Year Of The Dog
(Paramount, 2007) D: Mike White, w/ Molly Shannon, Laura Dern. Rating: NNN , DVD package: NN
This isn't at all the directorial debut you'd expect from Mike White, the guy who wrote School Of Rock and Nacho Libre. Instead of warm-hearted stupid comedy, it's a cold-hearted smart comedy that can just as easily be read as a humourless portrait of madness.
Peggy lives alone with her beloved dog. Everyone talks at her, nobody listens - not that she tries to communicate. When the dog dies unexpectedly, mild-mannered Peggy goes increasingly strange, until she's a vegan warrior trashing her sister-in-law's furs and dragging her little niece on a factory-farming tour of horrors.
Saturday Night Live alumna Molly Shannon gives an incredible performance as Peggy. Much of it is low-key reaction shots, but when she turns on the tears or rage, she's thoroughly convincing. She's surrounded by equally good actors, notably Laura Dern as her overprotective sister-in-law and Josh Pais, who somehow brings humanity to her money-obsessed boss.
White has a very specific vision: underplayed dialogue, slightly overplayed movement and flat visuals. It works well as comedy if your idea of comedy is a pitiless gaze and small laughs.
It works equally well as a serious visual correlative to Peggy's growing insanity. White seems oblivious to that. In the merely okay commentary track and extras, he just talks about it being funny. Of course, listening to his voice, you might think he's put an awful lot of himself into his heroine.
EXTRAS White and Shannon commentary, making-of and dogs docs, White and Shannon profiles, Shannon/White interview, gag reel, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, Spanish audio. English, Spanish subtitles.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2002) D: Lau Kar-leung, w/ Leung, Gordon Liu. Rating: NNN , DVD package: N/A
Never that well-known in the West, Lau Kar-leung was one of the key directors in the rise of Hong Kong kung fu movies. A lifelong martial arts practitioner, he started as a stuntman in the 60s and learned directing from Hong Kong's top director, Chang Cheh (Golden Swallow).
Lau directed what is widely regarded as one of Hong Kong's all-time great films, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978), which turned his protege, Gordon Liu, into a major star. His Challenge Of The Masters (1976) and The Martial Club (1981) provided major inspiration for Tsui Hark's 1991 masterpiece, Once Upon A Time In China. He directed Jackie Chan's last great, and arguably greatest-ever movie, Legend Of Drunken Master (1994).
Drunken Monkey is Lau's latest directorial outing, and it's as inventive as any of his earlier works. The director plays Man Bil, a courier betrayed and left for dead by his associates. He goes into hiding only to be dragged back into the fray by a couple of youngsters hoping to learn his monkey-style kung fu.
In his fight scenes, Lau mostly avoids wire work and goes for long takes with relatively effects-free action designed to showcase the players. He uses a double, so you'll have to catch an earlier work to see him in his prime (try 1979's Mad Monkey).
But he's an engaging presence and a good actor. So is Jacky Wu as the keener of the two would-be students. He's got a very funny scene that involves being hoisted into increasingly bizarre positions so his nephew can illustrate a kung fu manual.
This is a Dragon Dynasty presentation. Usually the company provides good extras, but this time there's nothing. Lau is all over the extras on the two-disc edition of Hong Kong stunt documentary Red Trousers. It's around in stores, or you can pick it up at Amazon.ca for as little as $5.95 used.
EXTRAS Wide-screen. Cantonese, English audio. English subtitles.
(Kino, 1929) D: Roland West, w/ Chester Morris, Mae Busch. Rating: NNN , DVD package: N/A
Alibi comes from the very earliest days of talking pictures, and time has not been kind to the print. It's scratched and faded, and the soundtrack has a fair amount of crackle and hiss. But it's still a decent crime drama, nominated for best picture, best actor (Chester Morris) and best art direction (William Cameron Menzies) at the second Oscar dinner.
Morris plays Chick Williams, just out of jail and back with the gang. Eleanore Griffith plays Joan, the cop's daughter who loves him. The cops are brutal thugs, hellbent on framing Chick.
Director Roland West, who came out of stage and vaudeville, had an eye for stark, moody lighting and composition - or he'd been studying Fritz Lang. From the opening silhouette of the guard swinging his nightstick, the film makes effective use of classic German Expressionist/film noir looming shadows and high angles.
The interrogation scene is downright chilling. Good composition in depth and Menzies art deco decor make the dialogue scenes interesting even when the limitations of early sound recording keep the camera static.
Morris's acting looks overwrought by today's standards, but in the final scenes, when the going gets rough, there's no question that he's feeling every moment and pumping out the intensity for all he's worth. Regis Toomey steals the show as an undercover cop posing as a comic drunk. His death scene goes from sublime to ridiculous, then gets pulled back again by our heroine's father's ( Purnell Pratt) shellshocked attempts at comfort.
No extras - alas. Who remembers that West may have gone on to murder Thelma Todd (one of Hollywood's great unsolved murders) or that Morris enjoyed a good career in B movies (he was Boston Blackie in the 40s) and that Mae Busch (the fence's girlfriend) was a truly fine actress?
EXTRAS Full frame, black-and-white.
Buy The Ticket Take The Ride: Hunter S. Thompson On Film
(Starz, 2007) D: Tom Thurman. Rating: NNN , DVD package: N/A
Tom Thurman, who's done music and film director documentaries, assembles a stellar cast to explore the life and legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, the Rolling Stone writer who made "fear and loathing" part of everybody's vocabulary and invented gonzo journalism, a genre, a style and a method of injecting the writer, who'd usually ingested of copious amounts of drugs and booze, into the story.
Tom Wolfe and William F. Buckley weigh in on his literary merits. Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, who played him in movies, discuss the man. Thompson himself mumbles about various things, including the idea that he may have been made redundant by his own persona.
It's lots of fun and, if you don't already know Thompson's writing, it may encourage you to pick some up. Start with Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
Coming Tuesday, September 11
Director Mark Rydell's study of gambling addiction, with a strong cast headed by Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Kelsey Grammer and Ray Liotta.
Away From Her
Two-disc edition of Sarah Polley's acclaimed study of love and loss, with Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie.
Chilly portrait of the evil done in God's name. Vincent Price skips the camp to deliver serious menace.
Sam Fuller's seldom-seen tale of the attempt to reclaim a dog trained to attack black people.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb