Saturday, May 17, 2008

DVD Review: Serial Mom (Collector's Edition)

Starring: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard
Director: John Waters
DVD Release Date: May 6, 2008
Running Time: 94 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Universal Studios

“Wow, I haven’t seen that movie in years.”

Yeah, that’s what I said too. I remember seeing and liking it when it came out but hadn’t thought about Serial Mom in years until I was given the opportunity to review the newly released Collector’s Edition.

In case you don’t remember the story. Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is a suburban housewife who seems to have everything. Her house is always immaculate, she makes a killer meatloaf and she loves her family dearly; her obliviously nerdy husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), their constantly lovesick daughter, Misty (Ricki Lake) and their horror-film loving son, Chip (Matthew Lillard). Together they are the portrait of the perfect all-American family except for the nagging little detail that behind closed doors Beverly is a raging sociopath who dispatches her victims with little reason.

Of course to her, she has all the reason in the world. Her reasons range from off-handed threats, perceived or otherwise, to members of her family to poor social habits such as not recycling and wearing white shoes after Labor Day. The relevance of her reasoning is unimportant because Beverly doesn’t seem to exist on the same plane of social conscience as everyone else in the known world. Her motivations are also ingeniously left uncovered. We have no idea what makes her tick other than to suggest that when things don’t go her way she simply eliminates the nuisance. In the movie there is no evidence that she is normal until something makes her snap. I imagine that Beverly has been killing for some time and the movie is just a glance at the timeframe in every serial killer’s ‘career’ where they either get lazy or want to get caught. If that is the case, I don’t think she wants to get caught for the sake of stopping her zealous behavior more than I think she actually wants to be applauded for doing the world a service.

This is the kind of story that fits perfectly in the John Waters canon. Serial Mom continues his path to mainstream after the campy films of his early career. Like all of the films Waters has made, despite the topic discussed in the movie it really is funny. The contrast between Beverly’s outward persona and the inner demons she tries less and less to hide make the movie more than a one-note joke. The same way that the idea of murder isn’t traditionally a very humorous topic, Waters creates this world of such overblown surrealism that it fits all too tidily. Contrary to the films statement otherwise, this was not based on a true story, at least not that I am aware of.

Until this week I had not seen the film since it came out and one thing really struck me as curious. Fifteen years after the film was made, it actually has more depth than it did in 1993. It transformed from a simple comedic satire to a commentary of our current society’s fascination with celebrity and our media’s ignorant willingness to make anyone with a story famous. You have to keep in mind that O.J., Robert Blake and Columbine all came after this movie was made. Had this movie been made today it would be significant but with a whole separate feel. As it stands John Waters is either a genius or just got really lucky this time.

Or maybe both.

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

DVD Special Features:
- Feature Commentary with John Waters and Kathleen Turner
- Feature Commentary with John Waters
- Serial Mom: Surreal Moments – a mini documentary on the making of Serial Mom with Waters and stars of the film reminiscing about the films production.
- The Kings of Gore: Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman – a tribute.
- The Making of Serial Mom – an original promotional featurette.

DVD Review: The Great Debaters (2-Disc Special Collector's Edition)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker
Director: Denzel Washington
DVD Release Date: May 13, 2008
Running Time: 123 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

When you pair up two great actors in a film you expect great performances from them. This seems like a simple idea, but it doesn’t always play out the way it should. The Great Debaters is touted as having two former winners of the Academy Award for Best Actor going head to head with each other, yet curiously they only share two scenes together, by my count. Both scenes work well but aren’t a true indication of how the movie plays. The Great Debaters follows the true story of Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington), a no-nonsense debate coach and sometime political activist who drove his team to national prominence in 1935 by challenging and defeating some of the best debate schools, white or black, in the nation.

The movie opens late at night, in a backwoods establishment. We see a young man drinking and being engaged in a fight by the husband of a woman he was trying to pick up. As the fight escalates, and just before they cross a line that cannot be uncrossed, a poorly dressed man, who was inexplicably running through the woods at that time, steps in and stops the fight. We pick up a few scenes later as that same young man, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), is in class and he and the poorly dressed man from the night before, Tolson, meet again under different circumstances. Movie convention tells us there is no way Henry Lowe is not making the team. After a rigorous, in-house audition, the four members of the debate team are selected. Lowe, of course, is joined by Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams), the foundation of previous year's debate team; James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), an intellectual savant; and Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), the only female debater any of them has ever encountered. Each of them brings something to the group, and as a team, they begin blowing out the competition leading to their eventual confrontation with reigning National Debate Champion - Harvard University. Along the way they encounter a rather formulaic look at life as an African American in the South in the 1930s. Or as much as I have been made aware of, having no frame of reference. The view offered of the reality of the racial climate during this time is moving and unapologetic, without being exploitive. The things they see and the situations they are forced into shape them as people and ultimately fuel their motivation throughout the movie.

