkward, particularly for female characters.

And if you’re going to put Rosario Dawson in your movie, for God’s sake, put her in your movie. I’d estimate her total screen time at less than 15 minutes (most in the second hour—I kept wondering when she was going to turn back up), and while she’s good (this is an actor incapable of a false moment), you wish there was more of her and less of, say, the boring buppies. The only other actors that really make an impression are the kids—Cepeda is charismatic, while Burgos (making his film debut) is rather an extraordinary young performer.

By the time Explicit Ills comes to an end, we’re waiting for that moment of clarity that will tie everything together, and when it comes, it’s quite a letdown (you need more of a unifying moment than everyone just kind of ending up at the some place). The final scene is obvious and less than satisfying. Explicit Ills is a movie you keep hoping will find its way, but it never quite manages to move beyond its good intentions and become a compelling picture.

I don’t doubt the passion and decency of all involved in making Explicit Ills; it was clearly intended to as a delivery system for a genuinely important message about current economic conditions. But it’s not a consequential narrative. We’re not involved with or particularly interested in the characters on screen, who mostly amount to one-dimensional placeholders; it’s a film that goes through the motions but never draws us in.

"Explicit Ills" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

In Theaters: "(500) Days of Summer"

Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer is a dizzyingly charming picture, the kind of film where afterwards, you have a hard time remembering what those niggling little flaws were because it’s left you covered in a blanket of warmth and good feelings. It has its problems, sure, but what it does, it does so well as to nearly discount them. It may not be the best movie of the summer, but it’s certainly the most likable.

The degree to which film writers and cinephiles in general fall all over themselves with their crushes on Zooey Deschanel is borderline embarrassing, and I’m just as guilty as anyone else. But you can’t help it; every time she appears on screen, she’s absolutely enchanting. (500) Days of Summer trades in on that—an early sequence (with wry narration) explains “the Summer Effect,” presenting hard data as to exactly how she, say, exponentially increased profits at an ice cream parlor during her time of employment there, or the average percentage of asking price she customarily pays for a rental apartment.

The Summer Effect hits Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) like a bad case of the stomach flu. He’s a writer at the greeting card company where Summer has just begun working as an executive assistant, and he’s taken by her right away—their first conversation in the building’s elevator is one of the great moments of movie smittendom. Watching Deschanel work with Levitt, who is one of our most consistently interesting young actors (from Brick to The Lookout to Stop-Loss, I have yet to see a poor performance out of this guy), you can see immediately what was lacking in the centerpiece relationship of her previous film, Gigantic (okay, maybe I only did because I’d just watched that film earlier in the same day): chemistry. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are outstanding together, finding every nuance and emotional beat within their well-written two-scenes (many of which are wisely kept in two-shots to preserve their first-rate timing).

When Tom and Summer finally begin to hit it off, there is much philosophical discussion of love and romance, and these scenes could have used another pass; this is dialogue we’ve heard before, and unlike the rest of the film, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber haven’t figured out how to put a new spin on them. For that matter, some of the visual jokes and music cues are a little dumber than the movie (the only evidence I could find that the script was from the writers of The Pink Panther 2), though I’ll admit that the post-coital dance number did eventually win me over.

Neustadter and Weber’s screenplay tells Tom and Summer’s story out of order, shuffling around through their relationship, popping from heartbreak to love pangs to first kisses to last. But the jumps are never random—they’re always triggered by a prop or a location or a key phrase, similar to the non-linear chronology of Annie Hall. In fact, the entire film has a neo-Woody vibe to it, from the self-reflexive hero to proto-Annie heroine to the split-screen sequence, even to the architectural tour (similar to that of Hannah and Her Sisters).

These similarities may cause some to dismiss the film as too derivative, a romantic comedy example of mixtape filmmaking. And maybe they’re right, maybe the picture is too gimmicky and clever. But the visual tricks and storytelling devices also manage to shake up the story’s somewhat traditional three-act structure, to make it something fresh and new, and besides, it’s not all flash—there are some terrific, truthful moments here. The scene where Summer finds out that Tom likes her is just about perfect; the writing and playing is so delicate, you lean forward in your seat in anticipation. A late-night apology scene at Tom’s door is beautifully played, and shot in a striking silhouette (kudos, in fact, to the entirety of Eric Steelberg’s lovely, sun-kissed cinematography). And I’ve never seen a film so accurately reproduce the moments where you’re feeling someone slipping away.

“This is a story of boy meets girl,” the opening narration informs us, “but you should know up front: it’s not a love story.” However, the way these two tremendous performers play their last scene together, you’re not so sure. There’s a sweetness to (500) Days of Summer, and not just between the two of them; this is a film intoxicated by the act of creating a love story, of finding its little truths and heartaches, and that sweetness catches—I had a broad smile on my face throughout the entirety of this delightful film.

"(500) Days of Summer" is currently playing in limited release.

In Theaters: "In The Loop"

In The Loop is a wickedly funny political satire, the kind of smart and tart, take-no-prisoners mockery that seldom makes it to screens intact (the last one I can think of, at least that was this skillfully done, was Wag The Dog). Director Armondo Iannucci and his crew of four credited screenwriters (loosely expanding their BBC series The Thick of It) have constructed an admirably zippy picture—it’s paced within an inch of its life—where the punch lines are beautifully well-aimed but characterizations are never sacrificed for the easy laugh.

The transatlantic tale is centered on the run-up to an invasion and war; the U.S. is chomping at the bit, the Brits are more hesitant, and the word “Iraq” is never uttered once in the film, but it doesn’t have to be. Dim-bulb British Minister for International Development Simon Foster (the terrific Tom Hollander), who is something of a Michael Scott with a cushy government job, flubs a radio interview when he hedges on the invasion, weakly saying it is “unforeseeable.” That’s just sketchy enough to be seized on by the visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy (Mimi Kennedy), who is attempting to put the brakes on the invasion, with the help of a report by her top aide, Liza (Anna Chlumsky)—a report that another snarky aide has dubbed “career Kryptonite.”

Foster tries to backtrack with some meaningless sloganeering (some nonsense about “climbing the mountain of conflict”), which puts him on the radar of Linton Barwick, a hawk who is fond of revising minutes from important hearings and spouting off such wisdom as (in reference to having too many facts), “in the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is the king.” Barwick is played by David Rasche in a particularly smug mood; he nails this guy beautifully, and this snappy turn (in addition to his unexpected and uproarious work in last year’s Burn After Reading) will hopefully garner some more interesting roles for the man we once knew as Sledge Hammer.

In general, this very British film and its attitudes about American power, both political and military, is on the money; one character, noting the youth of our nation’s military advisors, says “it’s like Bugsy Malone but with real guns.” James Gandolfini, as the general who is against the war (mostly), is very good in a very different kind of role than we’re used to. He has a terrific scene where he and Kennedy slip off during a cocktail party into a child’s bedroom, where he uses a toy laptop to explain the cost of war; his timing in the scene where he claims to be “the Gore Vidal of the Pentagon” (before rebuffing that description) is razor-sharp.

Gandolfini’s General Miller is, like most of the characters in the film, bendable. Most can be talked in or out of just about anything, and are far more likely to spin their mistakes than own up to them—as in the uproarious scene where Foster’s aide Toby (Chris Addison) is busted by his girlfriend for sleeping with Liza, and proceeds to try and explain his way out of it with the worst excuse for cheating ever. Chlumsky certainly makes his temptation real, however—where has this actress been? Remembered primarily for her starring turns in the My Girl movies, she’s flat-out terrific here, effortlessly projecting a flawless mixture of neuroticism and ambition (and some fine comic timing).

The scene-stealer, however, is Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the British Director of Communications. I’ve often said that good swearing is an art form, and if that’s so, Capaldi is a Monet; he paints beautifully with his toxic, inventively vulgar dialogue. He’s a force to be reckoned with on screen, a furious tornado of expletives and bile, and he gives a perverse kick to the entire picture. He’s right in line with the acidic tone of the narrative, which gives us no easily admirable characters or happy endings—and that’s exactly how it should be.

That said, the conclusion feels somehow incomplete. Everything happens that should happen, but the film kind of mumbles away when it’s over instead of putting a period on the end of it. It’s not helped by the decision to toss some throwaway follow-up and deleted scenes in over the end credits; the upcoming comedy Black Dynamite makes the same mistake, somehow not realizing that you don’t want the last thing on-screen to be your weakest material.

These are minor complaints, however; frankly, you’re having such a good time with In The Loop, you’ll barely notice that it peters out. The dialogue pops—it’s sharp, literate, and funny as shit—and the film’s wit is so adroit, by the third act they’re getting laughs with the edits. It’s filled to the brim with accomplished performances by its stellar ensemble cast (Jesus, I didn’t even mention Steve Coogan), and has enough throwaway moments and funny lines for any three comedies, with a few zingers left over. In The Loop is the a must-see.

"In The Loop" opens in limited release on Friday, July 24th.

On DVD: "The Great Buck Howard"

In my late 20s, I spent about a year managing a 1300-seat theater in the Midwest. Because of the size of our market and the size of the venue, we weren’t exactly pulling A-listers; we used to say that we tended to catch performers either on their way up, or on their way down. I mention this up front because Buck Howard is the kind of act we would probably book; he was a big name about 20 years ago, and appeared on Carson over 60 times, and to a certain older segment of the population, he still has some name recognition. But that population is dwindling, and even the small houses he’s playing are only about half full.

Sean McGinly’s The Great Buck Howard knows that world inside out. It’s not a grubby, run-down circuit; the venues are nice (many are new performing arts centers built to boost the local economy, or restored vaudeville houses like ours), the staging is competent, and the audiences are appreciative. But it is certainly a fall for a performer who is used to getting star treatment, and McGinly’s perceptive, knowledgeable screenplay is full of spot-on little details, like the bingo board behind the traveler curtain and the venue rep who makes the mistake of picking up the talent in a mini-van. (I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my uncle for the time he picked up that band for me at their hotel in his 70s-era 15-passenger van. But I digress.)

Buck Howard (played by John Malkovich and loosely based on The Amazing Kreskin, who McGinly worked for on the road) is a “mentalist” (not a magician, he takes pains to note) who does 400 dates a year, repeating his somewhat hackneyed combination of insincere patter, bad piano playing, and somewhat amazing mind-reading ad nauseum. Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) is a recent law school drop-out who dreams of being a writer but takes on a job as Howard’s assistant and road manager to pay the bills.

Colin Hanks remains a fairly negligible presence as an actor—he’s not bad, per se, just not interesting enough to convince this viewer that he’d be working so much if he had a different last name. That said, his open face and affable manner work pretty well for Troy, and he’s particularly good in the two scenes he shares with his father Tom, who appears here as Troy’s father (the elder Hanks’ no-nonsense turn gives the picture a nice boost).

As Buck Howard, Malkovich is magnificent; this is quite a character, with his dapper but gaudy suits (this is a guy who lusts after Robert DeNiro’s wardrobe in Casino) and goofy haircut and outdated act. Something of an older (but not wiser) version of Will Ferrell’s numbskulled, self-important blowhards, he’s intoxicated by his own celebrity and unaware of (or not willing to admit to) its decay. But he knows he’s got to do something to get his profile up, and plans an elaborate “effect” that will hopefully garner national attention. Troy and Buck’s agent Gil (the great Ricky Jay) go along, but Buck’s publicist can only be bothered to send an underling—and this is where the lovely Emily Blunt comes in, with a second-act turn that damn near steals the show.

Blunt’s performance, as the publicist on her way up without the time to suffer a fool like Buck Howard, is fierce, funny, and terrific; she’s got a wonderful, sly way with a line reading, a way of putting a wicked, smoky spin on her whip-smart dialogue (“It’s hard to feel bad for him,” she notes of Buck. “He’s got a face you just wanna punch”). Her chemistry with Hanks is playfully sexy (he’s better when he’s working with her), and she’s even good in her non-speaking moments—McGinly frames a shot of Malkovich ranting about her and Hanks so that she’s in the background, and her reactions are such gold, you damn near have to watch the scene twice because you can’t decide who to pay attention to. (There’s not a bad performance in the film, really—Steve Zahn is wonderful in a small character bit, while Griffin Dunne makes an impression with a fairly thankless expositional role.)

