Volume CCLXXXVIII- Even Zombies Get the Blues
For the Week of 2/22/11
Videoport will give you a free movie very day. That means you might run out of free movies in about 85 years. Oh no, wait- they keep making more movies, so you’re fine.
Middle Aisle Monday. (Get one free rental from the Sci-Fi, Horror, Incredibly Strange, Mystery/Thriller, Animation or Staff Picks sections with your paid rental.)
>>>Elsa S. Customer suggests The Ghost Writer (in Mystery/Thriller.) To be frank, The Ghost Writer starts out as an absolutely standard political thriller, but it escapes most of the cliches of its genre: no spies following the protagonist threateningly through busy streets for days on end, no international chase scenes, just a quiet, tense unfolding of events at a small beach house. The kinda hacky ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is called to an isolated vacation home on gray, wintery Martha’s Vineyard to help former a former Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan playing the glad-handing, twinkly jackass as only he can) finish up his (also kinda hacky) memoirs. The (unnamed) ghost writer has been called in because his predecessor has died unexpectedly, washed up on a local beach, but, hey — a job is a job, right? The story is standard, but the direction is remarkable in an effortless-looking way that belies the attention to detail, particularly the Polanski trademarks: framing scenes to disguise or hide the people present, shifting the frame to subtly frustrate our desire to see as well as hear, making quiet, excellent use of mirrors, shadows, and doorways. And the set: that luxurious bunker of a beach house, that lavish prison! The tension and oppression is palpable.
Tough and Triassic Tuesday. (Get one free rental from the Action or Classics sections with your paid rental.)
>>> Dennis suggests Iron Man 2 (in Action/Adventure.) As much as I liked the first Iron Man (in fact, I thought it the second-best superhero movie I’d ever seen*), I’d avoided the sequel, mainly because of the unceasing chorus of “It’s not as good as the first one” I kept hearing from seemingly
everyone. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for a major letdown, you know? Well, I just watched the thing and I have to say, “what the hell is wrong with you people?” Director Jon Favreau, star Robert Downey Jr. and screenwriter Justin Theroux are all back, the effects are as great (and occasionally even witty) as last time, replacement player Don Cheadle (taking over for Terrance Howard) is an upgrade, plus you’ve got solid new additions in the antagonist department (usually the achilles heel of superhero sequels) with a charismatically-malevolent Mickey Rourke (as the vengeance-obsessed Russian Whiplash) and a charismatically-dorky Sam Rockwell (allowed to goof around hilariously as aTony Stark wannabe weapons mogul.) And, yeah, the Stark character is as iffy for me as in the comics (too corporate, too capitalist), but Downey remains utterly magnetic (get it?) as Stark, with the battle between his hedonistic and altruistic sides creating much opportunity for his patented, snarky comic riffing, and a new wrinkle in his newfound power bringing in some new shades to the character. As usual, he’s just a ton of fun to watch. And Rockwell, as his envious, less- (as in ‘not at all’) ethical corporate opposite number, is allowed nearly as much screen time to out-snark, out-riff, and even, for a brief, shining moment, out-cool Downey (when Sam gets to show off his dance moves); again, just a joy to watch. Throw in some ‘let’s outdo the last time’ action set pieces, and let yourself sorta zone out when the dull Gwyneth Paltrow and new addition, the equally dull Scarlett Johansson are on-screen, and you’ll have a blast. Seriously, people, I don’t know what more you could want here…
*I could tell you the first, but it’s pretty obvious…
Wacky and Worldly Wednesday. (Get one free rental from the Comedy or Foreign Language sections with your paid rental.)
>>> Dennis suggests ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ (in Comedy.) Videoport recently brought in the complete series of this series about the on- and off-air comic shenanigans at the titular late night talk show. You’re welcome. Created by star Garry Shandling, the series is blessedly smart (and funny) both as a satire of TV and a workplace comedy; it veers into occasionally outrageous plotlines without
lapsing into outright silliness, and its cast is absolutely stellar. Shandling’s Sanders is egotistical, neurotic, and more than a little hacky, but never unrealistically so, creating a variably-sympathetic center to the proceedings. As his producer Artie, Rip Torn is a hoot; garrulous, preternaturally-competent, fanatically-upbeat, and genuinely a little nuts. And as the perennial sad-sack sidekick Hank Kingsley, ‘Arrested Development”s Jeffrey Tambor creates an enduringly- and excruciatingly-classic TV character, punctuating every imagined success, and actual boneheaded failure with his self-impressed catchphrase, “Hey Now!”, and generally making my insides hurt. On the writing side, you’ve got talents like Judd Apatow, ‘NewsRadio”s Paul Simms, Shandling, and others, and, in the supporting cast, the likes of Janeane Garofalo, Scott Thompson, Jeremy Piven, Bob Odenkirk, and more. Plus, on nearly every show, you’re sure to see some famous person playing him/herself and doing something unexpected. There’s even a surprising amount of heart from time to time. It’s really impressive how the show maintained its quality through all six seasons, but not surprising when you look at the talent involved. (By the way, a perfect candidate for the new Wednesday special at Videoport: 4 DVDs for 7 days for 7 bucks will let you bask in the greatness…)
Thrifty Thursday. (Get one free movie from any section with your paid rental.)
>>>Ms. Elsa S. Customer suggests Picnic at Hanging Rock (in the Criterion Collection.) It’s Valentine’s Day, 1900, a warm and hazy day in the Australian outback, but the well-chaperoned young women of Mrs. Applegate’s boarding school are oppressively cloaked in their habitual corsets, petticoats, sleeves, and layers upon layers of white lace, in heavy black stockings and ankle-high boots. In honor of their special outing to Hanging Rock, Mrs. Applegate offers one great concession: the girls may remove their gloves once the carriage passes through town. The early minutes of the film practically shudder with repressed emotion and longing, especially the first sequence of the white-clad girls dawdling around their dormitory in the morning, snatching private moments to recite poetry and murmur secret wishes and resentments. The schoolmistress pointedly reminds her girls: Hanging Rock is a dangerous place for young women, and exploration is positively forbidden. Given this palpable air of erotic repression, this intense sublimation, we cannot be surprised when a few of the girls strike out on their own and have an unexpected (and ambiguous) experience during the day’s outing. The set-up may sound brash or exploitative, and in another director’s hands, it might well have been. But Weir has a delicate touch, and he’s not forcing any clarity upon the inherently mysterious happenings, and the obscure events unwind in a trancelike, meditative way. Though it’s rich with ideas and themes (including fin de siécle social upheaval and class challenges, and regimented order imposed upon nature) and at its heart Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery and a metaphor, a brilliant and obscure exploration of sexual awakening and anxiety, of the delights or trauma that it can bring, and of the futility of authoritarian repression.
Free Kids Friday. (Get one free rental from the Children’s or Family sections, no other rental necessary).
>>>Dennis suggests that you check out some of the secretly-cool stuff we’ve slipped into the kids section. Videoport’s owner Bill (all hail Bill!) will occasionally get, shall we say, whimsical, with where he puts certain movies. For example: for the longest time, he resolutely filed Battlefield Earth in the comedy section (for obvious reasons), until the joke got a little stale and he chucked it back into Sci Fi. Sure, that meant we on the floor occasionally would have to show someone where Battlefield Earth was (in the rare instances when someone wanted to rent the thing) and perhaps do a little explaining, but, you know what, it’s Bill’s world and we all just live in it, so calm down, tiger. Anyway, recently, perhaps in a movie to jump-start some ill-renting older titles, or perhaps just to amuse himself, Bill tossed some, again shall we say ‘eccentric’ choices into the kids section. Older comedies like Twins, The Money Pit, Zorro: The Gay Blade, and Mr. Mom, and recent sports dramas like The Greatest Game Ever Played, Rebound, Miracle, and Glory Road. I think Mr. Holland’s Opus made the move, too, along with the later Planet of the Apes sequels. So, while such PG and even (gasp) PG-13 rated movies, with all their mild cussin’, smoochin’, and occasional gunplay might seem out of place next to, say, The Doodlebops, they also are completely free on Friday, with no other rental necessary. So, for all of you who roll your eyes when told about the ‘free kids Friday’ special, here’s something less to complain about! And remember- it’s Bill’s world…just do what he says…
Having a Wild Weekend. (Rent two, get your third movie for free from any section on Saturday and Sunday.)