The fact that this movie follows every sports movie convention in the book is irrelevant, just as the end result of the debates, including the final showdown with Harvard, is inconsequential. The story is not so much about what they accomplish as what it took to for them to accomplish it. Ask any fan of professional wrestling (the “sports entertainment” variety): a predetermined outcome does not make the match any less engaging to watch. What makes this movie work isn’t the rags-to-riches type story of the underdog who could; it is a story that demands compassion but doesn't beg for it. This is achieved through the keen direction of Denzel Washington, in his first directorial effort since Antoine Fisher (2002), and through the acting performances. Not only Washington himself, but Whitaker and all of the other members of the debate team. Their characters are mildly underdeveloped, a fact which is outweighed by the strength of their performances. In a movie where the characters are more the story than the story itself, my single complaint is only that I wanted more of them.

And there's the rub.

*** out of ****

- - -

DVD Special Features on the 2-Disc Special Collectors Edition:
- Deleted Scenes
- The Great Debaters: A Historical Perspective
- “That’s What My Baby Likes,” Music Video
- “My Soul Is A Witness,” Music Video
- The Great Debaters: A Heritage of Music
- Scoring The Great Debaters with James Newton Howard and Peter Golub
- Learning the Art: Our Young Actors Go To Debate Camp - A New Generation of Actors
- The 1930s Wardrobe of Sharen Davis
- The Production Design of David J. Bomba
- The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Review: Speed Racer

Starring: Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox
Director: Larry Wachowski and Andy Wachowski
Release Date: May 9, 2008
Running Time: 135 min
MPAA Rating: PG
Distributor: Warner Bros.

Leading up to this weekend, I could not think of one reason of pertinence that would justify making Speed Racer into a feature film besides the obvious exploitation of existing media for financial gain. I had every reason to dislike this film. Larry and Andy Wachowski, the forces behind a couple of little indie films, Bound and The Matrix have some s’plainin’ to do. Since being widely and rightfully accused of ruining The Matrix franchise, they have not stepped foot behind the camera. I would call this a good thing.

Speed Racer is more than just a movie by the Wachowski Brothers; it is their attempt at reinvention and they want to make a statement. What that statement is, for sure, is unclear. Do they want to be once again taken seriously, or do they want something that will put a middle finger in anyone’s face that questions their path? Either way adapting an anime series with a cult following is a curious choice of material. But dig a little deeper and it’s not as much of a leap as you’d think. Look at their directorial efforts – Bound, The Matrix Trilogy, and now Speed Racer. All pretty different movies, but thematically they have a common thread: the observation of the traps people make of their lives and the reveal of their eventual transformation. Basic stuff, I know, but it becomes interesting when you consider that their career is starting to become molded to that same theme. Speed Racer is the Wachowski’s warm embrace of that idea.

But I am getting off track.

You’ve seen the trailer and the TV spots, so for me to say that this movie is a live-action cartoon is redundant, so I’ll put it another way. Let’s say Tron and Willy Wonka (the original) had a kid and that kid got so high while watching Pink Floyd The Wall that he ate a dozen lava lamps and threw up all over The Flintstones and the drug scenes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; the result would be Speed Racer. It is a colorfully vibrant and trippy mess. That’s the good news. The bad news is, at best the plot is a throwaway Afterschool Special of the week. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is a talented young racecar driver who wants to avenge the death of his older brother, Rex Racer (Scott Porter) by winning The Casa Cristo – the same race that took his brothers life years earlier. His race team is a mom-and-pop operation ran by his parents, er… Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pop (John Goodman). Along the way the owner of Royalton Industries, a leading top dollar operation, makes Speed an offer too good to be true. Too loyal to the family business, he rejects the offer from Royalton (Roger Allman) and soon uncovers some trade secrets, nefarious in nature, such as race fixing and cheating for financial gain. And blah blah blah, Racer X (Matthew Fox)… blah blah “I’ll show you”… blah blah “Go Speed Racer Go!”, blah. In other words, corporations are bad, winners never cheat and cheaters never win, the end. In even fewer words, you wont see this movie for its plot.

The visuals are the only thing worth seeing, which begs the question; is it possible for technological style to outrun a bad script? This question isn’t new ground for the Wachowski’s after Matrix Revolutions, but the answer Speed Racer provides is… almost. Watching this movie is like walking into a dark room from the outside – you have to give it a second and let your eyes adjust before you really see anything clearly. This is good because the first half of the movie sucks and is better left unseen. The second half is, how do you say, bad ass. The racing scenes are very well put together, edited even better and a ton of fun to watch.

