Saturday, January 16, 2010

On DVD: "The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season"

The year is young, but when we look back on 2010, we may still come to the conclusion that Fox’s The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season is the most befuddling release of these twelve months. The studio began putting out DVD seasons sets for the durable cartoon comedy back in 2001 with (predictably enough) season one, and continued to put out a season or two per year, right up to last August’s release of The Twelfth Season. Now, suddenly, they’re skipping most of the previous decade, rushing the most recent season into the marketplace, bereft of the copious special features that have been a trademark of the box sets to date (more on that later).

Why the jump? Theories abound that the studio was attempting to capitalize on the press surrounding the show’s literal twentieth birthday (it was a midseason replacement), and the big anniversary special that aired a week or so back. So, if everyone’s talking about the Simpsons turning 20, the best possible sales would be generated by a set with a big “20” on the front of it, I guess?

You can go crazy trying to read the tea leaves with TV people (as anyone following the late night battles can tell you); suffice it to say, whatever the reason, seasons 13 through 19 will presumably be revisited. (We hope?) The twentieth season did mark an important turning point for the show: midway through, with the episode “Take My Life, Please,” the series finally made its long-awaited changeover to HD broadcasting, which is presumably why the season 20 set marks the series’ Blu-ray debut.

But enough about the marketing logistics; how is the show this year? Surprisingly robust. There are few things in this world that stay funny for 20 years (ask Jay Leno), and while the notion that The Simpsons passed its golden age a good decade ago persists, just about every episode here delivers the expected giggles and guffaws. “In The Name of the Grandfather” is vintage silliness, an episode that manages to begin with Homer and Grandpa Abe at a three-legged race and proceed, with perfect Simpsons logic, to have the father and son running a pub in Ireland. “How the Test Was Won” plays beautifully off the always-fertile comic soil of Lisa’s insecurities about her own braininess. “The Burns and the Bees” visits Mr. Burns at a billionaire’s retreat (and takes a quick but well-aimed shot at their boss, Rupert Murdoch); as someone whose hometown invested in an ill-advised and unnecessary arena, I particularly liked Burns’ line at his new sports arena’s opening game (“Welcome to the American Dream: a billionaire using public funds to construct a private playground for the rich and powerful!”). “Waverly Hills 9-0-2-1-D’oh” features Ellen Page in a clever send-up of Hannah Montana, while “Mypods and Broomsticks” features not only some trenchant and funny social commentary (via Bart’s friendship with a Muslim kid), but a terrific B-plot giving the business to all of us Mac users. The season’s highlight, though, is “No Loan Again, Naturally,” an expectedly irreverent take on the housing crisis, in which we find out that Homer has taken out a high-interest home loan every year to fund his elaborate Marti Gras parties.

Sure, not every episode is a winner. I’ve never been a particularly big “Treehouse of Horror” fan, and “Lost Verizon” is a rare show where they can’t seem to come up with anything clever to do with their celebrity guest voices. “Eeny Teeny Maya Moe” goes past silly and into the realm of stupid, while “Four Great Women and a Manicure” never seems to have gotten much farther than the good idea stage.

But those episodes are aberrations. For the most part, even as it approaches drinking age, The Simpsons remains a potent mix of goofy storytelling, uproarious non-sequiturs (“Flowers!” Homer snorts. “The painted whores of the plant world”), surprisingly biting social satire, and good old-fashioned family comedy. The jokes are inventive and the writing is strong, and they continue to find ingenious ways to exploit the richest supporting cast on TV. Say what you will, but this show is still one of the greats.

But here’s the rub. In contrast to previous Simpsons sets, which offered an embarrassment of bonus feature riches, we get exactly one extra: “The 20th Anniversary Special Sneak Peek by Morgan Spurlock." No commentaries, no deleted scenes, no animation showcases, no featurettes, no nothing—just a commercial for a special that aired on January 10… two days before the set’s release. What exactly is the response they’re hoping for to this “sneak peek”? “Hey, I sure will watch that! When’s it on?... What? Two days ago? D’oh!”

The lack of bonus features contributes a rather thrown-together feel to The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season, and that’s a shame; the talent behind the show have always treated fans right when it came time to plunk down the dollars for these sets, but this one feels like a rush job that will probably get a second pass down the line. It’s still worth having, of course, but be prepared to grumble about it in a couple of years.

"The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season" was released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 12th.

Friday, January 15, 2010

New on Blu: "Magnolia"

“And the book says, we may through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” –Dialogue from Magnolia

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is not for ambivalent, reserved people. It’s not an ambivalent, reserved movie. Melora Walters is losing her shit and Philip Seymour Hoffman is weeping and Tom Cruise is hyperventilating and William H. Macy is throwing up and Julianne Moore is like an exposed nerve and Jesus Christ, Jason Robards is like dying, right there on-screen. There’s so much happening in it—the picture careens recklessly from one emotional crest to the next, barely pausing to let us take a breath. It wrings us out, and then it hits us again.

Anderson conceived the film immediately after his breakthrough success with the brilliant, reckless Boogie Nights, initially conceiving it as a short, easy picture he’d knock off as a quick follow-up. But in the wind-up to the writing, he lost—within one week—both his father and beloved family friend Robert Ridgely (who acted in his first two films) to cancer, and the film became something else altogether: a lengthy (188 minutes) and emotionally relentless multi-character mosaic in the style of his hero and mentor Robert Altman. He even includes Altman utility players Henry Gibson and Michael Murphy as a shout-out (Altman vets Moore and Philip Baker Hall were already part of Anderson’s go-to company of actors).

The stories all unwind in the course of a single day, in California’s San Fernando Valley, centering on a dozen or so casually intertwined characters. Earl Partridge (Robards) is literally on his deathbed, succumbing to cancer, and asks a final favor of his caretaker Phil (Hoffman, in a delicate, warm piece of work). Earl knows what he’s doing is “so boring, goddamn dying wish and all that…” (Anderson, whose characters can sometimes sound a bit too similar, has an uncanny ear for the wandering way in which very old men speak). But he wants to talk, one last time, to the son he abandoned—a son who has transformed himself into the preening, misogynistic motivational speaker Frank TJ Mackey (Cruise).

A decade after the film’s release, the sight of Tom Cruise, the All-American movie star (though that image has certainly been somewhat tarnished), strutting across a hotel ballroom and delivering a lewd monologue (in the guise of a “Seduce and Destroy” seminar) maintains its shock power. He lobs his profanities and slurs like grenades, backed up by cringe-worthy background slides like “How to turn that ‘friend’ into your sperm receptacle.” Frank is having a bit of a day himself; during the lunch break of the one-day seminar, he has an interview with a female journalist (April Grace) that goes from pleasant to ugly in the blink of an eye. In those scenes, Anderson takes Cruise’s movie-star confidence and smarm and turns it inside out—he gives the actor a hateful, dark edge, and then reveals the open wounds underneath. The things that Cruise is doing with his face as he stands in that stairwell, trying to decide if he takes the call, are remarkable; there’s an urgency to his acting here, to the way he lets you in on that moment.

While Phil is trying to reconnect Earl with his estranged son, Earl’s trophy wife Linda (Moore) is at her wit’s end; from the panicked state she’s in at the beginning of the story, you’d think she doesn’t have anywhere to go. You’d be wrong. She goes out for the day, to “run errands,” but her visits to various doctors and lawyers provide her with no acceptable answers, and her breakdown at a pharmacy and subsequent confession to a family friend (“I did so many bad things”) are just heart-wrenching. This is a powerful actress giving her most raw performance to date.

Across town, another sick man is trying to put his house in order. Game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is dying of bone cancer, and wants to make things right with his estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). She’s just falling apart; she spends her days alone in her apartment, blasting music and snorting coke, going out at night only to score more coke and have anonymous sex. When good-hearted LAPD officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) arrives at her door to respond to a noise complaint, though, his heart stops—something about her captures him immediately. Anderson seems to see their awkward courtship as so tentative and fragile that he’s afraid to impose; their first few scenes are played out in a series of slightly distanced two-shots, and he only goes in close later, when the pair goes out on an improbable date. He’s doing some difficult, risky things in those Jim and Claudia scenes—the writing and the playing is so open, so honest (“I started this didn’t I, didn’t I, fuck!” she chastises herself), and it’s by design. Claudia wonders, at the beginning of their dinner, what it would be like if they just told each other everything, all of their secrets, and then, almost immediately, she thinks better of it. But Jim wants to have that with her, wants to be there with her, even if he has no idea what he’s getting into. It’s striking, how sensitive these two performances are (to each other, and to us); Reilly has never been better in a film, and Walters—who I honestly thought was going to be a huge star after this movie—manages to make her numerous tics and troubles into texture, rather than affectation.

Claudia isn’t the only one Jimmy Gator has damaged. There is his wife Rose, played by Melinda Dillon in a performance that swings from pure devotion to steely resolve (“I’m not through asking my questions”) to absolute heartbreak (“You should know better”). There is Macy as former contestant “Quiz Kid Donnie Smith” (he’s always called that), a child genius who has become an absolute wreck of a grown man, failing at his job and planning an ill-advised robbery to pay for braces he doesn’t need. And there is little Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), in the midst of a current run of wins on Gator’s show “What Do Kids Know?”, who longs only for the love of his father, a would-be actor played with slimy precision by Michael Bowen. And the son is disappointed by his father, as was Frank TJ Mackey, as was Claudia Wilson Gator, and these things go around and around and around again.

Anderson’s direction is astonishingly confident (again, this was his third feature film). Much has been made of Magnolia’s considerable length, but the film never slows or drags—indeed, quite the opposite. Anderson’s restless, darting camera plunges us headlong into the tale, with virtuoso tracking shots and zipping dolleys and his signature extreme close-ups, propelled by Jon Brion’s invaluable score, which serves as the driving pulse of the movie, repetitive but hypnotic. In a way, the picture carves out its own sense of time; we get lost in these stories, adrift in Anderson’s self-contained world. His control of what could have easily become a big, unwieldy mess of a movie is impressive—watch how artfully he crosscuts big sequences of things coming together or things falling apart (the game show, the Mackey interview, Linda in the pharmacy), so that, unlike other, lesser filmmakers taking a swing at the faux-Altman template, it never feels like we’re watching a series of separated, dispensable stories. It’s all one, all of a piece—even the seemingly unrelated but impossibly clever pre-title sequence (“This is not just a matter of chance,” narrator Ricky Jay assures us. “No, these strange things happen all the time”), or the audacious musical number. It’s the kind of scene that gobsmacks us twice: we can’t believe that he’s doing it, and we can’t believe that they’re pulling it off in such a pleasurable, effective way. It’s a brave, bold act of cinematic chutzpah. Same goes for the famous surprise closing (I won’t give it away), which is not only a technical marvel, but ends up serving the same essential structural function as the earthquake in Short Cuts, Magnolia’s closest cinematic influence.

But Anderson’s most impressive achievement is his sprawling, magnificent screenplay, organized by movements of weather and punctured by occasional acknowledgments of its own improbability and cinematic nature. “And we generally say, ‘Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn't believe it,’" notes the narrator, “Someone's so-and-so met someone else's so-and-so and so on.” On the phone with Frank’s people, Phil acknowledges that what he’s asking is like “a scene from a movie,” but pleads, “I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true… see, see this is the scene in the movie where you help me out.”

No matter how familiar the situations or seemingly pat the construction, Anderson’s script is a torrent of words, a howl of emotion that feels as though it flooded out of the filmmaker without a filter, as if he wrote it the way Claudia asks Jim to be with her. But it’s not shapeless or self-indulgent. It’s about so many big things, Life and Death and Love and Faith and Family and Pain and most of all, more than any of the others, it’s about Redemption—but not in that bullshit way that a movie that doesn’t know what it’s about is suddenly about Redemption. Magnolia looks all of these damaged people right in the eye, with dignity and patience. “If you can forgive someone…” Jim notes, at the end of the film, “that’s the tough part. What can we forgive?”

Wise, witty, smart, and deeply moving, Magnolia was one of the last major films of the 1990s, and certainly one of the best. It is a film that improves with age—both because of its radically advanced and sophisticated storytelling, and because it is the kind of picture that we understand better, the older we get. In its own specific, hard-won way, it’s something of a miracle.

Today's New in Theaters- 1/15/09

The Book of Eli: I'm intrigued by a movie fronted by Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, and Mila Kunis, and who doesn't like a good post-apocalyptic tale, right? But then again, it's coming out on January 15th; statistically speaking, the odds are awfully good that it will blow. But the Hughes Brothers are always at least interesting, and both Jamie S. Rich and Roger Ebert give it modest recommendations.

The Spy Next Door: Full disclosure: I had the opportunity to go to an advanced screening of this Jackie Chan babysitter caper back in December. Instead, I went to Film Forum for a double feature of Little Murders and Where's Poppa? It may not have been the most responsible decision, but damnit, until I'm getting paid for this shit, I'm not going to skip stuff I want to see for things that are probably terrible. Reading the numerous scathing reviews, I'm pretty sure I made the right call. Co-starring both George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus!!!

The Last Station: Long story short: it's a broccoli movie. Good for you, sure, but it's pretty hard to get down.

44 Inch Chest: It goes wildly off the rails in the third act, but this tough little British number does give you the opportunity to watch Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt, and Tom Wilkinson curse at each other for 90+ minutes, which I'd much rather do than spend three hours with nine-foot tall 3-D smurf cats.

Mine: This documentary about the pets left behind after Hurricane Katrina is heartbreaking, sure, but it's also surprisingly thoughtful and fair-minded. (Oh, if you're not in San Francisco, New York, or New Orleans, you can buy it on iTunes.)

The Lovely Bones: So Peter Jackson's latest was supposed to be a big Oscar contender for Paramount--in fact, it was the main movie that they pushed Scorsese's Shuttle Island to February for. Then it came out in the expected limited December release, and ruh-roh-- nobody liked it! Oh, Paramount, you backed the wrong horse. ANYHOO, it's finally getting its delayed wide release, and I'm reveling in the fact that Ebert gave it the same rating I did.

The White Ribbon is also going wider this week, though I'm still like the only guy who hated that one.

On DVD: "Che (Criterion Collection)"

Hopes were perhaps impossibly high when director Steven Soderbergh and star Benicio Del Toro announced, following the Oscar-winning triumph of Traffic, that they would re-team for a biographical portrait of revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Based on their previous collaboration, it seemed like a perfect marriage of material, filmmaker, and star; by the time the project finally arrived, nearly a decade later (a decade in which Soderbergh had continued his exciting experimentation into the very form of cinema), many of his admirers (myself included) were anticipating Soderbergh's masterpiece.

It is not that. Perhaps the dashing of those expectations was what led to its generally lukewarm reception by critics (again, myself included), but even taking its considerable flaws into account, there is still much in it to admire. The sheer ambition of the project, and the skill with which it is navigated by Soderbergh and Del Toro, is astonishing--here we have a film in two parts, each running 2 and a quarter hours, originally shown back-to-back as a "road show" for Oscar consideration in December 2008 before a release (split into its two parts) in January of the following year.

Most biographical films (even one as long as this one) have to heavily condense events in order to smash everything in. Soderbergh instead chooses to tell Che's story unconventionally, by taking three key events in his life (the Cuban revolution, his 1964 address to the United Nations, and the failed Bolivian revolution that led to his death at 39) and blow them up, in an attempt to make us understand him purely through those particular moments. It is a unique way to make a film about the man, instead of the things that happen to him.

Intellectually, this is an interesting proposition, and I see the value of this very experimental approach, even while noting that it doesn't quite land--at least not for the entirety of both films. Taken on its own, Che Part One (also known as The Argentine) is actually very strong; a difficult film, no doubt, and an easy one to get lost in, but absolutely compelling all the same. Soderbergh intercuts Guevara's trip to the New York (shot in high-contrast black-and-white) with the beginning of his life as a revolutionary, making the marvelous choice to jump off the movie with the initial meeting of Che and Fidel Castro (a quiet scene at a small dinner party). We then follow the men into the jungle, through the extended, bloody fight of the Cuban Revolution.

Soderbergh is clearly fascinated by the intricacies of guerilla warfare (as detailed in Guevara's writings), as well as in turning the expected "war movie" clichés on their head; the battles here are sudden, brutal, and immediate, but also not immune from the director's experimentation (in one memorable, early firefight, he removes all of the sound effects and has the battle play out under an interview from the New York trip). The film culminates with the taking of Santa Clara, an extended, remarkable sequence that is thrilling and somewhat moving (and is followed by a strange and unexpected coda).

The second film begins six years later, telling us precious little of what happened in between. Che Part Two (aka Guerrilla) deals, almost exclusively, with Guevara's attempt to lead the ultimately doomed Bolivian revolution; the storytelling here is much more linear, with no artsy New York stuff to cut away to. The problem is that, as viewers, we might have welcomed the escape. We spend about two-thirds of the first film in the jungle and even more of the second, and by the middle of that second film, the viewer is, well, rather tired of being there. I see what Soderbergh was going for here--first we see a successful revolution, and why it was successful, and then we're shown the later, unsuccessful one as a counter-point. I get that. I'm just not sure that he realizes that we get it, and he keeps us there too long. If I may mangle an aphorism, he doesn't see the jungle for the trees.

Soderbergh has always been a filmmaker fascinated by process (one of the pleasures of his infinitely pleasurable Ocean's films is that they let us peek in on the process of assembling the heist), but in Che, his fascination with the sheer process of guerilla warfare somewhat undermines the momentum of the picture. There are amazing moments in the second half (particularly in Del Toro's masterful portrayal of Guevara's weakening health), but they are surrounded by long stretches in which not much happens. But much of that can be forgiven in light of the richly rewarding closing passages; the last twenty or so minutes of the story are just plain flawless, a beautifully crafted and exquisitely acted portrait of the end of a journey. Del Toro shines here, as does Soderbergh's great-looking digital videography (under his pseudonym Peter Andrews). To some degree, that terrific payoff eases the labored build-up.

Soderbergh's motives are honorable; each film, for example, begins with an "overture" in the style of the old sweeping epics, which immediately reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia, a film not dissimilar (in theory) to this one. His aim, it would seem, is to make an epic biography like that film, but to do it on more personal terms and in a more intimate way, and he almost pulls it off. But in its second half, Che occasionally pushes too far in the other direction, becoming so unconventional that it borders on alienation.

This is not to negate the experimental tendencies of the film, or to suggest that a more conventional approach would have been more successful. It does no good to bemoan the film that wasn't made; let us, instead, examine the one that was. Che is intimate, personal, moving, and occasionally thrilling. It is also long, dry, bewildering, and periodically inaccessible. It makes you do some of the work--more, surely, than most viewers are willing to do. But what it does, it does very, very well.

My first viewing of Che, over a year ago, left me feeling disappointed and somewhat bewildered (reflected in my harsher original review). It worked better for me on this second viewing, and I'm not sure why; either my expectations had been recalibrated, or the film is so specific and detailed that it takes additional viewings to take it all in. (Another factor: I originally watched both parts back-to-back, as Soderbergh said was his preference, whereas this viewing separated the two parts by a full day--in my opinion, a much smarter way to take in the potentially repetitive material.) Whatever the reason, while I'm still not sure I can explain or justify all of Soderbergh's choices, I can say that Che is a fascinating, intelligent picture--and like, many of our finest (and most challenging) films, it is admirable for both its strengths and its flaws.

"Che (Criterion Collection)" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 19th. For full Blu review, including audio/video and bonus features, read this review at DVD Talk.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In Theaters: "44 Inch Chest"

The leading roles in Malcolm Venville’s 44 Inch Chest are played by Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, and Stephen Dillane. That cast list alone makes it worth seeing, and the screenplay by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (who also penned Sexy Beast) gives them an abundance of terse, tough-guy dialogue to hiss—in cool accents, no less. So there’s lot of fun to be had here; it’s just a shame how the script falls apart at the end.

The opening images are arresting: shattered glass, a trashed home, a dog cowering under a couch, and Colin Diamond (Winstone) sprawled out on the floor, right in the middle of it, listening to Nilsson’s “Without You.” We piece together what’s happened—his wife (Joanne Whalley) has left him for a much younger man, and he’s devastated and furious (to what degree will be revealed). His four friends (McShane, Hurt, Wilkinson, and Dillane) have a solution for his woes: they kidnap said younger man (Melvil Poupaud), drag him to an abandoned house, and go to work on him.

These preliminary scenes don’t step wrong; director Venville (a commercial director making his feature film debut) adopts a shooting style that’s both grimy and snazzily stylish, while the structure is assured and the stellar cast is clearly having a ball. Winstone, a big, barrel-chested bear of a man, has never been better—his acting, particularly in the numerous flashbacks to his wife’s confession (and his reaction to it), is superb. His persona turns on a dime from affable to sympathetic to terrifying, and the wild gesticulations of the script require an actor who can make those turns that quickly. McShane plays the debonair man’s man (literally); his smooth delivery bespeaks a quiet, elegant power. The always-valuable Wilkinson is Colin’s most grounded, matter-of-fact friend, the straight-shooter who doesn’t blink when suggesting that the cuckholder must be killed, but is also thoughtful enough to bring snacks (“Anybody want any crisps?”). Hurt is the oldest and foulest of the bunch, while Dillane makes less of an impression than the other actors as the youngest member of the crew.

Once the picture settles in to its primary location, we’re content to watch its varsity cast spit snappy, slangy dialogue at each other, throwing back drinks and tossing around “c-bombs” while their victim languishes in a beat-up wardrobe; it’s taut but playful, like a Cockney Reservoir Dogs. The construction is fairly ingenious as well—very deliberate choices are made about what they choose to show us and not show us, and when the things we haven’t seen are revealed, and when to flit away for the story’s strange little diversions and sidebars.

It reaches its fever pitch of tension around hour mark, as Colin finally faces off against “Loverboy”; the camera comes in tight, and Winstone’s work is quiet but powerful, as he chews on his words and fires them at this wife’s lover. Is the picture too talky? Sure it is—but the film is in love with language (in the same way that Tarantino and Mamet’s films are), and it’s a pleasure for the scripters to write, the actors to say, and for us to hear. But there are moments, particularly in the second half, where the film feels too written—more of a prepared construct than a situation captured.

And then, it gets really strange. Throughout the film, there are strange little diversions and sidebars, but none of them prepare us for the story’s turn into nightmare surrealism in the final half hour. In a phrase, it doesn’t play—it rather takes the air out of the movie, piercing the considerable tension and sticky mood that the filmmakers have worked so hard to acquire. Some of it is enjoyable, on a base level (there’s a particularly strange visual that gets a hearty if easy laugh), but the picture isn’t nimble enough to pull off the tonal footwork.

Still, it’s worth a look—Venville’s got a good eye for visuals, Angelo Badalamenti’s score is memorable (no surprise there), and (not to reiterate the same point too many times), I’d watch this profanely quotable group of actors read the phone book. 44 Inch Chest is intriguing and skillful, even if it’s not fully successful.

"44 Inch Chest" opens Friday, January 15th in Los Angeles and the U.K. It opens Friday, January 29th in New York.

In Theaters: "The Last Station"

In theory, The Last Station is a completely unobjectionable, and in fact admirable film—it deals with an important figure in an intelligent way, it’s well-shot and competently assembled, it features several fine actors in showcase roles. But in spite of the fact that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, I can’t get all that worked up about it either. It’s all so high-minded and austere that you feel like something of a heathen for complaining that it’s all rather dull and lifeless, but that’s how it is, so there you have it.

The time is 1910; it is the era of Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), whose books have made him famous and whose socio-political message has made him an icon. Valentin Bulgakov (a typically bland James McAvoy) has just been hired as the aging author’s personal secretary; an avowed Tolstoyan, he’s thrilled for the opportunity, but finds himself drawn into a fierce struggle for Tolstoy’s soul (and his considerable fortune). On one side is Vladimir Chertov (Paul Giamatti), Tolstoy’s publisher and advisor, who pushes the writer to live closer to the dogma he has given birth to, and to revise his will to leave his fortune to the Russian people. On the other is Tolstoy’s wife and muse, Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), who longs only for his attention and affection—and for him to leave his money to her and their many children.

“Remember what I said,” Chertov advises Valentin, as he sends him off to the Trotsky estate. “Write. Everything. Down.” He already has one advisor doing the same; before long, the Countess is imploring Valentin to transcribe Tolstoy’s communications with Chertov for her. (All of this spying and diary-keeping leads to one moment of unfortunately muddy storytelling: late in the film, when Sofya discovers a devastating diary and reacts accordingly, we’re not sure exactly whose diary she’s found, since there are so many floating around.) Both parties end up using the naïve young man as their pawn, while his ideals melt away in the struggle.

Mirren’s is the performance most worth watching—she’s fierce and fiery, and amusingly cynical (when Valentin tells her that he admires her husband, she responds dryly, “Oh, he likes that”). The story (adapted by Michael Hoffman, from Jay Parini’s novel) is at its best when focused on the dynamics of the complicated relationship between her and Tolstoy, who is played by Christopher Plummer with considerable gravitas. Decked out in a long, thick beard and imbued with warmth and a wink, his Tolstoy is both elegant and earthy (it’s a performance somehow both reminiscent of and completely different from his solid work in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus).

Director Michael Hoffman’s filmography ranges from the period revelry of Restoration and the 1999 adaptation of Midsummer Night’s Dream to the enjoyably vanilla hijinks of Soapdish and One Fine Day, and you see him straining to push past the pleasingly pastoral pictures and dig some heat out of the tale. He makes a valiant effort with the subplot involving Valentin’s romance with Masha (Kerry Condon), a fellow Tolstoyan who is not fully invested in the rules of the movement. Their scenes are sweet, and Hoffman diligently draws effective connections between their blooming romance and the Tolstoys’ fading one.

But in spite of its attempts at intrigue and esprit, The Last Station is ultimately rather a dry affair—well-crafted, but somewhat cold and bloodless. It looks just right, and it is (for the most part) marvelously performed, but it’s a museum piece; as much as we might admire and appreciate it, there’s not much in it to draw the viewer in.

"The Last Station" opens Friday, January 15th in limited release.

In Theaters: "Mine"

In our house, there’s nothing that makes us leap for the remote like that awful ASPCA commercial where Sarah McLachlan sings “Angel” while all of the poor abandoned and mistreated cats and dogs look sadly into the camera. It’s not that we don’t care—quite the opposite. We’re pet people, with two cats that we treat like our kids, and that damned commercial rips us up.

I was frankly worried that Mine, Geralyn Pezanoski’s documentary about the pets left behind in Hurricane Katrina, was going to amount, psychologically, to an 80-minute version of that commercial. And, in all fairness, there is a lot of that heartbreaking footage at the beginning (the shot of the little dog scratching on the door of the bus carrying his owner away is a killer). But it’s not just a sadness show; it’s a thoughtful and involving look at a difficult side effect of a terrible tragedy.

You see, when the mandatory evacuation order went out, those who were pulled from their homes, those who couldn’t afford to leave the city and had to go to the Superdome, and those who only had room for their families were forced to leave their pets behind. “When I heard the levee broke,” remembers elderly Malvin Cavalier, “I said, ‘Lord have mercy, what about Bandit?’” Once the storm subsided, and crews began to go back into the still-flooded city to survey the damage, animal advocates and volunteers rushed to rescue “the family member that hasn’t been found yet.”

There certainly wasn’t room for all of the rescued animals in Louisiana shelters—in all, over 15,000 pets were sent to over 500 shelters around the country. But as owners searched for the pets they lost, they enormity of the task began to set in; according to one advocate, the subsequent tracking system was “a mess from day one.” Many of the Katrina pets were fostered out, but many were put up for adoption, under the mistaken assumption that anyone who lost a pet in Katrina was a bad owner.

The tricky part is, some of them were. There were plenty of animals that had been mistreated and poorly cared for, and were, in a word, abandoned in the horrible storm (we see an angry rescuer spray-paint “over 100 animals were left to die at this house” on the car in the home’s driveway). But some of them were good people who did the best they could in that moment, only to find their beloved pets long gone. We meet some of those owners, and follow them on their hunt, as they find that lack of resources and lack of money results in a lack of pet.

The ownership issues and emotional stakes are surprisingly complex; when Jesse Pullins is told by the adopting shelter that his dog J.J.’s new owners have presumably grown attached to their pet, he replies emphatically, “I’m not attached to him. He’s mine.” But many of these dogs have new families who do, in fact, love them and have cared for them—and, in the case of a lawsuit brought against a rescue organization in Texas, there is certainly evidence that the dog in question might be in a much better home.

Pezanoski takes great pains to fairly portray all sides, which is admirable. The film is a little thin in spots, but to its credit, it doesn’t take cheap shots at any of the parties involved in those doggy custody battles—in fact, by the time it arrives at its affecting concluding passages, we’ve realized that Mine isn’t so much about Katrina as it is about our love for our animal companions. In all honesty , it got to me—I watched it with our cat Keaton curled up next to me on the couch, and as easy as it might be to chuckle smugly at Victor’s attachment to little “Max,” I can’t say that I’d respond any differently if we somehow lost our little guys. So those closing scenes are genuinely moving, without resorting to easy sentiment—if anything, we’re touched by the goodness of kind people like Ellen and Ron or Tiffany and Jeremy, who understand that attachment well enough to do the right thing. In fact, just about everyone in Mine is trying to do the right thing, so we’re treated to some real happy endings… and some that are more complicated than that.

"Mine" is currently playing in San Francisco and is available for download on iTunes. It opens Friday, January 15th in New York and New Orleans

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Today's New DVDs- 1/12/10

In the decade or so that I've been an active purchaser of DVDs, I honestly can't recall a single day that saw the release of more quality movies than this one. If you're a real movie lover, steer clear of Amazon and stay away from Best Buy-- you're likely to lose your shirt on all the quality new shit.

Moon: It's a tough call to make, but I'd pick Duncan Jones' smart sci-fi thriller as the best of today's considerably quality bunch; it's a brilliant, involving, compelling picture, and DVD Savant and Blu-ray.com give the disc high marks.

In The Loop: Goddamn it, this is a funny movie. It's also whip-smart and paced within an inch of its life, with crackerjack performances by James Gandolfini and Anna Chumlsky and a bunch of British people you've never heard of, but will certainly remember. They didn't send a Blu-ray review copy to DVD Talk (booooo), but Jamie S. Rich has a very good review of the standard-def version.

The Brothers Bloom: Rian Johnson's playful comic caper was one of the most purely enjoyable releases of last year--nimble, funny, and stylish. Again, no Blu-ray for us, just the regular DVD (which Jeremy Mathews reviewed back when it was out, seemingly only for rental, in the fall)

The Hurt Locker: There is so much that's so right about Kathryn Bigelow's agonizingly tense war picture, it's easy to understand why it's been praised from all quarters. But I contend that there is an even better movie inside it, if they'd trusted viewers enough to strip away the unnecessary exposition and explanations of the second hour. Still, awfully goddamned good. (No Blu for review again. Here's Casey Burchby's take on the DVD.)

Passing Strange: I'm still worried I'm not giving Spike Lee's performance film of the thrilling Broadway rock musical the sell job it deserves. So let's say it like this: Best musical of the decade. There. Go get it.

Big Fan: Patton Oswalt, arguably our finest working stand-up, makes an impressive dramatic debut in this tightly wound character study from writer/director Robert Siegel (who penned The Wrestler).

Departures: It may not have quite deserved it's Best Foreign Film Oscar (Waltz with Bashir, hellloooooo), but there's still much to admire in this elegant Japanese comedy/drama.

By The People- The Election of Barack Obama: Some of the structural and editorial choices are dubious, but there's still some staggering, remarkable footage in this HBO documentary on the historic run of the 44th president.

The Simpsons- Season 20: The review Blu is on its way to me, but Fox is doing some weird stuff with The Simpsons on DVD--their last set, back in the fall, was for season 12. Now, strangely, they've skipped most of the '00s by jumping ahead to the most recent year. Was it so they could start putting out Blu-rays? Will they work their way back to 13 from here? I'll ask all of these questions when I review it, you know, in a week or so.

On DVD: "Moon"

The opening sequence of Ducan Jones’ Moon sucks you right in; this is how you start a movie. The exposition is handled, quickly and efficiently, with a slick commercial for “Lunar Industries,” which has solved the energy crisis by harvesting an energy resource from the moon. We then go to their lunar base, manned by a single astronaut: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who is at the tail-end of a three-year contract and counting the days. This opening is stylishly shot and powered by an intense, driving Clint Mansell score; I was all but bouncing in my seat with giddy enthusiasm.

Thankfully, the film lives up to its promise. Moon is a rare sci-fi flick with a brain and a heart, and while some of it is clearly inspired by other material, director Jones spins this yarn into something unique and fresh and new and exhilarating. You give yourself over to it as it hurls intriguingly from one scene to the next, occasionally recondite but never detached.

Sam is assisted in the day-to-day operations of the base by the on-deck computer, called GERTY and voiced (perfectly) by Kevin Spacey. One day, while Sam is in his lunar rover, checking out a problem with one of the harvesters, he crashes. He wakes up a little disoriented, but basically fine—until a few days later, when he finds the rover and finds a man inside who appears to be… well, himself.

Moon works as the best sci-fi does—by using technology and special effects and cool sets to compliment a genuine, thought-provoking, human narrative. Throughout Sam’s story (of which I’ll reveal no more), he is faced with questions about life and death and memory and the difficulties of his own personality; he sees things in himself that he doesn’t like.

What’s most refreshing about the picture is that it’s got its head in the right place. To a degree, it apes the look and feel of a 2001, but without all that deadly solemnity. Moon is a film with a sense of humor; part of that is in the script, part of that is in the ingenious casting of Rockwell (an actor who can turn on a dime from good-natured goofball to morose manic-depressive), part of that is in the screenplay and direction, which are full of little throwaway asides—like the various icons used on GERTY’s display screen and the “kick me” post-it on the back of the unit—that give the film a lived-in, grimy feel. The once-sparkly white uniforms are discolored and a little dirty; so is Rockwell’s brilliant performance. The scenes he doesn’t play against a computerized voice, he’s playing off himself (thanks to seamless double work)—and he masterfully creates two distinct personalities (Jones also creates clever visual cues to help us determine which one is which).

Jones takes on some weighty issues, but his touch is light and he’s not afraid to let his film show a little bit of heart (though a couple of jerks around me chuckled smugly when it went to those places). His direction is alarmingly assured (particularly for a first-time director), whether dealing with special effects—the model work and overall design are stunning—or tone. A sense of dread permeates the picture as it edges towards its climax (complete with a well-executed ticking clock); the more Sam finds out, the more nervous the audience gets, because this is clearly a film where damn near any nutso thing could happen next.

Some will complain that its tonal shifts could be smoother, that too much of the material is familiar from other films, or that the philosophical and psychological elements of the story are skimmed but not explored. Strangely, I was aware of those problems, but not bothered by them. Good films do that to you—things that might drive you mad in a film that isn’t working are forgivable, perhaps even enjoyable, in a film that does. I, for example, didn’t mind the cribbing from 2001 and Solaris and Outland and Alien—it’s a picture that knows its roots and knows our expectations, and sometimes (in the case of the HAL-ccenteric GERTY), Nathan Parker’s screenplay slyly subverts those assumptions. That’s good, smart storytelling, and Moon—involving, hypnotic, and altogether spellbinding—announces the arrival of a major new talent.

"Moon" hit DVD and Blu-ray today.

On DVD: "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; its Tribeca contemporary 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" was released today on DVD and Blu-ray.

On DVD: "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" was released today on DVD and Blu-ray.

Monday, January 11, 2010

On DVD: "The Brothers Bloom"

Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom is a delightfully nimble little movie, zipping and bobbing and weaving along for 113 deliciously enjoyable minutes and going down with the ease of an ice cream sundae. It is Johnson’s follow-up to the marvelous Brick, and is about as much of a 180-degree turn as you could ask for; there’s a touch of hardboiled dialogue (“Eat your waffles, fat man”), but it is nonetheless astonishing to see a filmmaker switch so deftly from a bleak neo-noir thriller to a sunny, joyous romp like this.

We meet confidence men Stephen and Bloom as young orphans, in an inspired (if Magnolia-ccentric) opening sequence that lays out how they came into the con game. We catch up with them twenty years later, still playing the same roles; Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is the mastermind, the planner, while Bloom (Adrien Brody) acts the roles but is perpetually unhappy and looking for a way out. They’ve been joined by a third—demolition artist “Bang Bang’ (Rinko Kikuchi, from Babel). Stephen convinces Bloom to come in on one last big job (will there ever be a con or heist movie about the first big job?), in which the mark is Penelope Stamp (the radiant Rachel Weisz), a beautiful and ridiculously rich New Jersey shut-in.

It sounds like a pat set-up, but Johnson’s script is wickedly smart and comes at the story from all sorts of sideways angles, which keeps the audience on its toes. Most interestingly, it provides Johnson countless opportunities for broad laughs; I expected funny lines (and even the throwaways—“Is this a ’78 Caddy? Controversial choice.”—are good), but as a director, Johnson shows off a terrific knack for visual comedy. He always frames his shots for the maximum comedic effect (there are as many great background gags as in a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker movie), and the fast cuts are perfectly timed; in the scene, for example, where Penelope explains to Bloom that she “collects hobbies” and he asks if any of them are interesting, we start laughing in the pause before the montage of her playing ping-pong and juggling and break-dancing, primarily because we’re so in tune with the film, and then we laugh again at the montage itself.

But he doesn’t just play for laughs, either. There are occasional twinges of lush romanticism (as in the lovely scene where Penelope and Bloom dance to “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”), and the script takes the brother dynamic seriously (sometimes heartbreakingly so). Johnson also has a lot of fun with the conventions of the caper movie—his long con is air-tight, if a little too drawn out, which becomes a bit of a problem in the third act.

Indeed, it is a disappointment to report that The Brothers Bloom doesn’t end quite as strongly as it begins. An important scene of confession between Bloom and Penelope ends before we have a chance to gauge her reaction—Johnson (or his editor) make the crucial mistake of presuming that we’re more interested in what he’s feeling than in what she is. Shortly thereafter, it careens into the expected series of plot twists and double-crosses, and while they’re certainly executed gracefully, they’re expected all the same. And they have the same result as these sorts of piled-on turns often do: we stop being emotionally invested in the story, because it’s all turning out to be a put-on anyway. That said, once the twists are done, the final sequence has a genuine (and unexpected) bit of genuine and effective emotion.

Weisz is absolutely warm and winning in what amounts to the leading role; she swings effortlessly from giddy enthusiasm to heartbreaking pathos (her deliberate reaction early in the film to Brody telling her she looks nice is a perfect little moment, an indulgence that this viewer was thankful for). Brody is an actor that I’ve never been particularly enamored of (he’s never bad, but he’s always just kind of there); his work here is good and occasionally inspired. Ruffalo is terrific; this is a perfect vehicle for his rakish, loopy charm, and he has a great time chewing on some whiz-bang dialogue (“I don’t like to simplistically vilify an entire country, but Mexico’s a horrible place”). Kikuchi says, I believe, one word of English (and not much more than that in any language), but she has a marvelous presence, and her skill for pantomime is legitimately reminiscent of Chaplin or Harpo Marx.

The tight close-ups and flashy dolleys of Steve Yedlin’s photography keep things moving nicely, as does Gabriel Wrye’s smooth editing and Nathan Johnson’s brassy score. But ultimately, it’s Johnson’s show. This is his coming-out party as a director, exciting proof that Brick was no fluke. He’s a born filmmaker—even if he hasn’t quite figured out how to avoid the traps of this picture’s genre.

"The Brothers Bloom" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 12th.

On DVD: "Big Fan"

In an NPR interview, Patton Oswalt says he was drawn to his new starring vehicle Big Fan because of its similarity to dark 1970s character dramas like Fat City and The King of Marvin Gardens. Those influences come through, and clearly, in the finished product, which complements its grubby, low-budget aesthetic with a throwback vibe—like those films, from that more daring time, it gives it characters the freedom to live and breathe in their own worlds, and presents them without apology.

Oswalt plays Paul Aufiero, a diehard New York Giants fan who lives in a closed-off, sports-obsessed world. He toils away as a parking garage attendant, listening to sports talk radio and drafting his notes for his nightly call to “The Sports Dog.” Those calls (he’s known on the show as “Paul from Staten Island”) are his sole outlet, his single release valve for the day, but he has to do them quietly—though in his mid-30s, he still lives with his overbearing mother, his perpetual adolescence illustrated by his bedroom decorated with sports posters, his bed dressed with NFL sheets.

Paul’s favorite player is Giants quarterback Quantrell Bishop; one night, Paul and his only friend, Sal (Kevin Corrigan, spot-on), spot Bishop tooling around Staten Island and follow him to a Manhattan strip club. The two fans try to approach their hero, but a misunderstanding is followed by a melee; Paul ends up getting beaten senseless by his hero.

What follows—Paul’s uncertainty over what action to take, his family’s confusion and frustration with his timidity, his realization that the incident is preventing his QB from playing and what could be more important than that, and the slow-motion implosion of his entire world—unfolds with the inevitability and believability of documentary. The picture’s resemblance to Taxi Driver has been duly noted in many corners, but mostly on a purely superficial level; what writer/director Robert Siegel (the former Onion editor who penned The Wrestler) has most cleverly siphoned and repurposed from Paul Scrader’s brilliant script to that film is its structural ingenuity. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is spurned by the girl of his dreams, and ends up lashing out—but at a surrogate, so as not to sully the object of his love. Siegel’s excellent screenplay toys with that notion, and he draws out his climactic sequence with enough skill to put more seasoned directors to shame.

Siegel’s visual style is so subtle, you may not realize how striking it is, and how thoroughly it’s working on you. He shoots in close—uncomfortably close at times—keeping Paul front and center and daring us to look away from his discomfort and misery. Oswalt, a brilliant stand-up comic (one of our best) making his dramatic debut, is up to the task; it’s an outstanding performance, raw and unvarnished and without a glimmer of dishonesty. And though the overall picture is grim and bleak, there is plenty of humor in the film; at a family gathering, Paul and his family watch his lawyer brother in a bad TV spot that’s perfectly executed, and there are throwaway jokes here and there to lighten things up (when Sal wonders what Bishop is doing in Staten Island, Paul guesses, “Maybe’s he’s here to see the Wu-Tang!”).

Big Fan runs a brisk 85 minutes, and my only real criticism of it is that it is perhaps too tight and efficient; I frankly wouldn’t have minded a little more of the first act, more of an opportunity to live in Paul’s world and soak in the rich details. But how often can you complain about a movie being too short and disciplined? Big Fan is a stark, vivid character study, and confirms what The Wrestler suggested: Siegel is an exciting, first-rate new talent.

"Big Fan" hits DVD on Tuesday, January 12th.

On DVD: "Departures"

"We are here for the encoffment," they say when they arrive. The two men burn their incense as they clean the dead body in a ritualistic fashion, in order to "prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure." It is their job, and they take it very seriously; they are there for both the family and the deceased, as a kind of buffer that soaks up their grief while respecting the dead. It's not a job that Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) would have sought out (he sees that ad for an agent of "departures" and thinks it's for a job at a travel agency), but it becomes honorable in his eyes, though perhaps not in everyone else's.

The story of Daigo's journey is told in Departures, which pulled a big upset by beating out Waltz with Bashir and The Class for the Best Foreign Language Film award at this year's Oscars. From that strange, fascinating opening scene, director Yojiro Takita weaves a tale that is by turns odd, dryly funny, and deeply moving.

It also takes too long to get going and relies too heavily on voice-over narration; as is often the case with Japanese cinema, you have to choose to give yourself over to the storytelling style and the deliberate pace, which require some getting used to. I'll confess that there was a long stretch in the middle of the picture where I wasn't sure where it was going, if anywhere; there are scenes and episodes that seem extraneous, until they're calmly pulled together in the third act. But more on that later.

Daigo is a cellist in Tokyo who has to rethink his life when his orchestra is dissolved due to low attendance. In a bit of a desperation move, he and his wife (Ryoko Hirosue) move to the provincial home left to them by his late mother; he starts looking for work, and that's how he gets the job as an "encoffineer." Much of the material covering his hire and apprenticeship period is played for laughs--his interview with his boss-to-be (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is hilariously brief and pointed, and he spends his first day on the job playing a corpse in an instructional video, to great comic effect. The film's bone-dry wit reaches its apex with his first grisly visit to a dead woman's home ("That was a bit much for your first job," notes his boss, which is a bit of an understatement).

But he slowly learns the ropes, which we see primarily in an extended and effective sequence that respectfully observes the beauty of the ceremony, and how it moves a tough, angry husband into a raw display of emotion and grief. It's there that the film begins to hint at its Big Themes--life, death, love, loss, and so on--which are handled with intelligence and sensitivity.

As Daigo, Motoki occasionally overacts in the early, comic sections, but plays his more serious scenes with appropriate subtlety and naturalism. Hirosue is terrific as his wife; she's warm and likable, but shows a tougher side in the scene where she confronts him about his job (which he's been hiding from her), managing to convey both strength and fragility, seemingly at the same time. Yamazaki is appropriately wise and honorable.

Director Takita is, incidentally, a terrific visualist; his compositions have a marvelous symmetry, and a scene where Daigo plays his cello (melding into a series of childhood memories) has some knockout imagery. But what pulls the film together is Takita's mastery of tone, and his patience. Departures is a quiet, measured picture, somewhat clinical in its opening passages. But that gives way to the tremendous emotion of its closing sequences, and that final scene is a wrecker.

"Departures" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 12th.

On DVD: "Aziz Ansari- Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening"

There aren’t a lot of comics who can spin a funny bit out fraudulent thread counts in sheets, or use a Mighty Ducks 2 reference to land a killer punchline. But Aziz Ansari can pull it off. Familiar to TV viewers from his supporting work on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Azari’s first stand-up special, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, is a little dodgy at first—the comic seems nervous, speeding through a bit, his pace a touch off. But he ultimately finds his groove, aided to no small degree by the enthusiastic response of his warm audience.

Ansari first came to national prominence as a cast member of the MTV sketch series Human Giant, and that show’s offbeat sensibility permeates his act; he’s a goofy surrealist who likes to play with structure and undermine expectations. He wields non-sequiturs like weapons (at one point, he mouths the horrifying line “I’m just sayin’, I coulda fucked that kid,” and it’s one of the biggest laughs in the show) and tosses off pop culture references with varying degrees of obscurity--he talks about Facebook and Craigslist, but also about Cold Stone Creamery, Willow, and MTV’s Next. Of the latter, he notes “Some of the shows on the network [MTV] are not my cup of tea… mainly because I don’t like huge pieces of shit in my tea.”

Once Ansari gets rolling, his timing is sharp and his delivery is punchy; the material is occasionally weak, but his wide-eyed intonations and skillful inflections helps sell some of the weaker jokes. Towards the end of the 55-minute special, he talks gleefully about his burgeoning semi-celebrity, which has led to uproarious encounters with Kanye West, Jay-Z, and R. Kelly (“a brilliant R&B singer-slash-crazy person”), and the sheer joy of hanging out with his heroes is infectious.

For the encore, Ansari takes on the persona of Randy, the unfunny stand-up he portrayed (briefly) in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, explaining to the audience that he wanted to do the kind of special Randy would do. The result is a terrific parody of the excesses of 90s stand-up, as Randy is brought out on stage by a DJ and hip-hop dancers, prancing around the stage and “making it rain” before spouting ten or so minutes of bad sex material and faux toughness (“You ‘bout to get dealt with”). It’s a hilarious wrap-up to a solid stand-up spotlight.

His material is slightly hit-and-miss and his nerves sometimes show, but Aziz Ansari is a likable, intelligent comic. Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening (the title is almost as funny as the cover) is a consistently funny hour, and Ansari remains a comic presence worth keeping an eye on.

"Aziz Ansari: Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening" hits DVD on Tuesday, January 19th.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On DVD: "By The People: The Election of Barack Obama"

The footage is from Election Day, 2008. Chief Strategist David Axelrod is worried. Their campaign has gone well, and all signs point to a historic win, but you never know what could happen when people go into that voting booth. He acknowledges this, making phone calls to people out in the field (but admitting that “nobody actually knows anything”). But he finally decides to shrug it off. After all, he reasons, “with a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama, how could you lose?”

The fact of the matter is, no matter what your political stance, few political campaigns in our recent history have been as dramatic as that of President Barack Obama, who overcame a fierce primary battle, an ugly general election campaign, and, yes, that name, to become America’s first African-American president. By The People: The Election of Barack Obama is a compelling account of that campaign, but an imperfect one; the access granted to the filmmakers is astonishing, but some of their structural decisions are somewhat inexplicable.

The film begins two years earlier, on another election night: the 2006 midterms, when Democrats took over both houses of Congress. “I love elections. They’re so much fun,” grins then-Senator Obama. “It’s even more fun when you’re not on the ballot.” The camera catches him calling to congratulate Nancy Pelosi (“Hey, congratulations, Madame Speaker”), then zips ahead to April of 2007, after Obama has announced his candidacy and has set up operations in Iowa for the first primary caucus.

We see the candidate out shaking hands, talking up voters, and working with his staff. We see his family at home, hanging out and chatting him up on the phone. Throughout the first year of the campaign, directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams’ cameras seem to be everywhere, capturing off-the-cuff moments and strategy sessions in a fly-on-the-wall style deliberately reminiscent of Robert Drew’s Primary. The access to these unguarded moments is impressive, and we’re reminded (as in Primary, or Journeys with George, or The War Room) that this kind of footage usually only exists when the candidate in question is young and less experienced—Hillary Clinton wasn’t letting cameras in like this during her campaign.

But what is done with that access? In the first half of the film, a great deal—it is, indeed, a blow-by-blow account of the run-up to that vital first victory in Iowa. We get to know the people behind the scenes, from those faces we’ve seen—like Axelrod, matter-of-fact communications director Robert Gibbs (and his adorable kid), and campaign manager David Plouffe—to the workers humping it on the ground. The youth of the campaign staff is staggering; guys like speechwriter Jon Favreau and Iowa press secretary Tommy Vietor look like children (“posing for a picture with volunteers, Obama asks with a grin, “Are any of these people over 30?”). Campaign staffer and first-generation Korean-American Ronnie Cho provides much of the heart of the film, telling his story to the cameras and letting them catch him with his guard down during emotional phone calls to his mother.

“I want to win it for those kids,” Obama tells Plouffe (who relays it to the staff), and the thing that By The People gets right, more than anything else, is the emotional stake that Obama’s supporters had in his success. It’s an emotional thing, this campaign—not just because of the historic nature of his candidacy (though that certainly plays a part), but because of the inspirational qualities of the man himself. The passion of his staff and supporters was certainly a major factor in his electoral success.

The trouble is, it wasn’t the only factor. We occasionally get behind closed doors to dissect the campaign, but not often enough. Obama’s primary win wasn’t just about emotion or “momentum” (God, I’d forgotten how bludgeoned we all were by that word back in 2008), but about smart strategists who the rules of the primary voting and how to play them (Clinton strategist Mark Penn reportedly didn’t even understand the primary’s proportional representation process), and we don’t get a sense of that.

Organization of the material also appears to be a problem; after spending nearly an hour on the run-up to Iowa, the filmmakers seem to realize they’ve got an epic on their hands and skip important events in the second half to keep the running time under the two-hour mark. We hit the high points, the real-life dramatic twists and turns (the “pastor problem,” the Palin bounce, the economic downturn), but they’re dispatched too speedily, and other important moments (like the important North Carolina primary victory after the Wright kerfluffle) are missed. Most bewilderingly, the filmmakers skip from his securing of the nomination in June to the final night of the Democratic National Convention in late August, missing not only the selection of Joe Biden as running mate, but the protracted battle to secure the support of Clinton and her voters (staged for maximum impact early at the DNC).

Much of that is absent, and missed, and who knows—maybe these events are just too fresh in the mind of this political junkie, and as the years past, their exclusions won’t seem so glaring. And, in spite of those flaws, there is still some great footage here. Gibbs in March, presciently guessing exactly what Clinton will do in the months ahead. Obama putting in a call to “Toot,” his maternal grandmother who raised him. Obama overheard predicting the Republican strategy to correspondent Richard Wolffe (“They’re going to make me into a scary guy”). Gibbs, overcome backstage at the convention acceptance speech. The candidate in debate prep. The extraordinary moment on election eve, when Obama speaks emotionally of “quiet heroes” like his grandmother, who died that morning. And the Iowa caucus, the culmination of so much hard work, beautifully constructed and exciting. As a general rule, in fact, the editing is outstanding—fast, sharp, and involving. You just wish they’d made some different editorial choices.

“Good Lord,” Representative James Clyburn mutters, as he walks into his packed polling place on Election Day. If nothing else, By The People: The Election of Barack Obama captures, in vivid detail, the momentous feeling of that Tuesday in November of 2008, when it seemed that anything was possible. A year later, those hopes and dreams have been softened by the crushing reality of “doing business in Washington.” All the hard work and all of the tears that put Obama into the White House are captured here, for all eternity, and though the film makes some mistakes, it does that right. That part is important. That’s the part that he shouldn’t forget.

"By The People: The Election of Barack Obama" hits DVD on Tuesday, January 12th.