McGinly’s script has its problems—it leans far too heavily on Hanks’ overwritten voice-over narration, the third act feels like rather a flight of fancy, and the closing scenes fall into some awfully traditional and predictable storytelling patterns. But his direction is aces; the picture is crisply paced and intoxicated by its own zippy, razzle-dazzle energy. The Great Buck Howard is a terrific little show-biz comedy in a deliberately minor key.

"The Great Buck Howard" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Kael of the Week: On "The Seven Samurai" (and "The Hurt Locker")

I read this review from "I Lost It At The Movies" a day or two after I saw "The Hurt Locker," and was struck by what seemed to me to be a description of that film's only real flaw.

"Here is the problem of men's actions pictures: either we get the ritual conflict of slick bad men versus strong silent heroes, i.e., evil pitted against good in a frame of reference too silly to take seriously, or we get the ritual conflict set in the commonplaces of a shopworn, socially conscious frame of reference which tries to give depth and meaning to the ritual and succeeds only in destroying its beautiful simplicity. The Seven Samurai triumphs over those problems by pouring all its energies into the extremities of human experience--into conflict itself--but it still looks for social 'truths' beyond the action and provides an explicit content so banal that the epic beauties seem to be a virtuoso exercise. Perhaps Kurosawa, like his obsessive master swordsman, has no thoughts beyond the perfection of his craft. Action is all--the pity is that he doesn't seem to know that in The Seven Samurai it is enough."


On DVD: "Gigantic"

Gigantic is the kind of movie that tries to fool you into thinking it’s up to something clever, and it’s mostly just throwing dust in your eyes. It’s got a tremendous cast: Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel star (and I’m getting to the point with Ms. Deschanel where I’ll see just about any terrible movie if she’s in it), and the supporting cast includes John Goodman, Ed Asner, Jane Alexander, Zach Galifianakis, and Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon from The Wire). Director Matt Aselton has a nice sense for visual comedy; his framings are a little off-kilter, his compositions imaginative. And the opening scenes have a sprung sense of comic timing that appears promising—there’s some ripely funny comic dialogue (particularly from Goodman and an actor named Brian Avers, as Dano’s buddy) and auspicious situations.

Unfortunately, Gigantic is a film obsessed with its own belabored attempts at inventiveness and originality, unsatisfied with the conventional notion of taking its story to a logical and satisfying conclusion. The screenplay, by Aselton and Adam Nagata, loses interest in its primary romantic entanglement almost immediately, burying it underneath a clutter of barely-connected scenes and half-baked comic constructs. The narrative loses steam and the tone is all over the place, and by the end of the film, all but the most patient and forgiving of viewers will likely have thrown up their hands and given up.

Dano plays Brian Weathersby, a sullen New York mattress salesman who wants nothing more than to adopt a Chinese baby. One morning, a blustery, plus-sized businessman (Goodman) charges in, buys the most extravagant bed in the joint, and informs Brian that his daughter will be by later to pay and arrange delivery. That daughter, Harriet “Happy” Lolly (Deschanel), turns out to be a sweet stunner; they begin a tentative, uneasy romance.

That’d be enough for most movies, but Gigantic seems determined to subvert itself wigth its own self-conscious strangeness. What are we to make of the scene where Brian’s brother is trying to buy him a black market baby from his Asian business associates, in the midst of a four-man, ahem, “massage” session? Or the hunt for the hallucinogenic mushrooms? And then there’s the subplot with Galifianakis as a seemingly deranged man who keeps popping up and beating the hell out Brian. Why do these scenes exist? Why are they never explained? Why are they in such a jarringly different key than the rest of the film? Most importantly, why on earth would you hire Galifianakis, one of the funniest, strangest men in modern comedy, for your supposedly funny, strange movie, and then not give him anything funny to say or do?

Meanwhile, as sidebars and afterthoughts are playing badly, the primary plotline flounders. The biggest problem with the relationship between Brian and “Happy” is that we’re not given much evidence of what, exactly, she sees in him; the role is written as a cipher, and Dano is something of a blank slate (a trait used to great effect in Little Miss Sunshine and overcome with gusto in There Will Be Blood). She does her best to juice up their relationship, but they’re absent of any particular chemistry—and this is the actress who put across a convincing relationship with man-child Jim Carrey, old enough to be her father, in Yes Man. Maybe it was because that film gave her more of a spark-plug to play; “Happy” is a quieter, less boisterous role than her usual, and she responds with a subtle, finely-tuned performance. But we still don’t believe the relationship.

Sure, there are elements of Gigantic that work—some smart dialogue, a well-played scene here or there. And many of the performances are quite good; Asner and Alexander have a wonderful, grounded reality (which the film badly needs), and Goodman is plain terrific, using his considerable heft, deft comic timing, and grumbling lower register to create a memorable, likable character. But Aselton never manages to the thread it all up; when the closing credits rolled, my primary thought was, “Well, what the hell was that all about?”

Gigantic is, candidly, a mess. It plays less like a narrative and more like a filmed notebook—a random assemblage of poorly-connected scenes and half-cooked notions. Goodman and Deschanel are good enough to keep me from discounting the picture entirely, but it certainly doesn’t warrant anything more than a rental.

"Gigantic" hits DVD on Tuesday, August 11th.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Loose Ends: Rare Scorsese, Cheap DVDs, and more

I continue to be amazed by the stuff that you can find, just streaming places on the Internet. American Boy is a terrific hour-or-so-long documentary that Martin Scorsese made around the same time as The Last Waltz. Prince is a fascinating oddball that he used (in small roles) in Taxi Driver and New York, New York; this loose, informal doc basically consists of Marty prompting him to tell his strange stories, which he does, vividly.

It's not officially available on DVD anywhere (I have a copy of a Kim's Video bootleg), and saw only a tiny VHS release, paired with another short Scorsese doc called Italianamerican. I saw both at the Wichita Art Museum back in college, and then at last December's Lincoln Center Scorsese retrospective. I had no idea you could just go watch the damn thing on the Internet:

Here's the link to Google Video for Facebook readers; big ups to Subterranean Cinema for the tip-in.

Hey, if you're like me (and I know I am), you may like buying DVDs. Even before I was reviewing discs and had a steady stream of stuff to watch, I still tended to do the bulk of my movie buying over two periods of the year: the summer and fall Deep Discount/DVD Planet 25% off sales. That sale is on, from now until Sunday, August 2nd; just enter the savings code "DVDTALK" at Deep Discount or "25OFFSALE" at DVD Planet (FWIW, the starting prices appear to be lower on most items at Deep Discount, though the two sites' prices used to be pretty much interchangable).

As a Groucho fan, I thought this was pretty cool. At my "real job" tonight, I got to edit some amazing video of this event, but I can't find it online anywhere; if it turns up, I'll update accordingly.

Todd Barry is a funny dude; I saw him do a very funny set at Caroline's a couple of weeks back. On this page of his website, he's got some thoughtful quotes to use in your email signature. Steal them liberally!

Exciting news about that full-on Metropolis restoration. (Thanks to Drew at Motion/Captured for the link.)

Oh and hey, I wrote this round-up of the Rifftrax DVDs for DVD Talk. Just got the rest of the set today-- THANKS TO THE DEEP DISCOUNT 25% OFF SALE. (See what I did there? I brought everything together.)

On DVD: "Grey Gardens (2009)"

When Albert and David Maysles decided to make a documentary film in the early 1970s about Edith and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, the eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who had been reduced to living in squalor at their East Hampton summer home, they couldn’t have possibly imagined the cottage industry they were creating. That 1975 film, Grey Gardens, became both a critical smash and a cult sensation; it earned the Maysles kudos from critics and academics for furthering their distinctive “direct cinema” aesthetic, while fans of offbeat cinema made the Beales into icons, memorizing dialogue and watching the picture repeatedly. It became such a part of American pop culture that it spawned a 2006 follow-up doc, The Beales of Grey Gardens, and a Tony-nominated Broadway musical adaptation that ran for over 300 performances.

When news broke that HBO was making a new film of Grey Gardens, this reviewer presumed it would be a film version of that Broadway show. But director Michael Sucsy (who wrote the teleplay with Patricia Rozema) is up to something more interesting here; his new Grey Gardens is instead a dramatic companion piece to the documentary (and the story it told), hop-scotching through the Beales’ remarkable story and providing background, sidebars, and footnotes to compliment what we already know from the previous picture.

The film begins with the Maysles brothers (Arye Gross as Al, Justin Louis as David) screening their finished film for “Big Edie” (Jessica Lange) and “Little Edie” (Drew Barrymore). We then jump back to the 1930s, when the Beales were hobnobbing with New York’s high society, and from there the film operates on those two parallel timelines: the production of the film and their lives before it, how far they fell and how it happened.

Perhaps because I had just watched the documentary in preparation for this film and this review, I was stunned by the uncanny accuracy of the scenes related to that original film; the set and prop reproductions, the re-enactment of scenes from the documentary, and the make-up and costuming of Barrymore and Lange is simply stunning (only one complaint: the single replication of one of their arguments from the doc is too clean—there’s not enough overlapping in their dialogue).

But this is not just a curiosity piece for fans of the Maysles films—indeed, the replications are a nice plus for those in the know, but Sucsy’s film stands on its own feet (and plays just fine for audiences unfamiliar with the material). It’s not a flawless picture—some of the cross-cutting (both within timelines and within related sequences) is a little erratic, and Sucsy occasionally takes too-full advantage of opportunities for obvious melodrama (as in Little Edie’s midnight hair-cutting scene, in which the otherwise-strong script and score are too overcooked).

However, the tremendous performances at the film’s center more than compensate. Lange is so consistently good in everything that she does that there is a tendency to take her skill for granted, but this is a tough, emotional (yet emotionally stunted) role, and she nails every note of it. Her cold acceptance of her husband’s wish for a divorce and her breakdown during her first scene alone in the big home are among the best work she’s done in a film.

And Barrymore is magnificent. I might have questioned her odd accent had I not just seen the real McCoy; she is spot-on, but there’s more to the performance than replicating Little Edie’s peculiar vocal stylings. Both actors are doing that thing that Jamie Foxx did in Ray or Denzel Washington did in Malcolm X—a flawless impression first, and then a skillful performance that transcends mere impersonation. Barrymore ages from a luminous twentysomething to a balding fiftysomething and never strikes a false chord; she’s always been a wonderfully reactive actor, and this is a performance of tremendous pain and unhappiness, most of it conveyed between the lines and within the subtext. It’s a truly marvelous piece of work, and an excellent reminder that there’s a fine actress within the star of He’s Just Not That Into You.

Jeanne Tripplehorn is wonderfully understated in a brief role as Jackie O, whose appearance (during the vivid and fascinating sequence concerning their near-eviction by health and sanitation officials) gives the film a healthy third-act bounce. Some wonder if the original documentary exploited the Beales, holding them up for smug ridicule (and if its cult following is a testament to that). There are compelling arguments to be made in either case, but that’s certainly not a charge that can be leveled at this Grey Gardens; in fact, that question is indirectly asked during its melancholy closing sequences, which are surprisingly moving and bittersweet. The Maysles pictures pointed their cameras at the Beales and showed us the who and the what, but not the why. The Sucsy film asks why, and with the help of two tremendous actors, it may just answer that hefty question.

The new HBO version of Grey Gardens sounds like a novelty or a fluke, but it’s the real deal—an intelligent, emotional, impeccably made biographical portrait of two women who remained, if nothing else, true to themselves and true to each other. With excellent period details and near-flawless performances, Grey Gardens is well worth a look.

"Grey Gardens" is currently available on DVD.

Backfilling: "Grey Gardens (1975)"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

Grey Gardens, the iconic 1975 documentary directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Muffie Meyer, is a fascinating look at two very odd women. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie,” became tabloid fodder in the early 1970s when it was discovered that these relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were living in squalor at their East Hampton summer home; conditions had gotten so bad there that the property was in danger of being condemned. The Maysles brothers first met the Beales when they were preparing a documentary about the entire Bouvier clan; their fascination with the sisters (and the lack of enthusiasm from Onassis) caused them to re-focus the film to just the two women.

The resulting film is impeccably assembled in their unique “direct cinema” style; the duo are keenly observed, with details of their lives present but not pushed. Of particular note is the casual, conversational way that we found out their biographies (no voice-overs or outside experts here), and the odd way that editors Hovde, Meyer, and Susan Fromke manage to build a three-act structure around two women whose lives never change.

But, as is so often the case in documentary film, the film succeeds or fails based on the quality of the “characters” within, and holy Christ is this a pair of characters. The mere rhythms of their conversations are funny, to say nothing of their wild New England accents and charmingly scrambled manner of speech (“I’m pulverized by this latest thing!” Little Edie proclaims at one point; at another, she announces, “I only care about three things: the Catholic Church, swimming, and dancing”). Their interactions with the filmmakers, who are trying their best to remain detached, also provide humor (Little Edie all but screams to her mother, about a particular photograph, “I WANT TO SHOW IT TO AL!”) and pain (when Little Edie tells a story that Big Edie disagrees with, she proclaims to the camera, “You’re wasting that thing on this, because that’s just nuts”).

By necessity of honestly representing the endless cycle of their days together (listen to records, sing songs, have fights, eat, and repeat), the film is, yes, somewhat monotonous, and it could only have been improved by lopping off a good ten minutes or so in the middle. But Grey Gardens is a remarkable document all the same—a candid, unflinching look at two women who, decades before “reality television,” were willing to show their lives in all its ugliness for, seemingly, no better reason than because they wanted to be in a movie.

Today's New DVDs: 7/21/09

Watchmen: I never got around to catching the graphic-novel-turned-non-blockbuster during its briefer-than-expected theatrical run last spring, though I'm planning to check it out on disc; reviews have certainly been mixed (though DVD Talk's DVD Savant and Adam Tyner both give it fairly high marks), but Roger Ebert's four-star review from March remains my primary source of interest (though it should be noted, you can't always trust his four-star reviews).

Midnight Express: I saw Alan Parker's harrowing film (based on Billy Hayes' true story of his stint in a Turkish prison) for the first time on Blu-ray and had a somewhat mixed response: it's brutal, effective filmmaking, yes, but also needlessly xenophobic and somewhat discombobulated. Worth a look, though.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry: Also new on Blu this week--the only movie that seriously challenged Transformers as the worst film of 2007.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her/ Made in U.S.A.: More mid-period Godard from Criterion this week, so this is as good a place as any to confess that I just can't seem to get worked about any Godard picture that isn't Breathless or Bande a part. I've seen plenty of them (Weekend and Contempt and 2 or 3 Things among them), and they just kind of leave me cold; I think Godard may have been right at the time, that his audience was fine with him basically abandoning narrative and making essay films and jumbles of ideas, but he loses me every time. That said, Criterion afficionado Jamie S. Rich's reviews of them are both pretty great.

Monday, July 20, 2009

On DVD: "Bart Got a Room"

Brian Hecker’s Bart Got a Room is a slight (it clocks in at a mere 72 minutes without closing credits), lightweight, somewhat insubstantial film, treading familiar ground without much in the way of a new spin. But it’s also an infectiously charming little movie, blessed with a unique style and a wry comic sensibility. From its opening sequence, of a badly off-tempo high school jazz band performing for a mostly-empty audience of beachside oldsters, the picture adopts a cockeyed perspective and goofy likability; you may know where it’s going, but you stick with it for its affable style.

Newcomer Steven J. Kaplan stars, but he plays Danny Stein, not the title character—Bart, it seems, is the biggest loser in Danny’s high school, so as prom madness sweeps his senior class, the pressures of getting dates, limos, and hotel rooms are best summed up when Danny is informed that, yes, “Bart got a room.” It’s a bit of information that not only springs our hero to action, but also his recently separated parents (well-played by William H. Macy and Cheryl Hines). Danny’s been asked to the prom by Camille (Alia Shawkat), his best friend since childhood, but he’s aiming “higher”—he has eyes for Alice (Ashley Benson), the knockout blonde cheerleader he drives home every day after school. When she shoots him down, he finds himself desperately searching for a date, blind to the fact that, yes, he’s got a very good thing right in front of him.

So this is a story that we’ve heard before (it was already stale when moviegoers of my generation first saw it in Some Kind of Wonderful). But Bart Got a Room transcends its formulaic roots, primarily thanks to Hecker’s specific comic approach; he’s got a nice eye for composition and a distinctively visual sense of humor. He enjoys the occasional piece of askew framing, and is always throwing little jokes into the background or off to the side. He’s got a nice way with dialogue as well—the compressed running time doesn’t cause the exclusion of throwaway color gags (“Mom, I just saw a lizard in the house.” “It’s fine, they eat ants, it’s fine”). And he also finds just the right tone—it’s frank and honest about sex, but seldom engages in the kind of perverse raunchiness that we’ve come to expect from prom-night comedy.

Macy, driving a rusted-out Mercedes and sporting an unfortunate hairdo, is delightfully funny; the newly-single father with a misunderstanding of information boundaries is a comic well that’s been mined before, but he still manages to get some mileage out of it (primarily by keeping the would-be caricature grounded and realistic, and wearing his love for the kid on his sleeve). Hines brings to her role much of the same good-natured pragmatism that makes her so much fun to watch on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Kaplan makes for an engaging lead, exhibiting a fine sense of comic timing, though Shawkat is somewhat underused (she rarely gets opportunities for the dry line readings that made her work as Maeby on Arrested Development so memorable).

Not every bit works; there’s an unfortunate scene at the home of an Asian girl Danny is wooing (the scene itself isn’t really that offensive, but the music cues sure are), and for all of the effort Macy and Kaplan put into the “how thick are the walls” scene, you can still see the punchline a mile off. But for what it is (and for how broad and/or vulgar it could have been), Bart Got a Room is an amiable, enjoyable comedy.

Airy, nimble, and not terribly consequential, Bart Got a Room isn’t a terribly memorable comedy, but it has its charms. There’s not an abundance of belly laughs, but I found myself smiling and chuckling from beginning to end, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of so-called “indie comedies.”

"Bart Got a Room" hits DVD on Tuesday, June 28th.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In Theaters: "The Hurt Locker"

The Hurt Locker is a very good movie that comes agonizingly close to greatness, but doesn’t quite trust its own instincts enough to close that gap. I’m hard-pressed to recall the last time I was so thoroughly involved with a picture, so wrapped up in the events on the screen before me; the entire first hour is relentless, tightfisted filmmaking—it’s hard to watch in places, the anxiety is so agonizing. But it goes a little slack in the second hour, filling in blanks that we don’t want filled and over-explaining things that we admired it for leaving alone. The filmmaking is messy and spontaneous; you wish the screenplay didn’t wander into such predictable places in the second and third act.

The setting is Baghdad, 2004. In a dangerous and turbulent place, perhaps the most hazardous job is to work on the army’s bomb squad, finding and disabling car bombs and IEDs in the war zone. The squad works in a three-man configuration: a tech/team leader and two sharpshooters who protect the tech while he works. In Bravo company, a new tech, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) has joined Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) for the last 38 days of their rotation. James immediately rubs them the wrong way with his reckless hot-dogging (and lack of apology for it—Sanborn’s complaints are met with a slap on the shoulder and an off-hand “It’s combat, buddy”), but he’s good at the job, even if he’s putting their lives in danger along with his own.

Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow parachute us right into the action with an exquisitely-constructed opening sequence of unbearable tension and suspense. In all seriousness, it blows you back in your seat. That, and the numerous diffusion sequences that follow, are beautifully executed; Bigelow (whose credits include everything from the underrated Strange Days to the dunderheaded Point Break) never holds a shot too long, but her scenes are never choppy, either—the technique is invisible and seemingly effortless. No scene is quite like the others; she’ll find a little detail (like a wiper scraping across a dry windshield) Boal’s dialogue is swaggering and jargon-heavy; it is reminiscent of the recent (and excellent) Iraq mini-series Generation Kill, and that show’s refusal to traffic in dull exposition and obvious sign-posting. In this script and in that one, they assume you’ll figure it out as they go along.

As a result, the first hour of The Hurt Locker is something of a revelation: we’re witnessing the establishment of characters almost entirely through action. And I don’t just mean “action” in the things-blowing-up sense; I mean that we get to know and understand these people entirely through what they do, to themselves and to each other, and not so much from what they say, but the way they say it. We observe the fascinating interplay between the three men in the most high-stress situation imaginable, and that tells us all that we need to know; it’s an incredibly cinematic method of conveying exposition and character information, and in conventional action cinema, action and characterization is usually an either/or proposition.

This kind of terse, efficient storytelling is crisply accomplished in, say, the calm, quiet scene where James and Sanford slowly but surely take out attacking insurgents with a long-range weapon, or the maddening sequence in which the telltale signs of a literal ticking bomb slowly assemble around the kill zone. As a result, it’s a little disappointing to arrive at a scene midway through in which the three men get drunk and tell each other their secrets. This is conventional storytelling, and the film had tricked me into thinking it was going to eschew that kind of thing; this viewer, for one, was hoping that Boal’s script was going to take the kind of straight-forward, no-explanations approach that Michael Mann flirts with so intriguingly in Public Enemies. The realization that Boal and Bigelow feel like they have to explain these guys is an unfortunate one that loosens the taut grip of the film’s first act; it gets worse at the film’s conclusion, in which a character is forced to explicitly state what Bigelow’s elegant visuals of the previous moments have made abundantly clear.

In some ways, I was hoping that Boal was going to casually subvert the psychological shorthand, the way that the film takes some standard elements of war cinema (the sympathetic but detached war shrink, the local kid who our hero takes a shine to) and turns them on their head. But he doesn’t; the flawless direction and Renner’s brilliant performance (seriously, you can’t catch this guy acting) tells us everything the dialogue does, and you wish they’d trust us to have picked that stuff up without the extra shove.

This is not to say that there still isn’t greatness in The Hurt Locker, even in that second half; the performances are spot-on, those diffusion sequences are downright excruciating (but, you know, in a good way), and there’s a strange, dreamlike quality to a late scene where the trio investigates the aftermath of a bombing. I’ve never been one to complain about the handheld camera, but I will admit that I was feeling a little wobbly by the end of this picture. Then again, it probably wasn’t just the camerawork. Even with its flaws, The Hurt Locker is still a must-see work.

"The Hurt Locker" is now playing in limited release.

On DVD: "12 Monkeys"

I saw Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys in its first weekend of wide release back in January of 1996 and have viewed it countless times since; even with a more critical eye, on this most recent viewing I still can’t find a single thing wrong with it. It is that rarest of cinematic beasts: a science fiction film of ideas, where plotting and logic and characterization are more important than special effects and production design. Which is not to say that the film is without those elements—indeed, it has a distinctive look and style, and uses a surprising amount of CGI to bring that world seamlessly to life. But it’s not about that stuff, not at all. It’s about an ordinary man and his desperate journey, his encounters with madness, and his (perhaps futile) attempts to prevent a catastrophe. And it is about the paradoxes of time travel, which continue to provide fruitful stories for thoughtful filmmakers.

