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Review: Dallas 362

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Near the end of Scott Caan’s improbably electrifying directorial debut, the main character, Rusty (Shawn Hatosy), sits talking to his mother, Mary (Kelly Lynch), about some impending upheavals in their lives — her sudden engagement to her psychiatrist boyfriend, his desire to return to Texas and pursue a career as a rodeo cowboy. It’s a fairly straightforward heart-to-heart, sharply written and beautifully acted but still potentially something of a Hallmark moment. As mother and son converse in the foreground, however, quiet magic unfolds in the background, out of focus: About halfway through the scene, Mary’s fiancé, Bob (Jeff Goldblum), who’s been doing double duty as Rusty’s shrink, wanders out to greet them, but stops dead upon sensing that he’s about to intrude upon The Big Talk. He watches briefly from afar, then turns and beats a hasty, positively giddy retreat — all of this conveyed solely via Goldblum’s gangly body language. Tender and goofy, it’s the kind of detail that most novice filmmakers would underline with a close-up or a focus pull; Caan simply lets it happen, and has the confidence never to refer to it again.

    Limping into a handful of theaters some two years after its festival premiere, Dallas 362 has been ignored by most critics and blithely dismissed by the rest, as if stylish, inventive indie filmmaking were so commonplace as to be beneath notice. Granted, the film’s broad outline alone won’t elevate any pulses — Rusty’s conflicted relationship with his troublemaking best friend, Dallas (Caan himself), amounts to macho-existential boilerplate, the umpteenth variation on the Mean Streets template. But who cares about a trite narrative when each individual moment snaps, crackles and/or pops? Caan Jr. has never particularly impressed me as an actor (although he has some fine dunderheaded bits here, including a priceless bit in which he masochistically toys with a needle embedded in his forehead), but he’s a born director — camera forever precisely where it ought to be, every cut threatening to draw blood. And if he lets Val Lauren go too far over the top in the role of an adenoidal paranoid, that’s a small price to pay for the marvelous, effortless work he coaxes from the rest of his cast. (In a just and righteous universe, Hatosy, Lynch and Goldblum would have a realistic shot at an Oscar-night hat trick.) If we’re going to anoint a Godfather offspring as the future of American cinema, I’ll take Caan’s freewheeling, raggedy, ’70s-on-steroids groove over Sofia Coppola’s coy preciousness in a heartbeat. Seek this one out. It’s worth the effort. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Rize
In his first feature-length documentary, photographer/music videographer David LaChapelle paints a portrait of life in South Central Los Angeles that is anything but pretty. With no other way to express their rage and frustration, inner-city youth turn to crime and violence unless they can find more constructive ways to vent, like sports or art. Countless documentaries have covered the same ground, but LaChapelle has managed to create a moving, exhilarating film from the same material.

    This speaks less to LaChapelle’s talent as a storyteller and more to his eye for powerful imagery — specifically, images of the progressive form of hip-hop dancing called Krumping, invented by a man they call Tommy the Clown. Tommy began his clown career in jail, and created the style of spastic, gyrating dance as a form of entertainment for children’s parties. The images of Tommy and his disciples dancing make watching the documentary almost like visiting an art gallery. But what LaChapelle lacks in experience and ability to organize his material he completely recoups with the beauty and compassion of his camera. As one of the Krumpers says, the dance is like a “ghetto ballet.” Rize is a front row seat and a backstage pass. — Nic Sheff
Review: March of the Penguins
Action filmmakers take note — sometimes, just standing still can be plenty exciting. Observe: Luc Jacquet’s new nature documentary. Despite its active title, March might be the most stunningly suspenseful film ever made about a bunch of birds standing around and waiting. That’s not all they do, of course. Emperor penguins do a lot of waddling — especially when they’re making their way to their Antarctic breeding grounds. After they pair off and reproduce, the females waddle off to the sea to forage for food, while the males stay behind and incubate the eggs. But it’s this amazingly resilient, patient period in which the penguins are waiting for their eggs to appear and hatch that makes their ordeal — and, by extension, Jacquet’s beautifully made film — a genuinely unique experience. When you’re in the most inhospitable place in the world — the Antarctic storms the emperors have to wait out can boast winds of 100 mph and temperatures of fifty below — simply enduring is a superhuman task.

    Indeed, there’s a sense throughout Jacquet’s film that the emperor penguin, by all rational standards, shouldn’t even be here at all. (The familiar, mournful timbre of Morgan Freeman’s narration helps, too.) Given the absurd brutality of its bleak, empty habitat, and its insanely delicate birthing process, the bird’s very existence seems like a cruel, cosmic joke. And this somber realization lends an added poetic dimension to this already powerful film. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Herbie: Fully Loaded

No doubt you’ve heard about the latest remake from those two forces of nature Disney and Lindsay Lohan. It’s been kind of hard to miss, with Lohan’s ubiquitous party-hearty persona and ever-dwindling physique splashed all over the pages of Us Weekly and on the cover of Elle. And as you probably know, directed by Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.), Herbie: Fully Loaded is a family movie: a crowd pleaser with a predictable ending and a G rating.

    Lohan plays fresh-out-of-college Maggie Peyton, the youngest member of the legendary Peyton auto-racing clan, who receives beat-up VW bug Herbie as a graduation present from her father (Michael Keaton). As we know from his previous incarnations, most notably 1968’s Love Bug, Herbie has personality (he squirts oil at people he doesn’t like) and a libido (he perks up at the site of a newer-model bug). Before you can say “digitally reduced cleavage,” Herbie and Maggie form a bond that takes them straight to the racetrack, where the pair, against the wishes of her father, take on Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), villain and reigning NASCAR champ.

    Surprisingly, Lohan holds the film together, and her charming performance doesn’t hint at the tabloid hoopla. The glossies’ other obsession, Lohan’s allegedly altered breasts, were prominently displayed in a series of tight T-shirts but, per regulation, no cleavage shots. Short of being a cartoon, Herbie is about as Disney as you can get, even if it’s somewhat amusing to see such a wholesome character played by an actress whose rumored preferences include nose candy and Bruce Willis. — Sarah Harrison

Review: Land of the Dead

How did we manage to get through the ’90s without a George Romero zombie movie to encapsulate the period in gut-munching metaphor? Now spanning nearly forty years, with previous entries issued during the Johnson, Carter and Reagan administrations, this remarkable series serves as a sort of alternative State of the Union address, capturing each era’s defining mood simply by imagining how we might respond to the end of civilization. It may be the only movie franchise with no recurring characters, no contiguous plot details, no Pavlovian stimuli — nothing, really, except a single trenchant idea with endlessly malleable permutations. But it’s been a good long while — odds are you would have heard “Sussudio” on your way to the theater the last time around — so I’m relieved to report that Land of the Dead boasts the same savage wit and and satirical acumen as its predecessors, if not the same nightmarish ambience. (For budgetary reasons, Romero was forced to shoot in Toronto instead of Pittsburgh, using backlot-generic exteriors.)

    Opening with a hallucinatory montage of shock cuts and diced-up newscasts, Land of the Dead wastes no time in establishing the latest development: the zombies’ first glimmerings of abstract reason. Previously content to lurch mindlessly about, seeking nothing but their next meal, one group of rotting cadavers, led by a former auto mechanic (Eugene Clark) whose overalls bear the cognomen “Big Daddy,” begins to experiment with rudimentary language (pointing, grunting) and tool use (cleavers, jackhammers). Before long, they’re casting envious, bloodshot eyes at Fiddler’s Green, a nearby haven-cum-fortress presided over by a pompous, amoral fat cat (Dennis Hopper). This gated community’s existence is further threatened when a pissed-off renegade (John Leguizamo) hijacks an assault vehicle and threatens to fire missiles into downtown unless he’s paid a hefty ransom. Only the usual ragtag band of reluctant heroes, including stalwart Simon Baker, sharpshooting cretin Robert Joy and ass-kicking Goth babe Asia Argento, stand between humanity and oblivion.

    If anything, Romero has arguably become too self-conscious about his subtext, concentrating more on satire than on suspense. Which is not to say that Land of the Dead doesn’t offer gorehounds some truly outstanding grue, including what has to be the most unexpected zombie chomp in the genre’s history. (Note to self: Do not relax around apparently decapitated corpses.) But with each successive film in the series, Romero allies our sympathy more and more with the undead, who here are clearly standing in for the world’s dispossessed. The film’s emotional climax comes not when the human heroes save the day, but when Big Daddy and his followers decide they’ll no longer be distracted from their goals by the illusory promises of the mass media (symbolized by fireworks displays). They’re dead as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. — Mike D’Angelo

Date DVD #38: The Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume Two
Take a look at the last century of cinema, and you may conclude that very few things look more erotic onscreen than crime — especially if it’s a murder that pairs up a dangerous dame and a hard-boiled tough. That’s why Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection Volume Two is essential date viewing, a terrific, gun-blazing, skirt-chasing set that’s as steely as it is sexy. The studio’s second successful noir box collects the brutal Born to Kill, the groundbreaking Crossfire, the antihero-making bio-pic Dillinger, the late 1969 John Boorman thriller Point Blank and two films that could make for a great date double feature: The Narrow Margin and Clash by Night.
    The murder-on-a-train thriller The Narrow Margin starts out with a bang, a drunken dame and a dead cop. Things get ugly when the corpse’s partner (the terrifically gruff Charles McGraw) escorts the dame on a deadly train ride — and meets a lovely woman in the next car. There’s a terrific, improbable twist halfway through, and one of those classic unconsummated romances between the lady and her hardbitten hero.
   Directed by Fritz Lang, 1952’s Clash By Night begins with a montage of Langian symbolism (crashing waves and overdeveloped coastline) that you’ll forget as soon as Marilyn Monroe pulls back the bedsheets and stretches a long leg across the screen. In minutes, she’s in a bikini, frolicking in the sand and distracting your attention from the dangerous seduction brewing between tough dreamer Barbra Stanwyck and cocky gadabout Robert Ryan. Adapted from a bitter parable of a play by Clifford Odets, this isn’t Lang’s best, but the heat coming off Ryan, Stanwyck, and Monroe is reason enough to come play in the shadows. — Logan Hill



 
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