Tuesday, September 25, 2007

New DVD releases September 25

Every Tuesday, I’m going to try and review the new DVD releases that I’ve seen for that week. This week, I’ve actually seen quite a few of them, so I’ll just get right too it.
I know there are people who’d rather have endless root canal work done than see another WWII film, but Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is quite different. It may tell a similar story, of course. The heroine, Rachel, a Dutch Jew, has to flee when the Nazis invade. She barely survives when the group of refugees she tries to escape with by boat are brutally gunned down by the German army. She joins a resistance group, and disguises herself as a German singer so she can go undercover to gain revenge on the Nazi officer who carried out the slaughter. Complications arise when she not only falls in love with one of the Nazis, but also finds out there’s a traitor in the resistance.
That last part shows the method to Verhoeven’s madness here. We’re eager to hear stories of people who either fought against the Nazis (Schindler’s List) or somehow manages to survive them (The Pianist) – and I hope this doesn’t come off as a slight against those films, as I think both are brilliant – but the fact is, many if not most people in that situation either stood by and did nothing, or collaborated with them. Verhoeven is trying to show the lengths people had to go to in order to combat this (the controversial scene where Rachel must dye her own pubic hair is a good example – some saw this as Verhoeven being his usual overly salacious self, but it’s a fact most Jews who had to pass for something else would have to go this extra mile, and Verhoeven presents it as such) and survive. And some thought the so-called “good Nazi” (played by Sebastian Koch, who was the playwright in The Lives of Others) was carrying things too far, but he really wasn’t that good – he still ordered the capture and murders of innocent people, and he wasn’t so blinded by passion that he didn’t immediately guess Rachel was a spy.
I should mention here Black Book is also an entertaining and thrilling film, with some surprising twists along the way. But Verhoeven isn’t trying to make the sober-minded film people expected with this subject matter. He’s trying to show, once again, how WWII was, on many fronts, as ugly to fight as other wars have been. In some ways, it reminded me of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (released in the U.S. for the first time last year), which also dealt with resistance soldiers fighting traitors in their own country. Verhoeven’s movie is more sardonic, but just as powerful.
Judd Apatow, who once was known for having not just one, but two prematurely cancelled shows (Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared), is now considered one of the kings of comedy filmmakers. His latest, Knocked Up, is, as almost everyone knows by now, the story of what happens when Allison (Katherine Heigl), a newly promoted on-air correspondent for E! Network, and Ben (Seth Rogen), a slacker, improbably get together for one night, Allison becomes pregnant as a result, and both of them have to deal with it. Most people who talked about the movie (when not focusing on how much it made them laugh, if at all) wondered whether or not a woman like Allison would really get together, even for one night, with a guy like Ben, or they focused on how the movie was yet another demonstration on how movies duck the question of abortion. Few mentioned how Apatow is really cut from the same cloth as Kevin Smith (although he knows how to move a camera better) – both of them may revel in the fratboy-ish antics their heroes may get into, but they also know if there heroes want to get anywhere with women, they need to grow up, and the trouble is how few are willing to do just that. Apatow makes this point most clearly through the relationship between Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real-life wife), Allison’s sister, and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd). Debbie has become bitter at what she perceives is Pete’s arrested development, especially when she finds out a secret he’s been keeping from her. Ben, for his part, may be a slacker and a pothead, but what makes him endearing rather than annoying ultimately is his slow willingness to change to help Allison.
In case I made Knocked Up simply sound like a spoon-fed morality tale, let me add this is often a funny movie (although I agree with Mike White; Apatow does rely a little too much on humor that could be construed as homophobic), and Rogen shows he can be as talented in a lead role as he was in a supporting role on Freaks & Geeks (although it’s not a stretch, since his character had to go through a similar journey in the episode “The Little Things,” where he finds out his girlfriend was a hermaphrodite). Also, this is the first role I’ve liked Heigl in – freed from the teen angst of Roswell and the soapy antics of Grey’s Anatomy, she shows herself to be a talented comedienne. But the best reason to see the movie is Mann – she’s done little aside from playing the love interest in George of the Jungle, but she brings some unexpected depth here.
Apatow also produced Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set, which is subtler than Knocked Up, but just as funny. David Duchovny is Mike, a veteran TV writer who tries to get his show The Wexler Chronicles, a comedy series about a man who comes home after his brother commits suicide, on the air. The story is how it all goes wrong – how the actor who gets the lead role (Fran Kunz) mugs instead of acts, how one studio exec (Ioan Gruffud) enthusiastically supports Mike’s decision to keep the suicide, and then, just as enthusiastically, asks Mike to shoot a different version, and other ways the series gets chipped at because, as the head exec (Sigourney Weaver) says, “Originality scares me.” Kasdan (who directed episodes of Freaks & Geeks, so he knows from frustrating network experiences) makes it all the funnier by not having the characters yell, but deliver their broadsides at Mike by being overly cheerful and supportive (“We absolutely love this, but we have some concerns…”). Of course, none of this will be news to anyone who knows the process of getting a show on the air, but Kasdan knows the details of what he speaks, and by having the tone be more Christopher Guest than Robert Altman, he brings understanding to his characters. And Weaver is in top comic form, as is Judy Greer as Mike’s manager.
The one dud of the week is William Friedkin’s Bug, although it isn’t terrible. Ashley Judd reminded me she still had talent with last year’s little seen but wonderful Come Early Morning, and she’s just as good here playing a waitress trying to escape an abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.), only to end up with an unbalanced Iraq War vet (Michael Shannon). And the first half of the movie (adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play) sustains a creepy atmosphere. But the film gradually becomes ridiculous and overwrought, and therefore unwatchable. Judd’s character has a speech near then end that aims for horrifying and moving, but had me snickering instead.
Living and working in NYC for the last 6 ½ years, I’ve seen all kinds of things affecting our city, including racial tensions, a blackout, mayor candidates who run by dividing rather than uniting, the events of 9/11 making us live in fear, and so on. Substitute “serial killer” for terrorists, add the magnified soap opera of the New York Yankees (much more pronounced then), and you’ve got the summer of 1977. The Bronx is Burning, the ESPN miniseries arriving today on DVD, does a fairly good job capturing at least the Yankee soap opera. The blackout and mayoral race are shown mainly through archival footage, and the hunt for the infamous “Son of Sam” killer, although well acted (particularly by Stephen Lang as a police lieutenant), seems shoehorned in. But the baseball stories make it all worth watching. The Yankees of 1977 were a clash of three big egos – owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt), manager Billy Martin (John Turturro), and star Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata). About the only thing they all agreed on is they all wanted the Yankees to win the World Series after getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds the previous year. Steinbrenner wanted Jackson not only because he thought he would help the Yankees win the Series, but also because he thought Jackson would bring in lots of fans and attention. Martin wanted another right-handed hitter, instead of the left-handed Jackson, and he thought Jackson would be another threat to his control of the team. A former teammate said of Jackson, “There isn’t enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog,” and Jackson seemed to do little to dispel that when the June issue of Sport magazine quoted him as saying as far as the Yankees were concerned, he was “the straw that stirred the drink.” (To this day, Jackson denies ever saying this).
All three lead actors are terrific. Turturro is, of course, much taller than Martin was (Martin always felt slighted because of his height), but as he did when he played Howard Cosell in Monday Night Mayhem, he captures Martin’s brashness and vulnerability. Steinbrenner was a spoiled rich kid who had no idea how to run a team, but did have a love for the game, and wasn’t afraid to spend money to win. Platt shows all that, and, as usual, gives a very physical performance. Many viewers thought Sunjata didn’t have the heft for the role of Jackson, but I thought he was fine. Jackson was a hot dog, but he was also one of the most intelligent players around, and Sunjata does demonstrate that. The other players and coaches do get short shrift, though Erik Jensen bears a frightening resemblance to Thurman Munson, and Joe Grifasi goes past the usual Yogi Berra clich├ęs to play Berra as someone Martin was always able to depend on. After his botched movie version of The Avengers, I never thought I’d like Jeremiah Chechik again, but he stages the baseball stories with flair here (he directed all seven episodes, and exec-produced the series). The miniseries does stall when it mostly uses archive footage, but it’s still a thrill to watch Jackson hit his 3 homers in the final game of the Series. In baseball terms, The Bronx is Burning scores a stand-up double.

Why Movies Matter

A couple weeks ago, the TV preview issue of Entertainment Weekly featured an interview with Sally Field and Rachel Griffiths, two of the stars of ABC’s drama series Brothers and Sisters. Most of it was what you’d expect, but there was a telling moment when the interviewer asked both of them how the show would affect their film careers, and neither of them cared; Field even talked of film work as standing around and not acting. The subtext, of course, was plain to see; these are award-winning (in Field’s case, twice) or award-nominated (Griffiths) film actresses who, essentially, were turning their backs on film because TV was more fulfilling, and not just because film had turned its back on them. Now, one might argue this is simply the product of ageism and sexism, except it’s not just women who are feeling this way. Jason Isaacs, for example, is part of one of the most lucrative franchises in movie history – the Harry Potter movies – and yet he said in an interview that he took the Showtime drama series Brotherhood because it allowed him to play a three-dimensional character, which he said he didn’t get to do in movies. Unlike Field and Griffiths, Isaacs isn’t turning his back on movies – there are, after all, two more Harry Potter movies to go, and his character figures in one of them – but he’s clearly getting more out of TV.
The fact television has grown beyond being the ugly stepchild of movies, of course, has hardly been news for the last few years. It’s been no secret that the best TV right now – Brotherhood, Weeds, and my personal favorite, The Wire – has been better than 90% of the movies out there now (and in case that brands me as a TV snob, let me also add that such “low-brow” fare as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars is also more entertaining and fulfilling than most so-called entertaining movies). Field, Griffiths and Isaacs aren’t the only actors to find more freedom on TV, network or cable, than movies. And while as recently as 10 years ago, directors and/or producers like David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Robert Altman (Gun) and Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street) could count on plenty of network interference and/or indifference, today the strong showrunners can count on more creative freedom from TV studios than movie studios. All of this, like I said, comes as no surprise to those following movies and TV for the last several years. I even wrote something similar to this in a fanzine almost 15 years ago, though I miscalculated somewhat; at the time, when HBO was turning out stellar made-for-cable movies such as Barbarians at the Gate, And the Band Played On, and Doomsday Gun (and Showtime, then HBO’s ugly stepchild, even made The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom), I thought TV would compete with movies over movies, not with their own TV shows over movies. And now some are feeling triumphant over the fact TV is winning over movies, but I’m not one of them.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ll take good art wherever I can get it (I’m using art in a general term to mean any of the so-called performing arts), and if a great episode of a TV show can give me a feeling similar to what I felt when watching The Godfather Part II the first time, or listening to Quadrophenia the first time, or reading The Sun Also Rises the first time, I’m all for it. And it could be argued TV supplanting movies as an art form is simply the natural evolution of things. And in doing what it does best, TV is demonstrating what it can do better than movies can (developing a character, telling an ensemble story). And finally, the fact there’s still crap, formulaic TV around doesn’t negate what TV has accomplished – after all, no movie lover can deny there have been enough crap movies made to fertilize several thousand gardens.
But I feel a special connection to movies. I grew up with them in a way I never grew up with TV (of course, this was all pre-Internet, but still). When we first got a videodisc player (think of them as the movie equivalent of record players), my father would bring home a new movie every night (or it seemed like that) for us to watch. Sure, they were mostly old movies (with only a few exceptions, my father didn’t like movies made after 1965 or so), but they instilled a love of movies that has lasted in me to this day. And then I started going to the movies on my own – the summer before my sophomore year in college, I saw 17 movies in the theater, and the year after that, 18. And it was the big hits like No Way Out and A Fish Called Wanda, not the “esoteric” stuff like the latest Kubrick (well, okay, I did see Full Metal Jacket in the theater, but you get the idea). And I’ve been going, with others or alone, ever since.
I bring up the “big hits” line because, as a critic (albeit an amateur one), I’ve either been accused, either in general terms or specific terms, of only liking the “esoteric” stuff, and being asked, “Don’t you just go to movies to enjoy yourself?” I find that question irritating, because I always go to the movies in hope that I’ll enjoy myself on some level. It’s just what I enjoy now is different than what I enjoyed back then, in many ways. Part of that is the natural progression of growing up, and part of that is the natural progression of seeing a lot of movies. But there’s more to that as well. I am not a huge fan of Dead Poets Society, but there’s one scene in the movie that always resonates with me. It’s the scene where Professor Keating (Robin Williams) has his students tear out the introduction to their poetry books, not just because the art of poetry is described in such a pedantic manner, but also because he thinks poetry matters for much more, as he goes on to explain:

“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Substitute “movies” for “poetry” and you’ll have an idea how I feel about them. Yes, it sounds pretentious, but I honestly couldn’t care less. Movies are an art form. Let me repeat that. Movies are an art form. Yes, movies can and should be entertaining – few movies were as purely entertaining this year as Hot Fuzz. And yes, movies, like any other art form, depend on money, which depends on putting people in the seats. But there’s no reason a movie can’t be made just to entertain and still have an intelligent plot, intelligent dialogue, and well-written, three-dimensional characters. There’s no reason a movie can’t be entertain and still confront the world we live in, or our lives on this earth, in some way. And there’s no reason to treat movies as a product in the same way as you would a tube of toothpaste (or to paraphrase Dead Poets Society again, we’re not talking about laying pipe, we’re talking about movies); as purely a product to be sold like anything else.
And the reason why movies matter to me, and to others I suspect, is no matter how many bad movies get made, there are always movies that do touch the soul, confront the world around them, or are simply well-crafted on the highest level. At the end of almost every year, I still have problems weeding down my top 10 list for that year because there are more than enough films to qualify. Yes, when it’s good, TV can have deeper characters and more complex and satisfying storylines. But movies can still bring the goods. And it’s still a relatively young format. There are more good movies to be made, and I, for one, hope I’m not the only one eager to see what they are.
Coda: this essay talked about movies on a purely artistic level, and not the experience of actually going to see one, but that is also worth touching on. There are all kinds of legitimate complaints to be made about going to see a movie today: the cost, the condition of the theater, the endless commercials, the rude behavior of others at the movies, and so on. And thanks to Internet communities, viewing parties, and the like, TV has also replicated, in part, the experience of actually going to the movies, and you don’t have to spend as much money. But there’s still nothing like seeing a good movie on a big screen with an audience that’s as appreciative as you are.