Bobcat Goldthwait returns with another of his biting black comedies, this one a takedown of everything he finds execrable in modern American culture (specifically reality television, celebrity worship, cable news blowhards, and political correctness). The film centers on Frank (Joel Murray, shining in his first starring role), a put-upon office worker who finds himself out of a job after a kind gesture toward a coworker lands him with a sexual harassment claim. When he discovers that on top of that, he's also got a brain tumor, he decides to go out in a blaze of glory, taking with him every representative of the worst of popular culture he can get in his gunsights. He meets up with a teenage girl sympathetic to his rampage, and the two go on an all-out cross-country killing spree.
What starts as revenge-fantasy wish fulfillment takes an even darker turn as Goldthwait has his characters push things too far. In the process, he points the finger squarely back at the audience, suggesting that the same sense of satisfaction we get from Frank taking "justice" into his own hands is part of the strange fascination we all have with the ugly sensationalism Frank is attempting to exact justice on. The film can sometimes come off as angry polemic, but Goldthwait's willingness to point the finger back not just at us, but at himself (Frank feels very much like a stand-in for the director) makes the film a fascinating analysis of our own worst natures and a wakeup call for a culture in decline.
Attention, Game of Thrones fans: Not getting enough of the charming-but-incestual Prince Charming, Jaime Lannister? You may want to check out this Norwegian crime thriller, in which that series' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a Danish actor, plays a former mercenary who becomes the target of an overachieving headhunter and art thief, played by Aksel Hennie. (Hennie is the star, though US trailers for the film have highlighted Coster-Waldau's involvement to capitalize on his draw among HBO watchers.) The film was a huge hit in Norway, garnering the second-biggest box office debut in that country's history, and the inevitable English-language remake is already in the works.
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp team up yet again, for yet another remake of a (semi-) familiar property--in this case the strange 1960s vampire soap opera Dark Shadows. On the surface, this seems like just the sort of story that could break the nearly unbroken string of diminishing returns in Burton/Depp pairings. Just like Sweeney Todd--the only really good Burton live-action film of the past decade or so--it's a dark story laced with quirky black humor, about an 18th-century gentleman cursed into vampirism by a spurned lover who happens to be a witch, who locks him in a metal coffin and buries him for what is meant to be an eternity. Only he's unearthed some 200 years later and must learn to live in the 1970s with the decidedly weird remnants of his once-powerful family.
For the first half of the film, Burton plays up the campy humor and references the high melodrama of the original series, even shooting some scenes with setups that recall daytime soap conventions. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, and Depp doesn't overplay Barnabas Collins as has become his habit in recent Burton films and in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Unfortunately, Burton abandons that approach for an effects-heavy, action-packed second half that's neither funny nor thrilling, and mostly just boring. In this context, bizarre touches such as stunt-casting Alice Cooper as his late-twentysomething self just seem like acts of desperation in a film that held a great deal of promise.
America's longtime fascination and love for the stately beasts of burden that helped build this country--plowing our fields, pulling our wagons, transporting us until we developed mechanical means of conveyance--has long been reflected in the movies. We're just over a week away from the biggest local event for thundering hooves, the Preakness, and to celebrate the running of that race, the AFI has put together an eight-film collection of movies. It gets started Saturday afternoon with a free screening of a film with a semi-local focus, 1961's Misty, based on Marguerite Henry's classic children's book about the annual gathering and auctioning of the wild ponies that roam Chincoteague Island. A pair of kids fall for one of these horses and her young foal, Misty, and have to find a way to raise the money to buy them at the auction. Saturday also features screenings of National Velvet, featuring a 12-year-old Liz Taylor, and the more recent 2010 film about racing's most famous horse, Secretariat (with an appearance at that screening from Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte).
The Arts, Military + Healing Initiative, an effort to help veterans deal with the aftermath of the experience of war through artistic expression, begins a weeklong public workshop here in DC this weekend called "Transforming War and Trauma Experience through the Arts." The Corcoran is participating in a number of events and workshops for the initiative, including this screening of writer/director Heather Courtney's 2011 documentary about a group of childhood friends who join the National Guard after high school. Courtney spends four years documenting the group, from enlistment through a deployment to Afghanistan, demonstrating the long-term effects of war on the psyches of these young men. Critics have praised Courtney's approach for its depoliticized approach to the human story of the men, and the important work done by the film in reminding us that once soldiers have completed their service to this country, it's time for us to step up and assist them in dealing with the after-effects of that service.
Blu-ray Pick of the Week: La Haine
French actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz burst onto the world stage in 1995, when he was just 28, on the strength of his second feature as director, the trenchant analysis of race and class relations in France, La Haine (English translation: "Hate"). Shot in stark black and white, the film follows three young men from the suburban Paris housing projects on a day following rioting in their neighborhood, after a friend of theirs was been beaten by the police. Kassovitz creates a multicultural trio that represent various populations of the French projects, with one young man of African descent, another who is Maghrebin, and a third (played by Vincent Cassel, in one of the most unforgettable film performances of the 1990s) who is Jewish.
Kassovitz sets these three loose all over Paris, resulting in a portrait of a city and a nation hopelessly divided along racial and class lines, with a culture of violence always near the boiling point thanks to a feeling of being trapped among those in the neighborhoods and antagonistic government and police policies. This is a film that wears its influences--from Martin Scorsese to Spike Lee--proudly, yet feels wholly the work of its author. Despite being inspired very much by the tensions present at the time it was made, the film hasn't lost a bit of its impact more than 15 years later.
This film has been available on DVD via Criterion for some time, but this week sees the film's US debut on Blu-ray.
Special Features: English-language commentary from Kassovitz; an introduction from Jodie Foster (who was heavily involved in getting the film US distribution); a documentary made ten years after the film's release; a featurette on the real-life setting of the film, including interviews with sociologists; behind-the-scenes production footage; and deleted/extended scenes.