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DVD Reviews

ANDY WARHOL (1987)
Kim Evans, director
Image Entertainment
www.image-entertainment.com

Andy Warhol

   While Andy Wahol can't be credited (or condemned for) with the creation of pop culture, there is no doubt that he was its biggest fan and supporter. He was born to poor Czech immigrants, raised Catholic and grew up a fan of American film stars. He started out as a regular artist trying to find his niche in the art world, and when none appeared, he created one. This documentary covers over 25 years worth of film clips and interviews with Wahol and his family, friends and fellow artists. Amazingly, even though it covers so much in so little time, it gives you a good feel for Warhol, his vision and the time (and frame of mind) he lived in. Highly recommended for anyone who has an interest in Warhol or wants to find out what everyone thinks is so interesting. The DVD quality is a bit hobbled by the source materials (video footage, etc), likewise the sound, but still a good catch.

Carlye Archibeque


GONE IN 60 SECONDS (2000)
Domnic Sena, director
Touchstone Home Video

Gone In 60 Seconds

   Why would we review such a corporate piece of low IQ, high budget dreck? Why for the great car chases of course. There is dialogue in this film uttered by great actors like Robert Duvall and Giovanni Ribisi that I wouldn't make my worst enemy sit through, and the great thing is, through the miracle of DVD you don't have to either. Just got to special features and cut to the car chases. Shot on location with incredible cars and lots of special equipment, anyone who likes to drive fast will be impressed with them. Of special interest is the climactic chase on the San Pedro pier. While they cheated a bit with digital tampering, it all comes together like an adrenaline sandwich. Yummy.

Carlye Archibeque


THE HOUSE OF GAMES (1987)
David Mamet, director
MGM Home Video

   An educated audience can be a writer's worst enemy. Ergo: the less you know the easier you are to entertain. Most viewers aren't aware if there's a Brechtian distance between an actor and the character they play. Pirandello's ideas about how every persona, real or imagined, is the manufacture of a myriad of chosen behaviors aimed at a conscious representation of self would hardly be recognized by the casual viewer. In the HOUSE OF GAMES, writer/director David Mamet presents con-men possessed of Brechtian distance, leading their victims into behaviors that will separate them from their money. The victims, for the most part, want to be perceived as being good people- just like everyone else. Mamet's con-men turn human decency into a flaw, and excuse themselves because the victims let it happen. Ignorance is not a defense. As Lindsay Crouse's character, Dr. Ford, is told by her mentor, "The way to survive committing an unforgivable act is to forgive yourself." This idea is key to the film, and has worked it's way into contemporary society as a justification for rudeness, freeing people from accountability.
    Mamet's favorite actors are all present: Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Mike Nussbaum, not to mention the late J.T. Walsh and Mamet's ex-wife, Lindsay Crouse in the best role of her career. Um, so far.
    Crouse plays successful staid therapist, Dr. Margaret Ford. In an effort to help a compulsive gambler/patient out of jam, she goes to see Mike the bookie to clear up her patient's debt. Joe Mantegna plays Mike. The moment the characters meet, Dr. Ford is drawn into the circle of Con-men, imaging herself as Dian Fossey. She sets out to write a book about Con-men and what their games reveal about human nature, but things slowly get out of control and every sequence in the story is like the flip of another card in a tense game of poker. While Crouse's character may have been unaware of David Maurer's classic book, "The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man", clearly Mamet was familiar with it. Or maybe Ricky Jay told him about it. Mamet's story concludes with a classic 'cackle-bladder'. I'd tell you what it is, but someone would have to die.
    Although Crouse's acting is stiff and the structure of Mamet's script requires a specific almost stilted style of delivery, Dr. Ford comes across as an impressively intelligent female character for a 1987 film from a writer occasionally accused of misogyny. Dr. Ford may in fact be the precursor to the rarely seen tough intelligence of such characters as those portrayed by Jodie Foster in "SILENCE OF THE LAMBS", and Jennifer Lopez in "OUT OF SIGHT." It's a mark of fine writing and directing when a character's smarts not only fuel the plot, but become an integral element of the story.
   If cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia's undistinguished career has a peak, this is it. The clarity of the DVD shows the precision of picture composition directed shadows. The lighting in this film is a cool blend of glaring shafts and dark corners, perfect for the diversion needed in a con.
   The DVD contains no special features beyond the original trailer and a wide screen format, but the movie is definitely worth seeing or revisiting. If the HOUSE OF GAMES is any gauge, most of Mr. Mamet's films will be standing the test of time.

