The Night Listener
(Alliance Atlantis, 2006) D: Patrick Stettner, w/ Robin Williams, Toni Collette. Rating: NNN
This is being sold as a thriller, but don't come looking for a stalk-and-slash climax or a lot of tricky plotting. The Night Listener is both more realistic and more chilling than that: an odd situation, a sudden suspicion and an amateur investigation that leads to a quietly disturbing ending.
Armistead Maupin (Tales Of The City), who co-wrote the screenplay from his novel and co-produced, calls it "a thriller of the heart" and claims it's based fairly closely on something that happened to him.
Robin Williams brings a lot of sorrow and repression to Gabriel Noone, a middle-aged writer and radio host who's just been dumped by his much younger lover. So it's easy to see why he strikes up a telephone friendship with a dying young boy who's just penned an extraordinary memoir of childhood sexual abuse, and equally easy to imagine him going in search of the truth when the ex becomes convinced that the boy and his adoptive mother are the same person.
The mystery and suspense all ride on Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) as the blind mother, alternately pathetic, likeable and creepy.
Patrick Stettner provides fairly standard eerie atmosphere and wisely avoids gaudy technique to let us focus on the characters. Sadly, though, Noone is too thinly drawn for the film to resonate as powerfully as it might. Still, it's effectively chilling and sad, as is the making-of doc that focuses on the original true story.
EXTRAS Making-of doc, deleted scene. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) D: Prachya Pinkaew, w/ Tony Jaa, Xing Jing. Rating: NNN
Ever since Hong Kong went cgi and wirework-happy, the Tony Jaa flicks out of Thailand (Ong Bak and this one) have become the only contemporary martial arts movies made as God intended, namely with talented people using their own hard-won abilities and no freakin' mechano-computer, even-Keanu-Reeves-can-do-it cheats.
Yes, there's a wire here and there and a bit of green screen in The Protector, but the vast majority of the action is unenhanced and it's marvellous.
Muay Thai practitioner Jaa and his veteran stunt team move through a dazzling array of leaps, kicks, punches and falls with breathtaking speed, precision and grace that easily equals the best of Jet Li or Jackie Chan. Highlights in a movie loaded with them include a duel with Lateef Crowder, a practitioner of the rarely seen Brazilian martial art capoeira, which looks like nothing else on earth. Big fun.
Action movie veteran Prachya Pinkaew knows how to showcase Jaa's skills. His spectacular centrepiece is pure bravura filmmaking: a four-minute battle that takes our hero through four floors of an illegal brothel/bush meat restaurant and over a dozen foes all in a single shot. That's amazing when you consider that most action-sequence shots last scarcely a second.
But there's more here than mindless punch-up if you check out the international cut on disc two. It's 27 minutes longer and far better . Some of the fight scenes are extended, but much of the time is given over to a story that emerges as culturally specific to Thailand and actually makes more sense.
In the North American cut, the elephant thieves kill Kham's father, and the rest is vengeance. In the international version, it's the theft of the elephants that sends the backwoods hero to the big city. It works because the film takes time to explore the relationship of people and elephants, which gives an emotional punch to the climax that the North American cut lacks.
We also get a clearer look at the complicated plot involving crooked cops and the wicked Madame Rose, who's busy killing her way to the top of her Chinese Mafia family.
The North American cut offers a score by the Wu Tang Clan's RZA and a commentary by martial arts movie maven Bey Logan. Both are worth the effort, as are the making-of docs and a trio of not-bad amateur martial arts shorts whose failings point out how very difficult it is to do this stuff well.
Extras Disc one: Logan commentary; making-of, making-of centrepiece fight and Jaa docs; deleted fight scenes; Jaa martial arts demo. Wide-screen. Thai, English, French soundtracks. English, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: making-of doc, short films. Wide-screen. Thai soundtrack. English subtitles.
(Columbia, 2006) D: Phil Joanou, w/ Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Xzibit. Rating: NNN
As inspirational jock movies go , this is one of the most pure-hearted ever. The story is straightforward: dedicated coach forges a bunch of juvenile convicts into a football team, in the process building their self-respect.
What makes it work so well is that director Phil Joanou has chosen to keep it as real as possible, shooting with two cameras, usually steadicam, to give a documentary feel and letting the thrills and humour arise naturally from the situations.
The cast, mostly first-timers, some of whom have been in California's juvenile prisons, perform with conviction on the field and off. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson gets the loving close-ups, but it isn't his movie. It belongs to the kids, and Johnson generously refrains from upstaging them.
It's based on a documentary about a successful program still running in a California juvenile prison, and the end credits show some of the real-life people in footage adapted for the movie. More would've been better. Nothing inspires like real-life stories and, if inspirational jock movies have any reason to exist other than profit, it must be to inspire. This one does.
EXTRAS Director and writer commentary; football training, Joanou and The Rock featurettes; extensive deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French subtitles.
The Animation Show, Vols. 1 & 2
(Paramount, 2003) Producers: Mike Judge, Don Hertzfeldt. Rating: NNN
As writer and animator Taylor Jessen points out in his introduction to the accompanying booklet, nobody makes short animated films for any reason but the love of it. That's evident, along with their creators' talent, in every one of these 31 animated shorts assembled by Mike Judge (Beavis And Butt-head, Office Space) and Don Hertzfeldt.
Techniques include line drawings, painting, claymation, stop-motion, computer graphics and more. Subjects range from classic cartoon comedy a proud parking lot owner loses a war with a weed in Bill Plympton's Parking to heroic fantasy in Tomek Baginski's The Cathedral.
I have two personal favourites: Aria, by the NFB's Pjotr Sapegin, a graceful stop-motion riff on Madame Butterfly that manages to be both comic and tragic at the same time; and Bathtime In Clerkenwell, by Alex Budovsky, in which black silhouette cutouts and some seriously infectious swing depict the clock cuckoos' fascist takeover of England.
Ample extras include commentaries, storyboards, making-of docs, a doc on the history of short animation and more. A fine package for anyone interested in the current state of indie animation.
EXTRAS Making-of docs, animator commentaries, test footage, storyboards, galleries, booklet of essays on animators. Wide- and full-screen.
Coming Tuesday, January 23
Robert Mitchum: The Signature Collection Angel Face (1952), Macao (1952), The Sundowners (1960), Home From The Hill (1960), The Good Guys And The Bad Guys (1969) and The Yakuza (1975) feature one of the screen's greatest actors, though these aren't his greatest roles.
The Films Of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 1 (Fantoma, 1947-54) Newly restored short works by one of the fathers of underground, transgressive cinema, with commentary by Anger, 48-page book, outtakes and more.
Fiddler On The Roof (MGM, 1971) Two-disc collector's edition, loaded with extras, of one of Hollywood 's last great adaptations of a musical.
The Guardian (Disney, 2006) Kevin Costner does his working-man hero shtick in an occasionally effective, more often schlocky, drama about U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb