Log in

Reviews: May 28

28 May, 2006 By: Home Media Reviews

Docurama Film Festival I

Docurama Film Festival I
Prebook 5/30; Street 6/27

Anyone who's tried to catch as many films as possible at a film festival knows there are bound to be a few clunkers. There are no such clunkers in “Docurama Film Festival I” (the set of 10 DVDs is $229.95). Some of the 10 documentary DVDs are weaker than others, but even the least among them will interest doc fans. The best of them should be talked up to anyone interested in unique visions of American life.

Filmmaker Tod Lending's contributions — Legacy and Omar & Pete ($26.95 each) — are honest, respectful and beautiful. In an interview on the Omar & Pete DVD (most of these 10 DVDs sport filmmaker interviews), Lending said he admires photographers and focuses on emotional moments and images. That pays off here. Legacy follows three generations of women in an inner-city family living in the projects whose lives are transformed by the death of a young grandson-son-nephew-cousin. It could be depressing, but the tale is always tinged with hope, as the family's college-age Nickole Collins narrates. We know at least she makes it out, but audiences will be moved to tears as they see the strength of these women, who take advantage of second, third and fourth chances that life, friends and family give to them. Lending's darker story is Omar & Pete, which Lending said was inspired by the absence of men in the black community of Legacy. Lending learns that many are in prison, so he focused on two recently released men trying to adjust to life on the outside. One talks the talk, opening his life and his many missteps and falls to the camera; the other walks the walk, keeping his private life largely to himself and slowly rebuilding what he lost in years behind bars. The surprise of this documentary is the light it sheds on self-deception, how an intelligent man can talk himself him into disaster.

Both of Lending's films look at how society helps or fails to help those who fall through the cracks. Roger Weisberg's Aging Out ($26.95) looks at similar territory, with three kids “aging out” of the foster care system. David's a troublemaker, Daniella is a new mom, and Risa has just graduated high school — and none of them were ever adopted. Looking to make lives for themselves without the benefit of nuclear families, the three face similar problems with very unexpected outcomes.

The Police Tapes ($26.95) is a surprisingly candid look at the front lines of the seeming war zone of the South Bronx of New York. Filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond capture the fire of a “Cops” episode without the exploitative feel. The doc also includes insightful words from a commander who has sympathy for both the disadvantaged youth as well as the cops.

The Raymonds also filmed Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House ($26.95), a nonjudgmental look at criminals and guards in a maximum-security prison. It's plagued by some dated music, but the fact that prison officials gave the Raymonds such open access to talk to serious criminals and guards yields more truth than an entire season of “Oz.”

Just as frightening, only for different reasons, is The Fire Next Time ($26.95). Looking less like a documentary and more like an extended news story, it finds an environmental war brewing in a small Montana town. If the film seems to unfold in surprising ways, it's because filmmaker Patrice O'Neill had no idea what would eventually come pouring out of the Middle American hamlet when she started.

The 1979 documentary The Wobblies looks at the International Workers of the World (IWW) and gets most of its mileage out of inspiring testimony from survivors of the group and the songs that moved them to fight for workers' rights. The legitimacy of socialism, however, isn't explored, and many of those unfamiliar or unmoved by the idealism won't cotton to the ideas. What can't be denied, though, is the unjust treatment these union pioneers faced at the hands of cruel authorities and businesses.

Two of the least-involving documentaries are the Oscar-winning Broken Rainbow ($26.95) and the Oscar-nominated Sister Rose's Passion ($19.95). Broken Rainbow is a dated film that looks at a 1970s federal order to remove Navajos from an area that energy companies want to mine for minerals. It's a bit maudlin, spending too much time on the tears of those being asked to leave and not enough on the politics making it happen.

Sister Rose's Passion suffers from its own brevity, with long-winded outtakes and interviews trying to make up for the short's length. Sister Rose is a nun who worked to fight anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church and the world, and is horrified that such historically inaccurate portrayals continue to this day. It's a noble idea embodied in a courageous woman, but the short doesn't really satisfy.

Better shorts than Sister Rose's Passion show up on Full Frame Documentary Shorts Vol. 4, with such quirky subjects as the adult son of mentally ill parents and Japan's packed-like-sardines commuter trains. Brendan Howard

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The Ultimate Collector's Edition
Street 6/6
Fox, Western, $26.98 two-DVD set, ‘PG.' Stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford.

Fans of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are in for a treat with this terrific new DVD set. For those who haven't seen this timeless classic, this ultimate collector's edition provides the perfect opportunity.

The vaults of 20th Century Fox have been emptied to provide a wealth of historical footage and interviews about the making of the 1969 film, and the true-life story that inspired it.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was always seen as a different type of Western. Its heroes weren't overly heroic; they were affable outlaws, more interested in trading barbs than actually fighting.

Studio president Richard D. Zanuck was so enthused with the script he paid a then-unheard-of $400,000 for it. The film was perfectly cast, with Newman and Redford in the title roles, and became a huge hit.

Every featurette ever made about the film is seemingly included in the set. A new making-of special features new interviews from the cast, crew and historians reflecting on the film 35 years later. Another documentary traces the cultural context of the film as a reaction to the anti-establishment anti-war movement.

Also included is the commentary from the 2000 DVD release, by director George Roy Hill, lyricist Hal David, associate producer Robert Crawford and cinematographer Conrad Hall.

The highlight of the set is the interviews and commentary from screenwriter William Goldman, whose opinions about the film and the Hollywood system are both amusing and insightful.

Among Goldman's musings is a lament for a deleted scene that featured Butch and Sundance watching a film of their exploits. That long-lost scene has been unearthed and is included in the set, although the audio is missing. It's a shame so many producers never considered that one day people would be interested in this kind of stuff. John Latchem

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Prebook 6/7; Street 7/11
HBO Video, Comedy, B.O. $1.2 million, $27.95 DVD, ‘R' for language and sexual content.
Stars Steve Coogan, Jeremy Northam, Gillian Anderson.

Meta-cinema at its least taxing, Tristram Shandy is an amusing, albeit slight, jaunt through two of filmmaking's most aloof genres: Victorian re-creation and “movies about making a movie.” As the title hints, the movie-within-the-movie is an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a novel characterized by its satiric humor and convoluted approach to storytelling, while the meta-cinema focuses on the “personal” life of Tristram's star, Steve Coogan.

Unlike similar forays into the meta-movie, such as Adaptation, Tristram wastes no time revealing its intentions. Opening with Coogan discussing his part, acting in general and fellow actor Rob Brydon's yellowish teeth, from the pampered safety of a makeup trailer, the film lets its audience in on the joke from minute one: The director knows that the actors know that they are making a movie.

It may then delve into the early chapters of Sterne's novel and outfit its characters in full Victorian garb, but it soon ditches any pretensions of finishing its movie-within-a-movie and fills up the remaining time with relationship issues and script rewrites in the “real” world.

Thankfully, neither director Michael Winterbottom nor his cast take any of it too seriously, and we can enjoy the strangely inconsequential, but sometimes chuckle-inducing, comedic bits without feeling trapped in the film's meta-pretensions.

Selling Points: With the successful 24 Hour Party People and the talked-about 9 Songs on his resume, Winterbottom has a solid following. Where this wisp of a film fits on shelves, however, remains to be seen. — J.R. WickM

Sweet Insanity
Prebook 6/6; Street 6/27
MTI, Horror, $24.95 DVD, ‘R.'
Stars Mackenzie Firgens, Rebeka Isaacs.

Most horror fans will see the final twist in the indie horror film Sweet Insanity coming a mile away, but the guys are handsome, there are some sexy scenes with grinding and two girls kissing, and everybody gets satisfyingly killed with knives and power tools. Just don't expect to be surprised.

Trouble in paradise comes when good-looking, popular high-school senior Stacey (who, along with the rest of the “teen” cast, looks old enough to be a college senior) has a bad dream in the opening scene where she's being chased by some blond-haired guy. Stacey shrugs it off. Then she stumbles onto the new girl at school, Christina, a Goth chick who is alternatingly caustic, friendly or mysterious. Stacey takes a shine to her, overlooking her very uncool Goth wardrobe.

The action really starts when one of Stacey's buddies disappears in a park, and Stacey's parents leave town for the weekend, opening up the chance for a party and a night of one-by-one murders. Is it a mysterious rapist haunting Stacey's dreams who's coming back to finish her off? Is it weird black-clad Christina, who always seems to be showing up at the house? And, wait, did you notice that Stacey's never around others when the killings happen? And nobody sees Christina but Stacey?

Selling Points: The box art titillates, the principals are mostly cute and charismatic, and the killings are nicely done. Writer-director Daniel Hess has a lot to say about the film in his director's commentary: It's based on a short story by him and co-writer Adam Weis (who's art director here). Brendan Howard

The Matador
Prebook 5/30; Street 7/4
Genius/The Weinstein Co., Drama, B.O. $12.6 million, $28.95 DVD, ‘R' for strong sexual content and language.
Stars Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis.

Writer-director Richard Shepard says in his commentary for The Matador that the entire screenplay developed out of a single scene in which two guys meet for the first time in a bar. It's rewarding, then, to discover that it's a delight to watch that unexpected friendship unfold between Julian Noble and Danny Wright.

Noble (Brosnan) is a hitman getting on in years who struggles to hang onto a moment of random closeness he shares with businessman Wright (Kinnear), who meets him in a Mexico City bar after closing a deal that could save him and his wife from financial ruin. After convincing Wright to go to a bullfight, he spills the beans about his job and shows Wright how he does it, scaring and thrilling him in the process.

But when Noble asks Wright to help him with a job, Wright turns him down — or does he? The movie resumes six months later, with Noble showing up on Wright's doorstep begging for help and calling in his “favor.”

The movie starts off slow, but it rewards viewers for every minute they follow the tale a little longer. The clich?s never come, and the predictable explosions of violence or danger never surface. Instead, we get honest dialogue, honest comic moments and incredibly fun performances from a very un-James Bond-like Brosnan, a nerdy but dependable Kinnear and a simple yet vivacious Davis as Kinnear's wife.

There are few more believable portrayals of bonding between a hired killer and a regular joe.

Selling Points: Brosnan and Kinnear have fans, and this had an undeservedly small theatrical showing. It's fascinating as a film about a hitman that doesn't deal in much black comedy. Brendan Howard

Yakuza Graveyard
Prebook 5/30; Street 6/27
Kino on Video, Drama, $24.95 DVD, NR. In Japanese with English subtitles.
Stars Tetsuya Watari, Meiko Kaji.

The DVD of Kinji Fukasaku's classic Yakuza Graveyard arrives in a cinematic climate in desperate need of such vitality and brilliance. As a frenetic and savage masterpiece, the film conjures up every inch of 1970s cinema, from its violence and machismo to its tender affection for the flawed nature of humanity.

In Graveyard's central character, Kuriowa (Watari), a renegade police officer with his own idea of justice, we see a man who seems cut from the dark side of Steve McQueen, whose presence offers Paul Newman's mischievous smirk but not his joy, and who gives Clint Eastwood's stare absolute judgment. Half Tony Montana, half Dirty Harry, Kuriowa is a man at war with himself and the world that spawned him. Unlike the renegade cops of American cinema, he recognizes his own reflection in the criminals he first aims to destroy. His personal war on the yakuza (Japanese mafia) — so perfectly set for a clich? vengeance spree — instead evolves into brotherhood.

Of course, Kuriowa's need to accept his own imperfections, to side with his own tormented but honorable inner voice, rather than society, is his tragic flaw.

Before long, his inability to accept the hypocrisies of the system puts him at odds with it, exactly like the yakuza. In typical '70s fashion, Kuriowa is eventually crushed by the system he can't help but oppose.

Selling Points: A classic cult sensation, Yakuza Graveyard will have a long life for a limited audience. Director Fukasaku released the controversial Battle Royale in 2000 (and a sequel in 2003), keeping his name a valuable commodity as well. — J.R. Wick

3 Walls
Prebook 5/29; Street 6/27
Indican, Mystery, $24.99 DVD, NR. In Hindi with English subtitles.
Stars Juhi Chawla, Jackie Shroff.

It's HBO's “Oz” in India. A progressive Indian prison serves as the stage for a thrilling murder story giving audiences a peek into the lives of its otherwise out-of-sight, out-of-mind inmates. A rich philosophical piece, this film definitely stimulates the thinking movie-watcher.

A young, female documentary filmmaker convinces a forward-thinking warden to let her interview a trio of death-row inmates. The most recent addition has a record of having escaped from every detention facility ever to house him. His sincerity pours from the screen, creating a fascinating character rich in emotion and personal dignity.

This convict eventually emerges as a person of moral fiber. The documentarian and the convict work together until he enlists her help after escaping. In a shocking turn of events, what begins as a simple bank robbery becomes a dramatic trail as flashbacks congeal.

3 Walls brings prison life to the public eye in a tasteful and gentle manner, in contrast to its HBO counterpart.

Selling Points: Fans of foreign films will enjoy this thoughtful perspective piece. Justin-Nicholas Toyama

Add Comment