Jack Sanderson

JESUS' SON (2000)
Alison Maclean, director
Lions Gate Films

Jesus' Son

   This was hands down one of the top five films of the year 2000. If we are all children of God, therefore children of Jesus, how hard would it be to live in the shadow of our father. This is a brief section of the life of Fuck Head, FH to his friends, (of which there are few and those few are very fucked up), one of Jesus' sons who is having a hard time living in the world. The story follows his confused meandering life from his first encounter with the love of his life Michelle (a magnetic Samantha Morton), through his heroin addiction and leaves him skirting the fine edge of grace and recovery. Along the way he meets an amazing assortment of characters like his coworker (Jack Black), a hospital orderly who sneaks pills and pulls a butcher knife from a man's eye when the doctors are non committal. Other great cameos are Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary and Holly Hunter, none of which are made to keep the film interesting. Billy Crudup is amazing to watch, seemingly born to play the role (as he has been every role I've seen him in). The film straddles commitment to an answer for anything and exists somewhere between dream and reality where all answers are intuitive. The film is a living entity showing us its inner life in the form of the characters. Transformational, mesmerizing, full of meaning and beauty with an ending that is perfect zen, I can't recommend this film enough.

Carlye Archibeque


MANHUNTER (1986)
Michael Mann, Director
Anchor Bay Entertainment

   In this first installment of Thomas Harris' Hannibal series FBI Agent Will Graham, barely recovered mentally and physically from capturing Hannibal, is called upon to find The Tooth Fairy, a killer of pretty middle class families. Directed by Michael Mann, this is a film unlike either of its follow-ups. Absent are the lush interiors with their warm earth tones as well as the sexual tension between agent and killer. The most interesting thing that is missing is the vague suspicion that Hannibal isn't so bad because he only kills rude people. This is probably a result of the cultural romance we are currently having with serial killers, but that is another article. Instead Mann gives us stark white, harshly lit interiors and characters that exude tension rather than telling us how tense they are. The only remotely warm location in the film is the killers home which is an almost comical omage to the seventies complete with an In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida soundtrack.
   I, like a lot of people, recently made the obligatory trip to the theater to see HANNIBAL, the follow up to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I couldn't help but notice that Dr. Lector had been airbrushed even further away from monsterous than he had been in SILENCE. True, we hear horrible traits attributed to him, but when all is said and done, he is the hero of both films. When Clarice first met Lector, he was scary because we were told he was, and because the instructions given to us to keep him from eating our faces seemed scary. In truth, however, most people found Lector to be reasonable in that he only attacked those who attacked his sensibilities where manners were concerned. He liked Clarice because she was honest and polite, so since most of us consider ourselves to be honest and polite, a corner of our egos believed we had nothing to fear from Lector. He might, we let ourselves believe, even consider us one of the good guys, because, hey, we don't like rude liars either. All this might be true of course, for the Hannibal Lector in the latter movie versions of Thomas Harris books, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and HANNIBAL, but not for the Hannibal of MANHUNTER. While Cox's Hannibal has the same smooth English exterior that Hopkins has in the last two films, he also has a raw, animalistic edge of rage that was missing from Hopkins' performance and lends an air of darkness to this Dr. Lector that makes him truly scary. No amount of politeness or honesty will get you anything but dead with Cox's Lector. If Clarice had met up with this doctor in HANNIBAL, she would be so much entrée.
   The interesting thing about MANHUNTER is that Dr. Lector is a mysterious secondary character rather than the focus of the film. We know vague details about his crimes. Due to the timing of the movie he is relegated to Ted Bundy territory with the statement that he killed college girls. FBI Agent Will Graham was the guy who caught Hannibal and in order to catch a new serial killer he decides to see Lector again to get "the scent" back. He is always referred to as Dr. Lector by everyone, except Dr. Chilton, who calls him Hannibal as a sign of disrespect (academic competition, it seems, has no bounds. (It is also interesting to note that Harris stooped to naming his third story Hannibal and then went on to disrespect all the characters he had built up so well in his previous novels...but maybe that's just me.) Lector is also still allowed to write for prestigious medical journals, which, for some reason, see no moral problems with publishing the works of a cannibalistic genius. This is something that is lacking from the last two films that makes MANHUNTER superior as a film: a discussion, through the actions of the players, of the moral ambiguity concerning Dr. Lector, our secret love of violence (when we deem it fit) and the world at large.

(Continued - next column)



(Manhunter - continued)

   The character of Graham is the basis for most of the "profiler" type characters we see today, serial killer stalkers who get inside the mind of their prey, at the risk of losing themselves inside the evil they confront. When Graham goes to meet this Dr. Lector, he is truly scary. There is no glass cage to separate him from his visitor, only stark white bars about an inch thick, but there is a seething anger to Hannibal and a conscious wariness to Graham that lets us know there is a real danger. Later in the film we are treated to a shot of the long, winding gash across Graham's torso that Hannibal gave him during the struggle to bring the good Doctor into custody. Director Michael Mann shows us that Hannibal is a brutal man rather than telling us. When it's discovered that Hannibal is covertly corresponding with The Tooth Fairy, the information he has given the killer shows him to be a cook who knows how to serve his revenge well-chilled.
   The new killer Graham is chasing is the Tooth Fairy, a killer of perfect middle class families: mother, father and children. Similar to LAMBS, we do not meet the killer till a quarter of more through the film. We do not see the carnage he has caused. We see perfect suburban homes devoid of furniture and all life except for the occasional bloodstain. We also see brief flashes of the crime itself, but not through the killer's eyes, through the miracle of Graham's gift. And here in lies the basis of Graham's madness, he has looked into the darkness and found a bit of himself there. It disturbs him that he can trace so clearly the path of the killers homicidal logic and find it logical himself. As for the killer, he is working toward becoming one with the darkness. The Tooth Fairy, named so because of the bite marks he leaves on his victims, is played with quiet malice by Tom Noonan.
   Noonan's serial killer is a sad, lonely man who longs to become a part of the bigger universe because he feels so separate from the one he lives in, unfortunately he thinks the way to do this is to kill whole families. He finds a brief doorway into the real world of emotions when he has a short lived affair with a blind co-worker (Joan Allen). He is intrigued by her blindness and her honesty (a theme?), and brings her home with him. Even though his awkwardness seems to make him vulnerable we realize he is still an animal when he watches his grisly home movies of the crimes while he chats with her on the couch. Later as he lies in bed with her after making love he holds her hand over his mouth as she sleeps and he weeps. He is both monster and human, which makes him especially frightening.
   The final confrontation between the Graham and the Tooth Fairy is the most cutting edge macabre denouement on film, even today. There are exploding condiments, a struggling blind girl, shotguns, men flying through windows and most importantly the chance for Will Graham to prove that he is on the right side of the moral fence. It is good enough to forgive the scripts deviation from the original ending.
   Overall, I would have to say that after re-watching MANHUNTER on the heels of my recent HANNIBAL and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS viewing, that it is in many ways a superior film. It doesn't have the matinee appeal of a suave serial killer and an appealing FBI agent as star crossed lovers, but it does have a realistic bite and a sense for telling a story. It is also an education about the progressive gloss that killers have taken on since films like NATURAL BORN KILLERS have come out. While I am a big fan of the anti-hero, there is no good to be found in stone cold killers, no matter how clever their conversation is. MANHUNTER goes a long way toward showing the difference between evil and anti-hero, and I highly recommend it for this and for it's beautiful cinematic qualities. The cinematography is fabulous the acting is first rate and the script is consistently good. The visuals and sound on the disc itself are also very good and I highly recommend the DVD version as well.

Carlye Archibeque


MIFUNE (1999)
Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, director
Columbia Tri-Star Home Video

mifune

   The Dogme boys seem to have torn a page directly out of John Cassavetes' book when they wrote their Vows of Chastity. Apart from a minimal usage of music and lighting, the main thing that distinguishes Cassavetes' films from Dogme is a big dose of soul. The Danes seem to have skipped the part about storytelling and simply set down an arbitrary set of rules they didn't intend to follow. (Check out their amusingly pretentious web site at www.dogme95.dk for the particulars.) My experience with the Dogme films, in the wonderful European intellectual tradition, is that it's much more fun to discuss how they deviate from their manifesto than it is to sit through one of their movies. Mifune is somewhat of an exception to that rule.
    Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) marries a woman with whom he has not been entirely honest concerning his family. The story opens at their wedding. Her parents and Kresten's employers think they've gained a son in part because Kresten has no family. Imagine his wife's surprise when Kresten receives a call from a fellow villager saying that his father has died. He leaves for the family farm where his predictably sweet mentally retarded brother Rud (Jesper Asholt) sits shiva under the old man's corpse in the cluttered dining room. Kresten tries to put Rud in a home but is persuaded to hire Liva (Iben Hjejle), a beautiful woman forced into prostitution to care for her teenage brother Bjarke (Emil Tarding), to run the household.
    Liva and Kresten naturally become infatuated. Bjarke comes to stay with them. At first he torments Rud but is quickly sucked in by Rud's innocence. Kresten gets a divorce and they become one big happy family.
    The title refers to the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. Kresten hides in the basement wearing a colander and a pair of old socks on his head like a Samurai helmet spouting fake Japanese to amuse Rud. I think it was some kind of bonding ritual but I couldn't swear to it. MIFUNE is charming enough, and much more watchable than Lars Von Trier's more celebrated pre- and post-Dogma efforts (he's broken vows #2,3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10), but one can see the plot coming a mile away and that's about as high as this film aims. On the plus side our relative unfamiliarity with the actors adds to their capacity for surprise which this predictable story really needs.
   Even for the most un-technical of viewers the low-tech aspects of this film remind us how meticulously-crafted Hollywood films are. The director (breaking vow#10) Soren Kragh-Jacobsen does a pretty good job of making sure the low tech stuff doesn't interfere too much with telling the story. The absence of music was heavenly. Kragh-Jacobsen provides an uninteresting director's commentary in English. Among the usual anecdotes devoted to letting us know how resourceful the filmmakers were, one of the banal facts we learn is that they made the film in 16mm (breaking vow #9).

Lisa Andreini

A WOMAN UNDER
THE INFLUENCE(1974)
John Cassevetes, director

A Woman Under The Influence

   A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE chronicles the rapid meltdown and recovery of Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) a sensitive and eccentric Los Angeles housewife. It's a modern day opera complete with hard hats, spaghetti for breakfast and a very unique children's birthday party all with a wardrobe straight out of J.C. Penney. This film is not suitable for the emotionally feeble, but it was great to be able revisit what was probably the late John Cassavetes' greatest film. Cassavetes' films are almost like documentaries where the story unfolds in long, improvised segments (he's only broken vows #2, 4, 10 on the Dogma films scale) letting the characters and the scenes develop and breathe before your eyes. He moves from one big moment to another, then cuts them together with seamless precision. Gena Rowlands gives Mabel everything she has. She's like a boxer that's been hit too many times, but every blow was a building block to a flawed, complex fighter. Her humor and sensitivity are a perfect counterpoint to her husband Nick's (Peter Falk) macho histrionics, her mother-in-law's (Katherine Cassavetes) strident criticism and her psychiatrist's (Eddie Shaw) ridiculous pronouncements. The kids act like they wouldn't know anything was amiss with her if the other adults didn't treat her as if she was a little nutty. Her rapport with them is touching and funny. There's a scene near the end of the picture where the entire family dog piles Mabel on her bed in the dining room that snaps her out of the funk she brought home from six months of "resting."
   Cassavetes' estate retained the rights to most of his films, consequently they have generally been unavailable since his death. There is no commentary on this DVD release, but it would have been unnecessary anyway.Unfortunately the sound quality is really murky.

Lisa Andreini




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