DVD SPOTLIGHT: Docuramaby Jonathan Doyle
Easily the most impressive producer of documentary DVDs, Docurama has slowly assembled an amazing catalogue of recent and classic documentaries, including everything from D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back to both seasons of Michael Moore's The Awful Truth. Here's a brief look at some other noteworthy releases from Docurama that might otherwise slip under your radar.
Slasher(New Video, 7.13.2004)
John Landis had a bit of a cold streak. Unfortunately, it lasted about 20 years. Maybe it was the curse of Twilight Zone: The Movie -- Vic Morrow and two children were killed during the shooting of Landis' segment -- or maybe he just lost his touch. In any case, the streak is finally over. Slasher is the first genuinely entertaining Landis film in a long time and it suggests that maybe his true calling was in documentary filmmaking.
The film follows famed car salesman Michael Bennett over the course of a weekend car sale is Memphis, Tennessee. Bennett and his crew (a DJ and a "mercenary" car salesman) are brought in from California to help a struggling car lot clear out its old merchandise and make room for some attractive new vehicles. The problem? Memphis is "the bankruptcy capital of the world" (at least that's what the DVD case says). Bennett is an incredibly appealing protagonist and a lot more likable than you'd expect. Thankfully, Landis focusses on this characterization -- rather than tired car salesman cliches -- and the result is funny, informative, and even slightly moving.
The disc includes an enjoyable but brief making-of featurette, several deleted scenes, and a commentary by John Landis and several of his collaborators. Landis is surprisingly belligerent and argumentative but this makes for good listening. Overall, a very pleasant surprise.
Lost in La Mancha(New Video, 6.24.2003)
Although I was extremely enthusiastic about Lost in La Mancha when I saw it in theaters two years ago, I was in no rush to run out and buy the DVD. As a Terry Gilliam enthusiast, I'm terribly disappointed that the visionary filmmaker hasn't completed a single film since 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Needless to say, with no new Gilliam films in my immediate future, I didn't need to be reminded of his filmmaking woes. However, now that Gilliam has two new films in-the-can and set for a 2005 release (The Brothers Grimm and Tideland), I was happy to finally examine the pleasures of this surprisingly rich 2-disc release.
On the basis of the features alone, this is a must-buy for any self-respecting fan of Gilliam, even those who didn't like Lost in La Mancha. The bonus disc includes production stills from Gilliam's aborted film, scenes deleted from the documentary, and numerous interviews with Gilliam's collaborators. It's particularly interesting to hear Johnny Depp's take on the whole debacle. In his half hour chat, he insists that he's anxious to continue working on the project.
The real reason to buy this DVD, however, are 2 hour-long Q&As with the eccentric filmmaker, himself. We get a career-spanning interview with film critic Elvis Mitchell and a hilarious, all-over-the-map discussion between Gilliam and acclaimed novelist/cinema enthusiast, Salman Rushdie, conducted at the 2002 Telluride Film Festival. These are some of the most entertaining DVD features I've ever seen and a major treat for Gilliam fans everywhere.
BaadAsssss Cinema(New Video, 1.28.2003)
I don't know if blaxploitation enthusiasts were anxiously awaiting an anthropological study of that genre but Isaac Julien made one anyway. Although I'm sure Julien has enthusiasm for these films, BaadAsssss Cinema doesn't really reflect that. It feels like it was made by someone who feels a little too guilty about the pleasure of blaxploitation. Rather than deal with the cinematic virtues of the films, he puts far too much emphasis on their social and racial significance and, while this is certainly interesting, Julien's historical perspective feels incomplete and self-serving. Also, Julien's choice of films and interview subjects can feel a little arbitrary at times. Some may ask, "why the hell do they interview Tupac's mother?" To those people I say, good question. In spite of these complaints, BaadAsssss Cinema is required viewing for blaxploitation fans.
Totaling about 30 minutes, the only feature on the disc is a series of outtakes from interviews with Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, and Quentin Tarantino. There isn't much new material here. In fact, much of this footage is included in the film. However, these un-edited clips are extremely telling. The main thing they reveal, much more than the film itself, is the bitterness of blaxploitation veterans like Gloria Hendry and Fred Williamson. Even after working with Tarantino on From Dusk Till Dawn, Williamson isn't shy about bashing the superstar auteur. For Williamson, movies are all about money, not art, and he wants some financial reward for his influence. Apparenlty, he expects Tarantino to buy him a car or deposit some money in his bank account. Anything less is an insult.
Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's(New Video, 3.30.2004)
In the years before making their fiction/non-fiction hybrid, American Splendor, married filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini made a few fiction-free documentaries. The first of these was Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's, an enjoyably anecdotal film about the closing of the legendary celebrity hang-out and, in a sense, a chapter in Hollywood history. In equal measure, we get celebrity anecdotes and character sketches of the restaurant's staff. While the film lacks substance, it has a charming nostalgia for the Hollywood of yesteryear that is bound to appeal to die-hard cineaste types. It certainly worked for me.
Now that the original Chasen's is closed, you'll have to pickup this DVD, in order to enjoy the restaurant's world-famous chili or hobo steak. In addition to recipes for these dishes, the DVD includes a commentary by the directors and special guest Raymond Bilbool, a staff member at Chasen's and a character in the film. The friendship between Bilbool and the filmmakers pre-dates Off the Menu and their discussion plays like a reunion of old friends. Almost as enjoyable as the film itself, the commentary provides much-appreciated updates on its varied cast. Although Raymond comes across as a sour-puss villain in the film, he is totally charming on the commentary. In fact, if I ever go to Los Angeles, I think I'll stay at his bed and breakfast.
Brother's Keeper(New Video, 7.29.2003)
The Ward brothers are a truly unusual documentary subject. In their late 50s and early 60s, none of them had married or started families and they shared a house in Munnsville, a tiny New York farming community. If that's not strange enough, they also shared beds and, when one of them was found dead in 1990, the brother sleeping beside him, Delbert, was accused of murder. Of course, Delbert makes the strategic mistake of confessing. Brother's Keeper follows the subsequent trial and the community's heartwarming support for Delbert and his brothers.
Needless to say, this is a disturbing and unique film. While the Ward brothers have their lovable moments -- they basically think and behave like little kids -- they're also extremely odd and creepy. Nonetheless, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (who also teamed up on the Paradise Lost films and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) treat them with tremendous respect and affection. The result is a vivid, one-of-a-kind portrait of rural American life.
Again, there's a wealth of features: stills, deleted scenes (including a lengthy epilogue, in which the surviving Ward brothers visit the filmmakers in New York City), a commentary, and an interesting trailer that is really a mini-monologue by late, great monologuist Spalding Gray. Unfortunately, the commentary is a liability. Sinofsky and Berlinger are total egomaniacs and spend most of the track bad-mouthing other filmmakers, in order to elevate themselves. Their enthusiasm for Brother's Keeper is genuine (and justified, kind of) but their arrogance is extremely off-putting. Still, it's a worthwhile film. Just stay away from the commentary.
William Gibson: No Maps For These Territories(New Video, 11.25.2003)
William Gibson has many distinctions to his credit. He made up the word "cyberspace." He's the father of cyberpunk. He wrote the legendary science fiction novel, "Neuromancer." Hell, without his influence, The Matrix probably wouldn't exist. While some might consider these dubious distinctions, Gibson is a fascinating speaker and that's all he does for the 88-minute duration of No Maps For These Territories. Locked/trapped/seated (take your pick) in the back of a moving limo, Gibson talks about his life, his work, technology, and the general state of our culture, while director Mark Neale bombards us with "technological" imagery and readings from Gibson's work (by U2's Bono and The Edge, among others). It doesn't always work but, when it does, No Maps For These Territories is a feast for the mind and the senses.
Presented by way of elaborate, pretentious, and confusing menus, the extras are a mixed bag. "The Making of No Maps For These Territories" (as it's labeled on the case) is really just a series of brief clips, in which director Mark Neale discusses the film with executive producer Mark Pellington (director of Arlington Rd. and The Mothman Prophecies) and composers tomandandy, while seated in a car (of course). We also get some interesting deleted scenes -- comprised of raw Gibson footage, minus all the post-production tricks we see in the finished film -- and readings from Gibson's work by Gibson and Jack Womack. The extra material lacks the focus and polish of the film but it makes for a satisfying dessert, nonetheless.
A NOTE ABOUT THE TRANSFERS: Slasher, Baadasssss Cinema, and No Maps For These Territories are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen (approximately 1.85:1), while Lost in La Mancha, Off the Menu, and Brother's Keeper are presented in their original, full frame aspect ratio.