>>>For Saturday, Dennis suggests Exam (in Mystery/Thriller.) Eight people are led into a sparse room, where eight identical desks hold eight identical pieces of paper and a single pencil. A man enters and explains, in a precisely-worded speech, that they have eighty minutes to complete this, the last stage of the rigorous job interview they have been undergoing, and that only one of them will receive the coveted position. He then leaves them alone, except for a silent armed guard at the door. The eight expectantly turn over the pieces of paper. And they’re blank. Sounds like a set-up for an intense psychological thriller where desperate people try to solve a seemingly-impossible problem amidst a simmering stew of paranoia, competitiveness, and potential violence, no? Well that’s exactly what you get in this taut little British number that quite satisfactorily ratchets up the tension for those 80 minutes, playing off our assumptions nimbly and getting good mileage out of its nifty premise. The acting is solid from a largely-unfamiliar Brit cast (you might recognize Brit/Indian actor Jimy Mistry from The Guru or East Is East) who fill out their seemingly-stereotypical roles (handsome a-hole, whimpering Frenchman, tough chick) with some unexpected turns ans shades. I’m a sucker for movies like this (see Cube) where people are set in a high-pressure situation and made to squirm for our enjoyment, and Exam is a great example. Even the ending, if maybe a little too pat for some, eschews the traditional ‘ambiguous’ (read: ‘cop out’) denouement- it’s like a really good ‘Twilight Zone’ episode. And, if I’m being a little cagy about the details, well, that’s the point; in a movie like this, the discovery of each clue is part of the enjoyment and, of course, anyone who spoils a movie by blabbing heedlessly about it will end up in the very special circle of hell reserved for such heinous crimes…
>>>For Sunday, Elsa S. Customer suggests ‘Arrested Development’ (in Comedy.) Some shows, you watch once and enjoy, but you never hanker to see them again. And then some shows get funnier every time you watch. I can’t think of a comedy series that has a higher re-watch value than “Arrested
Development.” Not only do the running jokes get funnier and funnier each time you see them, but so does the plotting itself. What seemed to be non sequitors or off-handed jokes* the first time through are actually nested levels of foreshadowing and set-up for the twists to be revealed. This side-splittingly hilarious, cringe-inducing, apparently freewheeling and random comedy turns out to be the most amazingly nested, layered example of deliberately planned comedy arcs I’ve ever seen. It’s like the Russian doll of cringe comedy.
New Releases this week at Videoport: Megamind (Will Ferrell plays the titular supervillain who finds his life without meaning once he finally defeats his arch-nemesis in this animated comedy with all-star voice actors like Brad Pitt, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross, and Ben Stiller), Due Date (The Hangover director Todd Phillips sticks to the same formula, teaming up Zach Galifianakis with Robert Downey Jr. for this intermittently-funny, unremittingly-loud road trip comedy), ‘Weeds’- season 6 (the ever-talented and lovely Mary Louise Parker returns as everybody’s favorite pot-dealing family matron in this cable series that everyone seems to like way more than I do ), All
Star Superman (everyone should go upstairs to our friends at Casablanca Comics right now and buy the Grant Morrison-penned, alternate universe graphic novel this animated movie [about how a dying Superman spends his last week on Earth] is based on; sure, you should rent this from us, too, but you should really treat yourself to one of the best Superman stories ever written first…), Get Low (loved this indie drama about a legendary hermit [the stunning-as-always Robert Duvall] who decides to throw himself a funeral party while he’s still alive; that’s all I’m gonna say about this [because, again, people who spoil movies are the Devil] except to say it’s really good, and boasts stellar support from Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek, Bill Cobbs, and the equally-always-great Bill Murray), ‘Nurse Jackie’- season 2 (the great Edie Falco returns as the ethically-shaky titular health care professional in this seriocomic cable series), Last Train Home (the face of the massive Chinese peasant labor force is brought home in this documentary about a family who joins the 200 million-strong migrating worker pilgrimage to return to their families after spending months making the American consumer goods), Kings of Pastry (Foodies rejoice! This documentary about the most famous pastry competition in the world follows several would-be dessert masters as they compete to create some impossibly-intricate, and filling, treats), Leaving (Kristin Scott Thomas [I’ve Loved You for So Long] returns in another acclaimed French-language performance in this drama about a bored housewife falling into a passionate affair with a Spanish carpenter), Black Lightning (nope, not a welcome big screen pic about DC Comics’ first black superhero; this is a Russian superhero thriller about a kid who discovers a flying car and goes out to fight crime in it; from the director of Nightwatch, Daywatch, and Wanted), Ten Inch Hero (indie comedy about a woman who spots the baby she once gave up for adoption working in a diner, and goes to work there to get to know her.)
New Arrivals this week at Videoport: See What I’m Saying? (documentary about the activists of the hearing-impaired community), Glenn the Flying Robot (Videoport’s Andy watched this one which purports to be a story of dueling rival pianists in the future, but which doesn’t mention robots on the back of the DVD box; Andy says there are robots, the movie bears only a passing resemblance
to the description, and that it may be a new contender for this year’s The Room in terms of unintentional laughs), Climate of Change (Tilda Swinton narrates this idealistically-hopeful documentary about individuals around the world coming up with creative ways to fight global warming), Destricted (what do you get when you have seven filmmakers the likes of Gaspar Noe [Irreversible], Larry Clark [Kids], Banksy [Exit Through the Gift Shop] and others each make a short film about the relationship between art and pornography? Well to quote Troy from the show ‘Community’, “I have the weirdest boner right now..”)
New Arrivals on Blu-Ray this week at Videoport: Megamind, Due Date.