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Video Reviews

AYN RAND - A Sense of Life
Documentary
First Look Pictures [Video]

   "Howard Roark laughed."
   For my money, that is still one of the punchiest three word opening paragraphs ever penned. Right up there with "Call me Ishmael." But that is where the similarity stops. Our boy Melville went on to write a whale of a story, pardon the pun, which became an enduring American classic, delving into deep philosophical waters. Ayn Rand merely went on to write another didactic primer for her philosophy, another installment in her paean to selfishness.
   Granted, I read the whole Rand canon when I was a teenager. I ate it up. It was custom-made for a confused adolescent. I remember reading a passage in ATLAS SHRUGGED which made me so angry at God I shook my little fist at the heavens. Ironic, since in Ayn Rand's cosmology, there is no one up in the heavens to be angry with. There are only sinister ideologies: collectivism, socialism, communism. Anything based upon "we", rather than Rand�s ideal: the almighty "I".
   Michael Paxton's treatment of the life of Ayn Rand (1905-1982), the Russian born hyphenate (playwright-novelist-philosopher), is that of an acolyte. It is a long-winded panegyric made up from stock footage, photos, film clips of TV interviews, and newly filmed talking heads, all of whom are as sycophantic as Paxton,
   Granted, Ayn Rand had quite an amazing life. Immigrating to the U.S. in the 20s to escape the Communist regime. She worked in Hollywood as an extra, a screenwriter, and for many years in the RKO costume department while writing her first book. She became a protége of Cecil B. DeMille, and married the actor Frank O'Conner, and became a hugely successful novelist in her own right. Finally founding a philosophy that would out live her. Rand's life is the stuff of movies, but unfortunately, this movie doesn't do her justice. Perhaps if Paxton was a little less of a devoted fan, this documentary might have had more dimension to it. Paxton glosses over anything which might tarnish the reputation of his heroine, such as her 14 year affair with Nathaniel Branden, the "intellectual heir" who was excommunicated after it was discovered he was sleeping with another Rand acolyte, or Rand's "Friendly Witness" appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
   In the hands of another director we might have had some insight or honest criticism of Ayn Rand's life and work. As it is, we have a mediocre documentary, which is best recommended to the unquestioning new converts who are buying up THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED. Her book are still selling at the rate of 100,000 copies a year; fourteen years after the author's death, and years after the death of Communism in Rand's homeland of Russia.

Michael Paul
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FIGHT CLUB
Fox [Video]


   My main reason for going to see Fight Club in the theater was this: Any time Edward Norton has a movie he wants to punch me in the gut with, I'm there. I have another reason for multiple re-viewings of Fight Club. I think it's safe to say this is the funniest fight movie you are ever going to see. Edward Norton, narrating in the near-monotone of his insomniac character, opens the movie with a satirical skewering of this own life style, with the help of friendly graphics by director David Fincher. His life has no life in it, is the problem, and he has been trying to revive it with dead things such household furnishings. This is where the audience began to get the idea was not the grim basher they may have expected. The jokes are dark but very funny.
   We see Edward (his character goes without a name for the entire movie, with good reason) in his office in sleepless torpor, and in the field inspecting car wrecks for manufacturer flaws. It is up to him to decide if money compensations for loss of life will get more expensive than a recall. It's a clear case of not being able to live with himself -- he has become completely stifled to survive.
   Marla, a girl he can't live with, and Tyler Durden, everything he can't live without. In this role Helena Bonham-Carter explodes her corsets so thoroughly that no one will probably ever find the pieces, much less tie her back into them. Golden Globe winner Brad Pitt, as charismatic leader and raging iconoclast, gave the best performance of his career in Fight Club. Pitt has said Fight Club is the best movie he will ever be in. It certainly sets a new high water mark for him to match.Edward has been finding emotional release in support groups for serious disease sufferers. He allows the members to think he suffers as they do. When Marla begins touring Edward's, not even pretending illness, Edward finds he can't fake in her presence, and the groups no longer help him.
   Fortunately, he and Tyler Durden discover that fighting works even better to relieve the anomie; and a group grows up around them as men rush to this successful means of feeling alive. When Tyler takes Fight Club to another level, there are scenes of hilarious black humor involving the mindless threat of his Project Mayhem disciples. Some of the cinematic triumphs of this movie are only split-seconds long. There are fight scenes with the power and passion of a Michelangelo. Director David Fincher does not ask us to admire these, he simply uses them to build the mood and moves on. I can't say enough for his artistic integrity.
   The art direction is one of the many elements that deserved awards consideration: from the scene-setting, to the inner-structure graphics, to the final apocalyptic view that still leapt into my memory with little provocation 6 months later. There is no psychological validity to this movie, speaking scientifically, but hey! Suspend your disbelief & enjoy. If this still bothers you, read the book, which is a medium better suited to the psychological part of the material. The book also gave me an enjoyable evening.
   When watching Fight Club on video, turn up the brightness on your TV as the film lighting is dark You will still not catch the full impact of the battered faces; that is an advantage.I hope that Fight Club will be released for sale on letterbox. I saw a video trailer in letterbox and it is more satisfying. By satisfying, I mean I felt the harmony of the forms and scenes that were designed for wide screen, and I missed them on the rented video.
   I started this review by saying that any time Edward Norton has a movie he wants to punch me in the gut with, I'm there. Now, having seen his Keeping the Faith twice, I amend that. Any time Edward Norton has significant input into a movie, I'm there.