All in all, this is a kids movie. Nothing more or less. I don’t buy into the anti-capitalist campaign some people attempted to mount against the film any more than I believe this is the filmmakers death rattle. I will say this, the brothers Wachowski swung for the fence, and they almost made it this time. They no doubt have talent when it comes to technological achievements on screen. Visually, their flair for the dramatic and style are unequalled. They aren’t out of it yet, but they need to get back to their roots and write a compelling story that will compliment their visual style.

In a movie whose main villain is a corrupt business man who practices dirty politics, I wonder if it is simply a matter of chance that he bears a striking resemblance Al Gore; a man who just happened to have lost out on the U.S. presidency at the hands of a corrupt business man who practices dirty politics. Just as much as I wonder if it is a matter of chance that a movie whose bare-bones message of “cheaters never win” came out mere months after the New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl after being accused of cheating and barreling through previous championship games and this years regular season undefeated.

Save your commentary to either one of those previous statements based of your own personal beliefs – they were simple observations. Maybe I am putting too much thought into this. Hell, I can barely decide if I even liked the movie. Or as I described it to a friend:

I don’t know if it was any good or not, but parts of it were really cool.

And there’s the rub.

** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, May 4, 2008

DVD Review: I'm Not There

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin
Director: Todd Haynes
DVD Release Date: May 6, 2008
Running Time: 135 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Just this week I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about music. His and my personal tastes differ a great deal but we were able to have a very intelligent and passionate conversation. One thing he said really stuck with me. We were discussing the transition in rock music during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He said, “Listen, I can’t stand Nirvana but I can appreciate how their music changed the face of music during that time. Same with The Beatles, I don’t like their music but I respect how they changed rock and roll.” It was a refreshing statement because a lot of people are very one track minded when it comes to music and have a lot of negative things to say about anyone that doesn’t agree with them. I suppose the same can be said about movies.

I can’t say I am terribly familiar with the story of Bob Dylan. I would call myself a casual fan of his music at best and don’t claim to know much about him aside from the fact that he never stayed locked on one style for very long, so the story itself intrigued me.

I guess you could call I’m Not There a biopic but it isn’t one marred by the constraints of conventional wisdom; quite far from it actually. In telling the story of the career of Bob Dylan director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Velvet Underground) used six different actors to intercut seven different stories; none of which were actually Bob Dylan but each one telling a story representing phases in Dylan’s life. An African-American boy who calls himself “Woody Guthrie” (Marcus Carl Franklin) plays a version of Dylan as a boy, or at least the story he represented himself as having gone through. Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is a young folk singer of political conscience. Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) is a fictional actor best known for his film portrayal of Jack Rollins (the Christian Bale character). Ben Whishaw plays a young rebel Arthur Rimbaud. Cate Blanchett plays Jude Quinn, a spin on the most well known version of Dylan at the height of his fame in the 1960s, just as his original fan base cried “sell-out”. Christian Bale is later Pastor John, representing the born again Dylan. Finally Richard Gere is an aging Billy the Kid in a western town.

The standout performances in the film are easily Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, but for different reasons. Blanchett nailed the physicality of Dylan during that time but is no means a simple impression – she owns this role that deservedly earned her a Supporting Actress nomination. Ledger’s story is full of passion as a man on the outside of his marriage looking in.

Each story is shot with a different style to further capture and illustrate the timeframe in which the story is told. Aside from Blanchett’s performance, none of the ‘versions’ of Bob Dylan sound like or even resemble the man. The stories aren’t even connected to each other aside from the overall canon of the story they are attempting to tell. They aren’t supposed to. Instead they are meant to create a collage of characters that embody the persona of a man who changed his image and style with such regularity that anyone attempting to make a film about his life would have no choice but to use different actors.

I’m Not There doesn’t try to explain the mythology of Bob Dylan but rather put each phase of his life and/or career on display for interpretation. In concept, I loved this film. I love the risks it took in swaying from convention. Some of the stories didn’t work as well as others – I still have no idea what is going on with Gere’s Billy the Kid story. I shouldn’t say that; I get the idea, but the placement was odd at times and took away from Blanchett’s story just as it was gearing up. Some of the others worked on their own merit but again, the placement was odd. It is hard to fault a film with no real plot, per se, for feeling like it is starting and stopping and random intervals, but that is inevitably what happened a few times.

This film is not meant to point to factual representation of these events but illustrating our perceptions of them, and of a man that is no closer to being explained at the end of the film than before you started watching.

The DVD Special Features are pretty standard fare: a director commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, auditions, a written introduction to the film detailing each Bob Dylan version in the film, and a “Dylanography” feature (filmography, discography & bibliography). The best feature is A Conversation with Todd Haynes who describes, in vivid detail, his thought process before, during, and after making the film. It is a very interesting series of interviews that further explain the madness and the process that went into making the film.

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****