Hello you bleary eyed denizens of the new media. Believe it or not I am finally catching up on this column and while most of these released in February the March column is almost done. So here's looking forward and backward. Some really extraordinary (and not) stuff released last month and wading through was, as it always is, a mixed but worthwhile bag? Does Michael Shannon simply play crazy well? How has Billy Wilder aged? Can anything save The Fades from obscurity? I present to you my thoughts and ramblings and I hope a bit of insight into the these and other questions and leave you, I hope, anxious to read another column in a couple of weeks. All reviews are BluRay unless otherwise noted.
Billy Wilder left a lifetime of great cinema behind him and inspired countless others onward to their greatness. To love American cinema is to eventually work your way through the great Wilder films. Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Some Like It Hot (1959) rank among his greatest films as does The Apartment (1960). Jack Lemmon plays a low level executive securing promotions for himself by lending his apartment to superiors for use in adulterous trysts only to fall in love with one of the girls. Sparkling but deep performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine are the just the tip of the iceberg of when it comes to this film's charms. It's also fun to watch Fred MacMurray (best known for playing wholesome types on My Three Sons and The Absent-Minded Professor) being such an incredible cad. Vintage, vibrant, Wilder.
Stunning video and 5.1 hiss-less audio make for a presentation far better than any the film has ever had before. Extras are carried over from the last major release in 2008 and include a commentary by film historian Bruce Block, a half hour doc titled Inside The Apartment, and a 13 minute piece entitled Magic Time that looks back on Lemon's career and a trailer.
I've gone out of my way to see Michael Shannon's films. He has a reputation for taking decidedly unconventional material and bringing it scene-sttealing life. His performance in the haunting Revolutionary Road (2008) would have been enough to guarantee I would seek him out. But his work in William Freidkin's triumphant return to horror, Bug (2006), and Werner Herzog's weirdly compelling My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009) cemented my interest. Some would assert that Shannon is merely someone who can play crazy well. Hopefully his everyman performance here shuts that down. Shannon plays Curtis, a blue collar father and husband who is beset by disturbing dreams and visions of immanent apocalypse involving an enormous storm and attacking strangers. As the visions take an increasing toll on his fragile family, estranging them from the rest of the small town where they live Curtis must choose between the only route he believes is safe and the one everyone else insists is right. This is a great film with a surprising ending that, buttressed by the excellent cast, is all the more haunting.
The BluRay looks and sounds absolutely vibrant. The extra features include deleted scenes, a very informative commentary featuring director writer Jeff Nichols and Shannon, a Behind the Scenes featurette and an onstage Q and A with Shannon and co-star Shea Wigham.
TODD & THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (DVD)
I burned through all thirteen episodes and all the special features of this in two days. I could've stopped watching and written a generally positive review after only a few episodes but I cared too much about the characters by then to simply let go and there were other things about the show I wanted say. Remember back when you were a dumb teenager? Maybe you still are. I know I feel like one all the time and I'm 46. This is a show that loves us dumb teens enough to tell us the truth about what we think we want, what we think will make us happy etc. and it uses every crass gag it can muster to do so. It's as if Cheech and Chong ran the Scooby gang in Buffy for a series of Afterschool specials on the evils of human excess. Basically, this is a show about selfishness, idolatry, and the consequences of giving in to our dark side. As the mysterious history of Crowley High is slowly unveiled, metalhead stoner Todd, his best buddy one-armed Curtis, Todd's not-into-it crushee Jenny and the science nerd wanna be Todd girlfriend Hannah chase the devilish book of pure evil as it flies through the school appearing before the easily tempted. Fat girls who wanna be skinny, dumb kids who want to be smart and athletes who want their dad's respect all fall prey to the chaos that erupts when they use the book to get what they want. Lessons are always learned and lives are almost always lost in spectacular high gory hilarity. This has cult status written all over it. Jason Mewes even has a nifty part as the all-wise school janitor who's there whenever the kids need some outside input.
