Monday, October 12, 2009

New DVD Releases for October 13, 2009

American Violet (Tim Disney, 2008)

Want to see a downbeat docu-drama on racist police practices in a small Texas town directed by the grand-nephew of Walt Disney? Here ya go.

For all the film's good intentions, American Violet just doesn't have enough grit to give it the texture of real life so essential to a big screen version of true events. The story itself is engaging enough. In the year 2000, Melody, Texas police were running violent sweeps on black neighborhoods based solely on the flimsy finking of less-than-savory informants. After the round-ups, unctuous Harmon County DA Calvin Beckett (a cartoonishly villainous Michael O'Keefe) would tell lazy public defenders the evidence against their clients was beyond refutation & offer probation or other light sentences in exchange for a guilty plea to drug charges. The overworked public defenders would then recommend the plea bargain to their clients, even though pleading guilty to these charges would render them unable to procure public housing, welfare assistance & decent jobs. Facing the threat of outrageous prison terms & having no idea that the evidence against them was so shaky, many of the accused understandably agreed to these "deals." In fact, 90 percent of those arrested took plea bargains instead of airing their cases in front of a jury of their peers. Though these practices are obviously horrific & unfair, it may be straining a bit to somehow link these events, as the film does repeatedly, to the 2000 presidential election madness in Florida. One admires the attempt to universalize this story somehow, to set the characters into some historical (moral?) context, but, in reality, the endless & often heart-breaking vote tallying that winter is neither here nor there & merely serves to blur American Violet's already tenuous focus.

Thinking she's being arrested for $782 in parking tickets, waitress & single mother Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie, in her first role) is hauled out of work by the police & is shocked to learn she's being held for selling drugs in a school zone, an accusation no one in her community believes for one moment. With the wheels of injustice in motion & bail set at $70,000, Dee is pressured by her mother Alma (a sleepwalking Alfre Woodard) to accept the wicked DA's offer. She doesn't & winds up spending several months in prison while her mother & her church congregation raise the bail money. In that time we're given a brief glimpse of what her children's lives would be like if she were to go to prison for any stretch. While Alma is a generally decent woman, she has little to no problem passing off Dee's kids to their alcoholic father & his abusive, probably insane, girlfriend & she does so regularly, despite warnings from Dee.

The ACLU, who've been monitoring the dubious crime & punishment statistics in Melody, find in Dee a reliable plaintiff & a lawsuit is filed against Beckett & his crooked machine. Thanks to some fine casting American Violet catches some wind here. The ACLU's lead lawyer, David Cohen, is played by Tim Blake Nelson (The Good Girl, O Brother Where Art Thou?) who may be Jew-ing it up a bit flagrantly here for an Oklahoma boy, but hey, if O'Keefe can do everything but cackle as he ties Dee to the railroad tracks, the side of righteousness should have a caricature as well & it does bring a little humor to the dour proceedings. The real trooper here, though, is Will Patton (Wendy & Lucy, The Punisher). As the local solicitor who reluctantly gets pulled into the fray because Cohen fears, correctly, that he may not play real well to Texans, Patton is an ambivalent hoot. He nails his Texas accent & mannerisms & does it with relaxed humor & grace, something this movie desperately needs more of. As a negative counter-weight, there's Charles S. Dutton as the minister of Dee's church. Dutton intones every line as if reading from a term paper & not a very sprightly term paper at that.

Despite the efforts of Patton & Nelson, American Violet's final half an hour simply cannot be resuscitated. In the nick of time the filmmakers must have realized that the only black people in the film were nobly poor, mentally ill, or criminals, so a black lawyer is shoe-horned into the story rather urgently AND he's allowed to be the one to trick Beckett into revealing his racist agenda. This seems unfair to Nelson & Patton & one feels it may be about three legal flourishes shy of the God's honest truth. 

Then there's the little matter of the film's title. Though it's mentioned once, in passing, that Dee raises & shows violets, whatever metaphor the director & screenwriter were hoping to conjure with this information has been lost either to last-minute editing or complete carelessness. This well-intentioned mess was originally called American Inquisition however, so the powers that be may at least have erred on the side of subtlety. 

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2008)

It's a world where place names are used for their musicality, as a way to evoke everything but the thorny truth about cities, countries & continents. A cynical wag might say, though, that they're really all the same -- that India is not all jodhpurs & incense, Eastern Europe not all midnight trains through the Carpathian mountains & suitcase exchanges by wee-hour gaslight. It's a world where people are named after -- or purloin the names of -- either dead authors or the characters those authors created. A cynical wag might say, though, that characters named Melville, Bloom & Penelope nudge whimsy into preciousness, even if these names do often turn out to be colorful sobriquets. It's a world where whole scenes appear as misty Brassai photographs & then a camel galumphs into the frame, where words like "grotty" & phrases like "I'll be in Montenegro, drinking" are commonplace, where Kipling, Bowie, Dostoyevsky, David Mamet, Anime, Samuel Beckett, Cat Stevens, hip-hop & James Joyce share a precarious, but equal, footing. A cynical wag might say there's no such perch & that anyone who attempts to scale even the most gradual narrative arc with such a load of literary & pop cultural baggage in tow, is a fool.

Well, The Brothers Bloom is a fool's movie. It's a fool's movie and -- to some extent -- we're fools to watch it. A movie about the titular, globe-trotting sibling con men (exquisitely mannered Adrien Brody & Mark Ruffalo), it is, itself, an elaborate con. Elaborate, but not particularly believable. The characters con because they are artists & the victims are conned because they do not believe in art. Brody, the sensitive Bloom, is disenchanted with the life of a confidence man & wants an "unwritten life." For 35 years, his brother Stephen has been concocting hyper-literary, inherently romantic scripts for the both of them, scripts in which the two play all manner of charming vagabonds from all manner of charming, mysterious locales & set into motion all manner of unlikely, clockwork scenarios in order to bilk unsuspecting dullards of their money. With Brody (who's called Bloom) on the verge of ditching this lucrative game, Ruffalo (who's called Stephen) comes up with one last score -- draining the coffers of wealthy New Jersey oil heiress Penelope Stamp (a real star-turn from Rachel Weisz).

But in the kind of contretemps that keep fairy tales in print, Penelope turns out not to be nearly as gullible as she seems. She is nice, of course & she is VERY lonely but, in the end, her strength is that she really doesn't give a tinker's damn what happens to her money, as long as it's not boring. Ms. Stamp spends her limitless spare time "collecting hobbies," seeing what other people do to occupy themselves & learning how to do it. She breakdances, knows Karate, unicycles, builds cameras out of watermelons & plays the banjo & harp. Bloom purposefully crashes into her bright yellow Ferrari on his Schwinn, knowing he can cement a connection to her while lying injured in a hospital bed. But nothing goes right from the get-go. Penelope keeps reversing the roles in the script & doing it so naturally & guilelessly that Bloom, Stephen & their Asian explosives expert Bang Bang have trouble keeping to the narrative. The con itself is a convoluted bouquet of gilded lilies featuring an ancient prayer book, a Belgian smuggler named Max Melville (Robbie Coltrane), an elusive Argentinian, more than a few explosions courtesy of the silent Asian & a certified check for a million dollars. It's the usual cinematic shell game, in which even one unplanned contingency would topple the whole tower of bullshit, but it's not at wearisome in The Brothers Bloom because this con game exists on an entirely metaphoric plane. Whether you find this a relief or not will depend entirely on how you feel about metaphor replacing coherent plot construction.

Like director Rian Johnson's promising directorial debut Brick, The Brothers Bloom is a movie trying desperately to talk itself out of being everything it longs to be. Brick wanted to be a legitimate noir & its best moments defy the po-mo artifice in which they're mired, but that film meandered & parried like a punch-drunk fighter to avoid the meat & potatoes of its genre. This new work would like to be an adventure story, a story for real boys & tomboys who dream of packing a trunk, hopping a tramp steamer & trapping rogue tigers in Bengal, but even Johnson knows such dreamers are few & far between these days (in fact, he's borrowing the boyhood dreams of an entirely different generation) & so he intellectualizes himself out of such visceral ambitions & becomes terribly bookish to make up for it. But at least in Brick, Johnson was every inch his own man, warts & all, whereas The Brothers Bloom could easily have been the work of either Wes or P. T. Anderson. The opening narration by Ricky Jay (abandoned completely after the first 10 minutes) is copped from Magnolia. An ecstatic scene in which Brody, after stealing an apple, is chased through a park to the strains of a Cat Stevens song is pure Rushmore. The rampant exoticism, montages set to 60s music, compositions that suggest tableaux, use of theatrical prosceniums, background comic marginalia & the very presence of Brody all evoke Wes Anderson.

While these flaws are glaring & serious, pointing them out is, itself, terribly bookish & Brothers Bloom does captivate if, like myself, you become pleasantly dizzy when someone at the next table in a bar mentions one of your favorite novels, distractedly hums one of your favorite songs, or begins sketching a Victor Horta staircase on a cocktail napkin. At one point Brody tells an admirer, "He (Stephen) writes his cons the way dead Russians wrote novels, with thematic arcs, embedded symbolism & shit." If you have more than a passing interest in dead Russian novelists, thematic arcs, embedded symbolism & um, shit, there's a good chance this movie will work some magic on you. Mid-point in Brothers Bloom, director/scenarist Johnson does have a few choice words for would-be critics, though they're delivered from Penelope to Bloom: "I think you're constipated in your fucking soul. I think you might have a big load of grumpy, petrified poop up your soul's ass." Like I said, embedded symbolism. And shit. 

It's Alive (Josef Rusnak, 2008)

It's always a pleasant surprise when the remake of a cult classic doesn't make you want to hole up in a dark room watching old creaky VHS tapes for the rest of your natural days & it doesn't happen very goddamn often. The last time I recall warming, even a little, to the "re-imagining" of a revered touchstone was Douglas Buck's daunting stab at Brian De Palma's Sisters in 2006. Buck didn't hyperventilate stylistically to compensate for not having De Palma's unique gifts & he didn't try to make Sisters "relevant" to a new generation of ghouls by littering the set with severed state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs & the soundtrack with Type O Negative or Marilyn Manson. It was a very mature retooling, with just enough formal aplomb to point fondly to the original without mindlessly aping it & enough new wrinkles to keep De Palma acolytes from being bored.

The same goes for Josef Rusnak's It's Alive, a confidently-mounted pass at Larry Cohen's 1974 trash classic about a mother who strives valiently to protect her monster baby from the vile people who think monster babies don't have the same rights as any other child. Apparently "No child left behind" meant nothing in the mid-70s. The original, starring Guy Stockwell, Michael Ansara & Hawaii 5-0 regular Sharon Farrell was an over-the-top cautionary tale of bad parenting, bad chemicals & bad genes. Like most benchmark horror films, It's Alive confronted the salient concerns of its time -- pollution, rogue youth, reproductive rights, flipper babies, etc. The original script title was even Baby Killer, a bleakly witty reference to the name allegedly shouted at returning Vietnam vets in the days following the My Lai Massacre. 

As with the films of his fellow exploitation maestro Jack Hill, it was often hard to tell when director/writer Cohen (Hell Up in Harlem, God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent) was being intentionally funny & when he simply fell victim to no-budget shoddiness. Because of this uneasy mixture of comedy, wild gore & pointed satire, however, Cohen is now considered a pioneer of sorts & the off-kilter tonal shifts he all but perfected in his best movies are now commonplace in fringe cinema.

Strangely, most of the taboos Cohen feverishly trounced upon in the original It's Alive would still shock a good share of the population today. While gore is old hat now for most movie-goers, there's still something pretty unsettling about gruesomely perverting the entire mother/child relationship.  Thankfully, though, the escalation of gore is not what gives this remake its considerable impact. Not that blood & limbs don't fly once feeding time rolls around for our monster baby. They do & Rusnak handles the violence rather, um, elegantly. There's an icy even-handedness to the carnage & the vibrant, nearly hot pink, color of the blood has an industrial quality, as if the gore scenes were shot through a vellum filter. This approach to violence is in direct opposition to the ragged, kitchen blender mayhem of the original. 

The performances are considerably cooled off as well & having actors with some mid-range at their disposal instead of slumming soap opera actors who veer wildly between histrionics & catatonia, makes Rusnak more able to expertly smudge the lines between satire & serious horror.  Bijou Phillips (Choke, What We Do Is Secret), as the child's slowly unraveling mother, never overdoes it. We understand her motives instinctually, the same way she somehow comprehends the needs of her indiscriminately carnivorous infant. Raphael Coleman (Nanny McPhee), as the kid's deeply suspicious young wheel chair-bound uncle, steals some memorable scenes as well. Most of the other actors have a B-movie sturdiness that will encourage you to rewind scenes when they mutter something particularly outrageous in their off-hand monotones. 

One would think that making Cohen's original premise more cerebral might ruin the effect, but, on the contrary, it makes the viewer even more disoriented, less sure whether to laugh or wince in horror. The story still retains its absurdity of course: One minute there are grown, strapping men & women standing or sitting in close proximity to a gurgling infant, then the music becomes ominous, there's some animalistic shrieking & after some quick, confusing edits the entire room or car interior is painted in blood & giblets.  The logistics of this don't need to be explained. That would take all the fun out of it.

Appropriately, it's becoming a great month for horror on DVD, what with the release of The Children, The Killing Room, Trick 'r Treat & Shortcut. Here's another tightly-wound, fierce little gem to add to the list.  

The Proposal (Anne Fletcher, 2009)

Note to screenwriters: Simply bandying about the names of Don DeLillo & Richard Russo doesn't mean you're writing a smart movie. Case in point, Anne Fletcher's (Step Up, 27 Dresses) seemingly infinite new movie The Proposal. As a variation on the successful Devil Wears Prada theme, the film begins winningly enough, with Executive Assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds, once again MVP) anticipating the every need of tyrannical publishing shark Margaret Tate (a distressingly pale Sandra Bullock). Bullock's completely out of her element as a corporate bitch goddess, though. She can't seem to wait to get all squishy in the arms of her charming subordinate & treat us to more of her patented girl-next-door vulnerability. Her characterization feels flimsy & under-nourished because of it. 

The movie begins with Bullock's Tate on top of the world. She's just talked a bestselling, but reclusive, writer into appearing on Oprah Winfrey & immediately fires the lackey (a far-too-brief cameo by The Daily Show's Asif Manvy) who wasn't able to get the job done. Assistant Reynolds is the very essence of grace under pressure, cow-towing without groveling, managing sarcasm just subtle enough to slip under Tate's busy radar & already at-home with work strategies to keep him sane until he can be promoted to editor & publish some pet book of his that's "the real thing, a novel like the ones we used to publish," whatever the hell that means. Judging from the state of publishing, I'm guessing he means it's good & doesn't have too many spelling errors.

Tate's good fortunes & air of complete impregnability are shaken quickly though, when Tate is informed that a recent trip out of the U.S. to steal the aforementioned DeLillo from Viking was a violation of her Visa & she'll be deported in a fortnight. You see, Margaret is from Toronto, a city that -- as every American school kid knows -- has no publishing industry whatsoever. In fact, it's a wasteland of provincialism & illiteracy. It's no wonder Tate is forced to blurt out that she's in love with Paxton & intends to marry him. At first Paxton is apoplectic & no one handles a surprise bout with apoplexy like Ryan Reynolds. Despite it bearing no semblance of the world we actually live in, it's a great scene & bodes well for the rest of the film. I mean, if these two performers (well, just Reynolds actually) can skim over this dicey bit of plotting & get a laugh, what's to prevent a weary viewer from relaxing into an easy chair, shutting down the cerebral cortex altogether & letting Hollywood do the driving? Unfortunately the answer is, the rest of the movie.

Reynolds' Paxton seizes this opportunity to blackmail Tate, agreeing to marry her as long as he's promoted to editor & allowed to publish the book with all the good spelling in it. Even after he's threatened with a prison sentence & large fine by an understandably dubious INS official, played by the always reliable Denis O'Hare (Baby Mama, Michael Clayton), Paxton goes along with his mentor's hare-brained scheme & whisks the feral Tate off to his home in Alaska to meet his parents & wish his grandmother a happy 90th birthday. Once in Sitka, it's clear that Paxton isn't your ordinary farm boy who made it good in the big city. As Tate puts it, "You didn't tell me you were some sort of Alaskan Kennedy." Everything in his hometown bears the family name & the couple's engagement is greeted by the sort of brown-nosing huzzahs one expects from medieval serfs.

Father Craig T. Nelson is as skeptical of the whole affair as the INS official & all he wants is for his son to move back to Sitka & assume his position as king. Mother Mary Steenburgen doesn't want to drive the boy away & forfeit seeing her grandchildren now & again. Grandmother Betty White is completely unhinged. She hands the couple a blanket she calls "The Baby Maker" & goes off into the woods to dance around in full Inuit medicine man regalia.

After an eternity of nonsense, which includes the Paxton dog being plucked from the lawn by an eagle, a lap dance from Ramone (The Office's Oscar Nunez, burning off some good will), the town's very busy gay Mexican (he strips, caters parties & serves as Justice of the Peace at weddings) & Margaret rapping & shaking her badonkadonk to "Get Low" by Little John & the East Side Boyz around a campfire with Betty White, she & Paxton finally collide with one another naked & all that cranky reserve begins to melt away. Imagine that.

Director Fletcher, who's been the head choreographer on everything from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story to Catwoman & Scooby Doo 2: Electric Boogaloo, has absolutely no sense of timing & she prolongs this story way beyond its means. There has never been a movie this digressive that didn't originate in Sweden. By the time Margaret admits to Andrew that she watches The Psychic Network religiously, took disco dancing lessons, reads Wuthering Heights every Christmas & tattooed swallows onto her back after her parents died, we're really in no shape to care anymore. Her transformation is, at once, too quick & too long in coming. It just doesn't jibe with the manic rhythms of the movie, but it does seem to indicate The Proposal might be coming to a merciful climax. But then Grammy has what appears to be a heart attack & four or five more unresolvable plot points get to be swept around Sitka for awhile & then unceremoniously swept into a snowbank so we can FINALLY have our happy ending. Even this, however, is tainted by having to sit through an excruciating five minutes watching Betty White try her hand at "serious acting." When she mumbles to the heavens that "the spirits" can take her, we no longer care whether Andrew marries Margaret, Ramone or gets carried off in the talons of an eagle, as long as those credits roll. 

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