Monday, October 18, 2010

The View From Home 14: New releases on DVD


By John Thomason


My Son,‭ ‬My Son,‭ ‬What Have Ye Done‭? (‬First Look‭)
Standard list price:‭ ‬$18.99
Release date:‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬14

The Killer Inside Me‭ (‬MPI‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$13.99
Release date:‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬28

Two movies by major filmmakers exploring the minds of killers debuted on DVD recently,‭ ‬and the results are so divergent they might as well be filed under different categories in the video store.‭ ‬The first of these,‭ ‬My Son,‭ ‬My Son,‭ ‬What Have Ye Done‭?‬ is the latest gonzo feature from Werner Herzog,‭ ‬shot for about‭ ‬20‭ ‬bucks for David Lynch’s production company.‭ ‬A couple of weeks later,‭ ‬the more high-profile film,‭ ‬The Killer Inside Me,‭ ‬hit shelves as the second film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulp classic of the same name.

For many cinephiles,‭ ‬the Herzog-Lynch coproduction is a match made in disturbia,‭ ‬and indeed,‭ ‬the final product suggests the macabre weirdness of both.‭ ‬It begins as an audience-winking police procedural not unlike Herzog’s more widely distributed‭ ‬2009‭ ‬film,‭ ‬Bad Lieutenant:‭ ‬Port of Call‭ – ‬New Orleans,‭ ‬with police detectives played by Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena called to investigate a murder in a suburban home.‭ ‬But the story soon focuses on Michael Shannon’s Brad McCullum,‭ ‬the killer.‭ ‬We discover within‭ ‬10‭ ‬minutes that Brad,‭ ‬an actor in a local production of Aeschylus‭’ ‬Greek trilogy‭ ‬Oresteia,‭ ‬murdered his mother with the antique sword that served as the play’s prop.

Mystery solved,‭ ‬the story becomes a matter of luring Brad from his tacky Southwestern-designed home,‭ ‬wherein he claims he’s holding hostages.‭ ‬From this point on,‭ ‬the plot is rather conventional:‭ ‬The detectives interview the people close to Brad,‭ ‬from fiancée Chloe Sevigny to theater director Udo Kier,‭ ‬whose stories Herzog reveals in a series of flashbacks that lead to Brad’s psychotic episode.‭ ‬We learn that Brad’s mother‭ (‬Grace Zabriskie‭) ‬is a skin-and-bones freakshow right out of‭ ‬Eraserhead,‭ ‬concocting hideous gelatins and infantilizing her clingy son,‭ ‬resulting in Brad’s Oedipus-meets-Norman Bates response.‭ ‬An adventurous trip to a Peruvian rainforest,‭ ‬meanwhile,‭ ‬sees Brad’s conversion to Islam,‭ ‬as he attains a sort of a spiritual nirvana when he forecasts the accidental deaths of his companions.‭ ‬Later,‭ ‬we see him obtain the murder weapon from his uncle,‭ ‬a backwoods,‭ ‬ostrich-raising rancher portrayed by a sufficiently crazed Brad Dourif.

Borrowing liberally from the real-life story of a San Diego man who stabbed his mother with a saber in a slaying inspired by the same Greek tragedy,‭ ‬Herzog casts a peculiar comic spell that runs counter to the film’s now conventional‭ ‬Citizen Kane-like structure.‭ ‬Brad’s mental breakdown is also the film’s comedic apex:‭ ‬He shows up at an army hospital declaring that he wants to help‭ “‬the sick,‭” ‬an unsubstantiated request that baffles everyone at the hospital.‭ “‬The sick.‭ ‬In general,‭” ‬is his only clarification.

Shannon seems to be channeling Brecht more than Aeschlyus,‭ ‬acknowledging the camera’s presence in oddball self-referential asides that seek to hijack the narrative at hand.‭ ‬This tendency,‭ ‬combined with the drained-out color scheme‭ – ‬the film looks as if someone poured bleach all over the master print‭ – ‬all help to assert this minimalist anti-thriller’s compelling but limited appeal as a strict niche film for Herzog and Lynch devotees.

Herzog’s recent m.o.,‭ ‬exemplified by‭ ‬My Son,‭ ‬My Son,‭ ‬is the rejection of realism.‭ ‬The Killer Inside Me,‭ ‬Michael Winterbottom’s take on Jim Thompson’s cult book,‭ ‬takes the opposite approach,‭ ‬even when the source material doesn’t warrant it.‭ ‬Where Herzog’s film is a bloodless psychological journey into a sick mind,‭ ‬Winterbottom’s‭ ‬Killer,‭ ‬about a small-town sheriff‭ (‬Casey Affleck‭) ‬who flies off the deep end after involving himself with a blackmailing prostitute,‭ ‬is a gory descent into a sick mind,‭ ‬garnering some controversy for the brutally realistic pummeling of its two chief female characters,‭ ‬Jessica Alba’s Joyce Lakeland and Kate Hudson’s Amy Stanton.

A cold-blooded neo-noir despite its sun-baked desert settings,‭ ‬The Killer Inside Me is a faithful adaptation of Thompson’s text with a major climactic exception:‭ ‬Winterbottom films the action too literally,‭ ‬achieving none of the existential,‭ ‬open-ended insanity that left the thrilling novel open to interpretation.‭ ‬Events that may have conspired only in the killer-narrator’s mind are rendered onscreen as fact,‭ ‬even if they come across as patently ludicrous.‭ ‬Moreover,‭ ‬the wicked humor that characterized the book is all but absent from Winterbottom’s morose vision.‭ ‬He could learn a thing or two from Herzog’s approach‭ – ‬movies about psychopaths don’t have to be mirthless.


Nightmares in Red,‭ ‬White and Blue‭ (‬Kino‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$26.99
Release date:‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬28

Directors:‭ ‬Life Behind the Camera
SLP:‭ ‬$21.99
Release date:‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬21

Two DVDs about movies hit stores recently,‭ ‬one analyzing film from the theory and criticism perspective and the other from the production standpoint.‭ ‬Nightmares in Red,‭ ‬White and Blue narrows its focus on the evolution of the American horror film,‭ ‬drawing on top filmmakers and experts to help justify the artistry of a genre that for many is still rooted in B-movie kid’s stuff.‭

‬Director Andrew Monument traces the lineage of the American horror film,‭ ‬connecting it the real-life barbarity of World War I,‭ ‬the apocalyptic anxiety of the Cold War era,‭ ‬the expansion of women’s rights,‭ ‬the excesses of the‭ ‬1980s,‭ ‬the self-reflexivity of the‭ ‘‬90s and the torture porn of the‭ ‘‬00s.‭ ‬The film rightly identifies horror films as social,‭ ‬cultural and political barometers for the country at large,‭ ‬but Monument sometimes goes too far:‭ ‬It’s funny and observant when a mention of Richard Nixon’s silent majority segues into a discussion of‭ ‬Dawn of the Dead,‭ ‬but when a theorist considers Freddy Kreuger to be the fictional embodiment of Ronald Reagan,‭ ‬it’s a bit much.

Directors:‭ ‬Life Behind the Camera,‭ ‬compiled by the American Film Institute,‭ ‬is not so much a documentary as it is an instruction manual for aspiring filmmakers.‭ ‬With four hours of material stretched over two discs,‭ ‬this completely interactive experience lets viewers select both the topic‭ – ‬from‭ “‬humble beginnings‭” ‬to screenwriting to working with actors to financing‭ – ‬and up to‭ ‬30‭ ‬filmmakers within that topic,‭ ‬who dispense their knowledge in bite-sized,‭ ‬two-to-five-minute chunks.‭

Which means that if you’re like me,‭ ‬you’ll love the option to skip over the Chris Columbus,‭ ‬Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall comments and jump right to the Terry Gilliam,‭ ‬David Lynch and Martin Scorsese material.‭ ‬This is‭ ‬an‭ ‬indispensable resource.



The Oath‭ (‬Zeitgeist‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$19.99
Release date:‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬28

The second in filmmaker Laura Poitras‭’ ‬unofficial trilogy of post-9/11‭ ‬documentaries,‭ ‬The Oath surpasses its predecessor‭ – ‬My Country,‭ ‬My Country,‭ ‬a film about the trials of a Sunni doctor running for office in the new Iraqi government‭ – ‬in its ambiguous moral center,‭ ‬grand sweep and savvy storytelling acumen.

The subjects are two former Jihadist warriors recruited by Osama bin Laden prior to the Sept.‭ ‬11‭ ‬attacks:‭ ‬Abu Jandal,‭ ‬bin Laden’s onetime bodyguard and now a chatty taxi driver in Yemen‭; ‬and bin Laden’s chauffeur Salim Hamdan,‭ ‬whom you may remember as the first suspect to face United States military tribunals after being shuttered in Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years without a trial.‭ ‬Poitras‭’ ‬structure creates surprises around every corner,‭ ‬crafting her documentary in the shell of the thriller:‭ ‬She cuts between the controversy surrounding Hamdan’s tribunal and sentencing and his brother-in-law Jandal’s day-to-day rituals as an international spokesman of jihad turned Western-media-loving guru‭ – ‬and she also jumps back and forth in time between unearthed al-Qaida videos,‭ ‬her modern fly-on-the-wall reportage and Jandal’s gradual timeline of perceived change of heart after a three-year-prison sentence‭ (‬during which‭ ‬9/11,‭ ‬an attack he once supported only to later condemn,‭ ‬took place‭)‬.

Many themes,‭ ‬from an examination of the Bush administration’s misguided‭ “‬enhanced interrogation techniques‭” ‬to a look at the rigid theologies of Sharia law,‭ ‬orbit around this film’s central satellite,‭ ‬a questioning of the possibility of change and redemption,‭ ‬even for one of Islamic jihad’s true believers.‭ ‬You leave this conversation-sparking film with a lot of questions,‭ ‬and Poitras,‭ ‬to her credit,‭ ‬doesn’t poison the debate with her own opinions.


Conceiving Ada‭ (‬Microcinema‭)
SLP:‭ ‬$17.99
Release date:‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬28

Conceiving Ada,‭ ‬the experimental‭ ‬1997‭ ‬feature debut by video artist Lynn Hershman Leeson,‭ ‬may boast the historical footnote of being the first movie to employ virtual sets,‭ ‬but today Leeson’s feminist science-fiction snoozer comes off impossibly dated‭ – ‬the product of a mind rooted in muddled‭ ‘‬80s fascinations of the omniscient perils of technology and pre-Internet global connectivity.‭ ‬The confounding progeny of Sally Potter and David Cronenberg,‭ ‬Conceiving Ada borrows liberally from both while channeling the passion and drive of neither.‭ ‬Francesca Faridany stars as Emmy,‭ ‬a modern-day‭ “‬computer genius‭” ‬who has developed a way to communicate with figures of the past through computer waves.‭ ‬She eventually manages to speak directly,‭ ‬and through,‭ ‬Ada Byron King‭ (‬Tilda Swinton,‭ ‬compelling even when she‭ ‬reads a phone book,‭ ‬as the cliché goes‭)‬,‭ ‬the real-life Victorian countess who first developed the idea of a computer language.‭ ‬The film exists somewhere between stilted historical biography and stilted tech fantasy,‭ ‬as emotionally hollow as it is intellectually ludicrous.‭ ‬This dreck is so pretentious it resembles a parody of a self-absorbed art film,‭ ‬its fruits hardly worth the director’s seemingly audacious labor.‭ ‬Microcinema’s new transfer makes this an even tougher slog.‭ ‬The image is absolutely execrable‭; ‬most well-worn VHS tapes look better.‭ ‬The audio is piss-poor,‭ ‬and there is no option for English subtitles to wade through the aural muck.

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