The Constant Gardener
The best of last year's explicitly political features, Gardener (on disc Jan. 10) picked up four Oscar nominations, including Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress for Rachel Weisz, who plays the young bride whose political agitation leads to her murder in Kenya. Ralph Fiennes is equally good as her timid diplomat husband, who investigates her killing and discovers the darker side of the pharmaceutical industry in the process. But as the two performers join the filmmakers in discussing the project on the DVD's few extras, it's Kenya that emerges as the real star. Says Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who shot his breakthrough, City of God, in the slums of Rio de Janiero, "If it's possible, it's even poorer than the Brazilian favelas." He's speaking of the shantytown of Kibera, where Weisz wandered freely, improvising her dialogue as she interacted with the slum dwellers, "like Situationist guerrilla filmmaking." She praises "the authenticity of the place . . . to mimic it would be phony." Originally, the filmmakers had only visited Kibera for research, intending to shoot in South Africa; then they fell in love with the tin-roofed red sprawl of the place—and its inhabitants, too. (Some 700,000 live there in poverty, without municipal power or plumbing; 2,000 were directly employed by the film crew.)
Interviewed separately, source novelist John le Carré says of the director, "What Fernando brought to this movie was a Third World eye, a Third World anger. He knew the story from the other side." Indeed, it's Fiennes' character's journey, and our own, to travel to that other side—to see the other side of globalization, as poor Kenyans are used as drug-company lab rats. Le Carré calls his hero "a man who almost accidentally married his conscience," i.e., Weisz, whose character is mostly revealed in flashbacks following her death.
Sadly there's no commentary from either Meirelles, who was fluent in English and charming during his Seattle visit last August, or from le Carré. Here the latter explains how Hollywood initially shunned his novel because it dealt with "the A-word," meaning Africa. And why'd he choose Big Pharma instead of another industry? "Oil was too on-the-nose," he explains. So much for Syriana (two nominations, and a DVD release expected this spring). BRIAN MILLER
My Big Fat Independent Movie
Anchor Bay, $19.98
Director Philip Zlotorynski (Walkentalk) picked Film Threat founder Chris Gore as his co-writer, got about three dozen independent and foreign films in his satiric crosshairs, and pulled the trigger. KA-BOOM! If you just pictured an extremely fake-looking explosion slapped together on Final Cut Pro, you have a pretty good sense of the humor in Big Fat (on DVD Jan. 24). And if you thought King Kong and Ann Darrow made an odd couple, wait until you see this direct-to-DVD movie's Amélie impersonator (Ashley Head) French-kissing a possessed answering machine voiced by Clerks burnout Jason Mewes. No, seriously.
The key to successful genre parody is balancing affection for the genre with whatever amount of bathroom humor and comic violence you choose to include. (The like-minded Not Another Teen Movie and Scary Movie both tried—and failed—to find the perfect balance; another such loser, Date Movie, is reviewed in our film calendar this week.) In the making-of featurette, Gore shows due affection for indie-film cliché. "An independent film without a midget is like a movie without actors," he says, a sentiment blatantly cribbed from Living in Oblivion. Unfortunately, his mocking embrace doesn't really translate here—and anyway, independent film isn't really a genre at all but a mode of production (now admittedly in decline). Its standout specimens break formulas rather than follow them. Oh, well. Big Fat is dominated by sloppy jokes, including a weak Pulp Fiction parody. It does get a much-needed boost from Paget Brewster's spirited performance, a poke at Jennifer Aniston's look-at-me-I'm-a-real-actress turn in The Good Girl—all the more ripe for parody in light of the latter's recent cinematic flops. (Also, as Gore notes, Brewster is "superhot, and she's a nerd, basically making her the perfect woman.")
In the featurette, Zlotorynski says: "I think independent film is a genre that has to be spoofed." Maybe so, but apart from some clever meta dialogue ("No voice-over after 11," snarls the Vincent Vega clone at the narrator. "I need my eight hours!"), the gags are woefully uneven. And when the movies you're spoofing are this good, you're the one who ends up looking silly. NEAL SCHINDLER
Virtual unknown Lou Pucci, then 17, stole the Best Actor award from now Oscar-nominated Terrence Howard at Sundance last year for his eccentrically winsome performance as Justin, a Ritalin-and-pot-propelled Portland debate champ and mixed-up Everyteen. In Thumbsucker (on disc Jan. 24), there are a couple of plot twists that seem improbable, yet they come straight out of the 1999 source novel by New York Times megacritic Walter Kirn: Justin mortifyingly can't keep his thumb out of his mouth, and his mom enters a contest to win a date with a famous movie star. Both of these things really happened to Kirn, but there's a spacey quality to this adaptation that makes it all seem dreamlike. Tilda Swinton is swoonily good as the star-seeking mom. Vincent D'Onofrio scores as her thwarted macho man, who can't fathom his sensitive son, either. As the high-school debate-team coach, Vince Vaughn proves he can underact and still hilariously improvise. Kelli Garner aces the part of Justin's (and Kirn's) conniving teen tease. Keanu Reeves nails a smallish role as a New Age dentist. Writer-director Mike Mills' commentary is filled with insights, though his awkward filmed conversation with Kirn is only interesting for about 10 of its 41 minutes. There's also a CD-ROM director's blog. TIM APPELO
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Poised somewhere between industry and artisanry, Aardman Animations considerably upped its profile with the wonderful Were-Rabbit (on DVD Feb. 7). After producing the delightful Chicken Run for DreamWorks in 2000, the British stop- motion animation house began work on the first feature-length outing for Nick Park's famous characters. A painstakingly slow process, the claymation tale took five years to develop, an intolerably slow product cycle by Hollywood standards. Cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his silent dog, Gromit, were last seen in 1995's short A Close Shave, which earned Park his second Oscar. Chances are that he'll snag a third this March. Were-Rabbit compiles all the old horror-film conventions into a vegetable-themed family-friendly comedy, where carnage consists of exploding zucchinis and ravaged carrot beds. Though mostly handmade, Were-Rabbit is also an indication of Aardman's easing into the digital realm: CG created the bunnies whirling in Wallace's BunVac, the glowing Metropolis-like "mind waves" in his laboratory, and the hair-sprouting transformation of the monstrous Were-Rabbit itself.
Where is this hybrid storytelling headed? To Flushed Away, Aardman's first all-digital feature, which opens Nov. 3. The trailer on this W&G disc shows how the doughy whimsy of characters (rats) and setting (sewer) will be preserved. But the computers mean, as in Were-Rabbit, more airborne chases, spectacular falls, and impressive stunts. Since they're essentially moldable puppets, Wallace and Gromit have generally been planted firmly on the ground, like their traditional English tableaux. Though Wallace devises all kinds of contraptions, they've always been mechanical and tactile—like the Plasticine beneath their makers' hands. Among the many valuable extras on this disc, most dealing with the nitty-gritty of Aardman production, Peter Sallis (the voice of Wallace) says, "You can't write charm." Meaning it's all in the execution, the handiwork, the thumbprints (still visible, but smoothed out from 1982's A Grand Day Out, available with Park's other shorts on a separate DVD).
With nods to Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and other classic horror texts, Were-Rabbit is charmingly backward- looking, a perfect and nonfrightening way to expose kids to old Hollywood conventions that won't be rejected for being in black-and-white. (And you can bet there are toys, too.) But come fall, it'll be sewer rats they'll be clamoring to see. Wallace and Gromit have barely reached the modern world, and already it's passing them by. BRIAN MILLER
Other Recent Releases
With the midwinter blahs at the box office, there are plenty of recent titles for catching up on your couch. The Thing About My Folks is strictly for fans of Paul Reiser and Peter Falk; Proof is likewise for the Gwyneth Paltrow crowd only. Two notable photography docs are William Eggleston in the Real World and Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye. On many 10-best lists, the Italian The Best of Youth spans six hours on two discs. With the Steve Martin remake now in theaters, there are several collections of the original Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies (all of them preferable to this new version). With the remake also profiting at the multiplex, you can check out the original 1979 fright flick When a Stranger Calls. Warner Bros. is reissuing Cimarron, The Champ, Johnny Belinda, The Good Earth, Kitty Foyle, Captains Courageous, and Lust for Life. Meanwhile, Sony boxes together five Cary Grant titles including His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth. Also look for the Rock in Doom, Just Like Heaven, Terry Jones' 1989 Erik the Viking, MirrorMask, the well-acted L.A. ensemble piece Nine Lives, The Legend of Zorro, Bill Murray in Quick Change, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Zathura, John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, David Lean's Ryan's Daughter, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. EDITORS