Ghosts of Cite Soleil (Thinkfilm)
This raw and sobering look at gang life in the Haitian slums seems to be consciously aimed at short attention spans, cranking itself continually forward so fast that you wonder what’s been left out. But it’s one of those amazing pieces of documentary that makes you wonder how in the world the filmmakers got so close to the action. I reviewed it in June.
Order it from Amazon.com: Ghosts of Cite Soleil
Hairspray (New Line)
Nobody could have expected this to be as crappy as I did, but, lo and behold, it’s a terrifically entertaining high-school musical. John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer can go screw themselves as far as I’m concerned, and the songs aren’t great, but the kids — especially Nikki Blonsky in what should be billed as the lead plus Amanda Bynes and James Marsden in good-natured comic supporting roles — are all right.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Paramount/ American Zoetrope)
Long unavailable (my VHS copy was recorded off Showtime on its 1991 premiere), this new DVD was such a stealth production that even director George Hickenlooper — who had long been lobbying to help create a special-edition release — had no idea it was coming out until he read about it on the Internet. Reportedly uncut despite long-standing rumors of Coppola’s discomfort with his own near-lunatic presence in the film, Hearts of Darkness is based largely on about 60 hours of footage shot by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, during the near-disastrous (well, some would say it really was a disaster) making of Apocalypse Now. It’s all here — the budget overruns, the bad weather, the abortive French Plantation sequence, Martin Sheen’s heart attack, Brando’s arrival on the scene, overweight and underprepared. “We were in the jungle, ” Coppola says at one point, “there were too many of us, we had access to
too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went
insane.” They don’t make ’em like that any more.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
Manufactured Landscapes (Zeitgeist)
It’s a shame that the high-definition home-viewing revolution hasn’t, to date, revolutionized titles like Manufactured Landscapes, because Jennifer Baichwal’s film about Edward Burtynsky’s ongoing photography project — he documents the effects of industry on natural landscapes, to often-stunning effect — is as visually provocative in its way as Burtynsky’s own work. Credit must go in part to artful cinematography by Peter Mettler, but Baichwal keeps the film reined in, avoiding facts-and-figures outrage and instead allowing the humbling scope of the desolate imagery depicted to speak largely for itself. Reviewing it in June, I wrote, “The images are striking in their otherworldliness, suggesting
science-fiction landscapes as readily as dystopian ruins of the here
and now. They’re relics of human pride and folly — signposts, perhaps,
on a one-way street.”
Buy it from Amazon.com: Manufactured Landscapes (US Edition)
Heima (XL Recordings)
Rock docs vary in their ability to satisfactorily merge form and content — there’s not much of interest in your typical concert video unless it faithfully represents a particularly energetic and/or soulful performance by your artist of choice. Most of the important exceptions to the rule — movies that can galvanize relatively disinterested observers as well as dedicated fans — are writ large in the annals of concert film: Woodstock, The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense and (at least for me) Sign “O” the Times come immediately to mind. It’s not that I harbor much hope that this film about majestic art-rockers Sigur Ros will join that particular canon, but it does look like an aggressive attempt to place their aural grandeur in a geographic context: the band’s home country of Iceland. Judging from the film’s trailer, it juxtaposes concert footage with ace landscape photography captured in the HD format. Does the movie add up to something greater than the sum of its aural and visual parts? Who knows? But I’m interested.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Heima
Rescue Dawn (MGM)
Werner Herzog’s conventional but convincingly gritty P.O.W. drama is based on the true story of U.S. bomber pilot (and German expatriate) Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), who was shot down during the secret U.S. strikes on Cambodia. Herzog expertly dramatizes the harsh conditions of Dengler’s confinement (even the captors are starving, which makes them meaner) and the determination that drove his unlikely escape. The photography on location in thick Thai jungles and muddy river water is testimony to a certain fierceness of vision; unfortunately, the dialogue is often stilted, perhaps because this is the first screenplay Herzog has written in English. And Bale gives a distinctly odd performance, greeting the prospect of imprisonment with an aw-shucks demeanor and grinning as he digs into a lunch of live worms. His straight men in the camp are Steve Zahn, whose heavy-browed eyes express that perpetual combination of wariness and great sadness, and an alarmingly emaciated-looking Jeremy Davies. The resulting film is often gripping but quite slowly paced—watching any given scene, I was either clutching at my armrests or stifling a yawn.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Rescue Dawn
Call it Die Hard With a Whimper: This live-action cartoon is so guileless, so eager to make you happy, that complaining about its lack of story smarts, its paucity of visual panache, or its status as just a big pile of twaddle from start to finish feels like the rhetorical equivalent of kicking a puppy. Bruce Willis is still a font of macho charisma, to be sure, and it’s only in the moments where he goes over the top — giggling maniacally after a villain falls into a piece of people-shredding machinery, for instance — that the movie comes alive. (Incredibly, one of his very best “kill em all” line deliveries made it into the trailer but didn’t survive final cut.) Maybe the “unrated” version will add some much needed punch to the PG-13 proceedings, but I doubt it — sound and fury, etc.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Live Free or Die Hard (Unrated Edition) or Live Free or Die Hard – Unrated (Two-Disc Special Edition) or Live Free or Die Hard [Blu-ray]