Black Snake Moan
(Paramount, 2006) D: Craig Brewer, w/ Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
The first hour of Black Snake Moan is as lurid as a 50s paperback cover. A bitter black farmer (Samuel L. Jackson) finds a beaten-up white trash woman (Christina Ricci), takes her home and chains her, almost naked, to the radiator, hellbent on curing her of her evil ways.
There's lots of sexual and dramatic tension, delivered with great power and depth by Jackson and Ricci. Craig Brewer, who's grown considerably as a director since Hustle & Flow, sits back and lets the scenes play out, saving the close-ups for the really big moments.
All this is propelled by a terrific blues score. Brewer understands the music's emotional power and uses it in a way that makes it a living force in his characters' lives.
The title performance is a killer, likewise the version of Stagger Lee that segues into one of the best barroom parties on film: hot music, hotter grinding on the dance floor. Only problem with the music is that none of the numbers goes on long enough.
It's in the wrap-up that Brewer fails. He's got an uplift agenda and pushes it at the expense of the drama. Nothing wrong with uplift, and it's not out of keeping with the rest of the story. But compared to the tension of the build-up, it's weak.
Extras Director commentary, making-of doc, two making-of music docs, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, French audio. English, Spanish subtitles.
(Mongrel, 2004) D: Debbie Melnyk. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NN
If you're following Conrad Black's racketeering and fraud trial in Chicago, you're not likely to find much here that you don't already know. But if you're new to the adventures of the nation's favourite bloated capitalist, this provides a good though not very detailed introduction.
Black rose from inherited wealth and Upper Canada College to become the third-most-powerful press baron in the world. He married right-wing columnist Barbara "My Extravagance Knows No Bounds" Amiel and renounced his Canadian citizenship to purchase an English baronetcy (a title that can't be passed on to his heirs). Lavish parties ensued. Then, the crash.
Debbie Melnyk (Manufacturing Dissent) is looking for the key to Black's character. A good question. What are we to make of a man who on the one hand penned two well-regarded 1,200-word biographies (of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and recently of Richard Nixon) and on the other was caught on surveillance cam with a henchperson secretly spiriting boxes of documents out of the Hollinger offices at midnight?
Melnyk assembles a string of journalists, including Christie Blatchford and Michael Coren, to opine on the true nature of Black's character. They give good, glib soundbites. But she doesn't get the interview she wants with Black himself, so we're left with some off-the-cuff remarks at book signings and some clandestine footage from a shareholders meeting.
Black is a polished, charismatic performer. You have to listen and look closely to catch changes in his voice and body language during his 2004 book tour, when the pressure's on.
More signing and meeting footage is all we get for extras. Too bad. Melnyk's opinions and reasons for being interested would've made a good commentary.
Extras Black addressing shareholders meeting, doing book signing. Wide-screen.
Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon
(Anchor Bay, 2006) D: Scott Glosserman, w/ Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals. Rating: N; DVD package: NN
Every so often really bad movies provide us with valuable life lessons. In this case, it is that smart people can sometimes be very, very stupid.
The smart idea is this: in a world where Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and the like are real people using slasher movie conventions to deliberately give their murders mythic dimensions, psycho Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), poised to become the next legendary slasher, asks a documentary filmmaker (Angela Goethals) to record his preparation.
This is clever. Good deconstruction can let us explore the genre and our relation to it, but that doesn't happen here. The premise never develops beyond the simple gag of Vernon demonstrating his backstage set-up. The first hour is talky, flat and not at all funny. Baesel is a seriously uncharismatic slasher, and Goethals is purely conventional as the girl reporter.
At about the one-hour mark, the film devolves into a paint-by-numbers slasher flick and the stupidity reveals itself big time. The set-up sequences have already shown us, sometimes shot-for-shot, exactly what's going to happen, so there's no possibility of thrills. All that time and effort gone into designing a movie whose sole function is not to deliver on its promise - that's not just stupidity, that's Hall of Fame stupidity.
On another level, the movie fails because the first hour is dull and the slasher flick portion devoid of money shots - no big gross-outs for the gore-hounds. Glosserman is upfront about his and the production's limitations in the making-of doc, which is the disc's only redeeming feature, unless you like listening to four young actors all talking at once about nothing much.
Extras Cast commentary, making-of doc, audition footage, deleted and extended scenes, screenplay. Wide-screen.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2006) D: Reginald Harkema, w/ Don McKellar, Tracy Wright. Rating: N; DVD package: NN
The best part of Monkey warfare is the bicycle-riding. All three main characters zoom all over Parkdale, adding a lot of life and motion to an otherwise dreary dialogue movie.
Dan and Linda (Don McKellar and Tracy Wright) are a couple of burn-outs, ex-radicals eking out a living as garbage-pickers. Susan (Nadia Litz), half their age and eager for radical action, wanders into their lives. Talk ensues.
McKellar and Wright, a couple in real life, do a good job of portraying a couple onscreen, but Dan and Linda are pretty much one-dimensional mopes. He wants to fuck Susan, she wants a baby. Both smoke a lot of grass to dull the pain. Litz is lively, but all we know about her is the radical stance, so she feels like nothing but a plot device.
The second-best part of Monkey Warfare is the commentary track director Reginald Harkema shares with editor Kathy Weinkauf over a full-length rough assembly. They don't get very technical, but the discussion of choices makes for good film school.
Extras Cast commentary, full-length rough cut with director and editor commentary. Wide-screen.
Coming Tuesday, July 3
Comedy/drama with Rupert Grint as a shy teen who goes to work for retired actor Julie Walters
The Taste Of Tea
(Viz Video, 2004)
Gentle, whimsical Japanese comedy with a string of awards, mostly from Asian festivals.
A Room With A View
Oscar-winning Merchant/Ivory production that launched the boom in genteel English dramas. Great visuals and cast headed by Helena Bonham Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis
Stephen King Collector's Set (MGM): Carrie (1976), Misery (1990), The Dark Half (1993), Needful Things (1993).
Needful Things isn't much, but Misery and The Dark Half are good and Carrie is a classic. It's got the best extras, too.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb