Saturday, February 10, 2007

Revisit: Ice Cream Man

A David M. Goldstein/Doublesteen production 1995

Directed by
Paul Norman

Writing credits
Sven Davison
David Dobkin

After being released from the Wishing Well Sanatorium, Gregory (Cling Howard) reopens the old ice cream factory, using all the unappreciative children as the flavor of the day.

This shit is absolutely ridiculous. It's one of those movies you might see on the Sci-Fi channel at 3AM. Everything about it is so horrible, except for Clint Howard, who makes the best creepy killer I think I've ever seen. Oh, Clint, why can't your younger brother be so talented?

It was written by the director of Wedding Crashers, adding further evidence that Wedding Crashers sucks something awful. If you like really bad, really gorey B-Horror films, you'll certainly dig this gem. Otherwise stay the hell away.

Bamboozled: Effective Criticism or Critically Underscored?

Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is a satirical attack on the way American television misrepresents African Americans. Shot in DV and converted to 35mm, Bamboozled visually reflects television as a medium, using TV’s own formal conventions to mock it as an institution. The films plot focuses on a frustrated African American TV writer named Pierre Delacroix (Daman Wayans) who proposes a satirical blackface minstrel show with hopes to reveal the mediums innate racism. Much to Delacroix’s chagrin, the show becomes a smash hit, and events unfold that culminate in a melodramatic explosion of violence. Bamboozled ultimately presents an overly sardonic, albeit somewhat accurate representation of the network television system, particularly commenting on African American participation both behind the scenes and on the screen.

The film begins with Delacroix describing the problems modern television networks face: despite offering over 900 channels with endless programs to choose from, audiences are turning away their “idiot boxes like rats fleeing from a sinking ship”. Networks, then, must come up with something new, something fresh that people have never seen before. The network in Bamboozled, named CNS, turns to their sole black head writer to come up with an ‘urban’ show that will “make headlines”.

CNS is portrayed as being an ignorant, greedy institution. Executive Programmer Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rappaport) claims to understand what it’s like to be black because he’s married to an African woman and supports black sports stars, yet he upholds negative stereotypes such as ‘negro time’, unwittingly uses the word ‘nigger’, and ultimately is looking for a show that demeans blacks, rather than supports a dignified view. When Delacroix’s blatantly racist show is pitched, Dunwitty immediately loves it, seeing dollar signs rather than the social effects of the show’s content. He even goes so far as to edit the show according to his own narrow ideas. Similarly, the network shows little respect for black talent. Delacroix himself is often belittled by coworkers, called an ‘oreo’ for his white –catering demeanor. For a show making fun of blacks, not a single black writer is hired; the white ones who are chalk this up to a possible lack of drive, unwillingness to work for small pay, or that blacks simply “couldn’t put their crack pipes down”. Despite this lack of black writing talent, the network produces an embarrassing influx of black performers, posing the question if blacks actors are desperate for work. The network also hires a public relations expert, who comes up with a list of ways to balance the show’s racist content with positive images of African Americans, claiming “the show can’t be racist because it was written by a non-threatening black male”. Finally, the network pursues sponsors that exploit black culture, advertising products such as malt liquor and flashy clothing.

Bamboozled presents this fictional network as a reflection of real television programming institutions. Although the details are extremely exaggerated, much of what the film describes is accurate. Struggling to compete with the Internet, film, and other mediums, TV networks are now forced to find edgy, new material that pushes boundaries and grabs attention. Shows with radical sexual, violent, and racial content, like Desperate Housewives or The Shield, as well as the influx of supposed ‘reality’ based programming reflect this. Likewise, Bamboozled’s representation of blacks working in TV is rooted in fact. Currently there are very few African American writers working in the medium, and those that do exist are expected to come up with ‘hip’ and ‘urban’ concepts. The number of black performers on TV is high, but they are often found in platforms that create caricatures, rather than actual representations of African Americans. Though I doubt executives are rushing to rewrite shows to demean African Americans, the film makes a valid point about black participation within the medium. In this sense, Spike Lee’s contentions that networks do not want to see dignified blacks on the air is somewhat justified.

Delacroix’s creation, Mantan & The New Millennium Minstrel Show, is a blackface song and dance show that takes place in a watermelon patch. It gets its roots from minstrel shows, America’s most popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. Minstrel shows began in the 1830’s with white men dressing in blackface and imitating black musical and dance forms, combining savage parody of black Americans with a genuine fondness for African American cultural forms. Performers like Burt Williams and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who often either wore blackface or catered to white audiences, clearly influenced Delacroix’s show. Mantan also finds its roots in early TV shows like Amos & Andy, which portrayed a pair of black men as bumbling, money-hungry fools. The film draws parallels between these blatantly racist forms of entertainment to more modern forms, namely the ‘gangsta’ portrayal of blacks in rap videos. The similarities are certainly there: rap videos are loved by young whites, much like minstrel shows were, and package demeaning black stereotypes as entertainment. This, coupled with the use of blackface, seem to suggest that a craze for ‘acting black’ has reached new heights with the rise of the youth hip-hop nation.

While many of these ideas are interesting, they do not exactly work within the tone of the film. Bamboozled defines satire right in the beginning as “the use of ridicule, sarcasm, or irony to expose, attack, or deride vices, follies, stupidities, abuses, etc”. Mantan works as a prime example: an obviously repugnant and humorless show that, in the real world, would stand no chance of becoming a national hit or critical success. In fact, it would never make it to the airwaves to begin with! Delacroix claims his goal is to get America to wake up to the racist content they consume. He cites the civil rights movement and it’s depiction on television as inspiration: “White America needed to see black people being beaten on the six o’clock news to promote change”. Ultimately this idea backfires, but by transforming such an overtly racist program into a ratings champion, the film argues that American TV viewers are fundamentally racist and that the entertainment industry collaborates by providing entertainment that demeans blacks. The evidence for this exists, and is humorously presented in the film first-hand through reels of historical footage and second-hand through network representation. However, the film’s preachy tone and outlandish melodrama seem to lose sight of its initial goals, and it ultimately produces the very caricatures and silly devices that Lee is rallying against. Though the point that stereotypical images continue to exist in new forms can be found, it’s hard to see Bamboozled as anything more than a rant, rather than effective criticism.

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Revisit: Dorian Gray

An American International Pictures release 1970

Directed by
Massimo Dallamano

Writing credits:
Marcello Coscia
Massimo Dallamano
Günter Ebert
Oscar Wilde (novel)

A modernized version of Oscar Wilde's classic novel in which a corrupt young man somehow remains eternally youthful, but a special painting gradually reveals his inner ugliness to all.

Director Massimo Dallamano was the cinematographer on Sergio Leone's first two installments of the Man with No Name triology - A Fistfull of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. You can tell almost right away that it's a low-budget 70's Italian picture; awful dubbing, low contrast film, a lack of logic in the script. Literally, the movie makes no sense. From what I hear, the actually story of Dorian Gray gets brutalized by this film. Also, it's a soft-core porn. It's kind of a mess. An obscure mess. That picture up there is from a completely different version; apparently Dorian Gray has been put on film like 15 times. Who knew? Fun, in a fucking awful sort of way.

Revisit: Marooned

A Columbia Pictures release 1969

Directed by
John Sturges

Writing credits:
Martin Caidin (novel)
Mayo Simon (screenplay)

Three American astronauts (Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, Gene Hackman) are stranded in space when their retros won't fire. Can they be rescued before their oxygen runs out?

Remember a little movie called Apollo 13? Yeah, it turns out they made that already back in '69. Sure it anticipated the real Apollo 13 tragedy and maybe all the technical jargon wasn't perfect, but it sure made for a better movie. Even the special effects were better. God, Ron Howard, you're such a waste...

Review: Little Miss Sunshine

A Fox Searchlight release 2006

Directed by
Jonathan Dayton
Valerie Faris

Written by Michael Arndt

A family determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant take a cross-country trip in their VW bus.

I avoided this film when it came out in theaters because it was hyped as the indie movie of the year and everyone told me I would love it. My friends told me I would love it. My parents told me I would love it. My grandparents told me I would love it, even though they didn't understand it and we never like the same movies anyway, unless they were made before 1965. So, I decided not to see it; nary a dissenting word makes nervous.

Little Miss Sunshine is the product of a post-Napoleon Dynamite world, a world with a pastel colors and where Sufjan Stevens is the soundtrack to our lives. Even though it took five years to make, the film seems like a pretty safe bet; the characters are likeable despite their nasty tics, and the script is critical of our success driven society while remaining supportive of the core American values of family and togetherness. The performances here are what really sell it. Nearly everyone in this film is film is on target, delivering top-notch characterizations that are effectingly real. All in all, it's a likeable film despite its somewhat heavy tone and is certainly refreshing compared to typical Hollywood fare.

But there are a few things about Little Miss Sunshine that bother me and I really wished they'd go away. Take a look at this clip:

Notice anything? Let your eyes focus on the right hand side of the screen. Nearly every single shot features the exact same composition: a horizonal plane somewhere in the middle with a vertical line split at the center off to the right. That vertical line drives me nuts. It's comes in the form of telephone poles, trees, stoplights, character placement, you name it. It was either a conscious decision by the directors or is simply a sign of poor visual construction, but it's always there. And such a limited visual vocabulary is extremely detrimental not only to a film, but future films as well. The static shots somewhat work here but I forsee many knock-offs of this in the future, and that is not good.

Also, why can't anyone make a dark indie comedy that doesn't have an ironic dance sequence at the end?

This movie is going to win a ton of awards and that is fine, if people take it's screenwriting and performances as serious examples and not the limited visual scope or kitchy direction. While certainly enjoyable, it's probably not something I would want to sit through again, but I may be alone on that. Either way, it's refreshing when a film from outside of Hollywood that at least does something right gets a little recognition. Hopefully it will result in the mainstream's realization that characters - not special effects or crazy storylines - make a movie.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Revisit: Throne of Blood

A Toho Company release 1957

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Writing credits:
Shinobu Hashimoto
Ryuzo Kikushima
Akira Kurosawa
Hideo Oguni
William Shakespeare (play)

Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa’s transcultural adaptation of Macbeth, employs a distinct cinematic form that arranges the film’s two major settings – Spider’s Web Forest and Spider’s Web Castle – in a complicated dialogue that plays against its protagonists. Stephen Prince describes Throne of Blood as being circular in nature: “The events of the film – Washizu’s murderous path to power and execution by his own men – are inscribed in a cycle of time that infinitely repeats” (144). Prince notes that Washizu’s murderous actions replicate a previous act of savagery, and that the visual construction of setting embodies similar ideas of temporal circularity. This is an appropriate thematic observation, but does not fully account for Kurosawa’s formal tactics. Rather than simply connecting opposing diegesis, Kurosawa creates a singular layer of setting that acts to reveal congruity between the internal and external elements of the film.

Spider’s Web Castle is the first setting introduced in Throne of Blood. The castle is situated on top of a hill that overlooks a sprawling, dense forest. The forest acts as a barricade, preventing the outside from coming in; the hill allows for a bird’s eye view of attackers, adding a significant dimension of defense. Through the introduction, Spider’s Web Castle is established as an internal space in the sense that large walls protect it. It is assumed at the beginning that characters inside the castle are safe, that the castle can be equated with safety. This is confirmed not only through story detail but also by Kurosawa’s camera use and initial visual construction of the castle. Wide framing, distance shots, and the telephoto lens open the space up wide, allowing a view not only of the castle’s depth, but its detail. Camera movement is also sparse, consisting mostly of static shots. For example, the initial full shot of the Lord’s council is flat and at a distance that opens the space wide and allows for a full view of the castle. Similar shots repeat throughout the scene. Rectangular and square shapes are also particularly accented, along with vertical and horizontal lines that imply clarity of construction and openness.

If Spider’s Web Castle initially implies openness and safety, Spider’s Web Forest could not appear more opposite. Though it provides protection for the castle and its inhabitants, it is also a dark and dangerous place. The sequence following the first castle scene depicts the forest as thick and threatening, a baffling mess of trails that stretch out like a spider’s web. Even Washizu & Miki, trained in the forest paths, manage to get lost in its maze. Kurosawa allows dense bramble and branches to filter in front of the camera, creating a labyrinth of images. Fast camera movement and contained shots obstruct our view, making it difficult to see characters. Logistically, this space is external. However, the over-bearing presence of the spirit and its subsequent tampering with Washizu’s destiny internalize the space. The spirit’s predictions play on Washizu’s subconscious, his internal being. Like in Rashomon, the forest pulls violent and precarious thoughts out of its protagonist.

However, this violence does not play out in the forest. Rather, it is brought to the castle, where the illusion of safety and openness is shattered by Washizu’s betrayal. The castle, previously a safe, internalized space becomes harsh, externalized through Washizu. Kurosawa displays this formally by slowly appropriating the cinematic codes of the forest setting and interspersing it throughout the later half of the film. Camera movement becomes less static, particularly envisioned through the violent movements inspired by Noh. Crosshatching lines become and more visible, to the point that they mimic the rough forest bramble. This is especially heightened at the end, as Washizu pushes through a maze of arrows, only to be cut down. This melding of two previously divided cinematic codes acts to effectively tie the setting into the storyline as a visual metaphor.

Stephen Prince's biography of Kurosawa titled A Warrior's Camera is a great indepth look at the director's life and films

Whitney to host Film as Art event

The Whitney Museum is hosting a near two month long event celebrating art on film, featuring works by Matthew Barney, Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, Chantal Ankerman, Chris Marker, David Salle, Larry Clark, Jean-Luc Godard, Yoko Ono with John Lennon and many more. The line-up is incredible, frankly, including some seminal films and must sees. I for one can't wait to catch Marker's La Jetée and Godard's Breathless back to back. You can check the full schedule here.

Press Release:

Since the invention of film, cinema has been an inspiration for artists, and moving image installations have become a major part of the fabric of contemporary art. In recent years, artists primarily known for their works in other media--sculpture, photography, drawing, painting--have also begun to produce films meant to be viewed on the cinema’s single screen.

The exhibition’s program ranges from classic early films by Samuel Beckett, and Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie; to key narrative works of the 1960s and 1970s by Babette Mangolte, Yvonne Rainer, and Andy Warhol; to rare screenings of films by artists who first came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s such as Robert Longo, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Cindy Sherman.

The show also features films by a generation of artists who emerged in the 1990s and pursued a dual approach, making both films specifically for the cinema, and installations using the moving image. These include Matthew Barney, Tacita Dean, Tracey Emin, Douglas Gordon, Johan Grimonprez, Sharon Lockhart, and Clemens von Wedemeyer. Also on view are works by a small group of independent filmmakers who have not only influenced artists moving into film but also explored the gallery context themselves: Chantal Ackerman, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien, and Chris Marker.

Lights, Camera, Action brings many of these films together for the first time, allowing us to see the variety of ways in which artists have interpreted the language of cinema and to appreciate the specific qualities of cinema that artists have passionately recognized, and made their own.

Revisit: Animal Crackers

Directed by
Victor Heerman

Writing credits:
George S. Kaufman (play)
Morrie Ryskind (play)
Bert Kalmar (play)
Harry Ruby (play)

Mayhem and zaniness ensue when a valuable painting goes missing during a party in honor of famed African explorer Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx).

One of the first Marx Brothers films, Animal Crackers lacks the structure of the brothers later work at MGM (Night at the Opera, Day at the Races) but similarly showcases their sharp wit and song/dance skills. Ripped straight from their Broadway vaudville show of the same name, the film feels more forced than, say, Night at the Opera, and lacks the sort of classic bits that help it stand out. Sure, Groucho still talks fast, Chico pretends to be Italian, and Harpo chases women, but the humor seems lost, as if it needs an audience to really come alive. It's funny, for sure, but not as iconic as their later work.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Revisit: Play Time

A Jolly Film/Specta Films/Continental Motion Pictures release 1967

Directed by Jacques Tati

Writing credits:
Art Buchwald
Jacques Lagrange
Jacques Tati

Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) has to contact an American official in Paris, but he gets lost in the maze of modern architecture which is filled with the latest technical gadgets. Caught in the chaos of a tourist invasion, Hulot roams around Paris with a group of Americans.

Godard once called Tati Frances best comedic director, saying, "Everything interests Tati...anything which is real, bizarre, or charming." Likewise, Truffaut distinguished Tati as one of the nine major auteurs.

Tati got his start as a filmmaker just before the rise of the French New Wave, but can be linked to the movement in many ways. Despite his hyper-control over image and use of major studio budgets, Tati and the New Wave shared common interest in the urban economics of Paris, the transformation of leisure and work times, as well as a love for silent comedy.

Mixing Charlie Chaplin's social awareness and comic ability to transform objects through imagination with Buster Keaton's oft-victimized, gentleman-like demeanor, Tati created M.Hulot, the bumbling protagonist of Play Time and several of Tati's other films. However, the true star of this film is Tati's vision of Paris. Play Time took over three million dollars and thirteen years to make; Tati built his own city for the film. It's a dream-like landscape formed by technology, hyper-modern yet barely functional. The film is absolutely beautiful, shot on 70mm to exhibit Tati's attention to detail.

Lucy Fishr compares Tati's films to children's games. Essentially they are puzzles with multiple centers of action. Often times gags are incomplete, eliptical, or played on the audience. The result is a film that deconstructs filming language. Tati employs many Brechtian techniques that function in this way as well. Take the opening sequence - a lack of a clear setting, protagonist, or form of contiguous editing de-establishes the establishing shot. Likewise, Tati's use of sound is incredibly overt; each diagetic sound is extacted and emphasized, like a sort of aural close-up, while dialogue is reduced to chatter, the mere idea of people talking.

Play Time is one of my favorite films, the kind that makes you rethink the cinema. Criterion just reissued their excellent DVD version - definitely check it out!

Independent Spirit Awards Ballots Due

Voters for the Independent Spirit Awards have to send in their ballots by this Saturday, Feb 10th. I just finished filling mine out, plan on dropping it in the mail tomorrow. You can vote online, as well, but I think the ballot is more fun. It's interesting - you only have to vote for the movies you've seen, they expect you to leave all others blank. Thanks to those screenings and the free netflix I got, I've managed to see a good majority of them. I think Half Nelson will be the big winner this year; expect a review/Q&A with director Ryan Fleck posted soon. Overall it's been a fun experience. I look forward to doing it again next year.

Check out all the Spirit nominees here.

You can catch the Independent Spirit Awards live on IFC or Bravo February 24th @ 5PM ET/2PM PT

Revisit: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

A Columbia Pictures release 1939

Directed by
Frank Capra

Writing credits:
Lewis R. Foster (story)
Sidney Buchman (screenplay)

A naive man (James Stewart) is appointed to fill a vacancy in the US Senate. His plans promptly collide with political corruption, but he doesn't back down.

One of the best American films ever made, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington features James Stewart in a performance that marked his career, transitioning his screen image from that of a boyish, soft-spoken socialite to hardened leading man. The film itself eclipses this transformation; at it's start, Stewart is a naive young senator who works with boy scouts, but as he stands down government corruption, he turns to a man of unshakable convictions. After the turn of the decade, Stewart began making his classic westerns with Anthony Mann, successfully portraying manic or degranged characters who lived by their own code. Mr. Smith was crucial in allowing Stewart to adopt such roles.

Handled masterfully by Frank Capra, the film is easily one of the strongest explorations of American government and democracy and remains surprisingly relevent. It was nominated for a whopping 11 Oscars, though it faced tough competition from Gone with the Wind, ultimately landing only one award for Best Original Screenplay. A must see.

Revisit: Screwed

A Universal Pictures release 2000
Written and Directed by
Scott Alexander
Larry Karaszewski

A chauffeur (Norm MacDonald) and his friend (Dave Chappelle) kidnap his rich boss's (Elaine Stritch) dog to hold it for ransom, but when she accidentally gets the dog back, she thinks that it's the chauffeur who's been kidnapped.

It's amazing what channels like USA or TNT will air at four in the morning. Considering the amount of comedic talent in this picture, including Dave Chappelle, Norm MacDonald, Sara Silverman and Danny DeVito, it's surprising that someone could have a made a movie as unfunny as this. The innane plot harkens back to screwball comedies of the thirties, but the humor is surprisingly bland and gives its stars, who are all known for having original timing and delivery, absolutely nothing to work with. Poorly handled on all accounts, this movie should be remembered for only one thing: a textbook example of how not to make a comedy. Watch only if you're high and it's 4AM.

Monday, February 05, 2007

DIY Filmmaking

With the winter award season well on its way and the summer blockbuster stretch just around the corner, I think now is as good a time as ever to reward those filmmakers who understand that you don't need a ninety million dollar budget to make that epic gangster remake you've always been talking about. After all, with YouTube and Final Cut and all that digital crap, it's like pretty much anybody can make a movie nowadays. Right?

The theme for this post is Do It Yourself (DIY) Filmmaking. I’ve rounded up a selection of films released this past year that embody the DIY attitude. The quotes are all real and, yes, I've seen them all. They're great. Most of them can now be found on DVD. Check 'em out:

The Guatemalan Handshake
Dir. Todd Rohal
96 minute DV Narrative

A mysterious power failure in a small mountain town coincides with the disappearance of one of its most eccentric young residents. Mystery piles upon mystery as his family and friends search for him, fail, and ultimately try to forget about him, an undertaking that results in many unexpected, and in some cases bizarre, effects on the town's already peculiar community.

At age 19, Rohal was nominated for a Student Academy Award and he is a recipient of a Princess Grace Foundation grant. Guatemalan Handshake features actor/musician Will Oldham and was the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival.

Head Trauma
Dir. Lance Weiler
84 minute HD Narrative

After a 20 year absence, drifter, George Walker, returns home to settle his grandmother's estate. As if awakening from a long dream, he finds his childhood home condemned and littered with the remnants of squatters. In the midst of trying to save his past, George falls and strikes his head, triggering an onslaught of vivid nightmares and waking visions. As the horror intrudes on George's reality, his conviction grows that someone or something is trying to kill him.

Weiler made cinema history in 1998 when his directorial debut The Last Broadcast became the first all digital release of a feature film via satellite. His follow up, the psychological horror film Head Trauma, makes use of a digital cinema solution called IndEx that allows Weiler to carry an HD digital version of the film where ever he goes. A near perfect example of DIY, Weiler says the film was “shot, converted to HD, self-distributed, and pressed to mass-market DVD for about $125,000” - pretty impressive.

Four Eyed Monsters
Dir. Susan Buice & Arin Crumley
71 minute DV Narrative

The autobiographical Four Eyed Monsters didn't really break through until the directors created a video podcast documenting their journey creating and promoting the film. Thanks to a powerful MySpace community, the 17 videos posted on their iTunes feed over the past 9 months that each have received an average of 75,000 downloads. I got the chance to sit down with the directors of this wonderful film a couple of months ago - I'll post the interview in a few days. If you're interested in how new media is going to change the world SEE THIS FILM!

