FEAR OF A BLACK HAT (Columbia/TriStar, 1994) D: Rusty Cundieff, w/ Cundieff, Larry B. Scott. Rating: NNNN
the this is spinal tap of rap, fear Of A Black Hat tracks the history of NWH (Niggaz With Hats) through their travails and breakups. Made almost 10 years ago by first-time writer/director Cundieff, it's very funny and very precise in its recognition of the contradictions inherent in turning the gangsta lifestyle into show business.
The funniest moment occurs when the group splits up and the three members morph into parodies of C&C Music Factory, P.M. Dawn and LL Cool J. Time has moved so fast that a note-perfect parody of P.M. Dawn now seems as remote as Spinal Tap's Listen To The Flower People.
DVD EXTRAS First-rate DVD presentation, with a commentary by Cundieff, all the film's "music videos" on a separate menu, deleted scenes, trailers and interviews.
PHONE BOOTH (20th Century Fox, 2002) D: Joel Schumacher, w/ Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker. Rating: NNN
this is a small production mira cle, an entire film shot in and around a phone booth, supposedly in New York (actually on Fifth Street in L.A.), and on an 11-day production schedule. It's by the director of Batman And Robin. Colin Farrell plays a sleazy publicist who picks up a ringing public phone only to find himself under the gun of Kiefer Sutherland's urgent whisperer, with a dead pimp on the street and a bunch of SWAT guys breathing down his neck.
This picture proves Farrell's charisma and offers the latest piece of evidence that Schumacher is better off with no money and minimal time (see also Tigerland) than with a $100-million production budget and people like Schwarzenegger.
DVD EXTRAS Director's commentary and theatrical trailer. Oddly, Schumacher talks about Kiefer Sutherland as if he were there during production, when he was actually brought in afterwards to replace Ron Eldard. Wide-screen and pan-and-scan versions; English and French versions and subtitles.
NIGHT AND FOG (Criterion/Morningstar, 1955) D: Alain Resnais. Rating: NNNNN
HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (Criterion Morningstar, 1959) D: Resnais, w/ Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada. Rating: NNNN
somehow missing from the cinematheque's Summer Of Essentials, Hiroshima Mon Amour was Alain Resnais's feature debut after a decade of documentaries that included Night And Fog, still arguably the most moving documentary on the Holocaust. I've always felt that Resnais, a brilliant director, fell in with bad literary company when he started making features. Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote Last Year At Marienbad (which is in the Cinematheque series) and Marguerite Duras, who wrote Hiroshima, are the sort of writers who should have had their pictures on post office walls - Wanted: For Crimes Against Culture.
Duras's script turns Hiroshima Mon Amour into a film in which you can see exactly why you should appreciate it, how every point Peter Cowie makes in his commentary track rings true. You understand exactly why Godard, Rivette and Rohmer are engaged in a big Cahiers Du Cinema round table (included in the booklet here) about why Hiroshima Mon Amour is perhaps "the first truly modern sound film." Their discussion makes fascinating reading.
It's also a film I find enormously difficult to watch, largely because of Duras's incantatory, poetic, insanely pretentious script, in which the man (Eiji Okada) and the woman (Emmanuelle Riva) have no names and repeat themselves a lot.
Pauline Kael, with her unerring ear for pretension, let the script blind her. Her review is dead brilliant and worth seeking out (Fantasies Of The Art House Audience, in I Lost It At The Movies) but also entirely misses the point of the film, which is its formal radicalism regarding linear narrative.
It's hard not to recommend. Aside from its historical importance in the emergent cinema of the 60s, there's the evocative black-and-white cinematography of Sacha Vierny; the elegant cross-cutting between contemporary Hiroshima and wartime Nevers, France, where the woman tries to die for love; the unusual East-meets-West scoring; and the way the film becomes, in Cowie's memorable phrase, a documentary about the uses of memory.
On the other hand, I'd be inclined to post a warning on it: "Contains dialogue that may drive a sane person to murder." Tried watching it without the subtitles. Damn, I never should have learned French.
No worries about Night And Fog, a rare short film on a Criterion disc. (Note the lower-than-usual price.) In half an hour, mixing documentary wartime footage with a dispassionate tour of the then empty spaces of Auschwitz, Resnais's documentary questions its own existence and the intense difficulty of giving meaning to unimaginable events that actually happened. It remains one of the most powerfully intelligent documentaries ever made - a genuine must-see. Light on extras, but this film doesn't need them.
DVD EXTRAS Hiroshima: Critical commentary by Peter Cowie, contemporary interviews with Resnais and Riva, new interview with Riva, excerpts from Duras's screenplay annotations, Duras's character sketches, a 32-page booklet including a new essay by Kent Jones and the Cahiers Du Cinema round-table discussion. Music and effects-only track. French with English subtitles. Night And Fog: Audio interview with Resnais, isolated music track, booklet essay by Phillip Lopate. French with English subtitles.
BASIC (20th Century Fox, 2003) D: John McTiernan, w/ John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson. Rating: NN
what the heck's happened to John McTiernan? Once upon a time, McTiernan directed Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October, but now he's stuck in this whodunit/military thriller. The screenplay throws so many plot twists into the last half-hour that it stops making any kind of sense - unless everyone has been lying from the jump. It doesn't even make sense when it gets explained at the end. Fun performances by Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, but Connie Nielsen's accent keeps sliding all over the South.
DVD EXTRAS Director commentary, making-of featurette, screenwriter interview. McTiernan's commentary sounds eerily like he's being voiced by Zen comic Steven Wright.
Also This Week
LAUREL CANYON (Columbia TriStar) Frances MacDormand stars as a record producer living a post-60s lifestyle. Her strait-laced son (Christian Bale) comes home for a visit.
THE BILLY WILDER COLLECTION (MGM) Eight titles, four of them - Kiss Me, Stupid; The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes; Avanti!; and One, Two, Three - new to DVD in a collectible box. Inexplicably, the Canadian box omits Witness For The Prosecution, which is in the comparable American box.
FRIENDS: COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON (Warner Home Video) Phoebe's pregnant, Ross is courting Emily, and Joey and Chandler have discovered free porn on their TV.
GODS AND GENERALS (Warner) The second Ted Turner-produced Civil War epic.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb