DVD SPOTLIGHT: Docuramaby Jonathan Doyle and Neil Karassik
Gray Matter(New Video, 5.31.2005)
In the spring of 2002, James Hetfield of Metallica went into re-hab and filmmaker Joe Berlinger went to Austria, in order to document the mass burial of 700 brains. These brains belonged to children who were killed and experimented upon by forensic psychiatrist Dr. Heinrich Gross -- who was never punished for his crimes -- during the Nazi reign of the 1940s. At the time of the brain burial, Berlinger and usual collaborator Bruce Sinofsky were making Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. In addition to giving his bandmates many headaches, Hetfield's re-hab provided Berlinger with an opportunity to leave town and shoot this extremely disturbing, but nonetheless fascinating, side project.
Due to Austria's shame concerning its Nazi affiliation, Berlinger struggled to gain access to useful information or interview subjects. Through persistence and unenviable luck, Berlinger stumbles upon access to the "brain room" where he photographs some pretty grotesque sights. Still, as an onscreen entity -- the filmmaker regularly appears on camera and contributes narration to the film -- Berlinger occasionally pushes his sense of outrage a little too far. Five minutes into the film, viewers of all backgrounds will surpass their own threshold for outrage and horror so it probably isn't necessary for Berlinger to articulate his own feelings so openly. Nonetheless, his response is right. This is pretty sickening stuff. And it's all true.
The features on this disc are light but thorough. As an onscreen text supplement, we get a timeline of Dr. Gross' career and legal battles. The only other feature is an extremely engaging commentary track by Berlinger. He's surprisingly critical of his own filmmaking techniques but effectively rationalizes these shortcomings, attributing most to the production's limitations and the prioritization of history and content above cinematic form. He also explains how making this film concurrently with the Metallica documentary trivialized Metallica and may have provided helpful editorial perspective in the making of that film. Shot in full frame video, Gray Matter looks just fine on DVD. At 59 minutes, it's a brief but dense documentary and essential viewing for those seeking a fuller understanding of the Holocaust. Movie rating: 7.5/10. Disc rating: 8/10. -- Jonathan Doyle
Faster(New Video, 11.30.2004)
I've never really been the auto racing type, let alone MotoGP racing. Nevertheless, Faster is an utter joy to sit through. For starters, the doc successfully accommodates the most ignorant spectator of all time (me). After being introduced to the world of thrills and fatal spills, I was then privy to learning all about the major players (mainly rivals Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi) and the 2003 season. Bring it on! Narrated by motorcycle enthusiast Ewan McGregor, this film is consistently informative, involving, and exciting. Best of all, it adapts to any viewer, from novice to fan to pro -- no one should feel alienated. There is a lot of interesting character development, technical guidance, revealing interviews, and plenty of racing (of course). The race footage ranges from beautiful, graceful, and exhilarating...to terrifying. In other words, it's a blast.
As for extras, the second disc includes a nearly hour-long sequel which picks up right where we left off and takes us into the 2004 season. It's a great addition to the film, offering both closure and the introduction of much faster bikes. The second disc also contains 14 deleted/additional scenes that are absolutely worth checking out. It's especially fun to see the filmmakers and racers hang out at the Cannes Film Festival with McGregor. Lastly, we get an interactive racing section where we can switch between onboard cameras to experience last lap battles from 4 events. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, which looks quite nice except for some annoying pixilization. Also included is a nice-sounding, digitally remastered 5.1 audio mix. Movie rating: 8/10. Disc rating: 9/10. -- Neil Karassik
Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy(New Video, 3.25.2003)
It's possible that you've seen Ron Jeremy -- and/or his 9.5 inch member -- on numerous occasions in films like Jiggly Queens 3, Ejacula 2 or even the underrated cinematic gem All I Want for Christmas is a Gang-Bang. Whether you bought, borrowed, or even stole it, you and I both know that there was a time when you sat back and watched this man go at it like there's no tomorrow. I mean, he's been in over 1,600 films. Chances are you've crossed paths at some point. At 76 minutes, this documentary may feel a tad brisk. It was allegedly roughly three hours long at one time but some footage had to be cut for financial reasons. I'm assuming the makers of Snatch Masters 9 wanted massive royalties for their clip. We still get a load of relevant info from insiders like Jenna Jameson, Herschell Savage, Larry Flynt, and Seymour Butts. Plus, there's also some comedic footage with Conan O'Brien and even Rodney Dangerfield.
In essence, the film promotes the fact that any ugly, fat man can score with thousands of women if he really wills it. Personally, I think his monstrous penis has something to do with it. I could be wrong. In any case, Ron seems like an incredibly charming guy and this documentary really strives to make that apparent. The porn elements are rather tasteful and never go overboard but they're not trying to hide anything either. After all, this is the unrated version. As for extras, we get an excellent commentary track with the leading man himself and director Scott J. Gill. Also included are 11 deleted scenes that were certainly decent enough to have remained in the final cut. Rounding out the extras is Ron's pornography filmography and filmmaker/crew bios. The film also looks quite nice in its original full-frame aspect ratio. Movie rating: 7.5/10. Disc rating: 7.5/10. -- Neil Karassik
Last Man Standing: Politics, Texas Style(New Video, 1.25.2005)
Not to be confused with the Walter Hill-directed, Bruce Willis-starring Yojimbo re-make of roughly the same name, Last Man Standing: Politics, Texas Style attempts to understand the unorthodox political workings of Texas, the state that gave birth to two of the last three American presidents. The focus is a race for state representative between incumbent Republican Rick Green and 24 year-old Democratic newcomer Patrick Rose. Green is cocky, full of himself, and way more confident than he has any right to be, whereas Rose is a student of politics, willing to acknowledge his shortcomings, in order to grow as a politician. For those of you keeping track, Rose is the good guy.
This extremely engaging film by Paul Stekler is only harmed by the unavoidable sense that the filmmakers couldn't decide on a topic, covered several, and struggled to include as much material as possible. The Green/Rose battle is clearly the most interesting race covered by the film, but there are several distractions. In a sense, these races provide a broader sense of Texas' political landscape but it's not clear that we really needed this. Still, minor complaints aside, this doc is always informative and never dull.
Although this is an extremely entertaining and worthwhile documentary, be forewarned: you're not getting much bang for your buck. For one, the film clocks in at a relatively stingy -- and increasingly common (among documentaries, anyway) -- 56 minutes. The disc is also surprisingly bare bones for a Docurama release, particularly one with this many rich feature opportunities (TV debates, campaign commercials, deleted material, etc.). An interview with the director is listed as the only real feature but, clocking in at approximately 1 minute and tacked on to the end of the film, this is little more than a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sound bite. Still, political junkies should not hesitate to give this sleeper a spin. Movie rating: 7.5/10. Disc rating: 5/10. -- Jonathan Doyle
Eric Bogosian: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee(New Video, 9.28.2004)
I've been a fan of Eric Bogosian ever since seeing him in Oliver Stone's Talk Radio (based on Bogosian's play). He is DAMN good in that film and this is one of the performances that really stuck with me as a teen. His acting style is not unlike his stand-up: manic, provocative, angry, and also tremendously entertaining/insightful. Bogosian's material and delivery is actually quite similar to late stand-up geniuses Lenny Bruce and Spalding Gray. After the terrorist attacks in Bogosian's hometown NYC, the comic/actor had to cut some of the material from this performance so as not to offend his fans. Some of the jokes verge on bad taste but they're also profound and funny, sometimes even profoundly funny. One thing Bogosian never does is provide solutions, he's just calling it as he sees it, which I like. He's a comedian, not a politician and he's also willing to turn the mirror on himself, which can result in some extremely harsh, self-deprecating material.
If you dig Eric Bogosian then you'll certainly enjoy this DVD of one of his finest stand-up shows. The man has a charisma that is almost hypnotic. His material is also daring and, while it's not always laugh-out-loud funny, that's not really his intention. It is relevant, exciting, scathing, and partially frightening. Included on the DVD is a 12 minute interview with Bogosian where he shares his thoughts on the show, how it came to be, and how it has changed with the times. He also has a lot to say about his questionable content and hyperactive style. A Bogosian bio and filmmaker bios are also included. Full-frame video looks crisp and clean with just a hint of grain. Still, the video is good enough to catch every bead of sweat on Bogosian's face. Man, that guy can sweat. Movie rating: 7/10. Disc rating: 6.5/10. -- Neil Karassik
Independent's Day(New Video, 6.29.2004)
It's no fun psychoanalyzing independent filmmakers but, if Independent's Day is any indication, they're all complete egomaniacs. As a profession, film directing has been shrouded in false integrity for so long that most of these guys -- and yes, they're almost all guys -- don't even notice when their attitudes, behavior, and self-righteousness slip into Hollywood hyperbole, bravado, and posturing. In fact, future overrated "auteur" Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) comes right out and embraces the independent film world's sleazy, exploitative, nihilistic social-ladder-climbing. Somebody must have told these guys that, in order to be a true artist, you must first be a true asshole. The second goal is obviously easier to accomplish than the first.
Okay, so the subjects of this documentary aren't particularly likable -- but don't blame the messenger. Even if director Marina Zenovich is a bit more enamored with her subjects than is reasonable or understandable, she does a good job of shining the spotlight on an important focal point of American filmmaking in the mid-90s: Park City Utah's festival circuit, comprised of Sundance, Slamdance, and various other variations of the word "dance."
She also documents the genuine desperation and half-successes that are so often missing from festival coverage in magazines like Entertainment Weekly. Most journalists are more interested in the rags-to-riches miracles than the far more familiar -- and less newsworthy -- tales of failure and disappointment. Zenovich deals with both and even illustrates the fleeting reality of independent film success. For example, in 1996, Sundance's 1989 poster boy Steven Soderbergh showed Schizopolis and The Daytrippers (which he produced)...at Slamdance.
Whatever this disc lacks is cinematic virtuosity, it makes up for in Docurama virtuosity. This DVD is jam-packed with light but highly watchable extras that should please fans of this doc's most accomplished -- and few justifiably arrogant -- participants. We get extended interviews with Steven Soderbergh, Bryan Singer, Sydney Pollack ("indie" director of The Firm, Out of Africa, and The Interpreter), and the so-full-of-himself-it-almost-hurts Neil LaBute.
We also get three early versions of the documentary, which clock in at 7, 12, and 17 minutes respectively. Much of this footage is included in the final film -- and these shorts draw attention to the feature's patchwork background -- but they're entertaining in smaller, easier-to-swallow doses than the feature itself. The only other major extra is a commentary by Zenovich and editor Stephen Garrett. While they waste time praising their own work, they are also appealingly enthusiastic and it's clear that they embraced the independent spirit and assembled their film in less-than-ideal circumstances.
By the way, Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells is quoted on the DVD case, calling this "the smartest, most insightful, all-inclusive explanation ever composed about what Sundance is." Movie rating: 7/10. Disc rating: 8.5/10. -- Jonathan Doyle