Mutual Appreciation
Dir. Andrew Bujalski
110 minutes
Goodbye Cruel Releasing

A musician (Justin Rice) comes between his best friend (Bujalski) and his best friend’s girl (Rachel Clift). Director Andrew Bujalski, a local filmmaker fresh of his first release, Funny Ha-Ha, follows in the Cassavetes tradition, casting non-actors and promoting improvisation that results in a slice of life, rather than a constructed film. Self produced and distributed, Bujalski is a complete DIY-er; “I make films for myself, that I want to see,” he says. “If other people like them – that’s great.”

Jackass 2
Dir. Jeff Tremaine
95 min
Paramount Pictures

Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Bam and the gang are back in another gross-out stunt fest with no holds barred. Based off the popular ‘Jackass’ television series that aired on MTV, the film may be the most mainstream on this list – the only with major studio backing – but nothing shows the DIY aesthetic in its most extreme than an hour and a half of self-inflicted sadomasochism. Count on plenty of piss, puke, poop, and semen – the surrealists would have loved these guys.

American Hardcore
Dir. Paul Rachman
100 min
Sony Picture Classics

Inspired by Steven Blush's book "American Hardcore: A Tribal History", Paul Rachman's feature documentary debut is a chronicle of the underground hardcore punk scene, where DIY was pioneered, from 1979 to 1986. The film includes interviews and rare live footage from artists such as Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, SS Decontrol and the Dead Kennedys. The definitive film about an amazing movement.

Review: The Dead Girl

A Lakeshore Entertainment/Pitbull Pictures/First Look International release 2006
Written & Directed by Karen Moncrieff

The clues to a young woman's death come together as the lives of seemingly unrelated people begin to intersect.

Karen Moncrieff's second feature film (following 2002's Blue Car, which I've never seen but hear is pretty good) attempts to piece together the tragic story of a murdered hooker (played with ease by Brittany Murphy) through seven separate mini-shorts. Each short follows a different character who is somehow connected to the dead girl - the woman who discovers the body, the coroner, the dead girl's mother, etc. Running about twenty minutes each, the stories are contained in terms of their protagonists, but each reveal something new about the girl who was murdered. That is, until the end, when we are given the dead girls story in it's revealed glory.

It's very difficult to make a movie that has seven different protagonists. First, you have to make sure each character is believable, or you'll lose the audience right away. Then you have to give them each a story purpose, and that also has to be believable or once again you'll find yourself without an audience. In the case of The Dead Girl, Moncrieff and her actors treat the subject with such emotional flair that it's hard not to feel empathy for her characters. However, the seriousness of Moncrieff's tone and tendancy towards exploiting the emotional punch makes the film strangely unpalatable. Some of the stories follow such obvious tracks that it turns the premise into something almost laughable - take, for example, the story of the coronary student (Rose Byrne) who, upon examining the body, imagines that it's her long lost sister who's disappearance has caused her and her family grief for over a decade. Others simply lack focus or any clear direction - the story of the recluse (Toni Collette) with the abusive mother (Piper Laurie), who has to confront death up close before she can 'really live' (which apparently means having rape-like sex). While these short sections certainly work to give small clues to piece together the story of the dead girl, they don't exactly work as their own contained storylines. They're boring, and the movie suffers for it.

That said, the middle section following the wife of the murderer features a stellar performance by Mary Beth Hurt and is easily the most interesting. It runs on the idea that sometimes the things we love most are also the things we hate (pretty obvious), but the way the characters interact is covered in layers, and it works suprisingly well. From a technical end, the film is quite pretty. Nothing too impressive, but well handled and visually compelling. Likewise, it features performances by some of today's best actresses, including Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Mary Steenburgen.

All in all, The Dead Girl comes across as a high concept Lifetime movie of the week with a slightly larger budget. Mostly it's because the mini-narratives are simply unfufilling. I don't know what Moncrieff could have done differently, because the film is anchored in the individual stories, but I guess she could have been more adventurous in her writing, instead of relying on usual murder-aftermath story cliches. See it on video for the performances.

The Dead Girl is nominated for three Indie Spirit Awards, including Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Supporting Female for Mary Beth Hurt.