Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "In The Electric Mist"

I ran out of public domain and other easily embeddable titles for this feature pretty quickly, so to hell with it, I'm putting in movies that are available on Netflix Instant. Originally, I wanted it to be stuff you could watch for free, but c'mon, Netflix is like 12 bucks a month. Spring for it.

In The Electric Mist is the kind of film you pray for when you write about DVDs: a smart, well-made picture that somehow slipped through the cracks, hopefully seen by a few more pairs of eyeballs thanks to a passionate recommendation. That a film this rich and entertaining ended up going straight to DVD is a fairly depressing commentary on today's Hollywood; any industry that will splash My Best Friend's Girl across 2600 screens while burying a film like this at Blockbuster has nothing but contempt for its consumers.

Friday, July 16, 2010

In Theaters: "Winnebago Man"


Director Ben Steinbauer first saw the Winnebago outtakes, as many did, on a VHS tape that had been floating around in dupes of varying quality for several years. The story goes that back in 1989 a man named Jack Rebney was fronting an industrial video for the Winnebago corporation and was so angry and abusive to his crew that they just kept the camera rolling, and used the outtakes to get Rebney fired. The tape became a favorite of filmmakers and fans of odd “found footage,” primarily thanks to Rebney’s palpable temper and colorful profanity, and when it hit YouTube, it became an viral video sensation. There were highlight reels, there were tributes, there were remixes. But Steinbauer couldn’t help but wonder, whatever became of that frustrated, bitter man? “I felt bad for the guy,” he tells us in voice-over. “But I loved the clip.” And for reasons unknown, Ben Steinbauer decided to track Jack Rebney down. Winnebago Man is the story of what he found.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Backfilling: "The China Syndrome"

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

In one of those strange cases of precipitous timing and wild coincidence, James Bridges’s The China Syndrome was released a mere 12 days before the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania—an accident not far removed from the dangers hinted at in the film. That particular historical context gives the film a specific feel; not documentary, necessarily, but certainly a time capsule—and I’m not just talking about the late 70s duds and the loathsome soft rock opening credit song by Stephen Bishop. When we’re in the control room of the Los Angeles TV station where Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) works, or back in the station’s film development lab (can you imagine?) with cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas), it feels like we’re getting an inside look at the way things used to be; when she mentions, in her on-camera stand-up, the country’s growing need for “energy self-sufficiency,” well, that part’s a little sad.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Today's New DVDs- 7/13/10

Greenberg: It came wrapped in a bit of controversy, but Noah Baumbach's latest tale of misanthropy and anti-social behavior is one of his best--smart, prickly, witty, and altogether disinterested in tap-dancing for your approval. That indifference towards the standard rules of "likable" character engagement has certainly turned off plenty of the film's viewers, but if you've got the patience for it, Greenberg is a richly rewarding picture.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XVIII: Mike, Joel, and the 'bots return with another winner of a box set from the good folks at Shout Factory, featuring four solid entries from as early as season two and as late as season eight--including what may very well be my favorite episode of the entire run, the jaw-droppingly incompetant Beast of Yucca Flats.

Chloe: Brainy provocateur Atom Egoyan appears, at first, to be in top form, crafting a thrillingly adult (and tantilizingly sexy) tale of marital jealousy, fidelity, and deception. And then he fumbles the ball big-time in the third act, letting the whole thing crumble into a lost entry in the Poison Ivy series.

The GreatestPerformances are aces in this would-be weepie about a family grieving the loss of their son and embracing the pregnant girlfriend he left behind, but most of this has been done before-- most significantly, in co-star Susan Sarandon's superior 2003 effort Moonlight Mile.

Terribly Happy: I'm not sure what I was expecting from this Danish import, which came to our shores courtesy of the ever-reliable Oscilloscope Laboratories, but I certainly wasn't expecting a dark, twisty small-town noir in the Blood Simple mold. It's dark, unforgiving stuff, but a crackling good little thriller all the same.

In Theaters: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

There are few sequences in all of animated film more iconic than the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Disney’s Fantasia; even those who haven’t seen the movie are familiar with the image of Mickey Mouse in his wizard’s hat, conducting the bucket-carting mops. In Disney’s shockingly unnecessary new live-action version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the guy from She’s Out of My League casts the mop spell to help him clean up his lab for a big date with a hot radio DJ. That sentence may contain everything you need to know about the picture.

On DVD: "Greenberg"

Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can watch someone become a movie star in a single scene--Al Pacino in the Solozzo assassination scene in The Godfather, say, or Tom Cruise sliding into his living room in Risky Business. For Greta Gerwig, that moment comes about 2/3 of the way through Noah Baumbach's Greenberg. As Florence, a would-be singer and personal assistant to Phillip Greenberg (Chris Messian), an upscale hotel owner, she has spent most of the story strangely circling her boss's brother Roger (Ben Stiller), an aimless 41-year-old musican-turned-carpenter who is housesitting while the boss and his family are opening a new hotel in Vietnam. But in this key scene, we find Florence alone in her studio apartment, sloppily half-dressed and more than half-drunk, singing along uproariously to Paul McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"; she takes a phone call from Roger, humors him a bit, and then makes a stunning confession. In about three minutes, she does a full range of human emotions, and barely breaks a sweat. If her performance here is any indication, this girl's gonna be a damned movie star.

On DVD: "Chloe"

"I wanna do this one more time, just to see what he does," Catherine says. "And then we'll stop. Okay?" Chloe nods. "Okay." Catherine (Julianne Moore) is an independent career woman, a doctor (a gynecologist, in fact), and her husband David (Liam Neeson) is a popular and happy college professor. Their marriage, however, has lost its luster, and Catherine begins to suspect that he is cheating on her. She has a chance meeting with Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a call girl, and makes a business proposal: She'll hire the younger woman to make herself available to the husband, and then report back to Catherine what happens next. That way she'll know if he's been faithful. That's the plan. Things don't go according to plan.

On DVD: "The Greatest"

Back in 2003, not enough people saw a wonderful, heartfelt drama called Moonlight Mile, in which Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon played grieving parents who develop a relationship with the lover (Jake Gyllenhaal) of their deceased child. It didn't make much money, but a few critics liked it, and apparently Sarandon did too, because now she's gone and done a gender-swap remake. Shana Feste's The Greatest doesn't match the quiet elegance or emotional impact of the earlier picture, but it has its moments--mainly thanks to the fine performances at its core.

Monday, July 12, 2010

In Theatres: "The Kids Are All Right"

Lisa Cholodenko is an uncommonly gifted writer/director, skilled at crafting potentially shallow situations, then giving them life and depth with her perceptive dialogue and characterizations. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker—a Nancy Myers, say, or a Brian Robbins—The Kids Are All Right and its story of a lesbian family shaken up by the presence of their long-ago sperm donor might not rise above the level of a slightly bawdy sitcom. But Cholodenko sees more layers than that; she understands these characters, knows them—their histories, their secrets. Some of these people are types, but—here’s the key—they don’t know that. And Cholodenko does, though she never treats them that way.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Backfilling: "Elevator to the Gallows"

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


About all I knew about Elevator to the Gallows going in was that Miles Davis did the music, and good Lord is that an understatement—he does this fucking music. Find me a musician who can set a mood faster and more exquisitely than the Prince of Darkness; his music is moody, punchy, and marvelously morose. Same goes for the picture, which is directed with fearless confidence by Louis Malle (all of 26 years old at the time, noted the 34-year-old film writer).


Malle’s film moves from scene to scene with effortless snap; the screenplay (which he adapted with Roger Nimier from Noel Calef’s novel) utilizes an unconventional—and altogether unpredictable—structure to keep the viewer tense and on edge. Thanks primarily to Davis’s score and Henri Decae’s moody, shadowy photography, many film historians see it as one of the last true film noir; I see it as a key transition film from noir to the French New Wave. Its influence on those early New Wave pictures (particularly Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player) is undeniable; Malle may have been more formal in his filmmaking, but Elevator to the Gallows shares a loose, fast sense of improvised morality. It’s a tough, nasty, sensational picture.