Maiku Hama, Private Eye Trilogy
( Kino Video) D: Kaizo Hayashi, Rating: NNNN ;
The Most Terrible Time In My Life
(1994) w/ Masatoshi Nagase, Shiro Sano, Rating: NNN ;
Stairway To The Distant Past
(1995) w/ Nagase, Kiyotaka Nanbara, Rating: NNN ;
(1996) w/ Nagase, Yui Natsukawa. Rating: NNN
Here's a rarity in movies - a trilogy that's more than the sum of its parts. Each film works as a stand-alone, but taken together they're something moving and strange.
Strange because each movie begins and ends with the trappings of light parodic comedy that deny the film's content. Maiku Hama is a Yokohama private eye, complete with noir-lit office above an old Cinemascope theatre, old Nash Rambler and voice-over narration. He's a low-comedy lovable loser all the way.
But the stories are serious noir. Two orphaned brothers end up on opposite sides of a yakuza war; Hama's stripper mother returns from nowhere as he's about to go against the untouchable ruler of riverfront crime; a serial killer who may have supernatural powers is ritually slaughtering young women.
The thematic link is abandoned children and what they do to survive. Two of the films are primarily stories of loyalty and betrayal. In the third, abandonment is so complete that the people are literally empty shells.
A solid noir stylist, Hayashi loves his sinister lighting and dramatic compositions. But each film takes those elements in a different direction. Most Terrible Time is a black-and-white, traditional yakuza tale in 40s noir style. Distant Past turns the city and its river into characters via very good location shooting and moves into a thoroughly mystic climax. The Trap veers into contemporary horror.
EXTRAS All movies: gallery, cast, director, writer profiles. Wide-screen. Japanese soundtrack, English subtitles.
(WB, 2005) D: Francis Lawrence, w/ Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz. Rating: NN
Warner's tried hard to make this two-disc deluxe edition worthwhile. The usual making-of docs have some nice splashy effects scenes to focus on. There's a good little feature on the mythic underpinnings of the hero, and a detailed interview tracing the project's journey from comic book to screen.
The very first piece of art from the comics, a cover illustration of Constantine, tells you what's wrong with the movie. Comics Constantine is a cocky con man - smart, funny and flexible. Movie Constantine is Keanu Reeves - dull, sombre and brittle.
In their commentary, director Francis Lawrence, the producer and screenwriters tell you why they turned a fundamentally English character into an American (to interest the studios) but not why they picked Reeves. Constantine's a good role; he pits nerve, wit, charm and a clever trickster mind against heaven and hell in a scheme to save the Earth and himself. Think Depp, Pitt, even Kevin Bacon.
The supernatural onslaughts are splashy and fun. Reeves handles them well enough, but he doesn't come across as the sort of man who, for the sheer sport of it, would battle Satanic minions, and we don't see the character's cleverness until the climax.
Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare as, respectively, Gabriel and Satan, provide most of the life and all of the real acting. When they're not around, just wait for the next big effects scene. Or pick up original graphic novel Dangerous Habits, by Garth Ennis, a far better use of your money and time.
EXTRAS Disc one: commentary, Passive music video. Wide-screen, English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: deleted scenes, 18 making-of docs, DVD-ROM features. Wide-screen. French subtitles.
(Anchor Bay, 1993) D: Alex Winter, Tom Stern, w/ Winter, Randy Quaid. Rating: NNN
Its easy to see why the studio took one look at Freaked and buried it so deep it went virtually unreleased. There's nothing even remotely mass-market-friendly in its unabashed mix of silly jokes, juvenile parody and deliberately fake gross-out grotesquerie.
It's very funny - provided, that is, that your taste runs to giant machine-gun-wielding Rastafarian eyeballs and Three Stooges-like slapstick. That's not quite Airplane or Life Of Brian funny, but leagues above, say, anything with Adam Sandler.
In one of the extras, co-writer Tim Burns likens it to Monty Python meets Mad magazine, but you could call it Airplane meets a hung-over Terry Gilliam.
The tacky plot - sleazy former child star Ricky (Alex Winter) and his companions are turned into hideous mutant freaks by gleefully mad scientist/showman Randy Quaid - keeps the scattergun approach to gags in line and moving forward briskly.
Winter provides a lot of the funny. His loose-limbed, high-energy, precision timing and cartoon sensibility were evident in the Bill & Ted movies (he played Bill), but as the sleazy Ricky he has a broader range. Keanu Reeves shows up briefly, completely unrecognizable as Ortiz the Dog Boy. He's never looked better.
Anchor Bay has given this the full two-disc treatment, and the extras are well worth it. There are laughs - and more Keanu Reeves - in the deleted scenes. Winter and Tom Stern provide a droll commentary that helpfully explains some dated celebrities and jokes. But the gems lie on the second disc - a full-length rehearsal, some shorter rehearsal pieces and two short films by Winter and Stern, one of which is fairly funny in its own right.
EXTRAS Disc one: director's commentary, writer Burns interview, making-of doc, art gallery. Disc two: rehearsal version, scene readings, making-of docs, two short films by Winter and Stern, gallery, script. Both discs wide-screen. No subtitles.
Dracula III: Legacy
(Dimension, 2005) D: Patrick Lussier, w/ Jason Scott Lee, Rutger Hauer. Rating: NNN
Every so often, a movie with a "3" after the title turns out to be brilliant. Okay, it happened once: Mimic 3. J.T. Petty basically remade Rear Window using giant bugs and a genius framing strategy.
So we live in hope: if it happened once, it can happen again. But not here, not quite. Dialogue, plotting and pace all go thud too often for brilliance. But just as often, the movie lifts off to create a genuine sense of terror, supernatural atmosphere and some nifty and highly original set pieces.
The storyline - vampire hunters pursue the Count through revolution-torn contemporary Romania - avoids the usual vampire clichés while offering the opportunity for unusual twists and massive destruction. The Romanian locations are beautiful, strange villages and gorgeous mountains that the filmmakers have the budget and skill to use effectively.
Jason Scott Lee is the perfect wild-eyed fury as the tainted vampire hunter; Rutger Hauer exudes ancient evil as Dracula. But it's Jason London as the non-heroic hero who makes the movie. The writers take pains to place him in morally ambiguous and difficult situations, and he conveys credible dread, disgust and uncertainty every step of the way.
And then there's the sustained orgy of the half-naked vampire babes - no fangfest should be without one.
EXTRAS Director, producer, effects makeup artist commentary; director, effects makeup artist interviews; auditions; deleted scenes; script treatments. Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, July 26
xXx: State Of The Union
(Sony, 2005) If it's not Vin Diesel, how can it be xXx?
The Upside Of Anger
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) Romantic family drama with Kevin Costner and Joan Allen.
Remington Steele: Season One
(Fox, 1982) Pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan when he was TV's hunk du jour.
The Thin Blue Line
(MGM, 1988) Documentarian Errol Morris takes on a corrupt justice system and wins.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb