Sunday, June 12, 2011

The View From Home‭ ‬27:‭ ‬New releases and notable screenings,‭ ‬June‭ ‬14-30

By John Thomason

Is there anything quite like the early films of Todd Haynes‭?

Before he graduated to star-studded Hollywood casts and respectable HBO miniseries‭ (‬this year’s‭ ‬Mildred Pierce‭)‬,‭ ‬Haynes was a provocative‭ ‬enfant terrible whose early experimental films upset narrative status quos and pushed censors‭’ ‬buttons.‭ ‬His‭ ‬1987,‭ ‬43-minute docudrama‭ – ‬for lack of a better designation‭ – ‬was titled‭ ‬Superstar:‭ ‬The Karen Carpenter‭ ‬Story,‭ ‬and it told of the Carpenters‭’ ‬siren’s tragic life using only Barbie dolls,‭ ‬mixing the narrative with a nonfiction study of anorexia.‭ ‬It’s a mesmerizing film,‭ ‬but it’s been banned from circulation for the past‭ ‬21‭ ‬years after Richard Carpenter won a copyright-infringement lawsuit against Haynes.

But nothing can stop movie lovers from indulging in his feature-film debut,‭ ‬1991‭’‬s‭ ‬Poison‭ (‬Zeitgeist,‭ ‬$26.99‭) ‬--‭ ‬at least not anymore.‭ ‬The long out-of-print DVD will be reissued June‭ ‬21‭ ‬in a plum package in honor of the film’s‭ ‬20th anniversary.‭ ‬The remastered transfer includes Criterionesque bonuses such as a recent Sundance Film Festival Q&A,‭ ‬an archival audio commentary track,‭ ‬a short film and some exclusive behind-the-scenes Polaroids,‭ ‬plus a‭ ‬16-page supplementary booklet.

Like‭ ‬Superstar,‭ ‬the NC-17-rated‭ ‬Poison is bracingly original,‭ ‬a restless howl of rage from a filmmaker set on shattering complacency in both cinema and the‭ “‬normal‭” ‬society it usually represents onscreen.‭ ‬It’s an omnibus film comprised of three autonomous,‭ ‬though thematically incestuous,‭ ‬short films that Haynes intercuts.‭

One of them,‭ ‬titled‭ ‬Hero,‭ ‬is shot in a TV documentary style,‭ ‬a faux-realist expose of a domestic murder on suburban Long Island.‭ ‬Another one,‭ ‬Horror,‭ ‬is filmed like a vintage science-fiction artifact‭ – ‬all canted angles and swelling music,‭ ‬in lo-fi black-and-white‭ – ‬and tells the story of an ambitious scientist who develops leprosy after drinking his untested sex-drive serum.‭ ‬The final piece,‭ ‬Homo,‭ ‬is a graphically gay prison-set tone poem about a sexually repressed thief and another inmate he had known as an adolescent in a juvenile facility.

The more Haynes propels us back and forth from the three stories‭ ‬--‭ ‬sometimes providing only a minute of screen time in one world before jettisoning it for another‭ – ‬the more‭ ‬Poison begins to develop coherent,‭ ‬transcendent themes beyond the specificities of the movies-within-the-movie.‭ ‬The film was inspired by the writing of Jean Genet,‭ ‬whose intermittently placed,‭ ‬white-on-black quotations speak to an existence of despair,‭ ‬cruelty and panic that all of Haynes‭’ ‬tortured protagonists share.‭ ‬All of his characters are societal rejects,‭ ‬banished to outsider status thanks to a world that doesn’t understand them or views them as threats.

Only one part of‭ ‬Poison’s triptych is explicitly homosexual,‭ ‬but the others speak to a kind of systemic intolerance that gays,‭ ‬as much as any oppressed minority,‭ ‬could relate,‭ ‬especially in‭ ‬1991.‭ ‬Horror quickly assumes the form of a‭ ‘‬50s monster movie,‭ ‬and just as King Kong and his oft-imitated brethren were seen as misunderstood,‭ ‬persecuted Others‭ (‬a theme that resounds all the way through‭ ‬True Blood today‭)‬,‭ ‬so too is the scientist,‭ ‬played by Larry Maxwell,‭ ‬whose contagious disease spreads like scarlet letters across his face and everyone he touches.‭ ‬Only this time,‭ ‬the work takes on added gravity when viewed as an allegory about the spread of AIDS,‭ ‬which disproportionately affected the gay community.‭

Likewise,‭ ‬in‭ ‬Hero,‭ ‬which predates the crime-drama sensationalism of‭ ‬Nancy Grace‭ – ‬not to mention the Columbine massacre and most TV docudramas about school-age psychos‭ ‬--‭ ‬the student-killer at the heart of the investigation is a quiet,‭ ‬bullied loner.‭ ‬He’s a person who might appear today on Dan Savage’s‭ “‬It Gets Better‭” ‬YouTube channel.

The‭ “‬New Queer Cinema‭” ‬that Haynes was such an integral part of it has advanced so much in‭ ‬20‭ ‬years,‭ ‬and the gay lifestyle has become so legitimized in popular culture today that it may be hard to grasp how groundbreaking‭ ‬Poison was.‭ ‬But regardless of the film’s views on sexuality,‭ ‬repression,‭ ‬madness and the nature-versus-nurture debate,‭ ‬it remains an intoxicating experiment,‭ ‬well worth rediscovering for its formal derring-do alone.

DVD Watch:‭ ‬My most anticipated release of June‭ ‬14‭ ‬is Nicolas Roeg’s audacious,‭ ‬visually striking adaptation of the Terry Johnson play‭ ‬Insignificance‭ (‬Criterion,‭ ‬$29.99‭ ‬Blu-ray,‭ ‬$21.99‭ ‬DVD‭)‬,‭ ‬which finds characters resembling Marilyn Monroe,‭ ‬Joseph McCarthy,‭ ‬Joe DiMaggio and Albert Einstein meeting in a hotel room in‭ ‬1954.‭ ‬If that doesn’t already sound like a party,‭ ‬keep in mind that Gary Busey is part of the cast,‭ ‬joining Theresa Russell,‭ ‬Tony Curtis and Michael Emil.‭ ‬Also on tap for this week are two‭ ‘‬70s TV movies from the Warner Archive.‭ ‬One of them,‭ ‬a‭ ‬1974‭ ‬crime thriller by Richard Thorpe,‭ ‬bears the memorable,‭ ‬if slightly unmarketable title‭ ‬Smile Jenny,‭ ‬You’re Dead‭ (‬$24.49‭)‬,‭ ‬and it co-stars a very young Jodie Foster.‭ ‬The other film,‭ ‬Dummy,‭ ‬is a courtroom drama about a deaf-and-dumb man tried for murder‭ (‬$24.49‭)‬.

Also of interest June‭ ‬14‭ ‬is‭ ‬Murderball director Dana Adam Shapiro’s feature-film debut‭ ‬Monogamy‭ (‬Oscilloscope,‭ ‬$26.99‭)‬,‭ ‬a sexy and stylish independent thriller starring Chris Messina and Rashida Jones,‭ ‬two underutilized actors awaiting star vehicles.‭ ‬The film has earned comparisons to‭ ‬sex,‭ ‬lies and videotape and‭ ‬Blow-Up.‭ ‬On the cult front,‭ ‬sexploitation maestro Radley Metzger gets the Blu-ray treatment on two of his vintage features,‭ ‬an extended cut of the Italian-language‭ ‬Camille‭ ‬2000‭ (‬Cult Epics,‭ ‬$34.95‭) ‬and the sadomasochistic drama‭ ‬The Image‭ (‬Synapse,‭ ‬$22.49‭)‬.

More entertaining trash arrives in droves June‭ ‬21‭ ‬with the latest in Shout‭! ‬Factory’s ongoing series of‭ ‬Roger Corman’s Cult Classics.‭ ‬This time it’s the‭ ‬Women in Cages Collection‭ (‬$13.49‭)‬,‭ ‬which includes the prison flicks‭ ‬Big Doll House‭ (‬with Pam Grier‭)‬,‭ ‬the titular‭ ‬Women in Cages and‭ ‬The Big Bird Cage.‭ ‬Elsewhere,‭ ‬we finally get a home-video release of‭ ‬The Romantic Englishwoman‭ (‬Kino,‭ ‬$24.49‭ ‬Blu-ray and‭ ‬$22.49‭ ‬DVD‭)‬,‭ ‬a strange late-period work directed by blacklisted filmmaker Joseph Losey and written by Tom Stoppard.‭ ‬Lastly,‭ ‬Criterion reissues one of the grimiest,‭ ‬most authentically dark films noir of all time,‭ ‬Robert Aldrich’s uncompromising‭ ‬Kiss Me Deadly‭ (‬$27.99‭ ‬Blu-ray,‭ ‬$19.99‭ ‬DVD‭)‬.

On June‭ ‬28,‭ ‬the clear front-runner for everyone’s attention is‭ ‬The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy:‭ ‬Extended Features collection on Blu-ray‭ (‬New Line,‭ ‬$83.99‭)‬,‭ ‬which is probably about the only thing that will keep New Line in business for another year.‭ ‬I’m more excited about another box set,‭ ‬The Alan Berliner Collection‭ (‬Lorber Films,‭ ‬$89.99‭)‬,‭ ‬which includes five of the rarely seen,‭ ‬rarely discussed experimental documentary filmmaker’s movies:‭ ‬The Family Album,‭ ‬Intimate Stranger,‭ ‬Nobody’s Business,‭ ‬The Sweetest Sound and‭ ‬Wide Awake.

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter‭ (‬1955‭)‬.

TV Watch:‭ ‬Check out Turner Classic Movies on June‭ ‬15,‭ ‬when guest programmer Chris Isaak takes over the reins all night.‭ ‬The singer/actor obviously has great taste in cinema:‭ ‬The evening begins at‭ ‬8‭ ‬with Charles Laughton’s masterpiece‭ ‬Night of the Hunter and continues with the Anthony Mann psychodrama‭ ‬God’s Little Acre,‭ ‬Elia Kazan’s ahead-of-its-time media satire‭ ‬Face in the Crowd and Orson Welles‭’ ‬magnificent‭ ‬Touch of Evil,‭ ‬before concluding at‭ ‬4:30‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬with‭ ‬1956‭’‬s‭ ‬A Cry in the Night,‭ ‬a Natalie Wood crime drama that has never been released on home video.

Christmas comes early and wickedly in June‭ ‬17‭ ‬when TCM presents‭ ‬Black Christmas,‭ ‬B-movie titan Bob Clark’s‭ ‘‬70s slasher,‭ ‬at‭ ‬2:15‭ ‬a.m.,‭ ‬followed by the infamous‭ ‬MST3K favorite‭ ‬Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.‭ ‬Hear it without the snarky commentary,‭ ‬and write your own.

My favorite TCM night of the month,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬has to be Friday,‭ ‬June‭ ‬24.‭ ‬The evening begins at‭ ‬8‭ ‬with Frank Tashlin’s brilliant satire on‭ ‬1950s America,‭ ‬Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter‭?‬ Later on that night,‭ ‬we get two rarely screened‭ ‘‬80s horror movies:‭ ‬Lucio Fulci’s‭ ‬The Beyond‭ (‬2‭ ‬a.m.‭)‬,‭ ‬about a woman whose inherited hotel was built over an entrance to Hell,‭ ‬and the similarly set‭ ‬Crawlspace‭ (‬3:45‭ ‬a.m.‭)‬,‭ ‬which stars Klaus Kinski in uber-creepy mode.‭ ‬Finally,‭ ‬on June‭ ‬30,‭ ‬in honor of director Anthony Mann’s birthday,‭ ‬check out a day full of his work,‭ ‬including some pretty rare stuff,‭ ‬such as the musical‭ ‬Sing Your Way Home‭ (‬7:15‭ ‬a.m.‭)‬,‭ ‬the thriller‭ ‬Two O’Clock Courage‭ (‬12:30‭ ‬p.m.‭) ‬and the historical drama‭ ‬The Black Book‭ (‬3‭ ‬p.m.‭)‬.

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