Koko: A Talking Gorilla
The traditional wisdom of west ern civilization suggests humans are unique in all the world. We have reason and language; we're better than the other animals. Koko blows that one out of the water. This gorilla can speak using American Sign Language, and when she does, she can do pretty well everything with language that we can. That includes lying.
Lying is complex. You've not only got to be able to anticipate someone else's behaviour, but to imagine that you can change it by what you say. So you need to be both self-aware and aware of the other as a self. Which suggests that Koko is a person, one of us, as opposed to a dumb brute, one of them.
Penny Patterson, the Stanford grad student who began the Koko project in 1972, thinks Koko's a person. So does director Barbet Schroeder, though he lets the primatologists do the talking and saves the big questions for the end. Mostly, though, he has Nestor Almendros keep his camera on Koko and Patterson as they go about their days, allowing us to make up our own minds.
Koko is neither pretty nor cute. She is beautiful and rich in character and far more worth your while than Adam Sandler and Jessica Alba put together (horrifying thought), whatever your views on what it takes to be a person.
Schroeder gives a good making-of interview in the extras, and novelist/journalist Gary Indiana lays out a world of significant ramifications in a brief essay. In contrast, French novelist Marguerite Duras writes high-minded sentimental mush that will probably do more to protect wild gorillas than all the philosophy in the world.
Extras Schroeder interview, Indiana, Duras essays. Theatrical ratio. English, French soundtracks. English, French subtitles.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) D: Michael Winterbottom, w/ Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon. Rating: NNNN
They said it couldn't be filmed, and they were right. Laurence Sterne's 1760 novel rambles happily all over the landscape, stops cold for asides and generally displays, as one of the film's characters says, "postmodernism long before there was anything to be post about." It's very funny.
So instead of trying to film the unfilmable, director Michael Winterbottom and company film their attempt to film the novel, with themselves playing versions of themselves in the behind-the-camera scenes. This is also very funny, largely thanks to the understated comic brilliance of stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who've worked together often, not least in 24 Hour Party People. They have a fluid ease worthy of Laurel and Hardy.
They've caught the novel's spirit wonderfully. Stephen Fry, who has a cameo in the film, gives a great 15-minute talk Sterne and his work in the extras. The stars explain nothing in their commentary, but no matter. Their diversions, interruptions and wit are of a piece with the movie itself.
Extras Coogan and Brydon commentary, making-of doc, Coogan interview, Sterne appreciation, deleted and extended scenes. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French subtitles.
Basic Instinct 2
(unrated, extended cut, Sony, 2006)
D: Michael Caton-Jones, w/ Sharon Stone, David Morrissey. Rating: NN
if you want good old-fashioned femme fatale evil, Sharon Stone's your girl. She'll ooze right up to the camera, strip right down to her nicely kept movie-star body and then start gleefully chewing the scenery and her co-star alike. Problem is, we don't get enough of her doing it. Instead, we spend time with the poor sucker she's hellbent on ruining, a court-appointed shrink who's gotten a little too close in his character assessment, leading Stone's character to think he may be a fun-lovin' psychopath like herself.
To make matters worse, British actor David Morrissey plays the sucker a bit too quietly as though he were in a serious drama, not this florid nonsense which makes him too dull for the material.
Even worse, the script is dull. There's much talk, little action, and none of it possesses the sleazoid glory of the opening sequence that has Stone blasting through central London at 100 mph, getting hand-jobbed by her latest victim even as he's dying.
Director Michael Caton-Jones (The Jackal) is well aware of the script's shortcomings and the kind of material he's working with. He uses that to give us a good Directing 101 course, with emphasis on problem-solving, the importance of flow over sense and the value of grabbing unscripted shots.
Extras Director commentary, making-of doc, deleted scenes and alternate ending w/ optional director commentary. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French subtitles.
The Black Swan
(Fox, 1942) D: Henry King, w/ Tyrone Power, Maureen O'Hara. Rating: NNN
Though it has enough gratui tous "Ar-rrr , matey" here to make you groan, this high-end pirate saga has plenty of other pleasures to offset the camp factor. Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara are well matched and clearly enjoying themselves as the good pirate chasing bad ones around the Caribbean and the haughty governor's daughter he falls for. George Sanders dumps his trademark suavity for a red beard and bad manners as the chief heavy. The always excellent Laird Cregar does a rich turn as Henry Morgan, the pirate-turned-governor.
The script, co-written by Ben Hecht (The Front Page), gives everybody lots of snappy insults and makes sly digs at the bodice-ripper's love/hate conventions. Leon Shamroy's Oscar-winning technicolor cinematography, lovingly restored, is a marvel of colour, shadow and texture.
O'Hara shows up on the commentary with historian Rudy Behlmer. At 82, her memory is clear and detailed. Though neither one has anything earth-shaking to impart, they're having fun.
Extras Commentary, liner notes. Theatrical ratio. English, French, Spanish soundtracks. English, Spanish subtitles.
Masters Of Horror: Homecoming
(Anchor Bay, 2005)
D: Joe Dante, w/ Jon Tenney, Thea Gill. Rating: NNN
Horror movies so seldom reach the potential inherent in their metaphors that it's a treat to watch Joe Dante fling the walking dead pointedly into the faces of certain key Bush administration figures. It's satire as blunt instrument, with a little sex and violence and much dark humour of the sort you'd expect from the director of Gremlins. Well-made on all fronts, it's a fun movie and yet another reason why the made-for-TV Masters Of Horror is the best anthology series to come along in decades. But it's not great. For greatness, check out Imprint, the episode directed by Takashi Miike, horror so harrowing that neither Canada's Scream nor the U.S. Showtime would air it. Anchor Bay says it's coming in September.
Extras Screenwriter commentary, director and cast interviews, making-of docs, photo gallery. Wide-screen.
Coming Tuesday, July 18
Dr Mabuse, The Gambler
If this is the full 297-minute restored version, it'll be a big advance over the current 229-minute one now out. Either way, it's a classic Fritz Lang silent film, one of the key roots of film noir with one of the greatest supervillains of all time.
The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. - The Complete Series
Terrific western with bizarre mystical and SF tinges is perfectly tailored to star Bruce Campbell's heroic goof persona.
She's The Man
Entertaining version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night set in a contemporary boarding school.
Amazing Stories: The Complete First Season
This package of 24 half-hours of Steven Spielberg's entertaining fantasy/SF series offers only deleted scenes as extras.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb