PICKS OF THE WEEK
Passing Strange (A)
U.S.; Spike Lee, 2009, IFC Films
Spike Lee's blazing film of Passing Strange -- the Tony-winning semi-autobiographical musical by Stew (a.k.a. Mark Stewart) -- is one of the best records of a stage production ever. Lee, cinematographer Matthew Libatique and Lee's longtime editor (and ex-Madisonian) Barry Alexander Brown catch every nuance and show-stopping moment of the play, a virtuoso piece in which narrator Stew recounts the past and confronts what may be his past self, an unnamed black artist-as-a-young-man (Daniel Breaker) who travels from his teens through his 20s and from L.A. to Amsterdam to Berlin. He negotiates a personal maze of art, sex, politics and would-be revolution before learning that the most precious things of all may be the ones he left behind, symbolized, so deeply and touchingly, in the letters and death of his mother (Eisa Davis.)
Stew, now rotund and middle-aged, amusingly and finally movingly confronts his young, slim and sometimes phony alter-ego in the play -- for which he wrote the book and (with his girlfriend and bass-player in the show's onstage rock band, Heidi Rodewald), also the music and songs. And he has a roaring, full-blooded, right-on collaboration with all of the above, as well as the rest of the excellent ensemble of actors -- De'Adre Aziza, Colman Dingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones (all playing multiple roles) and with the show's imaginative stager, Annie Dorsen. Together, this group plunges us both into the dramas and comedies of the post-Vietnam era and at times, it seems, into the essence of theater itself.
One of Lee's models here seems to be the great rock concert films of Scorsese, The Last Waltz (with the Band and friends) and Shine a Light (with the Rolling Stones). Lee records a live performance (several, actually, including Passing Strange's rousing last night), and, with the help of longtime friend and "cut creator" (and my one-time roomie) Brown, edits it all together seamlessly to create the stirring illusion of being there and sharing the experience. Passing Strange is a knockout. (Extras: interviews, featurettes, promo material.)
U.S.; Robert Altman, 1983, Shout! Factory
Robert Altman's smart, wounding film record of another powerful play (this time without an audience): David Rabe's anti-war drama Streamers. Adapted by Rabe, set in an stateside army barracks at the beginning of Vietnam, this model filmed play shows us a group of soldiers who undergo a rite of emotional passage through (threatened) manhood and (slowly-mounting) fear. With Matthew Modine, David Alan Grier, Michael Wright, George Dzundza, Guy Boyd and Mitchell Lichtenstein.
Boogie Nights (A)
U.S.; Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997, New Line, Blu-ray
In the movie that made his major reputation, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) takes us into a funny, absurdly realistic, highly convincing, dirty-business-as-usual '70s-'80s milieu of L.A. porno moviemaking, showing that sexual underworld without moralism but with lots of wit, compassion, candor and humanity. Mark Wahlberg is the well-hung, but not-too-sharp porno "star is born," Burt Reynolds is his "been there-screwed that" director-mentor, and the sex-peddling bunch (a first-class ensemble) around them includes Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Heather Graham, Alfred Molina and Luis Guzman. It isn't explicit, and it doesn't need to be. Anderson and company cut deep.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Battle of Chile (A)
Chile-France; Patricio Guzman, 1976-97, Icarus, 4 discs
One of the great political film documentaries of the 20th century, Patricio Guzman's spell-binding record of the year leading up to the 1973 coup d'etat in Chile, and the assassination of socialist president Salvador Allende is both unique document and analysis of history in the making, and an ultimate real-life political thriller: a dark tragicomedy about a revolution that may have been too polite and well-mannered for its own good -- and wound up confronting real violence, real death, real destruction.
Allende, who seems, at least when we see the jubilant masses on the street, one of the most popular of all Chilean politicians, tried to transform his country from capitalism to socialism not through violence but through the electoral process and the democratic system. As we see here, a huge portion the people (of the working classes) seem solidly behind him. But the bourgeoisie, the establishment, the majority of the Chilean parliament, the country's American allies (in the Nixon administration) and, most important, most of the country's military, are definitely not.
And the seemingly inevitable result of that collision is the bloody event we see both at the beginning of Battle of Chile's Part One and the end of Part Two: the air bombing of Chile's presidential palace on Sept. 11, 1973, followed off-screen by the slaying of Allende, and (onscreen) the triumph of the putsch led by Chilean army General (and, up to then, supposed loyalist) Augusto Pinochet and his co-conspirators.
Guzman and his collaborators -- including the brilliant (and memorably handsome) young cinematographer Jorge Muller Silva, who was later arrested by the dictatorship and disappeared in prison -- were a youthful gang of five when they started. We see them interviewing Chileans, pro and con, on the eve of the election that confirmed Allende's power, but left him with a majority, if divided parliamentary opposition. The young quintet approach their task with dedication, devotion and shockingly prodigious assurance and skill -- and without, it seems, much interference.
Part One ("The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie") ends, and Part Two ("The Coup d'Etat") begins with the same footage: of a Chilean soldier walking the streets and then firing right at the Swedish cameraman taking the shots. The cameraman dies, and his camera falls to the ground as we watch. Taken together, Parts One and Two (released in 1975 and 1976) show us the Allende government trying to institute radical reform in the country's factories and farms, the battle against his government, through strikes and violence, by his opponents, and Chile's slow slide into conflict and bloodshed, and the final armed, violent overthrow of Allende's constitutional government.
Guzman's cinematic strategies are mostly brilliant, but I disagree with one of them. Part Three, "The Power of the People" (1978) was edited two years after the first two parts, and, filled with events that took place before the coup, it seems designed to end the movie on a more hopeful note. It is a set of footnotes more than a continuation. And it turns the brilliant, tragic climax of Part Two into an anticlimax. When Guzman shows "Battle of Chile" to some young Chileans in his later 1997 follow-up documentary "Chile: Obstinate Memory" (included in Icarus's superb box set) it's clear that he's ending with Part Two, which reduces many of the youngsters to silence and tears.
That's how I believe The Battle of Chile should be watched today. But however you see it, this is a film is made with such talent, dedication and amazingly calm objectivity that you may well be reduced to tears yourself. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. (Extras: Guzman's 1997 documentary Chile: Obstinate Memory, in which he returns to Chile for the first time since the coup; booklet with a Cecilia Ricciarelli essay and with Pauline Kael's New Yorker review.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Haunting in Connecticut (D+)
U.S.; Peter Cornwell, 2009, Lionsgate
The Haunting in Connecticut is a haunted house horror movie, supposedly based on fact, and it's full of shadowy rooms, dingy décor, rotting corpses, a bedeviled family, screaming kids and a loud, clanging clamorous soundtrack to cue the scares. There's even an exorcist of sorts, played by the always intense Elias Koteas -- who manages the movie's best performance, despite the scene where he suddenly realizes he may have screwed up the exorcism.
The movie as a whole seems about as real as a three-dollar cadaver, but there's no accounting for taste. Grisly, cliché-packed, unimaginative horror movies vainly trying to repeat the horrific successes, and excesses, of the past keep popping up regularly. And Connecticut is no worse than some.
Then again, it's worse than a lot. The hell-hounded family are the Campbells -- including cancer-stricken son Matt (Kyle Gallner), courageous mom Sara (Virginia Madsen), excitable kids Peter and Mary (Ty Wood and Sophi Knight), and troubled dad Peter (played by Hal Hartley stalwart Martin Donovan). Peter, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, has a drinking problem. But, unlike Jack, he doesn't have any great tantrum scenes. ("Heeeere's Johnny!")
Ah, the poor Campbells. Ignoring the danger signs, including a friendly warning from the real estate agent and funeral documents and equipment that don't seem to have been removed since the 1920s, they move into the house -- hoping, despite its bad reputation, that living there will help Matt's treatment and recovery. Had they but known! Fairly soon, all hell starts breaking predictably loose, highlighted by the continuous appearances of those rotting corpses, which keep popping up like skeletons on a carnival scare ride, along with another group of pale, dead but very active, Hellraiser-looking dudes who have strange, incomprehensible inscriptions written all over their bodies.