You get all 13 season one episodes, 3 audio commentaries, gag reel, deleted scenes, promo-clips and and a Q and A with the cast. That would be ample but you also get Extended Musical Sequences from the hilarious musical episode The Phantom of Crowley High, and the short film that inspired the series.
The Academy Awards paid proper homage to this film when it won five technical awards this year. But Hugo is far from being just a pretty, well put together, film. As a love letter to cinema and cry for film preservation Hugo is marvelous. As a story about a young boy desperately searching for the missing pieces in his life it has emotional depth and a strong sense of wonder. My favorite moment? Melies uttering the line, "My friends, I address you all tonight as you truly are; wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians... Come and dream with me." Indeed. I don't know whether Melies ever uttered this or not but it encapsulates the life of a man who truly saw the wonder of what cinema was and what it could be for viewers. Bring your sense of wonder and you will find yourself deeply moved.
The set seems light on extras considering all the fuss made about the film but future special editions seem writ in stone so no complaints here. I'm happy to have Hugo to share with my friends now. There are four featurettes covering the career of Melies, various special effects and fx sequences and a short gag featurette offering an interview with a frustrated Sacha Baron Cohen. The lack of an audio commentary is palpable given the stance of the film towards film preservation, the Michael Chabon source material and the immense resources pumped into the project.
HUMAN CENTIPEDE II: FULL SEQUENCE
As one who was present for the world premiere of this film at Fantastic Fest 2011. I can attest to the generally underwhelmed response of the crowd. These were largely smart film goers, hardcore genre lovers and genuine cineastes. What went wrong? I kept hearing over and over again that the emperor had no clothes, that director Tom Six had made less of a movie than a point, said point being that he could make the most disgusting film imaginable. The collective feeling was "....and?" That's the problem of preaching to the choir. Even they aren't liable to care unless you have something to say. The film's central premise, that a mentally unstable fan of the first film takes HC literally and tries to create a real human centipede is somewhat clever in the way it speaks to critics of the horror genre and film violence in general. But while there's no denying the dynamism of star Laurence R. Harvey in the title role, the story gives him little to do except lope from one hyper-violent truly disgusting vignette to another being in essence a strawman. Are there people who imagine horror fans to be this way? Yes, but not nearly as many as fans of the genre would like to believe are out there.
For the record I am a big fan of the first film, not because it offers a more understated approach to it's grotesque premise but because the film creates a smart sense of empathy and humor- a neat trick to say the least. I'm also a huge fan of films as grotesque as Inside (2007), Martyrs (2008), High Tension (2003), which are by turns hugely suspenseful high energy rides or offer up a surprising complexity asking deep questions, suggesting moving metaphors in the midst of devastation and chaos.
But Six, in an interview on the disc, actually compares himself to his dog Nigel when asked about his life's motto, espousing a dog's way of life as ideal, rooted in stark physicalities of eating, playing with other dogs, and fucking. Those with any need to self reflect, probe big questions or understand what draws them to extreme images evidently need not apply.
A feature titled Set Tour of Warehouse is in fact a loose behind the scenes featurette that showcases how some of the most stomach churning effects were accomplished. Foley sound effects is exactly what it infers. The Deleted Scene features star Laurence R. Harvey barking at a dog in a parked car and lasts all of fifteen or twenty seconds. The interview with Six is, as has been my experience with Six in interviews, somewhat mitigating. He is clearly a man who thinks through his projects in an attempt to produce something credible. But he has weak rationale for making disgusting images and offers no insight into why others will benefit from watching them other than to infer that it makes viewers a tad smarter for "getting" what he is up to.
Just as horror fans have had to endure the gutting of their heritage, so have the fans of the great feel good films. Not content to make simply another middling dance movie (which they have accomplished here) these filmmakers were determined to attach the Footloose moniker to one. Unnecessary, uninspired and utterly lacking in the charm that made the first film more than just a series of dance sequences, this has already come and gone survived only by this review and the commentary from the peanut gallery that "I liked this one better than the original my dad tried to show me." What they really mean is they couldn't figure out how to engage with the originals deeper sense of joi de vivre. Footloose (1984) was no ones Pina (2011) but it did have an outstanding cast perfectly suited to bring to life a vision of small town America breaking out. Here we get the sense that someone is breaking in ....a new pair of expensive tennies. Besides a good looking good sounding BluRay transfer this does offer a solid number of extras including director commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes and a music video. You also get a DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy
Eastwood needs to stay away from biopics. Here he has created a bland portraiture that, though it hints at the man, never really seems to get to the heart of his brokenness, encouraging a bland acceptance of the casual but questionable assumptions that have built up him. Most definitely the film fails to weave a compelling story, settling instead for haphazard use of flashbacks to drive a too loose narrative. A recent article in the Chicago Reader faulted J. Edgar for embracing the assumption of his homosexuality instead of examining the very real possibility of asexuality or the sublimation of sexuality to his addiction to power. Whatever one's take on that issue, the Hoover story needed something bolder or more complex than it got here. Not much in the way of extras are included except for a twenty minute featurette that delves into the historical Hoover.
PROJECT NIM (DVD)
Heartbreaking, thought provoking, humbling. I watched this with my wife who has never been quick to jump on the PETA bandwagon and even she was disturbed at the lack of humility of Nim's human caretakers and companions. Nim, was a chimpanzee taken in it's first weeks of life from it's mother and given to humans to be raised, as much as possible, as a human. As part of his daily regimen he was taught sign language, and developed a level of skill nobody expected learning hundreds of signs that, to this day, he seems to use in surprisingly complex ways.
The key question of whether Nim is truly learning to communicate, or only making the signs that will get him what he wants is talked about from various points of view although by the film's end, even the most hardcore separatists are liable to find their human-centric definitions of personhood challenged. There's no doubt that the people in Nim's life have all been challenged by their encounter with him on the deepest levels, learning as much about themselves as Nim ever learned from the processes he was subjected to.
The extras offered here are equally powerful. Director James March offers a dynamite audio commentary full of insight into his process and the difficulty of doing justice to this type of subject matter. The other extras are comprised of two featurettes which combine to roughly forty minutes of behind the scenes and post production marketing interviews. Great stuff. You also get a trailer.
ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN
This film left a huge impression on me at Fantastic Fest 2011. I live in Chicago, recently named one of the most corrupt cities in the US. The frustration that goes along with living here never really leaves. In fact it is so bad I try to stay away from local newspapers and news broadcast because after awhile a sense of hopelessness seems to pervade a mere glance outside my window. Since Bus 174 (2002) director Jose Padilha has made such frustrations his bread and butter tackling social issues and concerns in his work with a breathless aplomb. Ironically one always has the feeling while watching his tense and gripping stuff that the action filled narrative proceeds as naturally as breathing. Yet this certainly isn't action driven cinema attempting to spoon-feed politic to genre heads. This is a vital worldview emerging out of real life experience and a care of the world around it.
This sequel to Elite Squad (2007) has Padilha once again teamed up with City of God (2002) writer Bráulio Mantovani and the pair delve even deeper into the maddeningly toxic mix of Rio de Janeiro politics, organized crime and a poverty stricken citizenry trying to stay out of harm's way. The goods and the bads are everywhere and everyone, even as the protagonist Captain Mascimento uses his new found political power to squash the gangs controlling the city. Of course he makes it that much easier for the corrupt officials running things behind the scenes to take over and profit. This is a complex well paced police procedural that presents it's character's relationships as if they were every bit as compelling as the scenarios scenes of gunplay, and melodrama.
The only extra feature here is a forty-five minute doc on the making of the film but the movie look and sounds so good on BluRay it barely needs anything else to recommend it.
BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD: VOLUME FOUR
All hail the great Cornholio. The return of Mike Judge in any form is a good thing. But the return of Mike Judge to B&B is truly a wonder to behold. It's almost as if the duo have been sitting in a hermetically-sealed room just waiting to be noticed again. Funny, funny, relevant stuff. This time they not only offer voiceover on music videos but get to comment on stuff far stupider than they themselves ever were. Sixteen and Pregnant, Jersey Shore and other straight from hell programming get a constant barrage of the pair's sarc laced invective and yet through it all we never look at them as role models. My favorite episode has a maniacally tempted Beavis trying to resist the urge to copy his butt on the school xerox only to end up getting it stuck in the machine when the glass breaks leaving authority figures in the position of having to try to xerox his ass themselves, so they can make sure removing him won't cause any permanent butt damage. Mike Judge was right when he made Idiocracy (2006). It does appear we are in constant danger of getting dumber, but we are all waaaaaaaaay smarter than these two. Stay smart folks, watch these new episodes.
THE FADES: SEASON ONE
Not a lot to say here. The Fades seems as indistinct as it's name, trading good writing for the virtue of short term impact, which is to say it is reasonably fun without being particularly memorable. Individual viewers may find it compelling of course but that's mostly because it trades in big tropes and who doesn't remember their high school experience as one of supernatural hell anyway? The main character, Paul, is a teen haunted by increasingly vivid apocalyptic nightmares and an ability to see the dead, whom the show refers to as Fades. Alone with his burden Paul must also cope with one such Fade named Polus who has become human once again and threatens to destroy the boundary that separates the vengeful dead from the hapless living.
Not a lot of extras here. You get a series of short snippets throughout the set that showcase the show's character, Mac, giving a short synopsis designed to keep viewers up to speed on the many twists and turns. There are also some deleted scenes, interviews and outtakes. About as much as the show seems to deserve.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
As someone who lives in a religious community I'm a little more sensitive than most when I hear the word cult being bandied around. In many instances it's used as a convenient and questionable buzz word or spurious label designed to call into question the "other." Having lived in community for almost a quarter of a century I know that the reality is that all but the most abusive such groups are, in the main, complex in the extreme containing a wide array of human motivations, sins and virtues, selfishness and selflessness. When individuals do find themselves in the midst of abuse the decision they must make is how to extricate themselves or find healing- said healing almost always taking place in the midst of some other human community. In other words groups, institutions, families etc. are inescapable in one form or another if we are to live healthy lives just as they are always problematical and dangerous places to be. cult or not.
Falling into the cracks of this dilemma is Martha, a young twenty something who returns to her estranged family after suffering abuse at the hands of a retro-hippie commune/cult. In constant fear of pursuit, knowing the group to be capable of violence, she attempts to reintegrate within the context of her over protective sister's idyllic lake house only to run headlong into the expectations of even that limited degree of society. Elizabeth Olsen turns in an understated yet rich performance as Martha and is matched note for note by an outstanding cast. John Hawkes plays the cult leader as a master hick manipulator and the cast brings the rest of the group to stunning life showcasing exactly what emotional needs drive people into giving up their own identities to feel part of abusive groups.
Sad to say there is no audio commentary here. My interview with Durkin made me wish for a much longer conversation and Olsen too, was full of insight into choosing and playing her part. This is one of the finest indie films of the last year.
Unforgiven was one of the first BluRays ever released and it was a good one. So good in fact that there's nothing new in this edition. LOL. That said, this edition is nice. The BluRay digibook format just looks a lot cooler than a plain snapcase and offers 52 pages lpacked with photo trivia niftiness. That said....
Unforgiven (1992) seemed to signal something about Eastwood's directorial trajectory that has only come to partial fruition. Call it wishful thinking on my end but I had hoped he would go on to continue unraveling his own mythos. He has to some extent, but he's also, of late, gotten sidetracked by a misplaced attempt to plumb historical events and figures.. J. Edgar (2011), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), and Invictus (2009) are, none of them, as provocative as Gran Torino (2008) or Unforgiven which certainly embrace the death of his man with no name character as well as a despair over the genre itself. The West, for all of it's beauty and promise, has provided man little respite from himself. It is, when all is said and done merely another place where men fight the same battles they always have and always will. Virtue can mitigate such struggles but not entirely. If anything the idea of the frontier was, in the end, the hope to find a refuge away from the surly bonds of original sin, not the earth. But sin always finds us because it is in us, the endless frontier earth was but a shadow of our hope to travel towards redemption. Unforgiven may well stand as the greatest of all the revival Westerns.