DVD of the Week – ‘Warner Gangsters Collection Volume 3’ – March 25, 2008

In the 1930s, Warner Bros. ruled the underworld genre of gangster movies, all but defining the genre with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy and making James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson the definitive gangland anti-heroes. As the Hayes Code put the kibbosh on the more extreme expressions of outlaw blasts of anti-social behavior and rat-a-tat violence, Cagney and Robinson calmed their illegal activities and even took their turns playing cops and DAs while Warners brought supporting actor Humphrey Bogart into the criminal fold. Warners is now on its third collection, and while the six-disc box set Warner Gangsters Collection Volume 3 is left with some of their lesser titles, it does feature one of the studio’s snappiest pre-code genre hybrids, Lady Killer (1933), a dynamic collision of gangster drama and show-biz comedy with James Cagney.

The film clocks in at a brisk 75 minutes and is already a third over before he even gets to Hollywood and hustles his way to success a second time, this time from movie extra to movies star. Cagney is at his insolent best as the perpetual motion wiseguy, always with a ready crack yet resilient enough to laugh at a creative insult lobbed his way. This pre-code production also features its share of saucy and salacious bits (watch Cagney drag Mae Clarke out of his bedroom by her hair) and a violent gunfight finale.

The six-disc set also features Cagney in Picture Snatcher (1933) and Mayor Of Hell (1933), Cagney co-starring with Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931), Robinson in Brother Orchid (1940), and Humphrey Bogart in Black Legion (1937), which is more social drama than gangster film but can fit the bill in pinch. Each of these films are also available separately.

Read the complete review here.

 

From pre-code to post-code, Warners releases its definitive version of its genre-busting R-rated 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde: 2-Disc Special Edition.

This new edition is highlighted by the new three-part, 64-minute documentary “Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde,” as definitive a portrait of the production and release of the film as you’ll find. Directed by Laurent Bouzreau, it features interviews with almost every major participant, from producer/star Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn to costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, art director Dean Tavalouris, and editor Dede Allen. Beatty is in fine, reflective form as he discusses his first film as a producer and his creative input and the portrait of the set that he and others (including co-stars Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons) describe was not always cordial, but it bustled with creative energy.

The release also features two deleted scenes (without audio, subtitles provided), wardrobe tests with Warren Beatty, and a History Channel documentary on the real Bonnie and Clyde.

Read the complete review here.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Warner Gangsters Collection Volume 3’ – March 25, 2008”

Knowledge is Change: An Interview with Ira Sachs

I interviewed Ira Sachs, director and co-writer of Married Life, for the Seattle P-I in the “A Moment With” format. I only had the opportunity to use highlights from the 20-minute phone interview in that piece, so here is the complete interview.

marriedlife_poster.jpgWhat was it about the book, “Five Roundabouts to Heaven,” that made you say: “This is my next project.”?

I’ve always been interested in psychological stories and character-driven stories. Right before I started working on this, I’d seen a lot of Joan Crawford movies and Bette Davis movies and Barbara Stanwyck movies and Fred MacMurray movies, a kind of old-fashioned storytelling that was usually over-the-top and larger-than-life in terms of the plot, but something about them really resonated for me personally. So I decided that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to make one of those kinds of films without being a retro film. I just liked the way those stories were told. I spent a summer reading old pulp mysteries. People often say that you can make a movie out of a pulp fiction better than a movie out of a classic and I think there is some reason for that because there’s something more you can play with. And what I liked about this book particularly was that in the course of the story, when you learn more about each of the characters, you realize that, at its heart, it’s a really humanist story about relationships. Even though it’s a genre film, it’s also a humanist film. What I thought was quite true about the emotional stakes of these people within their marriages, even again if it’s over the top in its structure, it resonated for me personally within my own relationships.

I’d like to talk about that balance. In between the beats of the genre elements is an ongoing conversation about love and desire and marriage and relationships and what makes people happy in relationships.

That was certainly my intention and I think that what we tried to do, once we had a really good story, then the texture within that. Partially, I was lucky with my cast, a cast that gave a nuanced, emotional, really rich version of these lives that adds a better dimension. And I think in a way that’s the tension in the film, because it is a genre film on some level and yet it’s told in a naturalistic fashion.

Continue reading “Knowledge is Change: An Interview with Ira Sachs”

New reviews: ‘Married Life’ and ‘Snow Angels’

“This is my friend Harry Allen. He’s married. He likes his wife. It can happen.”

Harry (Chris Cooper) appears to be the very model of success in 1949 America: a corporate office, a long, healthy marriage to a practical (and well preserved) woman (Patricia Clarkson), a nice home, and a gorgeous mistress (Rachel McAdams as a platinum blond).

marriedlife.jpgBut Harry wants to be “truly happy,” he explains to his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan, our sardonic narrator). In the course of pursuing his happiness, it becomes clear to him that he must murder his wife. Not for money or spite, mind you. Harry loves Pat too much to put her through the pain of a divorce. How thoughtful.

The plot of Married Life, based on the British fifties-era pulp thriller “Five Roundabouts to Heaven” and set in 1949 Seattle (though the city is never actually identified, to the best of my recall), sounds like a seedy Hollywood B&W crime melodrama of cheating husbands and seductive sirens and the comforts of suburban life corrupted by lust and greed. Director Ira Sachs, who shoots the film in cool sepia tones that evoke the period and suggest lives lived in restraint and self-suppression, as if bold colors would shock them out of their comfort zone, plays it as a gentle comedy of manners. Or perhaps comedy is a misleading label. Call it an irony.

Continue reading “New reviews: ‘Married Life’ and ‘Snow Angels’”

‘This Is Spinal Tap’ – Fake Rockers, Real Laughs

This Is Spinal Tap is bad music, bruised egos and brilliant comedy.

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” — Nigel Tufnel

Rob Reiner walks that fine line in his hilarious mockumentary rockumentary, ostensibly the portrait of a has-been metal band resurrected from a well-deserved obscurity for a disastrous comeback tour.

Improv comedy veterans Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer don’t just play clueless heavy metal rockers and longtime bandmates David St. Hubbins (lead singer), Nigel Tufnel (lead guitar) and Derek Smalls (bass) offstage, they write and perform their own material with the preening assurance of would-be metal gods. Between the absurdly sexist and metaphorically confused lyrics, they fill the bombastic songs with heavy licks and aimless solos that screech into the stratosphere of self-indulgence.

The most inspired scenes take place away from the crowds, where the eternally adolescent rock stars stumble through creative tensions, girlfriend troubles, absurd touring mishaps, scraps with cynical record executives (Fran Drescher, whining with phony sincerity) and smarmy music promoters (an inspired Paul Shaffer cameo, pleading with the band, “Do me a favor, just kick my ass!”).

There had been countless documentary spoofs before “This Is Spinal Tap,” but this inspired put-on was the first to actually capture the texture and style of real documentary. The actors were let loose to riff on situations and Reiner’s skeleton crew shot it all on the fly. The results were cut into the classic rock doc form, a mix of live concert footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the tour (which falls apart before our eyes), introspective interviews with the blissfully unaware subjects and of course the historical survey. The band’s British Invasion knock-off beginnings and flower-power psychedelic detour are captured in pitch-perfect re-creations of mock-archival footage.

The parody was so dead-on that some audiences walked out believing it was all true, and why not? “This Is Spinal Tap” was the first mockumentary to parody an event that had yet to occur: David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel attempt to harmonize on “Heartbreak Hotel” while standing at Elvis’ grave. Who knew that U2 would do it for real years later in their Graceland visit in “Rattle and Hum”?

They are without a doubt the funniest faux band in the movies, and the film is a comedy classic. On a scale of 1 to 10, this is easily an 11.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

A moment with Ira Sachs

I talked to director Ira Sachs Married Life, his third and most recent feature film, for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The piece is now live online. Here are few clips:

irasachs1.jpg

On adapting a pulp novel:

People often say that you can make a movie out of a pulp fiction better than a movie out of a classic and I think there is some reason for that because there’s something more you can play with. I think in a way that’s the tension in the film, because it is a genre film on some level and yet it’s told in a naturalistic fashion.

On setting the tone:

The credits sequence is a playful animated sequence. I wanted to signal to the audience very early on that what takes place following might be very serious to the characters, but that the audience didn’t need to take it too seriously.

On creating the period:

We wanted to use the ’40s as if they were today because we wanted the characters to seem as familiar as possible within their dilemmas. There’s that old Faulkner line, “The past isn’t past, it isn’t even over yet.” I think that that’s true. I connected to these characters as if they were myself, my parents, my grandparents. They’re people I know.

Read the complete feature here.

My review of the film will run in the Friday edition of the Seattle P-I. I’ll feature it in my blog when it goes online Thursday night.

I’ll be publishing my complete interview with Ira Sachs later this weekend.

What’s in Your DVD Player, Chris Cooper?

Chris Cooper, Oscar winner for Adaptation and star of the new film Married Life, is the most recent interview subject in my MSN interview feature.

Here are a few choice clips:

MSN Movies: What’s in your DVD player?

Chris Cooper: Being a member of the Academy, they’ve sent me everything to look at so I’ve just seen scores of films. I think the very last one we saw was “Margot at the Wedding,” with Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Matter of fact, I gave one of my votes for supporting actress to Jennifer Jason Leigh. I thought she was really good.

Did you become a member of the Academy when you won your Oscar for “Adaptation.”?

I don’t think so. I think somebody submits your name. I was a bit surprised when I became a member because I don’t know how it came about.

Being a professional actor, is it easy to step back when you watch a movie and simply watch it as a movie?

Yeah, it is now. It is now. It wasn’t so enjoyable, say, 10 years ago. I was looking at every angle and the lighting and trying to dissect the acting. I was very aware of it and I got a little irritated with myself. But I’d say in the last 10 years or so, I’ve been able to separate myself and I really do enjoy it again.

Read the complete feature here.

DVD of the Week – ‘Mafioso’ – March 18, 2008

A decade before The Godfather, Albert Lattuada deglamorized the gangster chic of the Italian mafia with the bitter comedy Mafioso. Alberto Sordi stars as Antonio, an energetic parody of the middle class success story, running around the factory with a clipboard and a stopwatch and playing ringmaster back in his modern apartment home with his chic blond wife and two blond little girls. What has him so excited is a vacation trip to his home village in Sicily, a place of simple beauty and generous folks, to hear him tell it.

He’s still bubbling with his idealized memories of the town when they finally arrive, which makes him oblivious to the reality that we see: an impoverished, bleak place village that time seems to have abandoned to its superstitions and cloistered fear of outsiders – his modern wife included. Half of Antonio’s friends have died or gone to prison, victims of the unforgiving culture of crime and vengeance, and a mafia is the town elder, as much feared as revered. He’s the man who makes a modest request from Antonio in the form of a veiled threat: an offer he can’t refuse.

Lattuada’s direction is pitch perfect as he slips the film from the comic satire of culture clash and oblivious idealization to the grave reality of the world nobody dares admit exists, let alone defy. The film never loses its sly humor, but it turns darker with a force that packs a gut-punch, and the willful blindness to the malignant mafia simply perpetuates the cycle.

The Criterion edition features a small collection of interesting but hardly compelling interviews, both archival and original for this disc.

Read the full review here.

Also this week from Criterion are two-disc editions of The Ice Storm, with new commentary by director Ang Lee and producer/screenwriter Schamus and a retrospective documentary with new interviews with stars Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, and Elijah Wood, and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s documentary Antonio Gaudi.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘Mafioso’ – March 18, 2008”

Remembering Brian Blue

Brian Mark Blue, formerly Brian Henke, died on Saturday, March 8, after a long battle with cancer. He was 37 and is survived by his young daughter, Isabella, and his sisters, Heather Wildin and Hillary Brestar, among his many loved ones. (For a full accounting, please visit Brian’s obituary is here.)

On Friday, March 14, I attended his memorial service, arranged by Hillary and Heather.

brian2.jpgBrian was one of the most enthusiastic people I have had the pleasure to know. He was one of the first people I met when I moved to Seattle in 1995 and started working at Scarecrow Video. I was down on the floor putting out new additions to the inventory when my defining moment came. I was merely an observer – I didn’t even catch the conversation that led up to it, it was some testosterone movie or bizarre cult film that Brian was trumpeting with all the enthusiasm and excitement he brought to any discussion of a film that captured his heart – but I remember the response vividly. Ariana, his good friend and co-worker, simply eyed him with a look of appreciative amusement and said, “Brian, you are such a boy!” He simply beamed with his cat-that-caught-the-canary grin. The key there is that she said “boy” and not simply “guy.” While the word carries with it a hint of adolescence and immaturity, I think it captures something pure and youthful and fresh in Brian. As those who knew him would surely agree, Brian’s unrestrained enthusiasm and excitement made him seem younger than his years, someone who still responded to the jaded world with eyes wide open, ready and willing to be surprised and enchanted whenever he was.

I worked with Brian for three years at Scarecrow. I saw countless films with him. I was at his wedding to Holly Blue (Brian took his wife’s name, explaining: “How could I ask a woman I love to take the name Holly Henke?”). And when I left the store in 1998, I trained him to take my position. At the time, Scarecrow was teetering on bankruptcy and leadership was in a state of chaos and denial. The stress was making me miserable and, with mixed feelings and a great deal of anxiety, I gave my notice. The owner, George Latsios, treated my departure like some kind of betrayal and barely acknowledged me as I said my goodbyes on my last day. I was feeling all but abandoned when Brian and Holly invited me to spend the evening with them and gave me a tremendous amount of support. They probably had no idea how important that was to me, but it meant the world to me.

Continue reading “Remembering Brian Blue”

‘The Kids Are Alright’ – The Story of The Who in Power Chords

Rebels With a cause: Rock!

There isn’t another rock documentary in the world like The Kids Are Alright. This is no familiar biographical narrative or historical overview talking about the band’s generation, but a scrappy, vibrant musical portrait painted in the bold colors of rock itself: impassioned lyrics, power chords, crashing drums and smashing guitars.

Diehard fans of the Who argue that they were the most exciting live band in the world (or at the very least in the world of rock ’n’ roll). Director Jeff Stein dedicated himself to capturing the essence of the band through performance, onstage and off.

The Kids Are Alright features no narrator, no conventional interviews, no intimate confessions of artists reflecting back on a life of music. Stein pulls together his portrait almost exclusively from archival sources — concert footage, TV appearances, skits, talk show interviews. He slips back and forth through the band’s career from 1965 to 1978, contrasting the nerdy-looking boys energetically performing early hits on pop programs like “Ready Steady Go!” and “Shindig!” with the dangerous rockers charging up the crowds at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock and the rock legends pumping out “Baba O’Riley” in 1978 with the dynamism of veterans transformed by the power of their own music.

Between shows we see them goof with Tommy Smothers and quip with talk show host Russell Harty. Pete Townshend offers self-effacing comments (“If you stay away from quality, you’ll be all right”), John Entwistle takes a machine gun to a few gold records and Keith Moon plays the prankster in cheeky interludes with Ringo Starr and a rather disinterested dominatrix. Mere months after those segments were shot, Keith Moon died of a drug overdose at the age of 31. Stein’s tribute to Moon is appropriately playful, not a eulogy but a celebration of his life and spirit.

The entire film maintains that spirit and energy, and it explodes in the climactic concert performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” staged for the film. The exhausted band was furious for having to return to the stage for one more song and channeled their anger into rock ’n’ roll. The performance is rejuvenating: Townshend bounces and struts and finally slides across the stage like a teenager and Moon recaptures the drum punk of old in his blistering attack on the drum kit. It’s a thrilling climax to the liveliest, most dynamic portrait of a band — or any artist, for that matter — preserved on film. Rock is dead. Long live rock.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

New reviews: ‘Bab’Aziz,’ ‘CJ7,’ ‘Never Back Down’ and ‘Tall as Trees’

babazizpic.jpgNot a lot to speak of as far as my film reviews go this week. In other words, I got the dregs of a pretty weak line-up.

Most interesting of the films is Nacer Khemir’s Bab’Aziz, an allegorical odyssey set in the deserts of Iran and Tunisia. The film never pulled me in to its gentle world of stories and magic, but I was intrigued by the mix of past and present in a timeless, endless desert where characters existed outside of social definitions.

If you can lose yourself in the weave of crisscrossing stories, it’s a lovely, lazy dream movie of marvelous textures and rhythms. If not, the travelogue through Sufi mysticism doesn’t really go anywhere, but at least the music and dance and cultural storytelling make the journey interesting, if not always compelling.

Read the entire capsule review here.

I’m a fan of Stephen Chow, one of the biggest movie stars in Asia – and by extension the world – thanks to his energetic mixing of slapstick comedy, martial arts and rapid-fire wordplay. The latter has been lost in translation when imported into the U.S., but the crazy comic kinetics and loony sight gags of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle survived the trip just fine. But I was frankly confounded by CJ7, his a kid comedy by way of a knockabout “E.T.” spoof, featuring a chirpy little Furby from outer space with a squishy green doll body apparently made of Flubber.cj7pic.jpg

Chow’s comedy jerks through some rather extreme shifts in tone. At its best, the cartoonish action is wacky and absurd — as in Dicky’s fantasy adventures with his magical alien buddy or the epic martial-arts showdowns of adolescent giants (were they raised on a diet of human growth hormones?) between classes. At other times, it’s downright off-key: Father and son play Whack-A-Mole with the cockroaches skittering across the slum walls, and then swap insect guts in spirited high-fives. Ain’t poverty grand?

Bright, bouncy, kooky and comically tone deaf, “CJ7” is the most bizarre kids movie I’ve ever seen. Kids probably will enjoy the elastic excess and adolescent humor (Chow pushes poop jokes into rapid-fire ordnance, complete with machine-gun soundtrack), but the rest feels lost in translation.

Read the complete review here. Continue reading “New reviews: ‘Bab’Aziz,’ ‘CJ7,’ ‘Never Back Down’ and ‘Tall as Trees’”

DVD of the Week – ‘No Country For Old Men’ – March 11, 2008

Weeks after taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director(s) and Best Adapted Screenplay, No Country For Old Men arrives on DVD.

(T)he Coen Bros.’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is their masterpiece, a perfect match of story and storyteller. Josh Brolin stars as an easy-going Vietnam Vet poaching in the Texas desert who stumbles into the wreckage of a drug deal gone ballistic and ambles off with a fortune in drug money. Javier Bardem won an Oscar playing methodical mercenary Chigurh, a relentless killer with an indeterminate accent and the creepiest haircut ever allowed in a movie out to recover the money. But the story is really about Tommy Lee Jones’ laconic Sheriff Bell, a dedicated lawman following the trail of the corpses left in Chigurh’s wake and becoming more disillusioned with the world with every death he’s unable to prevent. The Coens don’t explain, they show in meticulous detail with evocative and creative flair, slowly unraveling a story that seems to be spinning out the control of everyone but the filmmakers. Their methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t yet know, and that’s far more dangerous. Cinematographer (and Oscar nominee) Roger Deakins gives it the feel of a primeval frontier with his simple, stark images, a world neither compassionate nor cruel, simply harsh and indifferent and unforgiving of stupid mistakes and overweening arrogance.

The film is accompanied by three featurettes. The 24-minute “The Making of No Country For Old Men” is the most interesting, thanks to interviews with (among others) Tommy Lee Jones and the Coen Bros., who sum up their cinematic approach with classic understatment:

“A lot of it is very procedural, people doing things to cover their tracks…,” begins Ethan in a thought completed by Joel with, “It’s about physical activity in order to achieve a purpose, which honestly we’ve always been fascinated by.”

Read the complete DVD review here.

I reviewed the film for the Seattle P-I here.

 

My other pick of the week spotlights racy films from Hollywood’s pre-code sound era, when the studios fought to attract audiences in the depths of the depression with cost-effective spectacles of sex, violence and other forbidden activities. TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 2: Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘No Country For Old Men’ – March 11, 2008”

Indie goes Corporate: IFC Signs Exclusive Deal with Blockbuster

Last week, as reported in Variety, IFC Entertainment signed an agreement to give Blockbuster a 60-day exclusive for all of their DVD releases.

This plan will surely boost profits for IFC, but at what cost to the consumer? Jim Emerson took apart pretty much everything that’s wrong with this deal in his scanners blog on Saturday, a well-researched piece that also captures the utter hypocrisy of Blockbuster’s contradictory policies on unrated films. (Sex comedies like Superbad and American Pie knock-offs? Yes. Sex dramas like Lust, Caution and Bertolulcci’s The Dreamers? Sorry, gotta cut these down to an R rating.) But it bears repeating that this is no help to the audiences that generally seek out these titles.

The Weinstein Company (TWC) struck a similar but more limited deal with Blockbuster over a year ago. They gave Blockbuster a rental exclusive but continued to sell their DVDs through traditional outlets, thus giving any rental store with even the most limited initiative to purchase copies (often at wholesale costs) they could then rent out. TWC responded by putting a warning on the disc that told viewers what they were watching was “For purchase only,” even though the warning carried no legal weight of any kind.

IFC is making their deal with Blockbuster much tighter, giving the store an exclusive 60-day window for both sales and rentals. Competitors can still purchase copies from Blockbuster (at retail price) and rent them in their own stores, though they will likely do so in smaller numbers than TWC titles. After 60 days, the sales window opens to all other outlets, though Blockbuster will still have an exclusive 3-year rental window (which, as the TWC shows, is unenforceable in any legal sense).

But the deal is ultimately a slap in the face to the very stores that have been supporting indie and alternative titles all along: the independent neighborhood stores, the alternative-minded regional mini-chains, all those rental outfits that serve diverse audiences and nurture the interests in titles beyond the blockbuster. IFC senior VP of sales says: “It gives millions of customers increased access to our movies.” (quoted in the Variety report on the deal)

Continue reading “Indie goes Corporate: IFC Signs Exclusive Deal with Blockbuster”