Director Peter Cornwell, in his feature debut, shows some talent for gruesomeness, and editor/songwriter Tom Elkins works overtime trying to crank us up. But the script never jells, most of the live actors seem dispirited, if not actually disemboweled, and the movie, overall, seemed less scary to me than one of Glen Beck's incredible dry-eyed crying jags on Fox News. (Note: The 2002 Discovery Channel documentary A Haunting in Connecticut, about the real-life events that inspired the movie, is available on Echo Bridge.)
U.S.; Dominic Sena, 2009, Warner
I like some of Dominic Sena's frenzied action movies -- especially Kalifornia, Swordfish and (no kidding) his 2000 Gone in Sixty Seconds remake. And this Antarctica-set thriller based on Greg Rucka's graphic novel has its moments. Some. A few. One or two. Most of them are supplied by Sena's and co-editors Stuart Baird's and Martin Hunter's skill at headlong terror-action sequences, here set mostly on a windswept Antarctic station and snowscape, and including a hell-in-the-skies flashback plane gunfight and crash that sets the stage. (Someone is murdering members of the Antarctic team to get their hands on the cargo of that Soviet wreck.)
But there's also some (a little) pleasure to be derived from Kate Beckinsale's saucy opening striptease and pert heroics as the station's past-tormented U.S. marshall, and the not very mysterious guessing game about whether and which of her station-mates is the guilty partner of a mad Aussie killer (Alex O'Loughlin) -- whether Gabriel Macht as a bedroom-eyed fellow cop, Tom Skerritt (one of the wacky medicos in Altman's original M*A*S*H) as a kindly doc, or Columbus Short as an intrepid driver. Kudos to Sena and cinematographer Chris Soos for the virtuoso tracking shot intro to Beckinsale, but the story is way too obvious and sometimes so silly, it's a hindrance.
No Impact Man (C)
U.S.; Laura Gabbert, Justin Schein, 2009, Oscilloscope Laboratory
Manhattan couple Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin, middle-class writers who live in the Fifth Avenue area, decide to follow a year-long Beavan program of making no impact -- or as little as possible -- on the environment, by abandoning paper products, electricity, TV, store-bought wrapped food, cars, and other seeming 20th- and 21st-century "necessities," all as material for Beavan's next ecology-minded book. It seemed a little quixotic and self-deceiving to me (won't Beavan's book be printed on paper?), and it also seems so to Conlin at first. (She wants a second child and is angry that Beavan, demanding so much/little of her and his family, won't cooperate on her program as well. And she's right.)
But, after a while, the stripped-down lifestyle reality show becomes sort of fascinating, as well as providing scads of tips for ecologically sound living. I wasn't totally swayed by this, but, tips and all, it might eventually become a DVD guide for stripping life to the essentials.
Billy Jack (C)
U.S.; T.C. Frank (Tom Laughlin), 1971, Image
One of the most popular '70s low-budget cult movies. With Tom Laughlin as Native American kick boxer Billy Jack, who's so angry that bikers run wild and there's no peace and love, that he beats hell out of everybody.
The Singing Kid (B)
U.S.; 1936, William Keighley, Warner Archive
Al Jolson, a great entertainer sabotaged by his times, will probably never get back into vogue until they figure out a way to digitally erase his black-face makeup. A shame, because he can sure sing up a storm, like Judy Garland at her fieriest. This movie compensates for "Mammy" by giving lots of time and space to Cab Calloway and his band, who start things off with a rousing duet with Al on the hit "I Love to Sing-a," sung and danced from neighboring skyscraper penthouse balcony ledges. Songs by aces E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen; comedy and phony back flips by top support Edward Everett Horton and Allen Jenkins. Child star antics by Sybil Jason, who maybe needs W.C. Fields as her babysitter. Schmaltz interspersed with Pow. One of the better Jolies.