The Upside Of Anger
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) D: Mike Binder, w/ Joan Allen, Kevin Costner. Rating: NNN
Forget how much you really hate Kevin Costner. He's just along for the ride. This is Joan Allen's movie all the way, and she makes a meal of it.
Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, an upper-middle-class suburban housewife whose husband leaves without warning. She responds with vodka, bitterness and an ever simmering, often erupting rage that chiefly targets her four daughters.
The daughters are thinly drawn, but Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell and Alicia Witt move and speak with each other and Allen with the unforced ease of a real family.
Allen is brilliant. She gives a completely naturalistic, nuanced performance that's as riveting as Charlize Theron in Monster. She is completely detestable, and not in a fun, boo-the-villain way.
Maybe too detestable, because as Mike Binder makes clear on the commentary, this is supposed to be a sort-of comedy. He refers to Terms Of Endearment and Hannah And Her Sisters. But Allen's bitterness overrides any sense of watching a comedy. Instead, it's a meltdown, with some funny scenes and dialogue. The atmosphere is gloomy; the pace funereal. As for the "warm-hearted" parts promised by the DVD package, they come by way of a contrived ending.
Costner, as the new man in Terry's life, turns in a character rather than star performance, and he's good. But his retired baseball player seems a poor fit with Allen's housewife - he's a career alcoholic who really wants a drinking buddy - so his presence at the fade-out only makes the happy ending seem more implausible.
Allen's performance and the well-crafted scenes compensate for the story failings.
EXTRAS Allen, Binder and moderator Rod Lurie commentary, deleted scenes, making-of doc. Wide-screen. English, French soundtrack. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Third Rock From The Sun: Season One
(Anchor Bay, 1996) created by Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, w/ John Lithgow, Kristen Johnston. Rating: NNN
In the era when Seinfeld was king and the smirk was as broad as sitcoms got, Third Rock looked like a total throwback. Knockabout farce complete with pratfalls and ferocious mugging, it made no claim to naturalism or sophistication.
But it worked: laugh-out-loud funny at least once per episode, tons of awards, including Emmy and Screen Actors' Guild nods. It also gained an international audience, a rarity in comedy, which seldom travels well.
The premise - disguised aliens visit Earth to study our ways - is tailor-made for John Lithgow's particular brand of comic genius. He's got the ferocious intensity to turn a first-time encounter with a box of tissues into a moment of transcendent awakening and the physical skills to turn his suavo pompous ass into an emotional train wreck in a heartbeat.
Jane Curtin's repressed rage and outraged propriety make her a great foil for Lithgow. But the standout performance was by Kristen Johnston as the very masculine security officer now trapped in an unfamiliar and highly emotional woman's body.
Grounding the goofiness are tight, smart scripts that centre on basic human issues, especially the mysteries of sex. While the actors have ample room to milk their moments, the stories never grind to a halt or suffer the stultifying stain of preachiness.
The actors work remarkably well together. The disc-four interviews give us a good look into their collaborative and improvisational working process, and the blooper reel brings it to life. Though it isn't all that funny, it shows what the actors mean when they claim shooting a sitcom with a live audience is more like theatre than film, and it reveals the level of energy required to bring it off.
EXTRAS Making-of footage, cast interviews, bloopers, highlights, humorous booklet. Full-frame. No subtitles.
(TLA Releasing, 2002) D: Enrique Urbizu, w/ Antonio Resines, José Coronado. Rating: NNN
Some of the best crime movies undersell themselves.
Think of The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown. They let events speak for themselves and tell their stories with a calm camera in a way that requires an audience's trust.
Box 507 follows that approach and, while it doesn't scale the heights of the greatest, it does offer a strong story effectively told with solid low-key suspense.
Locked in the vault during a robbery, a bank manager discovers a set of documents that persuades him that the death of his daughter was no accident. He sets out for vengeance, unaware that someone else is stalking the robbers and the documents.
Script and direction present the two antagonists very similarly. Neither says much, and both move with a calm single-mindedness that almost brushes the camera aside. But the banker is no thug - he's seeking revenge with a banker's tools. So we wait for his determination to be put to the test in the face of the thug's violence. European thrillers don't behave like American ones, so the story has other plans.
EXTRAS Wide-screen. Spanish soundtrack. English subtitles.
(Anchor Bay, 1989) D: Michele Soavi, w/ Hugh Quarshie, Asia Argento. Rating: NNN
This film is marred a little by average dubbing and some clumsy effects. But it's got great atmosphere via an elegant Gothic church that the camera explores thoroughly and a demented score by Keith Emerson and Goblin.
The story - demons released from a pit under the church turn those trapped inside into devouring monsters - offers a great opportunity for a thoroughly nasty back half, and Soavi takes full advantage. It's only his second feature as director, but his apprenticeship under Italian frightmaster Dario Argento taught him how to handle the gore.
The Church has actually been around for a few years, but the marketing geniuses at Anchor Bay have re-released it as part of their first Fright Pack: six horror movies for $27.99 at amazon.ca. A steal, since The Church goes for $17.96 as a stand-alone.
Of course, it'd be a better bargain if the other five movies were better, but they're mostly run-of-the-mill shudder schlock. Hammer Films fans might welcome To The Devil A Daughter for Christopher Lee and an incredibly young Nastassia Kinski, while deep-dyed genre geeks might want to check out Curse Of The Devil's extended interview with seminal Spanish horrorista Paul Naschy. But they're both rather dull.
EXTRAS Soavi biography. Wide-screen. No subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, August 2
Alexander: Director's Cut
(WB, 2004) Oliver Stone's sword-and-sandal epic with a bonus disc of extras.
The Complete Thin Man Collection
(WB, 1934-47) All six comedy-mysteries with Myrna Loy and William Powell as the lighthearted sleuths.
(Sony, 2004) Bruno Ganz plays Hitler in another retelling of the final days in the bunker.
The X-Files Mythology: Black Oil
(Fox, 1993-2002) Fifteen episodes of paranoid SF with Mulder and Scully on the trail of goop from outer space.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb