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Moriarty’s Desk Is A F#%KING NIGHTMARE! The Complete PERSEPOLIS, MAD ABOUT STAR WARS, And More DVDs Than You Can Handle!

Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. When I walked back into my office after my recent vacation, after forgetting what sort of chaos I left it in, I’m almost positive I had a small cardiac event. There was a mountain of new stuff that came in while I was out of town, as well. A mountain. It’s all stacked in front of me now, and there’s no other single word for it. So pardon the blunt title for this column, but it’s the truth. My desk looks like exploded on it. DVDs. Books. Manuscripts. Screeners. All sorts of stuff, and I know I should be writing about it all. It gets watched and read and processed, but the last six weeks or so has been the worst of the year for me in terms of actually generating reviews. There are five or six big stacks sitting here right now, random groupings of things. And the only way I’m ever going to properly mention every single thing is to clean the desk off while creating an inventory that I publish here on the site. That way, I’ve at least touched briefly on all of this. Let’s start with the stack that’s closest to the printer. Keep in mind, the desk my wife bought me about two years ago is gigantic. It’s like a double-sized door laid flat. So I’ve been able to accumulate a fair amount of stuff here. In each of these stacks on my desk, there are titles I’ve seen and titles I haven’t seen. There’s a Dragon Dynasty title right there near the top of the stack. I’ll pick up anything the label puts out... it’s that consistent a release line so far. If you haven’t checked out the official site for Dragon Dynasty, you should. And you should go pick up a handful of their stuff and enjoy. Immediately.

In this case, I haven’t seen THE CITY OF VIOLENCE. I took it with me on vacation, but never got around to it. It’s the latest film from Seung-wan Ryoo, who also directed CRYING FIST (which is like the much better Korean version of MILLION DOLLAR BABY) and the slick NO BLOOD NO TEARS, so I hope it’ll be up to the standards of his earlier work.

My office right now has no blinds on the doors. I have giant glass doors on three walls, so it’s sort of like working in a fishbowl. My two year old can see the TV in my office from all sorts of different angles, even if he’s outside the office. I’m putting the blinds up when we get back to town. But for right now, I can’t watch certain titles, and one of the ones that I’ve put off is the recent Lionsgate special edition of EMMANUELLE. I’d like to see the original film again after however many years it’s been... 22 or so? That was an infamous title when I was a kid, and the first time I had an opportunity to see it on VHS, I saw it. This is obviously a huge title in terms of significance on the exploitation market, and as such, I’m going to add it to my collection and file it in the ESSENTIALS folders (which have swelled now to about 1100 discs in four folders). I think it left that big a pop culture crater.

Okay... have you ever been gooched by Danny Peary? If you haven’t, you probably have no idea what the question even means, but if you do know who Peary is, then chances are, he’s gooched you at least once. I was a huge fan of his CULT MOVIES series of books (unfortunately, my copies of all of the out-of-print books were lost in a move) and would track down films based on his descriptions of them. I found that I agreed with him on a lot of his recommendations. To this day, I think he’s one of the most adventurous and interesting critics I’ve ever read, and the CULT MOVIES books are responsible for validating any number of off-mainstream films. Peary had a gift in those books for making every film sound like an undiscovered masterpiece. And what made him really fascinating is how every now and then, I’d finally see one of the movies from one of the books, and I’d hate it. Just haaaaaaaaaaate it. And you’d wonder what kind of acid Peary was on when he saw it, because the film he described is not the film you saw. Hell, I’m sure some of you have felt that way about me on occasion. There are still films I haven’t seen from those books, and when I recently picked one up, I found that I’m almost reluctant to put it on. I’m afraid I’ll get gooched. Because the review he wrote for this film really made it sound great and special and haunting. Even better, it’s been so long since I read his review of THE CONQUERER WORM (as it was called when it was released in the U.S.) that I didn’t really remember the review. Just the effect that it had on me. I remember that there was some tragedy with the director, though. Turns out he killed himself at the age of 25 just before this was released. Insane. And it’s not just Danny Peary who likes it, either. THE GUARDIAN UNLIMITED writes “If the purpose of this series is, at least in part, to remind people of extraordinary films they may have forgotten, or even never seen, then Witchfinder General (retitled The Conqueror Worm in America) qualifies better than most. Michael Reeves, its British director, killed himself at the age of 25. This was the last of his three films, made when he was 23, and it is one of the most compulsively watchable ever made in Britain.” High praise, indeed.

I love Don May Jr. and Synapse Films. I love his taste in crazy. BASKET CASE was a VHS movie for me, and I remember getting a really dangerous vibe off of it. I thought it was sleazy. Porny. Barely professional and sort of unnerving in how low-class it was. And that’s what I loved about it. BASKET CASE 2 is the sort of verrrrrrry slightly larger-budget but still actually no-budget-at-all version of the first film. A little bigger. A little more ambitious. A little stranger. It’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I’m looking forward to checking it out again. Beyond that, I know that Don May’s probably busted his ass to put together the best version possible of this film on DVD. When I think of the work he did restoring STREET TRASH last year, it’s pretty clear that there are very few people out there putting as much care into creating discs for this kind of crazy genre film.

I still have to see the first season of ROME, which I have, before I watch the second season of ROME. But I definitely plan to do that. The people who loved this show really loved it, and I figure it’s worth at least me giving it a try. I watched about ten minutes of the first episode with my wife, and she wanted to change the channel. I look forward to making some time and just digging back into it and watching two or three discs in a day. That’s how I like to watch these TV season box sets. Just one episode after another like a giant movie. I find that often I have a totally different reaction to a show when I watch it like that than the people who watch it week-to-week do. I think part of that is because of the frustrations that happen when you’re having to wait for the next piece of information in a series, especially when you’re really engrossed in it. I tried watching ROME when it was on HBO, and I didn’t really click in on the first episode. Considering how much I have to watch, one episode’s about all the time I’ll give a show on broadcast before I tune out. However, on DVD, I’m happy to try again, and considering I didn’t care for the first DEADWOOD on TV but absolutely flipped for it on DVD, I’m hoping the same thing happens here. We’ll see.

I haven’t seen the first two films in this series. With the exception of GALAXY QUEST, I don’t get Tim Allen’s continued work in film. I’m not saying I hate him... I just don’t get it. He seems to have a fan base, but I wonder how much of his occasional success is just a case of the film, and not him in particular. Why do I get the feeling that anyone could have starred as Santa Claus in these films and they would have done pretty much the same exact business? In the case of this third movie, though, two things will probably get me to pop it in at some point. First, the weird-ass BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 premise that folds this film into the first film seems awfully avant garde for a Disney family film, and I’m curious to see if they take full advantage of it. Second, there’s Martin Short. God help me, Martin Short makes me laugh, and he looks like he plays an unctuous piece of shit in this, which sounds like fun. And even if the film turns out to be awful, I still suspect Toshi won’t mind it, and I have a feeling he’s more the target audience than I am.

Oh, come on. Why not just call it CADDYBLACK? This looks wretched, but that OCD part of my brain won’t let me ignore it now that it’s here in the house, and I’m sure I’ll have some late night where it ends up in the player and I end up 90 minutes poorer but filled with fresh movie shame.

I haven’t seen this in years, and I’m looking forward to finally getting another look at it. I wish Coppola hadn’t retouched it out of insecurity and an understandable desire to whitewash his own personal mythology a bit. The thing I’m most excited about is the new material on the DVD that has to do with YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, his new film which I’ll be seeing next week. If you haven’t seen HEARTS OF DARKNESS, it’s one of the most unflinching looks at the creative process, especially when someone’s working in that ambitious “sink-or-swim” mode, that I’ve ever seen, and it makes a tremendous companion piece to the brilliant APOCALYPSE NOW.

I’ve said before that SESAME STREET taught me to read, and that may be a slight oversimplification, but it’s essentially true. I was a member of the first generation of kids to be raised on the output of the Children’s Television Workshop, and I think it’s an experiment that worked better than anyone could have possibly hoped. Looking back at these episodes, there’s a sense of almost giddy creative energy at play. The people who made SESAME STREET and THE ELECTRIC COMPANY (which has also been well represented on DVD in the last two years) didn’t have a road map to follow, so their accomplishment is doubly impressive. I showed my son some of the material from the first box set in this series, and I can’t wait to share more of it with him this time around.

When this showed up at my house, my writing partner was over, and he immediately tried to run out of the house with the book so he could take it home. I didn’t even know I wanted this until I had it in my hands, and then it was one of those immediate “OF COURSE I NEED THIS!” moments that all geeks have occasionally. Basically, they’ve collected all the STAR WARS articles that have ever appeared in MAD magazine, including all the movie parodies, and they’ve also gone in and added great footnotes and sidebars that explain some behind-the-scenes trivia and some additional jokes. It’s a tremendous effort, and as I read through it, I found myself flashing back to my first exposure to most of this stuff. It’s a great collection, and it’s a reminder of just how great MAD has been over the years at nailing pop culture to the wall.

It makes me happy to see that the mainstream acceptance of Johnnie To as a giant freakin’ action movie badass is continuing to progress. To is awesome on top of awesome, and ELECTION is a perfect example of why he matters. There aren’t many guys today working in Hong Kong who seem to be perfectly happy there, not harboring a desire to jump ship to Hollywood filmmaking at the first opportunity. To’s movies aren’t just action films set in Hong Kong... they are action movies that could only be set in Hong Kong, commentary on the city and its culture that just happens to also feature incredibly well-staged set pieces. ELECTION works as a great crime film, a smart commentary on the Hong Kong criminal underworld, and especially as a commentary on politics in general. Tartan’s shown great taste in what foreign titles they release, and this is just one more example of that.

I don’t care if the entire fanboy nation rejected DEATH PROOF. I think it’s a blast, and I’ve enjoyed rewatching it and sharing it with people since it came out on disc. Same with PLANET TERROR. I think they both hold up to repeat scrutiny. Admittedly, I wish they’d issued them as the original film, but even having them this way pleases me enormously. DEATH PROOF isn’t like a regular movie. It’s like a night out with friends, a leisurely hang-out. It’s got no real shape for a long time, just sort of shambling along until something finally happens, and when it happens, it’s jaw-dropping. The first car accident is one of the great shock gore moments in any movie I’ve ever seen. The way QT stutters the accident, taking in each death in almost clinical detail. The film is almost stubborn in the way it’s structured, because just as you finally get to “the good stuff,” it goes back into leisurely hang-out mode, and it takes its sweet fucking time about it. It dares you to hold on. And then, when Stuntman Mike fiiiiiiiiiiinally shows back up, the scene is worth the wait. It’s not just a car chase. It’s not just a step up from the first Stuntman Mike scene. It’s like The Car Chase. It’s iconic work. And what’s really maddening about it is how confident it is. QT directs it with an absolutely sure hand, an aggressive visual style that’s both classic and cutting-edge, a mix of the real and the un, and it is punctuated with a fantastic choice of final moment. I will watch the unrated version or the theatrical cut, and I like them both in slightly different ways, but if this is the only one available on video right now, that’s fine. I’ll take it. PLANET TERROR is fun, and it’s silly, and it never stops trying to entertain you. Of the two, I thought this was far less of a “new cut.” I honestly don’t know what the difference is. It plays pretty much just like the theatrical version, which I saw three times. If DEATH PROOF is a woozy stony evening out with friends, then PLANET TERROR is a house party, loud and raucous and drunk and naked. Yes, I want the entire thing the way I saw it in the theater. I’m sure there will be a high-def release of it at some point. Until then, I’m perfectly capable of throwing my own double feature here at the house.

One of the very best episodes of JACKASS was the episode where the guys entered the Gumball Rally in Europe. Well, this is basically Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Tony Hawk, and a few other guys all entering the Rally again. And it’s a feature-length version of the same idea. And it’s entertaining if you like these guys. I actually think Tony Hawk comes across best in this film, and by the end of it, I once again found myself thinking he’s one of the true bellweathers of “cool” in popular culture right now. He strikes me as a ridiculously decent guy, but he’s got a wicked-sharp sense of humor at times, too. Tech credits are slick, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to at least give it a slot in your Netflix queue.

I reviewed a short film by Mike Williamson a few years ago, and I thought it was promising stuff. When I worked on the first two seasons of MASTERS OF HORROR, I got a chance to know Mike personally since he worked in the editorial department. Recently, he sent me his new short film, and during the Halloween crunch, as my co-writer and I were finishing a pre-strike project, we put on IN THE WALL late one night. Erin Brown, known better to Skinemax spank freaks as Misty Mundae, is the star of this one, and Williamson’s other “get” is Patty McCormack, star of THE BAD SEED, who plays the concerned landlord of the building where Jonelle (Brown) lives with her husband, Chris (Chris McKenna). Jonelle’s very pregnant, ready to pop, and Chris is starting to melt down in the face of impending fatherhood. He makes some bad choices, and those bad choices set off a chain reaction of bad events that are genuinely horrifying. Williamson makes good use of his low budget, and he includes just enough money shots to give the entire film a professional edge. I’m positive after seeing the jump from one film to the next that Williamson’s going to end up in features at some point. He’s got chops, and he’s got a good sense of how to make the outrageous seem almost rational. This has played well at festivals so far, and if you get a chance to see it, you should.

Speaking of MASTERS OF HORROR, this was one of the episodes I didn’t see during the actual Showtime run of season two. Yes, that’s right... I’m admitting it. I didn’t make it through the entire season while it was being broadcast. I let the episodes stack up on my TIVO, and they were taking up a lot of room and I knew the DVDs would be out soon, so I just... deleted them. I’ve watched them all on DVD, though, and this is one of the last ones I needed to catch up with. My first question is... how the hell did they end up making a full-length feature? We were allowed to do that? Nobody told me that, goddammit! Okay... speaking as a fellow “Master of Horror,” I don’t mean to denigrate the work by Norio Tsuruta. He’s not really the “master” in this episode, though, just like I wasn’t on the episodes I wrote. Here, Tsuruta may be the director, but Koji Suzuki is the superstar horror name being sold. He’s the one who wrote the novel THE RING in 1991, the source material that kicked off the entire new J-horror movement. Naoya Takayama adapted the script from Koji Suzuki’s short story. It’s a claustrophobic piece that relies entirely on the conventions of the dead wet girl with stringy black hair genre. As a result, it’s... well, it’s not scary. It’s a shame that so many people mined this territory, but it’s obvious that Suzuki went back to that well (in DARK WATER, among others) too many times. I find it hard to believe that this represents the state of the art in what’s happening in Japan’s horror scene right now.

I can’t really justify some of what’s on my desk. Things get sent to me, and I put them all in the slush pile, and I sometimes get things randomly selected that I can’t believe even exist. DELTA FARCE is one such title. Is there really, really, really a Larry The Cable Guy movie audience? Is the Jim Varney as Vern audience really desperate for a replacement? That’s what this feels like, but there’s a more grotesque edge to the broad humor, and much of that can be ascribed to the disturbing DJ Quall, who gives 110% in the role he plays. He’s like a real-life Gollum starring in JACKASS. I think Pauly Shore made this movie, just like Varney did, just like about a bajillion people have since the days when Abbott & Costello were doing it.

You know what the biggest crime is regarding CAPTIVITY, directed by Roland Joffe and released as part of the 8 FILMS TO DIE FOR label? They released one of the most disturbing ad campaigns in recent memory, to great controversy, and the film they released is... really, really fucking boring. This started life as a Larry Cohen script, and I can imagine what his version was. The “twist” in the film (and, yeah, it’s built around a “big reveal”) is fairly obvious, and telegraphed early. And the film’s last third is just ridiculous. The obvious reshoots in the film contribute to an uneven technical quality that is downright amateur in a few places. This was probably the highest profile of the After Dark releases, and it’s one of their worst overall pictures. If you want to see one of their films, you’d be better off renting something like THE GRAVEDANCERS or DARK RIDE or THE ABANDONED.

Shane Meadows is one of the most consistently excellent filmmakers working anywhere in the world today, and the fact that he hasn’t broken through yet in America is an embarrassment. DEAD MAN’S SHOES should have done the trick, but didn’t. And this summer, THIS IS ENGLAND was released to pretty much crickets and empty theaters. The title didn’t really convey what a strange and powerful ride through the early ‘80s this is. Meadows reminds me of Alan Clarke here, both in subject matter and in execution, but Meadows is particularly noteworthy because of the way he’s building his own cinematic world, film by film by film. His personal roots are in the Midlands, and he’s slowly etching in the Midlands on film, as a real place, stuffed with real people, a working class world, rough around the edges, all of it etched with unflinching wit and humanity. I’ve seen some pretty great performances from kids this year. Thomas Turgoose is the lead here, Shaun, and his performance is remarkable. Shaun’s an angry, lonely 12 year old kid, watching the unrest of the Falklands War on TV, his father one of the casualties of the war. Shaun’s a tough little cuss, and he falls in with some older kids who take a liking to him. Their leader, Woody (Joe Gilgun) recognizes something in Shaun, and he takes this kid under his wing. You can’t help but feel this connection between them. We can see exactly what it is that Shaun’s getting from them, and we can see how well Shaun fits in with them, too. And the fact that they’re a racist skinhead gang... well, that’s beside the point. And that’s sort of the genius of the film. This is a film about finding a place where you belong, a film that shows a realistic way that people end up joining groups like these. The film is funny and scary and nostalgic and sad, and when I say that it’s one of the best films that Meadows has made, that’s high praise, and I have a feeling we’re still just seeing the warm-up from this great filmmaker.

Some of you seemed shocked that I wasn’t doing cartwheels about this film when it came out and I reviewed it. I just have a fundamental problem with political documentaries that are being produced right now about events that are still going on. I feel like it’s too soon to really be doing this sort of work. Right now, perspective is something everyone is unable to offer, no matter how skilled the filmmaking is. Charles Ferguson’s documentary is angry, but it manages to keep it in check while laying out a persuasive case about the mistakes that have been made in the Iraqi engagement. “Mistakes” may actually be too mild a word, but even so... I think what I’ve learned over the last ten years while working here at AICN is that I’m not crazy about the documentary-as-advocacy. I’m much more interested in documentaries that simply capture a situation or a character or a corner of the world. I know plenty of people who adore the advocacy thing, though, and I will agree that there’s something important about these films in an age where I don’t trust any major newsgathering organization in the world. There’s not a single network news team or cable news group that I think reports without bias or corporate influence today, and that means that at some point, it will be independent documentarians who offer us some of the only unfiltered records of our world. That’s why I’m extra-sensitive to bias or agenda in films like this one, and by that measuring stick, NO END IN SIGHT is one of the best examples of this particular sub-genre. Ferguson makes his case clearly and dispassionately, and he speaks to a wide-enough cross-section of people involved that you can’t dismiss the film and it’s conclusions outright, no matter how much you may want to.

Richard Fleischer was a spectacularly cheesy filmmaker. If his only film ever had been the Neil Diamond remake of THE JAZZ SINGER, he would live in infamy forever. But his resume is littered with titles like RED SONJA and AMITYVILLE 3-D and MANDINGO and THE VIKINGS and the ‘60s version of DOCTOR DOLITTLE. Even his “classics” like FANTASTIC VOYAGE and SOYLENT GREEN strike me as a little ripe. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the work he did. I really love 20000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and THE BOSTON STRANGLER is a good, nasty bit of business. In 1977, he released CROSSED SWORDS, a riff on THE PRINCE & THE PAUPER that was obviously made to cash in on the enormous success of Richard Lester’s MUSKETEERS films. Much of the same cast shows up here, and the aesthetic and the sensibilities of the film are so similar that this feels like a sequel to those movies. Here, Mark Lester (famous as the star of OLIVER!) plays the twin roles of the prince and... well... the pauper, twins who end up switching places and getting a glimpse of each other’s lives amidst much palace intrigue and swashbuckling adventure comedy. I don’t think this ever quite hits the same heights that the MUSKETEERS films accomplish, but it’s an enjoyable afternoon, light and silly, and the barebones disc from Lionsgate features a decent transfer.

I’m frequently amazed by how divisive the work of Terrence Malick is among film fans. I’m not sure how someone can claim to love cinema but remain unmoved by the work that Malick does. I think THE NEW WORLD and THE THIN RED LINE may be slightly more difficult than his ‘70s work, though. There was an almost haiku quality to the first two films that Malick made. BADLANDS remains one of the very best films about teen rebellion ever made, and DAYS OF HEAVEN is, in my opinion, one of the great films about the American experience. From the hypnotic narration by Linda Manz to the sad-eyed melancholy of Brooke Adams to the haunting beauty of the locust attack on the ranch... DAYS OF HEAVEN is packed with images and sounds and moments that burned themselves into my mind the first time I watched the film, and I find that the more I return to it, the richer the film is overall. This new transfer by Criterion is breathtaking. Anyone who thinks that DVD is finished isn’t paying attention. As long as you have companies doing work like this, DVD isn’t going anywhere, and there’s no reason it should. I’ve seen this film in the theater and on DVD and laserdisc, and this presentation of it was revelatory. Malick and John Bailey, the lead camera operator on the film (the cinematography, Nestor Almendros, died in 1992), both supervised this new transfer and the new color timing, and the results were worth whatever cost and effort they took. If the look of the film was the only thing the film had going for it, it would still be worth picking up. But this film was unfairly maligned when it came out as being “pretty, but empty.” I love the simple dynamic the film establishes between the characters played by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard. This is the sort of film where there’s plenty of room for the viewer to interpret what they’re watching and what it means, but it’s not a hard film to understand by any means. It’s more experiential than it is dramatic in a conventional sense, and for some viewers, that’s no fun to watch. For me, it remains just as electrifying now as it did when I first saw it, and thanks to the work by the Criterion team, it’s more beautiful than it’s ever been.

Whereas I honestly believe that the art of American cinema reached an artistic peak in the ‘70s, American television was almost frighteningly awful during that same time period, and when I look at something like LOVE AMERICAN STYLE now, I’m amazed that it managed to last a full five seasons. Each episode is made up of a series of short scenes that ostensibly illuminate something about the way love worked in American at the time. Mostly, though, the show is an excuse for really cornball comedy that probably seemed dated even at the time. You’ll be amazed at how many familiar faces show up on the series, which is sort of a LOVE BOAT-style avalanche of recognizable character actors of the era. I’m not sure I’d recommend this to anyone who wasn’t a fan when it originally aired, but it was a fascinating time capsule to re-examine from the perspective of now.

Right now, as we settle in for week number five of the strike and as I deal with some business-affairs bullshit from one company and residuals bullshit with another company, I find myself falling out of love with Hollywood. The studio system is designed to crush personal visions, and if a filmmaker has any hope of ever making something that is unique or special, they have to look outside the system. What’s funny is that I feel like it’s a lesson I had to be reminded of, and the film that reminded me recently is actually the film that first made the point to me over 20 years ago. When you talk about making something from nothing, STRANGER THAN PARADISE by Jim Jarmusch is one of the best possible examples of doing it right. Jarmsuch used left-over bits of film, whatever was left on rolls after other footage had been developed, and tailored each scene of this film around however much film he had. There’s nothing flashy or slick about the movie, and the main trio of John Lurie, Richard Edson, and Eszter Balint are hardly what I would call the most polished of actors. Doesn’t matter, though. There’s a charm to the film that no amount of money could buy, and for a 23 year old film, it still feels really hip and fresh. Lurie plays Willie, a hipster whose life is “interrupted” when he is visited by a distant relative, Eva, played by Balint. She’s new to the country and on her way to Cleveland to live with an aunt. Willie has spent so much time ignoring his Hungarian heritage that Eva’s visit seems like an offense at first. But after she’s gone, Willie realizes how much he enjoyed her, and a year later, he rounds up his best friend Eddie (Edson) and goes on a road trip to see Eva again. They go on vacation together, and things don’t go well. That’s pretty much all there is to it, but Jarmusch keeps things rolling with that great sly deadpan humor of his. Shot in primitive black-and-white, this is pretty much as low-tech as a film can be visually, and the audio is passable at best. Since Criterion couldn’t blow your mind with the transfer, they did a great job packing this two-disc edition with extras, including Jarmusch’s first feature, PERMANENT VACATION, which I’m not as fond of, but which I’m glad I finally saw. There’s a German TV interview, a short film by Jarmusch’s brother, and all sorts of pictures and trailers and liner notes that all add to an appreciation of this cult gem.

I love being blindsided by films I’m not expecting anything from, and TEKKONKINKREET definitely fits that description. Director Michael Arias makes one hell of a debut here with the story of the struggle for control of Treasure Town. Along with several crime families and street gangs, two children play a key role in the life of this particular corner of a modern Japanese city. Black and White are orphans, street children, watching out for each other. When the Yakuza tries to take over Treasure Town, Black and White fight them, and the bizarre powers they use are part of the visual kick of the film. So is Treasure Town itself, one of the most meticulously detailed environments in recent animation. It’s remarkable the way Arias not only creates the environment, but the way he sets his camera and his characters free inside of it. The thing that really sold me on the film, though, it’s the virtuosity of the animation but the emotional connection between Black and White. Their relationship is as touching in its own way was the sibling love on display in GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, and the film is an emotional powerhouse as well as a technical marvel. Sony’s DVD is gorgeous, and this is one of those films that never got its fair shake in theaters, so you owe it to yourself if you’re a fan of animation to hunt it down as soon as possible.

I’ve seen a lot of Mike White recently, on the picket lines at Warner Bros. or showing up at special screenings like the Edgar Wright film festival over at the New Beverly. And I’ve never quite gotten around to telling him how much I enjoyed YEAR OF THE DOG, his bittersweet character study about loneliness and the things it does to people. Molly Shannon, who I think has been poorly served by the roles she’s been given in film for the most part, makes the most of her opportunity here as the star of this film, and proves herself able to handle much more than the broad comedy most people allow her to do. It would have been easy for Mike White to either make this a pro-PETA film or to use it as a way to mock animal rights advocates. Instead, he wrote a character piece that is about someone who becomes obsessed with animal rights, and he wrote the people in the film as flawed and human, so even if they have the right ideas, maybe they don’t quite go about them the right way. White seems to be drawn to fringe characters as a writer, like in his breakthrough script CHUCK & BUCK, and no one in YEAR OF THE DOG could be accused of any sort of conventional heroism, and there is no one in the film who could be easily described as a villain. Instead, his characters frequently end up causing their own problems, and White’s actors in this film are unafraid to play their characters as unlikable or weak. Peter Sarsgaard is especially good here, playing the character who would typically turn into the romantic lead. I’m sure White could have easily turned this into an obvious big-budget Hollywood comedy version by just adjusting a few things and rewriting his third act. He’s done enough studio gigs to know what changes would have to be made, but it’s to his great credit that he resisted those urges. In the end, this isn’t a great film, but it feels genuine, and Shannon’s work is so strong that I hope it changes the way people think about casting her in the future. She deserves it.

Simply put, this is the most cynical film ever made, and I love it. For years, this has been totally unavailable on home video, and Criterion deserves credit for finally working it out and putting together such a great package. When the end result is this is good, I don’t mind waiting for a home video release. I understand why this was a financial failure when it was first released in 1951, and I think if it were released to theaters today, it would fail just as completely. Never mind that it’s one of the best things the great Billy Wilder ever touched. Never mind that it features one of the best performances that Kirk Douglas ever gave. Never mind that the message of the film is just as relevant now as it was then. The film’s a relentless downer, and as a result, it’s never going to be the cocktail of favor for most viewers. But for those who aren’t afraid of a little darkness, and for those who don’t mind a little brutal cynicism, ACE IN THE HOLE is one of the year’s most significant DVD releases. Douglas only worked with Wilder this one time, and I’m not sure society could have handled more collaborations between the two of them. There’s something combustible about the way they bring Chuck Tatum to life. Tatum’s a newspaperman, a journalist who has managed to burn down every job he’s ever worked, a reporter who infuriates his editors. He’s great at what he does, and he’s got no morals to get in the way of doing whatever he has to for the big stories. The problem is that Tatum has managed to burn so many bridges that there’s no place for him to work at any major city newspaper. That’s how he finds himself in the middle of the desert, pitching his services to the editor of a tiny newspaper in Albequerque. He figures that sooner or later, a big story will fall into his lap. “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog,” he says. He gets the job, but quickly starts to feel like he’s wasting away. When he’s on a drive one afternoon through the nearby town of Los Barrios, he stumbles into that story, courtesy of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict in a heart-breaking turn), a local man who gets trapped during a cave-in. Tatum ends up in collusion with the local sheriff (Ray Teal) and Minosa’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling, a bleached-blonde viper in a cheap slip) to turn the story into a national phenomenon. The plan works better than Tatum could have imagined, and what unfolds is an x-ray of our own worst natures, filled with some of the best, blackest dialogue of the noir age. This was a turning point for Wilder as an artist, the moment when his flirtation with darkness finally revealed just how black his heart could be. Every moment of joy in his films that came after this felt hard-won, making them even more precious. If you aren’t familiar with this one, pick it up as soon as you can with my very highest recommendation.

You know the people who complain about the new wave of 3D, saying that it makes their eyes hurt and it’s just a gimmick to disguise how shitty the movies are? Well, this is what they’re talking about. Yikes.

When I recently wrote about picking up my first Blu-Ray player, which happens to be the PS3, I also mentioned that the first game I had on the system was CONAN. The talkback contained several of you telling me that I am an idiot for enjoying the game. I appreciate the feedback, but let me expand on my initial observations. I am a casual gamer. In fact, I am beyond casual in my gaming. If I play three games a year, that’s a lot. I can talk for days about the relative merits of film, and the history behind them, and the context in which a film should be seen, and I am confident that when I say a film is well-made, I know what I’m talking about. With games, all I know is if I have fun playing it, and CONAN was, in my opinion, heaps of fun. It is preposterously easy to master, which is a plus if you play as few games as I do, and filled with absurd gore. Having been raised on the works of Robert E. Howard, I find it oddly soothing to learn how to use two swords to hack off a dude’s arms and head in two fluid moves. Ron Perlman’s voice work is perhaps a wee bit on the articulate side, but I like the idea that Perlman is now the default voice of any giant musclehead hero. I actually beat the game, something I don’t do with everything I play, and all told, it only took me about eight hours of game play. I would imagine that for hardcore gamers, that’s not much of a value, but for someone who loves the character and the world, it was an enjoyable trip, and even if it is obviously GOD OF WAR-lite, that’s not a bad thing.

I skipped this one completely in the theater. I’ve still got a few years before my attendance at every animated film, good or bad, is mandatory. Toshi watches bits and pieces of Pixar films here at the house, and he watches trailers, but when your grand total of TV time in a day is 45 minutes, and not in a row, it’s hard to make it through a whole film. There aren’t many films that inspire him to come back the next day for more. MEET THE ROBINSONS has joined the rotation with TOY STORY 2 and FINDING NEMO and RATATOUILLE, though, and Toshi seems genuinely delighted by it. I’m not surprised now that I’ve actually seen it. There’s a much sweeter sensibility at work here than the original commercials suggested, and the film is actually about something. It’s not just random fart jokes and pop culture references like most of what passes as mainstream animation these days. I’ve heard Bryan Singer say that much of his motivation in making SUPERMAN RETURNS was because of the adoption metaphor he found in the material. Well, as an adopted person, I can tell you that I find the metaphor to be far more potent in MEET THE ROBINSONS, and it’s that subtext which attracted director Stephen J. Anderson to the script in the first place. This is a movie about figuring out where you belong in the world when you don’t come from anywhere or anyone. Being without a history, without a family, without tradition or heritage... it’s scary. But it’s also liberating. You can either spend your life questioning what it was that made someone give you up in the first place, or you can get busy making sure that the life you do have is worth something, and MEET THE ROBINSONS may be silly and involve time-travel and singing frogs and dinosaurs with tiny arms, but it also deals with the underlying themes with honesty and with maturity. It’s an impressive little film, the best CG animated film that Disney’s produced away from the Pixar banner, and my one regret now is that we didn’t see it in 3D. As it is, the disc is packed with extra material, and if someone in your family is a fan, it’s a worthy purchase.

I’ll be reviewing the film version of PERSEPOLIS soon enough, but before I sat down to watch the film, I was lucky enough to be sent this collection of both of the graphic novels written and drawn by Marjane Satrapi. I think it’s beautiful work. Satrapi’s accomplishment in telling the story of her childhood in Tehran, her adolescence in Vienna, and then her return to Iran as an adult is something above and beyond her individual experience. She offers up a human face on the Middle East that is essential right now, a window into a whole lifestyle and world of experience that is alien to us. It’s funny. It’s sweet. It’s angry in places. It’s almost embarrassingly frank at times. Satrapi doesn’t make herself look perfect. Far from it. I think the book I would most compare it to is MAUS by Spiegelman. There’s something about the simple rhythms of the book that mask the complex political and moral and social material within. The art itself is almost deceptively simple. Over the span of the full 300-plus pages, I just got lost in Satrapi’s story. I know the story of the Islamic Revolution from the point of view of how we covered it in the West, but reading this, and seeing how it was for normal Iranians living through it, I was sort of knocked sideways. It was a paradigm shift. As much as I always like to tell myself that I believe in a sort of universal commonality of man, it took this book to make me see what it would have been like... the actual minutiae of it... it’s priceless, deeply moving. We can’t imagine living under the sort of widespread political repression that Satrapi and her family live under, and thanks to this remarkable work, we don’t have to.

As a real film fan, honestly... this is sort of embarrassing. I remember when it was really important for me to know what nudity I could expect from a movie. It was when I was 11 or 12 years old, and my parents opened a video store, one of the first I’d ever seen, and there were boxes of movies coming into my house. I needed to know which ones of those films were “good” r-rated films, and which ones weren’t. I remember my profound disappointment upon sneaking a viewing of Mazursky’s AN UNMARRIED WOMAN. Jill Clayburgh didn’t set off a single hormonal alarm in my pubescent self, to my profound disappointment. I think MR. SKIN is a little creepy, truth be told. The greatest thing MR. SKIN has ever been involved in is the subplot in KNOCKED UP in which the guys don’t realize they’re “inventing” something that someone else has already done infinitely better. But I can’t imagine I’ll ever personally have the need to look something up in here.

And the final thing in this first stack is a book that I should have reviewed a while ago, except I sort of pussed out. I’ve been a huge fan of Doug TenNapel’s work, and I spent much time and energy making sure you knew about CREATURE TECH, TOMMYSAURUS REX, and IRON WEST. This particular book of his, though, just didn’t click for me, and it’s because there is something strange about TenNapel, a guy who writes so well about faith and family and simple decency, trying to do a Frank Miller. You know how it was sort of awkward and incorrect when Miller recently had The Dark Knight growling things like “I’m the goddamned Batman”? Well, that’s BLACK CHERRY for me. As much as I like the things that TenNapel dropped into the blender this time, the drink just doesn’t go down smooth. There’s a really strange overusage of gay slurs by these demon characters that I found offputting, and although I read the introduction where TenNapel talks about his characters ringing true, this is the first time where I felt like that wasn’t the case. This felt too much like pastiche, and there was no room for the honesty that marks TenNapel’s best work. The thing is, he’s already sent me the galleys for a new book, one I liked much more, and I think he’s finished another and is working on his next. The guy’s unstoppable, and one of the things I love about him is the way he seems to have stories practically spilling out of him right now. It’s a remarkable pace, and not everything he turns out is going to be a classic. He’s had a pretty great hit-to-miss ratio so far, and even if I didn’t love BLACK CHERRY, it’s well-drawn, a fairly affectionate nod to the style of EC Comics around the time of the original MAD magazine, and it has enough crazy geek madness in it that I’m sure some people will dig it more than I did. I’m out of LA pretty much right now, as soon as I put up a fistful of stories, but I’ll be posting my reviews for JUNO, THE GOLDEN COMPASS, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, Adam Rifkin’s LOOK, and a few other films over this long BNAT weekend, even while I’m in Vancouver on the set of... actually, I’m not sure I’m allowed to say. All I know is I can’t wait to “watch” them work.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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