DVD SPOTLIGHT: Docuramaby Jonathan Doyle and Neil Karassik
Who Are the DeBolts?(New Video, 9.27.2005)
If you're feeling crowded at large family gatherings this Thanksgiving, be grateful that you don't have 19 kids in your family. Then again, if Who Are the DeBolts? is any indication, a family with 19 children (from numerous countries, with numerous disabilities) could be a wonderful thing. Carefully avoiding sentiment, this Oscar winner from 1977 is light-hearted, inventive, compassionate, and profoundly moving. Every time I see it, I'm blind-sided by individual moments -- the mother explaining the death of a grandparent, the poignant welcome of child number 19 (J.R., who is blind and confined to a wheelchair) -- and reminded that this is truly a one-of-a-kind film about a one-of-a-kind family. In fact, this may just be my favorite documentary of all time (along with Ross McElwee's Sherman's March and the Maysles brothers' Running Fence). Yours, Mine and Ours it aint.
By simply releasing this film on DVD, Docurama gets my enthusiastic praise and approval, but they also wisely include Steppin' Out: The DeBolts Grow Up, the Kris Kristofferson-narrated sequel that aired on TV a few years after the original was released. While this followup lacks the cinematic skill and density of the original, it still packs a major punch. Of particular note is the continuing saga of J.R., as he makes the adjustment to high school with amazing courage and determination. The only other feature on this disc is a text update on most of the family. I'm happy to report that, with a few exceptions, they all seem to be doing quite well...surprisingly well, in fact.
I'm sure some of you are cringing at this review and feeling a little baffled by my over-the-top love for a film that sounds dangerously like a feel-good episode of Oprah. With a DVD cover that isn't particularly indicative of the film and and an absence of a celebrated documentarian at the helm -- although director John Korty was part of Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope team -- Who Are the DeBolts? may not appear to have much going for it. But take my word for it: this is a non-fiction masterpiece. Movie rating: 10/10. Disc rating: 8/10. -- Jonathan Doyle
Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood(New Video, 10.25.2005)
When I was checking the release date for this disc at amazon.com, I found two hilariously opposite reviews that illustrate just how shallow the political division in the United States has become. Rather than credit an author, the first is simply listed as "A Kid's Review." And I quote: "Why does our childrens political views have to agree with 'Liberal Hollywood' [ed. Why does this 'kid' have children?]. I think that children have the right agree with any party Republican or Democrat. We should not be forced to agree with the Hollywood Liberal Snob Democrats." Interesting perspective, but "longshotex" has a different take: "Unfortunately, there are those in Hollywood who stray from the norm and vote GOP. These people are trying to corrupt our children. Fortunately, celebs like Drew Carey aren't very well liked. Children are our future so, please, protect them from the likes of Pat Sajak." Thankfully, neither of these people made (or even saw, in all likelihood) Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood.
After some careful deliberation, here are my thoughts on the right wing celebrities interviewed in this documentary. Patricia Heaton and Pat Sajak are insanely smug and unlikable. Drew Carey is a little more level-headed, a rich guy who wants to pay lower taxes, while still doing drugs and supporting liberal social positions. By Carey's own admission, his real designation is libertarian. John Milius is an endlessly fascinating guy who believes in a code of honour from another time and I respect him for ignoring trends of behaviour and marching to the beat of his own drummer. He seems like a great guy and anyone who can make a movie like Big Wednesday is fine by me.
The most fascinating subject is Vincent Gallo who only briefly appears onscreen but says some wildly hilarious stuff. In essence, he argues that Republicans are noble, humble men of honour, whereas Democrats are alcoholic, womanizing, smug assholes (he obviously hasn't met the aforementioned Pats -- this goes both ways, Vince). But, as even Gallo has admitted in past interviews, his "Republican" affiliation is about rebellion more than anything else. In one of the extra features, the film's director (Speedo filmmaker Jesse Moss) acknowledges that Gallo is actually a registered Democrat.
While this is a highly watchable and enjoyable documentary, its running time (less than an hour) leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, we get several worthwhile features, including deleted scenes, interview outtakes, and an informative radio interview with Moss. If you're a close observer of either Hollywood or American politics, this is a nice introduction to a topic that could use a far more thorough treatment. Rated R also indirectly attributes the decline of Hollywood to the increased presence of MBA-weilding Ivy League Republicans with no movie savvy whatsoever, a point historians should not ignore when documenting this unusual chapter in Hollywood history. Movie rating: 7.5/10. Disc rating: 8/10. -- Jonathan Doyle
Farmingville(New Video, 11.2.2004)
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Farmingville is a poignant, well-balanced portrait of a) a suburban community (Farmingville, New York: Pop. 15,000) with an escalating population of illegal immigrants and b) the brutal attempted murders of two Mexican day laborers who reside there. The film deftly moves from side to side rather objectively. There is a lot of emotion, frustration, and anger on both ends (though some of the Anglo citizens tend to be more outspoken), but ultimately both parties want the same thing: to be able to work for a decent wage and appropriately support their families. Alas, many of the citizens believe that this cannot be fully achieved in a town so densely populated. For Americans, this has been a never-ending debate since the gangs of New York. It's definitely a difficult issue of humanity and there is no doubt that many will not see eye-to-eye on this subject. To the filmmakers' credit, no party should feel alienated (get it?) while watching this documentary.
The doc runs a brisk 78 minutes, which seems to be the ideal running time for a film of this kind. Still, the DVD contains numerous deleted scenes/outtakes that probably could've/should've stayed in the film for some further insight. Also included is a filmmaker's interview which (oddly enough) can only be viewed after the end credits, rather than via the main menu. Docurama and POV have done a nice job here, although the asking price is rather steep. The non-anamorphic transfer is decent and the two-channel stereo serves its purpose. Also, before the film starts we are forced to watch an advertisement for Starbucks coffee (now that is a new low). Movie Rating: 7.5/10. Disc Rating: 7.5/10. -- Neil Karassik
Full Frame Documentary Shorts, Volume 3(New Video, 4.26.2005)
This is one bizarre assortment of short films. I mean, we go from cheese steaks to beyond-overcrowded Bombay trains to death row meal requests to two Vietnam soldiers/lovers. I'm sure this was a deliberate tactic, in order to keep things refreshingly random and global and stuff. For what it's worth, the shorts are actually fairly impressive and, at the very least, none of them were bad. It may also be worth nothing that the running time of each short is drastically different. One short (Texas Hospitality) is actually under 4 minutes. Fortunately, this is the weakest of the bunch.
Another short (Journeys) far outlasts its welcome with a nearly 40-minute running time of random footage of overcrowded urban activity in Bombay. Sure, it's beautiful to look at but, as far as serving its purpose in this short shorts collection, it just runs way too long (20 minutes would've been more than fine). As far as tone goes, the shorts are also extremely diverse. Personally, I would've preferred a little more continuity with each volume, rather than the smorgasbord approach, especially if there are only six bleepin' shorts.
The transfer and two-channel stereo sound obviously varies from film to film. Four shorts are presented in full frame, while two are in non-anamorphic widescreen. There aren't any special features, other than text on the filmmakers and the festival. All and all, these shorts were definitely fun and involving, but I just can't see myself watching them again for, say, another five years or so. Maybe even a decade or two. For that reason alone, I would recommend this as a solid rental for those with an interest in this kind of cinema. Movie Rating: 6.5/10. Disc Rating: 5/10. -- Neil Karassik
The American Nightmare(New Video, 3.30.2004)
The most tired and irritating theory I've ever heard about horror films is the argument that slasher films are puritanical because their characters are often murdered after engaging in sexual acts. Misguided, literal-minded film theorists (in this case, Carol J. Clover) argue that this is meant to be a punishment inflicted upon the characters by puritanical filmmakers, which is a sound theory...if you've never seen a slasher film. In The American Nightmare -- an otherwise intelligent and absorbing look at the relationship between American politics and American horror films -- this theory is raised in relation to Halloween but, as usual, it's not very convincing.
Michael Myers is basically the embodiment of evil: the Darth Vader of horror. In no way are we asked to respect or identify with him (except literally in the opening POV scene, which is intended solely to elicit a sense of ironic surprise), as he is clearly the villain of the film, not its hero. If anything, the film equates this mindless murderer with the puritanical, sex-fearing conservatives who would like to forget that puberty ever happened. It's a demonizing critique of Michael Myers and those who share his puritanical perspective, not an endorsement of it. The film tells us to fear Myers and everything he represents.
Questionable theories notwithstanding, The American Nightmare is an engaging and even scary film. Director Adam Simon intercuts archival footage of real life horrors with clips from realistic horror films like Last House on the Left, which has the creepy effect of making the fictional clips look even more real. Simon focuses his attention on a small group of horror standards from the 60s and 70s (ie. Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and their filmmakers, which makes for lively and engaging viewing. While the film itself makes for enlightening viewing, the disc leaves a lot to be desired. Although the Extras menu lists "About Docurama," "Catalog/Trailers," and "Credits" as features, we all know what that really means: bare bones. Given the film's modest running time (73 minutes), a little more bang for our buck would be nice. Still, serious discussion of horror films is always welcome. Movie rating: 7.5/10. Disc rating: 3/10. -- Jonathan Doyle
Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations(New Video, 10.25.2005 and 8.28.2001)
Speaking of scary, this double bill of '90s non-fiction horror is truly essential viewing. While Paradise Lost 2 has been available on DVD since 2001, there was some difficulty clearing the rights to Paradise Lost and only now is it making its long-awaited debut on DVD. Apparently, this had something to do with clearing the rights to the Metallica songs used throughout the film (that problem mysteriously went away after directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky directing the acclaimed 2004 documentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster). The less you know going into these films, the better. There are dozens of genuine surprises so, if you don't know anything about the case in question, please stop reading now and go rent or buy these discs. And please take note: I highly recommend that you have both discs on hand at the outset, as part 1 tends to create an uncontrollable appetite for part 2 (originally, audiences had to wait an unthinkable 3 years between films).
The story boils down to this: when three young boys are found brutally murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, three slightly older boys are put on trial for the crimes. While there's no concrete evidence against the boys (except an aggressively coerced confession, riddled with factual errors), the people of West Memphis are anxious to resolve this horrible chapter in their history, even if it means punishing the wrong guys. It doesn't hurt that one of these boys has an interest in Satanism -- which pretty much makes him Satan, as far as this community is concerned -- and their collective interests include forbidden (and wildly popular) fruits such as professional wrestling, Metallica, and Stephen King. I have to admit, those are all pretty murder-ish interests. I bet those little bastards even played with fireworks.
The filmmakers clearly believe that these boys are innocent and even take steps to assist in their defense (in context, this is totally understandable and not as irresponsible as it sounds). As the films unfold, the toothless and excessively grieving step-father of one of the murdered boys becomes an alternate suspect. The evidence against him is pretty damning and it's fascinating to watch his reputation collapse between the two films, during which time his wife -- the murdered boy's actual mother -- dies of mysterious, unknown causes. It's also hilarious, disturbing, and scary to watch this maniac go head-to-head with those who crusade for his step-son's (non)murderers. Some of these exchanges are truly mind-bending and unlike anything I've seen before.
Weighing in at a total 280 minutes, this full frame double bill is a pretty hefty meal in its own right so it's understandable that few features are included. While part 2 is entirely featureless, part 1 includes some trial updates and almost an hour of additional trial footage that wasn't included in either film. By the way, after seeing the films, be sure to go here for an update on the West Memphis Three. More than a decade after the crimes occurred, the insanity continues. Movie rating (for parts 1 and 2 respectively): 9 and 8/10. Disc rating: 7 and 4/10. -- Jonathan Doyle