Here are some reviews of a few new release DVDs if you please (or even if you don’t):

(Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2009)

As most film buffs know there are 2 Steven Soderberghs – not literally, of course, just hear me out. One makes well crafted commercial movies like ERIN BROCKOVICH, the OCEANS series, and the recent well received THE INFORMANT!, while the other makes on-the-fly experimental works such as SCHIZOPOLIS and FULL FRONTAL (not exactly sure where CHE or SOLARIS fits in this). THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is definitely in the second category; it was shot on digital video with a miniscule budget in less than 3 weeks and it shows.

This is not to say it doesn’t look good – it has a slick lush look and it’s sharply edited, but the material is fairly weak and the acting is sorely lacking. It concerns a high price Manhattan call girl (Sasha Grey) who offers a special service: “the girlfriend experience” of the title. That is she’ll stay with a client for a longer time than usual, converse, and go out on an actual date to dinner/the theater/whatever in addition to intercourse.

Grey’s performance is bland and un-involving so it was hard to care about her and her just as bland boyfriend (Chris Santos) suffering on the side. It was filmed in 2008 shortly before the stock market crash so there is a lot of talk from Grey’s corporate clients about the economy. None of it adds up to anything though. A journalist (Mark Jacobson) asks Grey: “Do you ever get bored ever, just talking to rich people?” She replies: “It can get tedious.” It sure does in this movie.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is pretty but pointless and even at its 77 minute running time it feels extremely padded out. Woody Allen once joked about the idea of sex without love being an empty experience: “As empty experiences go though, it’s one of the best!” was his punch line. Sadly “empty experience” at its worst sums up this tossed off throwaway film.

TYSON (Dir. James Toback, 2008)

“Mike Tyson In His Own Words” could be an accurate alternate title for this film. Though there is news footage and archival interviews, this is primarily Tyson telling his story in a series of sit down interviews. Toback splices together a mosaic out of split screen and moving images with his subject overlapping on his own recollections.

From his struggling beginnings in Brooklyn to becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world on to a sexual assault conviction resulting in 3 years behind bars, we get an unnerving sense of a confused but determined kid best evidenced in his account of his prison term:

“I know that I’m going insane and I’m crazy for being here, but it’s the only sanity that I know. It’s the insanity that’s the sanity that I know. I know that sounds so contradicting but it’s the life I know.”

Tyson admitted contradiction is one of many so Toback’s abstract methods of capturing his ongoing conflict make more sense as the movie goes on. Although I’m not a boxing fan, Tyson is a powerful figure that’s impossible to ignore and this breakdown of his battered background held my interest from start to finish.

A 16 minute featurette on the DVD (“A Day With James Toback”) is also worthwhile for it gives insight into Toback’s motivation and drive to present Tyson’s tale as he maneuvers through press junkets on the way to a premiere screening.To one interviewer he says this about Tyson: “I believe everything he says, that at least he believes everything he says.” This belief is intensely felt in every absorbing frame.

More later…

My Last Night At The Varsity Theater & THE HANGOVER

As I reported before, The Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill, N.C. is in a period of transition. The owner, Bruce Stone, is still in negotiations and nobody knows whether it’ll remain open as it changes hands or if it will close unsold. This is all so timely as I will no longer be working at the theater. Since my move to Raleigh I’ve decided I no longer want to commute, so yesterday was my last night working my all-time favorite part-time job. We were opening 2 new movies – oddly enough both feature Mike Tyson – so I needed to change the marquee for the last time. Of course, it rained last evening (which seems to be a Thursday night tradition here) so I wasn’t feeling particularly sentimental as I climbed the ladder.

All evening I fielded questions about the fate of the theater. Stone joked last weekend that our official line to everybody was: “We’re confused.” So we’ve been saying that (or variations thereof). David Fellerath wrote this insightful article in this week’s Independent about not just the Varsity and its sister theater the Chelsea’s fate but about the bleak business and uncertain future of independent art houses these days:

The Unknown Futures Of Chapel Hill’s Varsity And Chelsea Theaters: The Moviegoer’s Lament
(Independent Weekly June 3rd, 2009)

Another Thursday night tradition is to have a late showing (not open to the public unless you know somebody) of the new movie that is opening the next day. I definitely wasn’t going to miss the late show my last night at the Varsity:

THE HANGOVER (Dir. Todd Phillips, 2009)

“A bachelor party movie where you never see the bachelor party” is how director Phillips, responsible for the likes of OLD SCHOOL and STARSKY & HUTCH, described this Las Vegas-set silliness to The New York Times. Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms play the overgrown child protagonists who wake to find themselves in way over their heads after a night of stag party debauchery. In their trashed hotel suite they find that the groom (Justin Bartha) is missing, Helms has a tooth missing, a Bengal tiger is in the bathroom, and there’s a baby in the closet. They remember nothing of what happened so you might expect more than a little of DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR? mixed with just a dash of THREE MEN AND A BABY and you wouldn’t be far off.

Galifianakis, in the Belushi/Jack Black role, has the funniest lines and frequently steals the movie from his co-stars. The one-liners come fast and furious but sadly there are a lot of stale comic stylizations like, for instance, a Tarentino slow-motion group walk towards the camera with “Who Let The Dogs Out” blaring on the soundtrack. As the events of the night before are revealed there are some tasty turns – Mike Tyson, playing himself, as the tiger’s owner and Heather Graham as a hooker that Helms finds he’s now married to have their charms but some other plot points and clich├ęd character bits fall flat.

As likable as the leads are, THE HANGOVER is only fitfully funny but I would still say it’s has enough genuine laughs in it to meet my comedy quota. It is a definite improvement over Phillips previous lowbrow fare as it shows he can handle natural feeling rhythms, timing, and tone. While another draft (or 2) on the screenplay probably wouldn’t have made this a comedy classic, it feels a tad undercooked so this is a pretty reserved recommendation. However, I suspect it may have a re-watchability factor and that some elements might rub me better sometime down the line. Maybe, like a real hangover, when the annoying pangs wear off I’ll be able to remember the best of the original buzz.

Okay! So that was my last night working at the Varsity. I’ll miss working on Franklin Street and downtown Chapel Hill in general. I would usually post recent pictures of the marquee on the sidebar on this blog and that’s something I’ll also miss. But don’t worry, this change won’t affect this blog much – I love
movies and will continue to see as many movies as possible and tell you what I think. I’ll also keep you updated on the respective fates of the Varsity and Chelsea Theaters…so please – stay tuned.

More later…