Joy Calderwood

THE FLAMINGO KID
Anchor Bay [DVD]

    "The Flamingo Kid," Garry Marshall's 1984 coming of age story, is an unlikely candidate for DVD re-issue, but the kind folks at Anchor Bay have lately been unearthing quite an assortment of gems for which video rights were available. This 98-minute light-hearted comedy was one of several movies which established Matt Dillon as a versatile young actor early in his career. Set in the 1960's, the film follows Jeffrey Willis (Matt Dillon) as he takes on a summer job as a cabana boy at El Flamingo Beach Club on Long Island. Jeffrey is drawn to Phil Brody (Richard Crenna), one of the club's flashier members, and ends up caught between the influence of his father (Hector Elizondo) and that of Brody. At the same time he's coming to terms with his attraction to Brody's niece Carla (Janet Jones). Marshall handles the relatively simple subject matter with a beautifully light touch, and the film manages to avoid the easy cliches of nostalgia. Dillon gives a nuanced performance as Jeffrey, serving as the film's strong emotional center. Elizondo and Crenna are superb as they demonstrate the battle between a father and a father figure for power over a son.
   The film, on the whole, is a sweet, highly evocative yarn about family, focusing on the change in perspective toward family that takes place in the mind of a child as he becomes an adult. Like much of Marshall's television work, most notably Happy Days, this movie explores a time in life when childhood wonder and innocence are giving way to the veneer of adult life, and it does so with wide eyes and a great sense of humor.
   The disc offers both Widescreen and Full Frame versions of the film. The quality of the video transfer is excellent, and the disc features Dolby Digital sound, but has no special features of any kind. And while it would have been nice to have some commentary from Marshall, notes on the production or at least a copy of the trailer, it is lovely to be able to see this movie again, if only as a reminder of how enjoyable a film can be without relying on special effects, explosions or cheap laughs. Great writing and acting go a long way.

Robert Wynne

Reviews continued in the next columntop
Reviews (cont'd)

ROBBIE ROBERTSON: GOING HOME
Documentary
Laserlight [DVD]

   An award-winning Disney Channel documentary, "Robbie Robertson: Going Home", is a 70-minute retrospective of Robertson's career. The documentary spans 30 years, from the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties, and centers on interview footage with Robertson and a few of his key collaborators over the years. After beginning with a live performance from a mid-nineties concert, the focus reverts to Robertson's accounts of his childhood on a reservation in Canada and his introduction to a variety of styles of American music in New Orleans as a teenager. A host of early footage of Robertson playing with the Ronnie Hawkins Band proves very entertaining, and the flavor of his early years represents well the varied career he would go on to have.
   The better part of the 70 minutes is spent chronicling Robertson's days with The Band, Ronnie Hawkins backing group that went out on their own in the mid-sixties. The footage of The Band playing on their own, playing behind Bob Dylan, or just relaxing at the house in Woodstock they called The Big Pink, is captivating. Here are incredibly talented musicians playing music they love even when they get booed off the stage, and recording even when they have no record contract. But when the world was ready, crowds began cheering and albums reached the charts. The story within a story of Robertson's days with The Band is an enthralling capsule look at artists who stood by their work until their work was finally recognized. This is the main message of the documentary.
   Another key revelation that comes to light is Robertson's close relationship with Martin Scorsese. It is well known that Scorsese directed The Band's seminal late-seventies concert film "The Last Waltz," but here is a fuller picture of a friendship which developed over many years. The two met at Woodstock, where Scorsese was a cameraman on the grueling shoot. Scorsese notes, in interview footage shot especially for the documentary, that The Band were amazing musically, but nearly impossible to photograph well because they had disallowed all cameras onstage during their performance. It turns out the two men actually lived together in the mid-to-late seventies when both were on the outs with their wives, and some wonderful stories show up here from those years as well.
   Robertson's career writing music for films is covered quite well, as are his dabbles with acting. And there are a generous number of selections from his live and studio solo work in the nineties � wonderful layered and captivating music. A few faces are missing, most notably the notoriously low-profile Bob Dylan, with whom The Band shared many stages. But overall, the film presents a full, varied, and quite entertaining history of 30 years of a life comprised of music, self-expression and self-exploration -- a life that is still churning away at these very pursuits. Even if you're not a fan, it's great to see what Robertson's done, what he's been through, and to get just an inkling of where he might go next.

Robert Wynne

MINNIE & MOSAKOWITZ
Anchor Bay [DVD]

   As it continues the work of rescuing lost films, Anchor Bay has recently released John Cassavetes' 1971 effort MINNIE & MOSAKOWITZ on DVD. Cassavetes has been credited with being one of the first directors to make truly independent movies in the age of major studios. He has often employed home-movie-style techniques, which convey a greater sense of intimacy, making the characters onscreen seem more immediate. These techniques are prevalent in current independent films, and are evident in MINNIE & MOSAKOWITZ I watched the film, which I had not previously seen, with this historical backdrop in mind. Still, overall, I was disappointed. A quote from the New York Daily News, which is listed on the back of the box, reads "The best, most charming and funniest home movie ever made!" Charming is not a word I would use to describe this film. It's more of a misanthropic romantic comedy, heavier on the misanthropic elements than the romance or laughs. Casavetes' has populated the tale with greatly flawed characters.
   The film seems too consciously "independent." The storytelling style is jagged, with some scenes stopping abruptly, even mid-sentence. The lead characters are barely likeable and none of the supporting characters are likeable at all. At least half the scenes in the film feature a character yelling, and at least a quarter have physical violence. Everybody's screwed up - no one gets along - but the title characters are given to weathering even the storms they create themselves. Nice premise, but it he lps if you care about the people you're watching.
   Both Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel were consistent and interesting in their portrayals of the title characters. Their performances were strong and daring. Still, so much of the action between them, and among other characters, is based solely on confrontation, that the film bogs down in its own free-flowing anger. There is so much yelling and hitting in the film, I didn't know who to root for, and by the end I didn't want to root for anyone because no character exhibited enough redeemable qualities to outweigh what bastards they're all being toward each other. The theme seemed to be: It's a petty world filled with petty people but love can make you see past all that. But it's hard to make that premise work when believability is at a premium, and I just couldn't make that trip to the angry place into which Casavete's dropped his characters.
   Technically, the DVD is quite nice. The film is presented in Widescreen, and the picture and sound quality are excellent. Extra features include audio commentary by Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel, the theatrical trailer and talent bios. I'm certain that some people would enjoy the film much more than I did, and I am glad that it's made the leap to the latest video format and is, at least, still in the world.

Robert Wynne

TWIN FALLS IDAHO
[Video]

  Here on video, showing as perfectly on the small screen as on the large, is the mystery of chemistry played out to the ultimate. Identical twins Michael and Mark Polish, digitally conjoined by computer magic, convey a sense of spiritual unity so strong that it is eerie, even transcendent to watch. Other movie-makers, perhaps with a catastrophic absence of chemistry between their current stars, might be able to learn the key to chemistry by watching this movie.
   Here is my opinion, which any professional moviemaker is free to disregard. No, it probably doesn't come from the fact that Michael and Mark are twins. Twins might just as well be like married couples, a notoriously poor prospect for screen chemistry. No, it probably isn't because they are identical. We have seen identical twins together on screen before, without the uncanny effect. However, the identical faces become a factor when combined with the identical movements. The body language and timing is without doubt used to unnerve in the beginning of the movie, and the fact that the brothers' facial lines mirror each other is a big contribution to that. Can this degree of chemistry be reproduced with actors who don't resemble each other? Try the mirroring of movement, of body language, of rhythm. Can the actors interact with the harmony of a dance even without mirroring? Then both together would be greater than the sum of their individual selves.
   This movie has a grim beginning, a grim story, and a barely hopeful ending. I hope you don't let that put you off. There are ways in which it is a miracle. The main characters pull you in. After the first few minutes of this movie I would have been incapable of walking away from it. I cared not only about the twins Blake and Francis but about their unlikely angel Penny (Michelle Hicks), and even about the doctor Miles. This script has brief lines that shoot straight to the heart of wisdom. My favorite goes something like this: "A book only has a sad ending because that's where the writer stopped writing. If he had kept going it would have changed."
   This is not a perfect movie. The sympathy factor is overplayed, emphasized by the violin score. I really think the mental indignity factor is also overplayed � speaking as a handicapped person myself. As Francis says, they've never known anything else, and most of the time the twins handle the shock they cause with patience and dignity, which would cause the people around them to handle it better as well. Of course any conjoined twin with patience and dignity is free to contradict me at any time, but I do think how you think of yourself determines how others think of you. There is more emotional realism in the repeated wrong assumptions that are made about the twins, such as the minister who says: "I like what you represent. Two folks livin' in harmony." This is just after they have had a huge fight. The minister wasn't at fault; he couldn't have known and he seemed a nice person. He just jumped to conclusions, like so many others.
   These two mostly went through life with hardly anyone able to understand them. Also the prurient questions, that you would think no decent human being would ask anyone, are all too real.I think it's safe after this many months, to comment that at the end Penny is all set to become Blake's substitute conjoined twin. No matter the pain Blake's life has caused him, being alone is even worse. However, accustomed to living cooperatively, he is unlikely to have to be alone.

Joy Calderwood

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