The film begins in the mid-21st century, long after a virus has forced the surviving members of the human race to live underground. Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a convict who is sent to 1996, immediately before the virus’ release, on a fact-finding mission. Time-travel technology is apparently not quite perfect, however; he lands in 1990 and ends up in a mental hospital, where he is subjected to the ramblings of fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). He tries to explain his mission to Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe); she doubts him, of course, but his ability to predict future events and seemingly hop around in time eventually convince her that he might be telling that truth, and that they must try to stop the oncoming plague.

The screenplay, by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) and his wife Janet Peoples (inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée), is tight as a drum; compact and efficient, it doesn’t waste a word, unfolding with a nightmarish precision and unfaltering logic. It also manages to traffic in the fascinating concepts of time travel, and the rules and dangers therein, but to do so without breaking the film’s considerably fast pace—too often, time travel films stop cold in their tracks while a scientist or philosopher or some other egghead explains the butterfly theory to our hero, using small, easy words. As with all of the expositional information in 12 Monkeys, its notions about changing the future and the Möbius strip of time are imparted as we go, on a need-to-know basis.

But the writers also understand that cool ideas and a time-hopping storyline don’t amount to much more than narrative glitter if the audience doesn’t have compelling characters to latch on to. James Cole is a genuinely interesting creation—we know little about him (not even why he’s in that caged-up prison to begin with), but we care about him; Gilliam directs Bruce Willis in a way that both trades on our preconceived notions of his heroic screen personality, and subverts them. This film was a bold and potentially risky play for the actor (even following his first toe-dipping into the waters of independent cinema with Pulp Fiction the year before), but his gamble pays off—he’s seldom been better in a picture. Free of vanity and his usual bag of actor’s tricks, his performance is simultaneously controlled and unpredictable, and imbued with a startling sensitivity; watch the look on his face as he pleads with Dr. Railly to turn up her car radio (“Can you turn this up? Can you make this louder?”) and listens to a recording of “Blueberry Hill” with sheer pleasure.

Madeline Stowe is an actor I’ve never harbored much enthusiasm for (her interesting film work is pretty much encompassed by this film and Short Cuts), but she’s very good here, projecting her intellectual resistance, and ultimate yielding, to Cole’s story (seizing and playing the intermediate beats between). Here, again, the ingenious script shines through—watch the clever way it flip-flops their motivations, to a point near the end where she not only believes Cole, but is trying to talk him into believing all of the things that he had to convince her of. As fast-talking Jeffrey, Pitt comes on like gangbusters; 1995 was the year he set out to subvert the pretty-boy presence he’d established in A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall, first by chopping his golden locks and appearing in the Fincher’s neo-nihilist opus Seven, then slapping in some creepy contacts and seemingly channeling Dennis Hopper (specifically in Apocalypse Now) for his inspired, scene-stealing supporting role, which nabbed him an Oscar nomination.

As it hurtles toward its seemingly inevitable conclusion, Gilliam compliments the considerable narrative momentum with Hitchcock lifts (and an homage shot) before landing at his tremendously successful airport climax, which is so skillful, it even manages to pull off that old chestnut of the gradually-revealed flashback. This could very well be Gilliam’s finest work to date, better even than Brazil (which is magnificent, yes, but also overblown and overcooked and, sorry, a little too damned long). As with The Fisher King, Gilliam worked on 12 Monkeys as a hired gun, and it seems that when he works with material he hasn’t penned himself, he’s less likely to go overboard with his little indulgences. Which is not to say that it doesn’t still look and feel like a Gilliam picture; it’s visually arresting, with an ugly, cluttered future (reminiscent of Brazil), and he trots out Dutch angles, wide-angle lenses, herky-jerky camera moves, blown-out light levels, and busy, crowded frames en masse. But 12 Monkeys is all of a piece in a way that his films sometimes fail to be—with a strong cast and a whiz-bang screenplay to augment his distinctive visual style, this is looking and more and more like Gilliam’s masterpiece.

"12 Monkeys" makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, July 28th.

On DVD: "Comic Legends Four-Disc Collection"

MPI’s Comic Legends: Four-Disc Collection compiles, in one box, the label’s four previous stand-alone “Comic Legends” releases: Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form, Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face, Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy, and Comic Legends: Groucho Marx & Redd Foxx. All four were reviewed at DVD Talk upon their original releases in early 2007; follow the links for more detailed analysis of each disc (and thanks to my colleagues Paul Mavis and Stuart Galbraith IV for helping to fill in some much-needed info on the origin of these performances). In general, the discs all contain wonderful performances and enjoyable glimpses of vintage TV shows; they all also suffer from some weak and repeated material.

Dick Van Dyke: In Rare Form is hosted by co-producer Pat Boone, and for good reason; the vintage Van Dyke clips in this special appear to be culled entirely from his 1958 appearances on The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom. Van Dyke and Boone appear together occasionally—doing a funny bit decrying slapstick while engaging in it, or doing a couple of numbers that cement Van Dyke’s reputation as a song-and-dance-man—but the bulk of the material is Van Dyke alone, performing one-character pantomimes. These are the kind of bits he would occasionally work into The Dick Van Dyke Show years later, when throwing around ideas with Buddy and Sally (“Okay we have Alan play a waiter with a head cold, it’d go like this…”), though in much shorter form. Here, they often run as long as five minutes. The highlight of the bunch comes early, as he does an uproarious Chaplinesque bit where he comes home drunk and tries to get into his house and into bed quietly. He performs many of his other pieces pantomiming along to his own pre-recorded narration; these routines, including his bit as a tennis player and a parody of private eye stories, and inventive and consistently funny.

The routines in which he does the accompanying narrative patter out loud (like a trip to the beach and an attempt to quit smoking) are somewhat less successful; he sometimes seems to lose control of the material and talks just to fill silence (plus it’s that “talking to yourself” dialogue that never sounds quite natural). Some of the bits also run out of gas before Van Dyke wraps it up—and Boone’s fake-chuckle outros become plenty irritating by the time the end of the special’s 75 minutes. But there’s still some great stuff here: his routine as a new father has some big laughs (“Y’know something, she looks just like Yogi Berra!”), the silent movie-style bit on a windy corner is wonderful, and he’s a dead ringer for Stan Laurel in a very funny Laurel & Hardy tribute sketch (which looked to me to be the same routine he performed with Lennie Weinrib in the second season Dick Van Dyke Show episode “The Sam Pomeratnz Scandals”). Its minor flaws aside, the Van Dyke special may be the best of this bunch.

Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face spotlights the raspy-voiced, self-deprecating comedienne doing stand-up and sketches on the late-60s variety show The Hollywood Palace. I had never given much thought to Diller before I saw the PBS documentary Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, where numerous female comics pinpointed her as a trailblazer; she was, indeed, a woman who gained fame in what was very much a man’s world. Theories abound on that special that, in order to become a successful female comic without seeming pushy or overbearing in those tenuous times, she had to develop an act where she put herself down, uglied herself up, and was as non-threatening as possible.

Whatever the psychological groundwork, “Phyllis,” the ugly duckling and incompetent housewife to “Fang,” was one of the great comic characters, as immediately recognizable in her time as Jack Benny’s cheapskate and Gracie Allen’s airhead were in theirs. You can easily grasp her popularity in these clips; with her unlikely charm and infectious laugh, audiences just love her—and a good number of her jokes hold up (“I once had a peekaboo blouse,” she tells the audience. “People would peek, then they’d boo”). Indeed, the best bits in the special are the numerous monologues, which are full of snappy one-liners and well-delivered slow burns. The only trouble with them is that this compilation of multiple appearances sloppily includes some repeated material (like the joke about her cup size being an “A minus”). In fact, the editing is oddly choppy throughout; there’s no host to guide us through the clips this time, and no on-screen text to indicate what shows we’re watching or when they’re from. In fact, the attribution to Hollywood Palace is nowhere to be found—not even in the closing credits (rather shabby treatment of a well-respected source show). The sketches are hit and miss (though a bride-and-groom sketch with Don Rickles and Terry-Thomas has some laughs, and Dean Martin’s visit to her apartment leads to some sharp ad-libs), but the production numbers are fun—the “I Feel Pretty” song and dance number is amusing, and the number about her “charm and finishing school” (performed with a chorus of lookalikes) is funny and well-done.

Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy was also culled from the Hollywood Palace archives, though Conway was clearly a utility player on the show (as opposed to Diller, who was a frequent host). He’s quite young in these clips (he started showing up on Palace during his breakthrough stint on McHale’s Navy), but his timing was already razor-sharp, and he was already exhibiting the roll-with-it tendencies that made him so entertaining to watch years later as part of the Carol Burnett Show company.

With the exception of an amusing monologue about military history, the sketches here all follow the same format: Conway is a dim expert or professional of some kind, who reveals his idiocy during an visit and interview situation with the host. Bing Crosby interviews Conway as a jockey and later as a racecar driver; David Janssen, as a newspaper reporter, talks to Conway’s low-security prison warden about a recent jailbreak; he takes on the guises of a clueless obstetrician, a matchmaking scientist, and a wine expert (talking to notorious lush Phil Harris, who surprisingly doesn’t get a laugh when he tells Conway that he “never drinks”). The repetition of this formula begins to wear a little thin by the end of the hour; two of the sketches even share one of the same punchlines (Conway on the phone to an incredulous patient: “I know! A guy just told me!”). But let this be said: the producers knew what Conway did well. And there are some huge laughs here—particularly when “The Warden” sketch falls apart about halfway through, and Conway keeps it afloat with some hilarious improvisations.

The set’s final disc is Groucho Marx & Redd Foxx, a combination that sounds about as peculiar as a peanut butter and relish sandwich. On watching the disc (though nowhere on the packaging), the connection becomes clear: both men were featured guests on an obscure half-hour ABC series called “One Man Show” from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s (sorry, but it’s so arcane that an exact date is impossible to find). Foxx’s pre-Sanford and Son show comes first, and mostly consists of funny, loose comic monologues. As on his albums (though much cleaner), he does a mixture of jokes (including some very funny “my wife was so ugly” gags), personal stories (“I was in the service… I was a prisoner of war in Newark”), observations, and non-sequiturs (“I don’t hate nothin’ but hate… and midgets”). The show’s closing bit at a soda fountain doesn’t work as well, and the commercial breaks and costume changes (he seems to perform several mini-sets, as opposed to one long one) seem to crack his momentum a bit. But Foxx’s act is mostly funny and always enjoyable, a throwback to the low comedy of the burlesque shows and so-called “chitlin’ circuit” gigs that gave him his start, and film of Foxx at work on stage is rare enough that even this neutered version is worth a look.

Groucho’s show was the entire reason I grabbed this set, and it is, unfortunately, a bit of a disappointment. Groucho had become both a showbiz legend and a countercultural icon by this point, and his frequent talk show appearances (particularly with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson) showed that his quick wit was still very much intact. But his “One Man Show” begins with a perfectly terrible monologue; he was always more of a storyteller than a set-up/punchline monologist, and he is clearly ill at ease, reading his lousy jokes obviously from cue cards. Adding insult to injury, the laughter sounds as though it’s been sweetened in editing, but it can’t convince us that he’s working with anything other than weak material, uncomfortably performed. The question and answer section with the audience is funnier (he remarks of a pretty young audience member, “I’ve got a question for her later”), and his grilling of a would-be comic is quite amusing (and a little painful). But the next segment, a weak one-on-one interview with a representative of an organization that aims to clothe animals, feels scripted (and badly). However, he winds up the show by doing a brief interview section with announcer Ed Jordan that has some good lines and interesting memories about the early days of the act (even if it’s clearly had applause added).

The compilations that make up the Comic Legends: Four-Disc Collection certainly have their flaws, and some of the material has, admittedly, aged rather poorly. But fans of classic comedy and vintage TV will not want to pass this one up; every joke may not be a gut-buster, but there are plenty of big laughs in this set, and it offers up some terrific slices of television history.

"Comic Legends: Four-Disc Collection" will be released on Tuesday, July 28th.