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by Bill Gibron

28 Nov 2009

By the mid ‘70s, Australian cinema was desperate for an identity. It had bathed in the beauty of faux Golden Era Hollywood mimicry and wallowed in the excess of easily achieved grindhouse exploitation. But with the arrival of the new decade came a desire to look inward, to explore the nation’s still relatively new folklore to discover a sovereign as well as artistic imprint all its own. Brits Tony Richardson and Mick Jagger traveled Downunder to tell the story of noted Aussie bad boy Ned Kelly, but it took a homegrown filmmaker (by way of France) to finally uncover the truth about the brutal Outback. Philippe Mora’s 1976 triumph, Mad Dog Morgan, set the stage for many memorable motion picture statements about the continent’s violent growing pains. Long forgotten, we today have Lloyd Kaufman and Troma to thank for rescuing this gem from obscurity and giving an otherwise clueless fanbase a chance to experience it for themselves.

Daniel Morgan is considered a national treasure in Australia, an Irish ex-patriot who came to the country looking for gold, but wound up confronting the colonial corruption rampant in the still struggling land. A truly demented and disconnected Dennis Hopper, clearly locked in the middle of his love affair with “recreational pharmaceuticals” plays the beloved bush ranger, a man who witnesses racially motivated massacres and evil land owner atrocities and decides to stand his ground. After serving six years hard labor for robbery, he teams up with an exiled Aborigine named Billy (the expressive David Gulpilil) and together they terrorize the countryside in true Robin Hood mode. Morgan is not an ordinary thief so much as a karmic counterbalance. He lets the downtrodden keep their coins (while stealing their clothes), while seeking revenge for those who’ve wronged him - and the nation - long ago.

Of course, such individual anarchy can’t be tolerated, and so Supt. Cobham (a menacing Frank Thring) calls on prison warden Sgt. Smith (Bill Hunter) and, eventually, renowned lawman Detective Mainwaring (Jack Thompson) to hunt down and deliver Morgan - dead or alive. As the reward continues to grow, the locals rebel. They admire the outlaw for standing up to the government and many will do everything in their meager power to protect him. As he moves from highwayman to accidental killer, his legend grows even stronger. Eventually, Morgan is betrayed by a wealthy plantation owner and his servants. Surrounded on all sides and unable to plot an escape, the myth becomes a martyr for his adopted homeland. To this day, the name Daniel Morgan inspires great awe and appreciation in Australia.

Partly influenced by the spaghetti western and definitely guided by the work of William Goldman and George Roy Hill in their counterculture take on the genre - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan is one of those lost titles that didn’t deserve the banishment. Sure, it’s impressionistic and complex, relying on the audience to fill in blanks regarding motivation and historical import. But thanks to the unusually picturesque vistas Mora incorporates into his narrative, along with the striking sense of time and place, Mad Dog Morgan discovers its own magic. Told in scattered, symphonic manner, the first “movement” focuses on the foundation for the icon’s anger. The second section illustrates how his legend was born and cultivated. The third act, however, is where Mora’s vision goes slightly askew. While we recognize the need for the character’s comeuppance, it is handled in a manner both far too dreamy and disassociated to be wholly effective.

Indeed, Mora seems to be experimenting with style and form throughout. The opening sequences are all quick shot selections and ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ moments. Within the first ten minutes, our hero has been shamed, shackled, and sent up the river. His prison abuse is handled quickly and almost too matter of fact, while his team up with Billy appears offhand and random. Once we get to the meat of the narrative - Morgan’s wilderness travails and the government’s obsession with stopping him - Mora’s mannerisms work like a charm. We fall into the rhythms he’s creating and enjoy every stop along the way. With talented Australian actors like Thring, Hunter and Thompson, we get a perfect complement to Hopper’s Hellspawn theatrics. The drug-addled actor is not bad here - in fact, he is fantastic and fascinating in his structure and style. In some ways, he’s like Tom Hulce in Amadeus, or punk director Alex Cox taking on the story of 19th century mercenary William Walker - contemporary, but wholly complementary.

Indeed, without Hopper’s slightly surreal take on the man, we’d have a halfhearted representation of history - facts without the fire to inspire. But within the infamous actor’s myth-busting is a lot of courage, a great deal of magnetism, and just the right amount of rogue to give us a reason for Morgan’s lasting impact. Hopper’s scenes with Gulpilil are indeed wonderful, loving without being sexual, proud without de-evolving into outright chest thumping. We get the connection (even if one is never really established) and are never really bothered by in and out nature of Hopper’s Irish brogue. Indeed, we are supposed to get a stranger in a strange land vibe from the character, a sense of being unstuck in time, and the cocaine-fueled feeling the American brings to the part cannot be discounted. It definitely works in his favor. He is a rock solid center to a full realized, if reluctant, masterwork.

While it would be nice to report that Troma goes the full “Criterion” on Mad Dog Morgan, those hoping for a pristine video presentation of the original uncut version of the film (loaded with Fulci-esque gore) will be a little disappointed. Granted, we aren’t dealing with the 1.66:1 pan and scan horror of the last transfer, but the faded colors and occasional artifacting are troublesome, even if the film is back to its 2.35:1 original aspect ratio. At least the sound is up to snuff, while still suffering slightly from 33 year old technological constraints. The score, by Patrick Flynn, is fabulous, reminiscent of a discarded Morricone jewel. As for added content, the two disc set gives Mora, Hopper, cinematographer Mike Molloy, and associate producer Richard Brennan a chance to sit down and recall their time taking on this project. The anecdotes are funny, informative, and often rather sharp. This was clearly a difficult film to make, and all the bonus feature participants respond like veterans of a great and mighty war.

And in some ways, they have a right to feel that way. Mad Dog Morgan may have been big in Oz, but it was a minor blimp on the 1976 cinematic scene. It was well received and reviewed but quickly ignored by an audience who’d long written off Dennis Hopper as one of the ‘60s most notorious acid (and other) casualties. It’s too bad, really. Held in the proper esteem and guarded by preservationists who could guarantee that future generations experienced the effort in all its powerful picturesque glory, Mad Dog Morgan might be one of post-modern moviemakings definitive titles. As it stands, it’s a unique offering in a corporate canon that has more blood and breasts than cultural epics. Troma should be proud to have this “Tromasterpiece” as part of their collection. The rest of the industry should be ashamed for letting it slip away in the first place. 

by Bill Gibron

27 Nov 2009

Aiden Dillard must be Harry Novak’s bastard love child. Either that or he’s obviously spent time shoveling sawdust for Dave Friedman on the carnival circuit. If there hadn’t already been an exploitation genre to shake up the mainstream cinema, this uncorked crackpot would be soiling the contemporary medium as we speak. With his first film, 2006’s Meat Weed Madness, he introduced a skin laden allegory about sex, drugs, and rock and roll that was heavy on the first two facets and completely devoid of the third. He mixed Southern Gothic goofiness with a determined desire to show punk chicks sans skivvies, the result being something wholly original and uniquely rebellious. Well, now he’s back, belittling the War on Terror with his Jihadist themed sequel Meat Weed America. If you like your ladies pierced, painted, and in various stage of plump/pulp prettiness, this is the movie for you. If you want something akin to a sensible storyline, you’re clearly smoking something.

We begin sort of where the first film left off. Lord Meatweed is still running his cannibalistic cannabis empire. Jessie Bell is still sitting around, dreaming of a career as a model in New York. Even the beefy Bullpuckey is here, stalking the sexy young things that seem to populate Meatweed Manor like so much body lice. Of course, now there’s a new threat on the horizon. Evil terrorist Bin Smokin has enlisted the aid of a group of determined Jihotties to get revenge for what happened to his missing foreskin. It is his intention to take down the Meatweed family one by one, from insane crippled Tobacco advertising artist Sir Duke E. Weed and his sexy assistant, the Hempress to bodacious nun Sister Mary and her sexually frustrated servants of God. Eventually, Bin Smokin is seduced by the undeniable power of the protein-laced marijuana, destined to become part of the skin flicking Meatweed family - or die frying.

Like hardcore action without the penetration or popshots, Meat Weed America is a ripe slice of scatological satire. It’s an insane combination of bare bodkin and political body shots, an anti-Fox News rant reduced to local emo skanks standing around in nothing but their Ed Hardy’s. It is indeed refreshing to see young ladies without major plastic surgery modification showing off their substrata, otherwise artistically modified mammaries arguing for their body painting enhanced natural beauty. Sure, Sister Mary has a rack that only a purveyor of XXX porn could appreciate and there’s quite a few examples of a less than toned male ‘member’-ship to go around, but Dillard knows how to capture his arrested adolescent audience’s attention. Once you’ve got ‘em ogling these pseudo Suicide Girls, you can turn around and trick ‘em into paying attention to your social agenda.

Meat Weed America is clearly aimed at the cold, callous nature of corporate culture. Sir Duke E. Weed and his “cigarettes are slick” conceits could do more for any non-butt campaign than a dozen of those lame t.r.u.t.h. ads. Similarly, Lord Meatweed’s freedom and liberty riot acts are enough to get even the most craven Neo-Con up and saluting the red white and blue. There are also some nifty pro-vegetarian and anti-sexism sentiments, even if it the ideas revolve around burlesque and barmaids in the birthday suit. It may all look like soft core smut laced with a NORML view of blunts, but that’s the beauty of Dillard’s work. While he’s socking it to your groin and other overused erogenous zones, he’s giving that biggest organ in the bin - the brain - a good going over. It’s carnal carnival barking at its best.

Dillard definitely does a good job with his under the radar cast. The delightful Debbie Rochon essays this kind of cockeyed vamp vixen in her sleep. Here, she is important to the director’s “miscreance as message” leanings. Similarly, Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman shows up as an acerbic art collector, his line readings always an interesting combination of solid professional support and “who gives a shit” showboating. As Jessie Bell, Carey Sveen looks the part of a Southern Belle gone to Meat-seed, while the manor’s lord and master (Carl Skoggard) is an unhinged combination of Rastafarian and right wing talk show host. Perhaps the most interesting performance however is given by Peter Stickles as Bin Smokin’. Avoiding all the Arab hating tenets that such a role would offer, he instead finds a perfect balance between comedy and crudeness. In fact, most of Meat Weed America is made up of the toilet in expert equilibrium with the talented.

Of course, the director really does love languishing in the world of the wanton. Even his own “unrated” introduction to the film finds him in a field, flopping his “fallacies” with nudist abandon. The DVD also offers up some interesting added content tidbits. There are short films, a trailer for the movie, a self-proclaimed “sexy” slide show, and a Behind the Scenes featurette that avoids all the standard EPK idiocy to show how true independent art is forged (read: it’s dang-gum hard!). While Troma tacks on a few of its own corporate sponsorship opportunities to maximize the marketing effectiveness of the title, the rest is pure Weed. While it would have been nice to hear Dillard droning on about his efforts, commentary style, such an otherwise crammed digital package does this movie proud.

It’s just too bad that the grindhouse has passed, the drive-in given over to home video, on demand, and various other forms of instant entertainment. For someone like Aiden Dillard, the raincoat crowd would definitely welcome his flesh and “bone” freak show, a surreal conglomeration of diatribe and debauchery. In the old days, when Hollywood shied away from taking on subject too confrontational or scandalous, Meat Weed America would be seen as a shining example of the ripe redolent rebellion. Today, it plays like a journey to the center of a skid row strip club’s mind. A few decades ago, before the Internet allowed everyone access to the vice-ridden and the prurient, a movie like this would be the only outlet for such “skin-aningans”. Aiden Dillard is clearly indebted to the previous generations of schlock meisters. On the other hand, don’t be fooled by its fetidness. Meat Weed America is clearly smarter than your average sex act. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Nov 2009

It was the story that Judd Apatow always wanted to tell. It was the growing pains of a youth spent in pursuit of comedic glory, and a reality bitterly dejected by the lack of success in same. It was a chance to reunite with old buddy and roommate Adam Sandler, to shoot the shit (so to speak) about those salad days of failed auditions, industry indifference, and never-ending hope. Now, with most of the men both behind and in front of the scenes grasping at superstar status, it seemed time to bring Funny People out of the mothballs. Of course, as the new Blu-ray disc presentation more than illustrates, a couple of questions arise. Was this really a tale of stand up comedians and the sad, often sullen life they lead? Or was this just a nepotistic mess that saw Apatow invite in everyone, including his own kitchen sink crowd, to spend some of Universal’s misguided money?

From the looks of it, it was the latter. Sandler plays George Simmons, a jaundiced Jim Carrey type who has made himself disgustingly rich in several surreal high concept comedies. When he learns he is dying from a rare form of leukemia, he decides to mend old wounds and get back to his first love - the stand-up stage - before he passes on. One night, he runs into struggling comics Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill). While their material is mediocre, it’s better than his self-loathing swill. So he decides to hire them. Only Ira ends up coming along for the ride, a journey that will take George back through his past successes and failures, as well as an attempted reconciliation with the “one that got away”, a former actress girlfriend named Laura (Leslie Mann). Unfortunately, she’s married with children, her good-natured Australian husband Clarke (Eric Bana) a major obstacle to them getting back together.

Somewhere between admirable ambition and outright failure lies Funny People. What should have been a witty, insightful, and often scathing expose about life in service of the ever-elusive laugh turns into a flailing family affair with the previously Teflon Apatow getting stuck with lots of kindred egg on his face. As perfect a comedy as Knocked Up is, Funny People can’t compete. As unusual The 40 Year Old Virgin is in idea and execution, this film is rote and uninspired. We except more from this man, from the individuals he hung around with and nurtured for the last three decades. Sandler is solid as the jerk in retrospect, an A-list a-hole with a heart hardened by the mandates of accomplishment. He carries much of the movie’s emotional weight, even when old bud Judd can’t give him the proper dialogue to deliver the sentiment.

Rogen is also good as the fame obsessed schlep who wants desperately to join his roommates in quasi-LA fortune. His entire shtick - sellout for the sake of something greater - resonates with a post-millennial demo eager to do the same for their allotted 15 minutes. But because he’s lost some of his sad sack sympathy (as Jonah Hill says, it comes with ditching the weight), we view his drive for professional popularity as something new and novel. As his cohorts, Hill and Jason Schwartzman make a nice contrast re: young Hollywood. One is gifted but clearly stunted by his looks. The other trades on his lack of talent for a perfect “sitcom” aura. Together, they flaunt what Ira is not - accessible or artistic. Instead, Apatow makes it clear that this young wannabe will glom onto George for as long as it take for some celebrity to rub off - or until the dying comedian takes things too far.

It’s the latter that happens in fact, for both Funny People and its cast. Instead of staying in the realm of stand-up, a place where he can mine magnificent turns from the likes of Aziz Ansari (as the clueless cult in the making - RANDY! ) and newcomer Aubrey Plaza (as the dour, delightful Daisy), he runs right to Mann her/his own offspring - Maude and Iris Apatow - to turn the movie into a mired, manipulative mess. No matter how hilarious it is seeing Eric Bana in full blown Downunder dickhead mode, this last act shift in tone and treatment seems decidedly dense. We never understood George’s obsession with Laura, so there forced feel good high school puppy love finale falls absolutely flat. So does Ira’s intervention, Bana’s deflated dork, and everything else about Funny People‘s self-destructive denouement.

Of course, to listen to the commentary track featuring the director and his posse, this was always his intention. For Apatow, Funny People is about how fame swallows you up, drains you of your soul, and seals your fate as a lonely, unlikeable jerk. He sees Sandler (who is quite serious at times during the discussion) as a representative of the cold, callous TMZ types he has to deal with all the time. For him, the movie isn’t about comedy so much as it is about how the genre forces you to lose yourself, to cater to a public that always wants you to be “on”. The fact that this tale takes off toward his own home base at the end is never really rationalized. It’s just part and parcel of the way he feels like telling his side of things. While the rest of the Blu-ray basks in what could have been (more vintage footage of Sandler and Rogen, more terrific stand-up, amazing material from Simmons silly-athon movies), we are stuck with what Apatow wanted to say - for good and for bad.

Perhaps years from now, when his oeuvre isn’t so limited and pinched by the near perfection of Virgin and Knocked Up, Funny People can be appreciated as a noble failure. Maybe with a few more movies under his belt, with the patina of phenomenon stripped from his status and reliability regained by some good old cinematic consistency, we can meet him halfway here. As it stands, Funny People feels indulgent when it should be celebratory. It lacks focus when what it really needs is a razor sharp center. No matter how good or gratuitous the casting, no matter what he intended or what the bevy of bonus features argue, this is not a movie that works. It’s like an old car, in desperate need of repair but more comfortable than an old woolen blanket. As its sputters and pops, speeds along and then stalls, you keep wondering why you bother with it. Thanks to a wealth of laughs, and some lessons to learn, Funny People attempts to make up for its misfires. In some ways, it can’t.

by Bill Gibron

19 Nov 2009

Kevin Smith is the Richard Pryor of lo-fi independent cinema. No one in modern moviemaking works better “blue”. He is a sorcerer of scatology, a God of the dick and fart joke. And yet, just like the late, great comic, he’s a wiz at turning profanity into the profound. Unlike some who work in the medium of miscreance, there’s a meaning and a depth to his perversion. Smith is also one of the original “geeks”, standing alongside the Tarantinos and the Andersons of the craft in a desire to take film back for the true film fan. From the movies he’s made to the proposed projects that never really got off the ground, he represents the best of the genre’s original defining DIY spirit. While others merely grab their camcorder and create, Smith does something even better - he let’s his words, and by them his ideas, do the incessant talking.

So it’s odd for a medium that celebrates vision and “the image” (Blu-ray) to now house a trio of the writer/director’s least stylized turns - and yet there exactly is where we find early works like 1994’s Clerks, 1997’s Chasing Amy, and 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Smith will be the first to admit that he knows very little about the optical art of film. He has a journeyman command of mise-en-scene, but beyond that, he’s more My Dinner with Andre than North by Northwest. But when it comes to language, when it comes to making powerful statements out of some of the most repulsive concepts conceivable, he’s a genius. Argue over his ultimate success rate all you want, but Smith stands as a singular artist in an arena overloaded with copycats, wannabes, and deluded never-wills.

True, there is something to be said about the scruffy monochrome charms of Clerks. Smith used his own time in ‘retail’ to revisit the directionless lives of proto-slackers Dante (Brian O’Hallaran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson). The former works at the rundown Quick Stop convenience store. The latter avoids his responsibilities to the video rental place next door. Together, they pick on the customers and each other, using a combination of pop culture trivia superiority and four-letter denouncements to get their point across. When Dante is coaxed into working on his day off, he figures it will be a typical shift filled with idiots and weirdoes. Instead, he learns some shocking news about his current girlfriend and some equally upsetting information about the long lost love of his life.

With its focus on fellatio, its random lapse into implied necrophilia, and the nonstop curse laden assaults of its leads, Clerks would seem like the perfect candidate to have its motion picture mouth washed out with soap. As a matter of fact, as part of the many bonus features provided on this 15th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition of the title, Smith explains how the MPAA, horrified by the onslaught of F-bombs and graphic descriptions of genitalia, went and awarded an NC-17 to the film - not for hardcore sex or mindlessly gruesome violence, but for mere extrapolation of the English language. While he won the eventual legal battle, he set himself for a reputation that, often, he truly doesn’t deserve. Certainly there are times when Smith relies of crudity to sell his humor. But there are just as many laughs gained from Star Wars, dairy product expiration dates, and - of all things - lung cancer.

At its heart, though, Clerks is about relationships. In fact, almost every film Smith has made centers around friendship, love, the trouble with both and the devastation that comes with the loss of (or threatened loss of) same. For Dante and Randal, it’s all about being partners in crime, about wasting their lives in a mutually agreeable state of discontent. While they struggle against the connection between their shoddy life and their sense of self-worth, they are a cocksure illustration of the phrase misery loving company. For them, life is hockey, handing out, and complaining…a lot! Even when Dante goes off and deals with the various ladies in his life, we sense how out of place they are in his existence. Smith mines this material for lots of insights, as well as many moments of outsized wit. As a result Clerks remains a defining debut, a symbolic shot into the darkened domain of legitimate moviemaking. Oddly enough, it turned him into a rebel, a tag he wouldn’t shake until three years later, if then.

For most, Chasing Amy is Smith’s “mainstream” film, even though it deals with such unusual storyline topics as outsider comics, alternative lifestyles, and racial/gender intolerance. Artist Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and “inker” Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) are responsible for the cult creation Bluntman and Chronic, featuring the fictional adventures of two stoners based on real life dopers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). While at a convention in support of their militant black (and closeted gay) friend Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), Holden meets up with fellow ‘funny book’ author Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). Instantly smitten, he tries to hook up with her. He soon learns that there is a barrier to their future love affair - she’s gay. In fact, she is adamant about not being “into” men. This doesn’t deter Holden as much as quicken his resolve. Of course, the eventual highs and lows of their courtship puts a strain on everyone…even Banky.

Like a raw nerve tweaked over and over again by emotions both radiant and revealing, Chasing Amy is as close to a masterpiece as Smith has ever created. While Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno also share such a tag, the writer/director delivers a devastating deconstruction of the male ego with this ‘penetrating’ portrait of affection and defeat. Smith knows the territory - the accompanying commentary track makes it very clear that Silent Bob’s title “tale” hits rather close to home. He also finds actors in Affleck and Adams who aren’t afraid to bare it all - including their most intimate fears and vulnerabilities - in service of a narrative which finds them fluctuating between the joys of passion and the anger of insult. Even Banky gets involved, his narrow view of Holden’s feelings turning a childhood spent inseparable into suspicion and subterfuge.

Of course, Smith keeps everything bubbling away with his standard flurry of foul-mouthed inspiration. Before their friendship turns sour, Banky and Alyssa share a Jaws-inspired conversion over cunnilingus-derived injuries that is priceless, while a high school nickname - “Finger Cuffs” - gets any equally unhealthy going over. Adams does lipstick lesbian chic really well, but she’s also great at what Smith labels “the experimental chick.” You see, Alyssa is not all she claims to be and by his horrible actions, Holden turns equally questionable - and inexcusable. Yet we care about them and want to see their relationship blossom. While the last act decision by our hero on how to “solve” things seems shockingly stupid, the rest of Chasing Amy is magnificent. It reminds even the casual Smith fan of the man’s mastery with people, and the particulars of their lives.

It would be nice to say the same about Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. However, this full blown “fan film” (as former Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein labeled it) really has its weaknesses. When our two pot dealing dipsticks learn that Bluntman and Chronic has been optioned for a Hollywood movie, the boys seek out old pal Holden McNeil (Affleck in a funny cameo) to get their movie check. They soon learn that Banky (Lee) owns the rights to the property and that there are hundreds of Jay and Silent Bob hating fans on the Internet. Determined to silence Messageboard Nation once and for all, the guys decide to hitchhike to California and stop the production. Along the way, they learn some ‘rules’ of the road, befriend a group of gorgeous jewel thieves, and wind up confronting their clueless onscreen doppelgangers - James Van Der Beek and Jason Biggs.

Like one massive inside joke that only regulars to the View Askew Universe will get, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the ultimate measure of Smith’s undeniable nerdiness. It is top heavy with homages to everything the filmmaker holds dear - genre types, character cliché, longstanding personal and professional friendships, spot-on satiric spoofs of Tinseltown types - that when it ends up less than successful, you wonder where the problem lies. Of course, you have to have a working knowledge of 2001 popular culture to get some of the jokes (like why Biggs is constantly called “pie-f*cker”) and the Good Will Hunting sequel stuff is obvious in a still rather clever way (no one does self-effacing better than Matt Damon). Yet these are mere moments in a movie made up of lots of Jay and Silent Bob buffoonery - and while it may seem sacrilegious to say it, the pair tends to wear out its welcome.

It’s not just the incessant talk about “feline femininity”. It’s not the whole acronym as dirty joke dynamic. Heck, we even buy the duo as craven monkey caretakers (or in this case, a great ape). It’s just that, with all the things Smith could have had his iconic duo participate in, a weird hybrid of hot chick crime spree, road picture, and dweeb romance just doesn’t seem to work. Sure, we’re laughing, especially when Wes Craven and Gus Van Zant show up, but we aren’t getting the reciprocal depth that usually comes with a Kevin Smith movie. There are no grand insights here, no interpersonal inspirations of epiphanies. You want to hear Luke Skywalker curse like a sailor? No problem. Need Chris Rock to relish in his pissed-off African American activist bit? You got it. Want cameos from almost every Smith film and character to date? Here you go. But if you want the same kind of emotional impact of Chasing Amy, or even Clerks, you’ll be looking for a very long time.

All the while, Smith and several in his cast and crew offer alternate narrative overviews of the productions. Each disc comes with these definitive conversations, chances to hear the true dirt behind the frequently filthy get-togethers. Smith can be self-deprecating to fault and he tends to point out things we’d otherwise ignore, but he is such an exceptional storyteller, so swollen with the gift of gab that he can’t help but be enchanting. The rest of the scattered features tell the rest of the tale. The same goes for his movies as well. Be they no budget or Summer blockbuster, heavy with star power or captained by capable nobodies, Kevin Smith makes movies that are a triumph of talent over taste, of linguistics over lewdness. Even if a 1080p transfer and beefed up audio do little to amplify these titles limited artistry, they can’t dilute Smith’s scribing superiority. It’s what makes him this generation’s fresh prince of the foul.

by Bill Gibron

18 Nov 2009

It holds too many titles to be totally beholden to just one: most popular movie of all time (adjusted dollars or straight admissions, of course); greatest example of classic Hollywood filmmaking ever; best adaptation of an otherwise questionable work of popular fiction; greatest film of all time; racially insensitive embarrassment (and often, downright horrific in its intolerance); over the top; melodramatic; superbly acting; and a fascinating piece of filmmaking. Still, for all the badges it’s forced to wear, Gone with the Wind never really gets the tag it seems closest to actually achieving - that of a modern day Greek tragedy. You see, built into Margaret Mitchell’s highly romanticized vision of a pre/post Civil War South is a central figure so flawed, so twisted by destiny in both successful and sinister ways that you just can’t help but see the artistry of ancient civilizations at work.

Our tragic “heroine” is, of course, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) - spoiled brat daughter of Irish plantation owner Gerald and his distant wife Ellen. Long in love with neighboring well-to-do Georgian Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the belle is devastated when she learns that the man she adores plans on marrying another. Even though Melanie Hamilton (Olivia De Havilland) is the salt of the Earth, Scarlett is convinced that Ashley can be hers. When she is rejected, she runs off and marries the first man who asks - Melanie’s brother Charles. Suddenly, the Civil War starts, putting everyone in peril. It is also at this time that Scarlett meets the man who is destined to wander in and out of her life for the next few years - Charleston dandy and all around he-man gadfly, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). The battles both personal and sovereign begin, and Scarlett is soon a widow.

When Sherman finally reaches Atlanta, the O’Haras and Hamiltons must find a means of escape. Naturally, Capt. Butler finds a way of saving them. Returning to her home plantation, Tara, Scarlett discovers her mother dead and her father demented. Determined to “never be hungry again”, she woos the interloping carpetbaggers who come to Georgia after the war while taking up with older man Frank Kennedy (who just so happens to be one of her sister’s beaus). When he dies in a skirmish with “the Yankees”, Scarlett becomes a rich widow - and soon, an even wealthier business owner. Of course, Butler has never gotten over the wily little vixen, and they soon are married. They even have a child - a young daughter named Bonnie Blue. But as Butler dotes on his offspring, Scarlett is still pining for Ashley. It’s an obsession that will lead her down a path of personal ruin.

Even 70 years after the fact, Gone with the Wind remains the stuff of legend both on and off the screen. Over the decades, a dedicated scholarship has surrounded the film, the kind of in-depth discussion and analysis reserved for only the finest works of cultural significance. In the case of Wind, what Producer David O. Selznick went through to realize his vision of Mitchell’s best-selling tome is indeed filmic folklore made even more mythic. We see it scattered throughout the amazing 70th Anniversary Edition box-set - from commentary tracks that explain the lengthy development process to documentaries which dig deep into every facet of the film. Perhaps the most crucial was the casting, a literal free-for-all that saw many of the modern Tinseltown luminaries (Errol Flynn, Bette Davis) vie for roles that would eventually go to others - and then become iconic.

Selznick somehow stumbled upon British unknown Vivian Leigh (amidst a who’s who of available superstar talent) and the perfect tour de force of nature was unleashed. Everything about the actress’s portrayal is dead-on: Scarlett’s conniving juvenilia; her unwilling stubbornness; her passion and drive; her flitty sexuality, her untethered heart; the fiery jealousy, the inherent weakness; the hubris that makes her think she can succeed at all costs; the blindness to unwittingly destroy the innocent; the balls to break the strong. When she points a pistol at a Yankee soldier, determined to defend her birthright, you just know the man is getting a face full of lead. That it barely fazes her speaks volumes for what Leigh brings to Scarlett. Without a deft touch, the character would be hateful. The Oscar winner makes her truly epic.

The same goes with Gable. He is locked in a roll as sideline to Scarlett, given a last act trifecta of moments to finally shine. But when he’s standing there, moustache speaking volumes and squint substituting for libido, we can feel the sexual chemistry boiling in the broad shouldered hunk. Gable was only 37 when he took the role of Butler, but he comes across as a man more worldly wise and school of hard knocks educated than individuals twice his age. When he tries to talk down the Southern “gentlemen” who are fired up to defend the honor of the South against Lincoln, you can see his smug resolve in every syllable. Similarly, when defending the madam who has helped both him and various Atlanta causes from behind the shadows of social scandal, you will never see a more fierce protector. Granted, he gets his blubbery bow when disaster hits a little too close to home, but for the most part, Gable’s Butler is the cocksure calm within a halting historic maelstrom.

But perhaps the most underrated turn belongs to Olivia De Havilland as the Christ-like angel Melanie - a woman Capt. Butler refers to as the only genuinely nice person he ever met. While Leslie Howard’s Ashley is so weepy we hardly see what Scarlett wants with him, we get the connection between the wimp and his wondrous wife. She’s non-judgmental (at least, not outwardly), finds the good in almost everyone, and even when she fails to fully disclose someone’s better nature, she inherently realizes why they are hiding behind such vile hatefulness. Some have found her openly naïve (she never seems to “get” that Ashley and Scarlett are smitten with each other) and generous to a fault, but when she helps Scarlett dispose of a recently deceased intruder, you can tell that the goody-goody act is covering up for a much stronger, much braver soul.

Together, this talented trio takes Gone with the Wind through its most unusual narrative structure. Indeed, this may be the first film that plays like its set-up and sequel all in one. Both stories are jumpstarted by Scarlett throwing herself at - and being resoundingly rejected by - Ashley. In the first half, she suffers through the Hells of war. Men dying. Brutal surgery and rampant disease. The destruction of her family and home. The loss of her social identity and heritage. While it may take some viewers aback, Gone with the Wind laments the loss of Southern gentility (and the people as property aspects that go with it). Even Butler chokes out a few words about “dem darkies” every now and then. While the African American cast including Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel, and Oscar Polk do their ethnicity proud, the first part of the movie is like a mint julep smothered in a minstrel show.

The second part - much better, as it gives the former servants some humanizing scenes - is more of a battle for individual valor. Scarlett gets rich, continues to ruin lives, and becomes a scandal. Her new husbands hand her money and prominence, but the unrequited love she feels for Ashley is destined to destroy her. She just can’t help it. It’s her nature…the core of her being…her fatal flaw. This is why Gone with the Wind is so much like a work by Aeschylus or Sophocles or Euripides. Heck, even during those moments when Leigh and Gable conversationally spar like players in a screwball comedy, we think more of Shakespeare than Hawkes or Capra. While the film is definitely locked into the era-appropriate manipulations of highly drawn dramatics, there is a darkness to the last act of the film that really burrows beneath your skin. Indeed, when Gable renders his classic line, it’s less of a slap in the face and more of a three hour in the making epiphany.

With bravura director from Victor Fleming (though many have been credited, it is his Technicolor vision, along with that of replacement cinematographer Ernest Haller that makes this movie look like a series of canvas masterpieces come to life) and a script agonized over by Selznick and several of the 1930s best writers - including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht - Gone with the Wind is still dated, but it’s a dynamite kind of antiquity. The new DVD (and even better, Blu-ray) brings out the marvels in old form moviemaking: the controlled camerawork, the gorgeous lighting, the then-experimental and boundary pushing special effects. Of course, once we get into the meat of the added content and learn of the various tricks employed, including several dozen dummies substituting for wounded war casualties during the famous train yard triage scene, the power of such old fashioned flash is minimized. Bu it cannot be discounted.

Nor can one ignore the wealth of information in the bonus features. Full length overviews of the production provide as much detail as currently possible. Archival footage shows director Fleming in full-blown dictatorial mode, while actors and historians are interviewed about the film’s lasting appeal. Impact is gauged with a comparison to historical accuracies (and many inaccuracies), while 1939 is celebrated as ‘the greatest year in Hollywood’. We even get bits on the restoration process, the reasons behind the Civil War, and a TV movie starring Tony Curtis as a desperate-for-a-leading-lady Selznick. Topped off with a six hour retrospective on MGM entitled When the Lion Roars, the red velvet box set almost crumbles under the weight of its attempted thoroughness. While it could never be all encompassing, it definitely stands as one of the definitive compilations of the digital era.

And yet, for all its ballyhoo and cleverly marketed merchandising, it’s the characters from Gone with the Wind that continue to stir our imagination. Sure, Mammy, Pork, and Prissy are about as close to an all out hate crime as Golden Era Hollywood ever comes, but they aren’t completely demoralized by their human chattel challenges. Similarly, for all his lily-livered laments, Ashley Wilkes loves his wife and son. Rhett Butler may be a cad, a rogue, a scallywag, and any number of additional outdated epithets you want to hurl. But he’s also suave and smooth - and a savior when situations demand it. As two sides of the strong Southern Belle symbol, Melanie and Scarlett stand as pillars in a sea of quicksand, women willing to use their guile and their wits to work wonders on an antebellum arena torn between two conflicting ideologies (and too much male pride). Naturally, it’s that fatal flaw that keeps coming to the fore, leading to only one creative conclusion -  tragedy. That’s why Scarlett O’Hara is so put upon, and powerful. That’s why Gone with the Wind remains a certified cinematic gem.

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